My enthusiasm suffered a sudden check at the sight of the ship which was to take us out to relieve another crew. This ship was not exactly one of the fleet that Julius Caesar brought over to see what lay behind the white cliffs of Albion, but how it had stayed afloat during the war was a mystery. A couple of shells dropped within two hundred yards must have sunk it. It was a half-oil, half-coal fuelled, four-funnel cruiser, aboard which, against all naval traditions and regulations, the officers lived forward. The first few miles at sea explained why. The funnels poured out a mass of smoke and debris, so that within a short time the quarter-deck was covered with a soft warm layer of soot and cinders. So the officers were given the forecastle whilst we had the pleasure of the holy of holies, the quarter-deck, with the additional joy of digging ourselves out of the ashes when, in the heat of the tropics, we slept on deck.
The sailors’ bathroom was so small that if one asked a friend to wash one’s back, the friend was obliged to stand in the corridor and wash through the door. If he scrubbed too hard, the unfortunate man being washed was in danger of having the skin scraped off his nose on the opposite bulkhead. The ship was badly undermanned and instead of four watches we were compelled to work two, so throughout the trip nobody got a good night’s sleep, for during the day we had our usual work to do. In addition to all these minor discomforts, the Admiralty, in its wisdom, delayed our sailing by twenty-four hours and changed our captain. Instead of sailing with the quiet, submarine VC-holder, with whom I had served on the cruiser, we were presented with one of the most unpopular captains in the Navy.
So we set off on the six-week journey to Hong Kong and it did not take us long to run into trouble. In the Red Sea a stoker was hauled out of one of the bunkers where he had been trimming, in a state of utter exhaustion. The time of year, early September, the hottest season in the Red Sea, did nothing to improve his condition and within three days a healthy young man of thirty-odd was dead, leaving a wife and children. Not only those working in that hell, the bunker, were affected by the heat: even the civilian manager of the canteen dropped and died. The officers’ forecastle was soon a hospital with no less than six cots rigged up for men whose lives were in danger. They had not only the double awning of the quarter-deck to protect them from the broiling sun, but each cot had a whaler’s awning rigged just above it.
In that same sea we picked up the most primitive of distress signals, used only when no other means are available. It came from a merchant ship that would have looked small on one of England’s minor rivers and which, with a crew consisting of a captain, a mate who doubled as boatswain, three stokers and two upper deckhands, was on its way to Australia. When the captain fell seriously ill the crew hoisted Red Ensign upside down. We lowered a boat with the doctor, who ordered that the captain should be taken aboard the cruiser. The amazing thing was the attitude of our own captain, who ignored the desperate situation the remaining men were now in. Between them the captain of the merchant ship and the mate could navigate in turn, taking a short rest between watches, but with only one ticketed officer on board, the ship was now left to its fate; for no officer could keep a watch from the Red Sea to Australia without leaving the bridge, it was not humanly possible. Not to bring the ailing captain on board our ship was likewise impossible, but was it imperative to leave such a ship in the care of a single man with a crude knowledge of navigation and no radio at his disposal?
Perhaps the reader will ask what should have been done under the circumstances. To which I must reply that I do not know. I was only an AB, and a very young one at that. The answer lay under a service hat with one gold laurel wreath on the peak. But in contrast to this episode I can describe the treatment accorded the self-confessed murderer Prince Yusupov1 when he, his family and his suite were taken aboard the British battleship Emperor of India on the collapse of Wrangel’s2 army. Half the officers’ cabins were placed at their disposal, and at the entrance to the passage-way stood a massive, bearded Cossack, with his sword at the ready. If anyone attempted to pass him the Cossack, who knew no English, simply dropped the sword across the passageway, hoping that his guillotine like weapon would effectively express his intentions. Any rating who had cause to go along the passage-way had to put on his number one suit, even if he was only going to repair an electric fitting or wash the floors. Yusupov’s sojourn on board was more than irritating to the lower deck; but the final indignity came when one of the crew died. Against all tradition the captain refused the man the honour that, in this moment of equality, is accorded to everyone from boy to admiral. He refused to let the man be buried over the quarter-deck and instructed that there should be as little ceremony as possible: apparently such a melancholy spectacle might have offended the tender susceptibilities of the exalted prince and murderer. What entitled Yusupov to all this sickening kow-towing is difficult to say: perhaps it was his princely title, which, by that time, was not worth an obsolete farthing, or perhaps it was his British title, Lord Elston. In any event it prompts the question: `How many hard-working British merchant seamen are worth one unemployed foreign prince?`
For all our discomforts – the emergency sick bay on the forecastle, the unconscious stokers being pulled from the bunkers to have hoses turned on them as they lay on deck – we considered ourselves fortunate after our meeting with the distressed ship. If by some miracle that floating coffin ever arrived at its destination, it should be included in the annals of amazing voyages. However our own troubles were just getting into their stride. We turned east and were half way across the Indian Ocean to Colombo, alone in the burnished sea, when the tired old engines revolted. It was not a sit-down strike, which we could have coped with quite easily. It was the over-heated shaft bearings meeting up with a liberal leaking of oil that led to an inflammable conflict, or in other words a fire at sea. The news spread round the ship just as rapidly as the flames spread towards the bulkhead separating them from a magazine.
It was the magazines, carrying a consignment of munitions which explained our presence on the ship. Usually relief crews were sent out by passenger steamer, second class, a much cheaper expedient than commissioning a warship for the round trip. But merchant ships and passenger ships do not carry munitions, and this consignment had to be delivered at the same time as us. So there we were together. The proximity had not bothered us at all. Ships’ magazines are fitted to deal with accidents, and nothing could send munitions, ship and people to kingdom come except a shell right inside the magazine, or a fire. By now the flames were affectionately licking the bulkhead of one of the full magazines and the ship’s boats were turned out in readiness. But there was no panic. One of the safety precautions of a magazine is an automatic flooding device which acts as soon as the temperature reaches a certain height. In addition, the ocean was behaving itself as it a steam-roller had passed over it ahead of us.
Then came the cheering news that on the very bulkhead being embraced by the flames a box of powerful detonators was screwed, and since the box was watertight no amount of automatic sprinklers could help us. A single detonator was powerful enough to supply the Indian Ocean sharks with meals of roasted British sailors for some time to come. Still there was no panic. There was anxiety certainly, but anxiety in a British sailor is transitory and after a few seconds is replaced by that quality called determination. Determination beat the flames by a short head.
In quelling the fire, however, we half-filled the compartments with water, and now the overworked, tired and somewhat disgruntled men faced the additional burden of pumping the water out by hand. We pumped continuously, day and night, and before we arrived in Colombo the ship was high and dry. There we met further trouble, but by then we were so used to it that not one grumble was heard from the world’s champion grumblers, the seamen of the Royal Navy.
Despite the shortage of hands, the extra watchers, the unforeseen troubles I have described, and despite the fact that at Hong Kong a new crew would come aboard to take the ship home and there put her in reserve, our captain wanted to run the cruiser as if it were newly commissioned from the stocks. It just so happened that the man doing the sounding for our entry to Colombo harbour was one of those prematurely hatched petty officers that the war created but no school ever bred. He got the sounding line tangled round his neck, he could not call the depths as he had no idea what the markings meant, and in addition he gave this display of inefficiency right under the eyes of our martinet of a captain. Instead of punishing this one defaulter, the captain ordered every seaman to go through training in heaving the lead in his `spare time`. Coming on top of all our other misfortunes, this might have had serious consequences, but maybe the thought that we had only Singapore to call at before saying farewell to that tub kept the men’s resentment off the boil.
That was the last incident of a voyage which reads like a sailor’s nightmare in six short sketches.
Evidently our pleasure cruise had sent news ahead of itself, for the men we had come to relieve were already looking rather glum at the prospect of repeating our Odyssey, although they were going home after almost three years on the China Station. Our new captain, Commander Alun Poland, greeted us with the words, `Your living conditions will be better than those you had coming out`, which news we received in silent but sincere thankfulness.
Our ship was an old CPR [Canadian Pacific Railway] passenger vessel, converted into a submarine parent ship. Old in every way, she was fitted with a single screw and obsolete reciprocating engines which, when they decided to work, could push us along at about ten knots. Fortunately, it was a long time before we could check on these statistics. When we arrived to take her over, she was in dry-dock having a long refit, and there she remained for another year until it seemed we might repeat the Victory’s achievement in Portsmouth and be fixed there forever. Later we did four or five trips to sea on her, and on one of these we had a breakdown.
Ancient as she was, the Ambrose was the real Casey’s Navy for us, although we did not, as naval legend would have it, take a noggin with the captain or smoke his cigars. The Ambrose was wide and roomy, with plenty of decks to promenade on and plenty of time to promenade. Alongside the dock was a full-sized football field which, in the course of time, almost became the property of the Ambrose. The China station was on to envy. The fly in the ointment was Hong Kong itself.
That town had more snobbery than an Agatha Christie novel. The sailor was a pariah, his status that of an untouchable. At the public dance halls, they took the sailor’s money but once he was in the hall nobody would dance with him. A typist with a speed of about three words a minute suddenly found herself next to a sailor in the cinema, she and her escort made a deliberate demonstration of changing their seats. Even the white whores in their separate brothel would not entertain sailors, refusing their good British money with a sneer.
And yet that town was kept alive and kept entertained by the Navy. The best footballers were supplied by the Navy. The weekly boxing show run by a local promoter was provided by soldiers and sailors. How those cheap little snobs ran to the Navy when the Chinese working class called a strike! Never has there been a strike of such formidable proportions. It was said that even the beggars in the streets refused hand-outs. Then the despised sailor ran the trams and operated the very important ferry service connecting Hong Kong and Kowloon. It was a sweating RN stoker shovelling coal to fire the boilers of the power station that kept the electricity working. But not a word of thanks. Who could sink so low as to offer thanks to such people as sailors?
When later the Hotel Hong Kong caught fire, it was a sailor who jumped from the top rung of the fire escape to the top storey window where their children and children’s Chinese nurses were trapped. One by one he swung them out of the window to a fireman waiting on the escape. Children and nurses were all saved, but the hero crashed to his death when the wall he stood on collapsed. In their snobbish way the British civilians remained true to themselves, accusing the sailors of having looted during the fire. Such was their gratitude. The funeral of this seaman was turned into a huge demonstration by his comrades, with never a word or a look to right or left, their grim appearance conveying their contempt for the onlookers from the town.
The most hilarious incident of our stay came, not from the upstart white population of Hong Kong, but from one of our admirals. Just before our departure from England the news of the troubles in China, under the leadership of the Kuomingtang, had filled the newspapers, and as a precautionary measure a cruiser squadron had been ordered from the Mediterranean to the China station. The Admiral who commanded this squadron was known to the lower deck as the `Monocled Menace`, and stories of his unpredictable idiosyncrasies circulated throughout the Navy. It was said of him that he reworded the jingoist `My country right or wrong` to a complacent `If my country is wrong I’ll put it right`. Now he had come presumably to put China right. He left the Grand Harbour at Malta with the crews of all the ships which happened to be there on deck and cheering, and with his cruisers’ marine bands playing `Hearts of Oak`. And the time was 2 am. When he arrived at Hong Kong his first action immediately set the people staring googly-eyed.
The announcement, written in the stiff and very correct manner of wardroom navalese, was so astonishing that everyone read it twice. Not at first believing their own eyes. `On such-and-such a date, from so many hundred hours to so many other hundred hours`, it said, `I (meaning the Monocled Menace) will drive round Hong Kong in my car, dressed in civilian clothes for every man to see. If after that any man fails to give me a salute, no excuses will be taken and he will be punished for disrespect to an officer`. An old sailor who had seen service with the great Beatty3 commented: `It’s a pity there are no elephants in China. We could have fitted one up with a diamond-studded howdah and two negro slaves with fans, and then there would have been a real circus`.
It is doubtful whether the admiral’s tour round town in an open car meant much to the native population: the thousands of natives who spread their sleeping mats in the streets and whose sightless photographs filled, in turn, one big wall of the local police station, when they were found dead by the policeman coming to waken them. It probably did not impress the thousands of families living in little sampans and allowed ashore for two hours a day to get some exercise and draw water. For the rest of the day these sampans were not even permitted to pull up alongside any pier on the whole waterfront, except to take one of the supercilious snobs on board and ferry him across the river. Like the rickshaw runners, the sampan owners would avoid taking such passengers if there was a sailor in need of transport. The sailors did not carry malacca canes and usually tipped liberally; and a few cents above the regelation fare was much preferable to a whack across the shoulders with the cane.
The same preference was noticeable among the menial labour in Hong Kong. Because of its wallflower standing, our ship was granted a special privilege: all the lower deck messes were allowed to engage (of course, at our own expense) a `boy` - which did not mean a scruffy young chap in a school cap, with dirty finger-nails, but a servant. We reserved the right to sack the boy at a moment’s notice if the occasion arose, but we had no difficulty in engaging them. Within half-an-hour of the dismissed boy’s departure, half-a-dozen candidates would be clamouring for the vacancy. Whereas the snobs ashore paid from four to six dollars a month, we paid ten. They kept their servants in the kitchen and gave them rice to eat, whilst our boys ate our food with us. There were other prerequisites. A Chinese holiday, for instance, and there were plenty of them, always called for a collection for the `boy`.
Hong Kong was not all sneering upstarts and whisky-soaked petty chiefs: it was also a terminal port for the large coastal shipping service run by the Jarding Lang Company, with head offices in Shanghai. Hong Kong likewise contained the `offices` of the gang which periodically pirated the company’s ships. The pirates themselves were peasant fishermen from the villages around Bias Bay, about thirty miles from Hong Kong, but it was suspected that the organiser of these piracies was some capable criminal with a lot of pull and connections.
These were not the pirates of romance, hoisting the skull and crossbones to give chase to a prize, and after looting it forcing all those who refused to join them to walk the plank. these pirates wore no black patches and did not thrust cutlasses into their trouser bands. They were just ordinary people, but their organisation was of high quality and they were well informed about which ship was carrying bullion to a bank in Hong Kong, which rich Chinese had cabins on the bridge deck. The inside knowledge, timing, and grasp of geography and navigation which their successes betrayed were not supplied by illiterate fishermen. But the clever Mr X who planned the operations remained a mystery, and the backlash, when it finally came, brought suffering only to the pirates, their families and the other peasants from the same villages who had nothing to do with these nefarious exploits. But more of that later.
The officers on the Jardine Matheson Lang ships were Europeans, mostly Scandinavians, Britishers and Dutch, whereas the crews were Chinese. Wanting to use every square inch of their ships profitably, the company accepted as passengers Chinese coolies on their way to Hong Kong to find work. About three hundred of these coolies would be taken aboard a ship for the price of ten Chinese dollars each and would be accommodated on the forecastle. They received no food and therefore took with them cast-iron pots in which they burned charcoal to cook the rice they had brought. All day they sat crowded on the forecastle, chatting or playing fan tan or more rarely mah jong. At night they spread out their straw mats and slept.
The pirates were indistinguishable from the passengers and came on board with them. Their favourite weapon was the Mauser, for which they were prepared to pay big sums whilst the ordinary service revolver was despised. With their guns hidden away, they took their places on the forecastle and bided their time, for the journey to Hong Kong took some days. Only when the lighthouse at the entrance to Bias Bay came into view, or a little before, would they move into action.
Then the guns came out. The pirates showed the quality of their organisation, for each was responsible for a particular part of the ship. First on the list, of course, was the wireless office, then the bridge and the cabins of officers not on watch. The engine room and the passengers and stokers were Chinese coolies who, so long as the ship did not sink, had no interest in what happened to it. At the first sight of weapons they put up their hands, whether a gun was pointed at them or not. One armed pirate could keep all three hundred passengers absolutely subdued.
Once all the captured officers were on the bridge under armed guard, the order was given to put out the lights and steer for Bias Bay. When the water became too shallow for the ship to proceed, a crowd of sampans and small junks surrounded it and the people from these boats looted the bullion and took away with them any wealthy Chinese on board for whom they would later demand big ransoms. European passengers were not molested. This done, the pirates would leave the ship, which was free to proceed to Hong Kong and there report the piracy.
Bias Bay was almost next door to Hong Kong, where a formidable group of warships filled the harbour, so these piracies seemed particularly audacious. Whenever an incident was reported, the local paper went to town with questions on the lines of `Why Do We Pay Taxes To Maintain A Navy?` and suggestions that the Navy was called the `Silent Service` because the sailors were always fast asleep. The greatest scream of outrage came when the regelation search of a pirated ship disclosed that one of its water tanks contained everything that fired except field guns; a cargo which the captain claimed to be in complete ignorance of. A big `If` appeared in the newspaper headlines: `If the pirates had discovered the arms – what then?` We too thought along those lines, for we knew that in the long run it was the Navy who would have to smack the pirates down.
It was, however, the quick-thinking of a merchant service officer, and the timely appearance of a British naval sloop, which turned the paper’s outrage to eulogies of praise.
The Sunning left Shanghai with the usual consignment of currency for Hong Kong and, of course, the usual consignment of coolies. All went well till, nearing Bias Bay, the pirates appeared, and in a very short time the officers were gathered on the bridge under the guard of a little Chinese with a big Mauser. It was a pitch-dark moonless night. As the ship steamed along one of the officers suddenly shouted, `There’s Bias Bay`, and pointed in the direction of the now visible light. The guard, taken by surprise, turned his head, at which point another officer seized the long iron handle of a fourteen-pound sounding lead and brought it down on the pirate’s head with all his force. Down went the pirate, dropping his gun as he fell, and the same officer immediately took possession of it. To everyone’s surprise, the pirate began to get up again, but the officer quickly put a round in his stomach and he went down again and stayed down. Despite the heavy blow on his head and the bullet in his stomach, he lived to face the court and end up on the gallows.
Confused by the sudden change in their fortunes, the pirates began to run around the deck in panic, whilst the one officer with a gun, supported by all the others who had armed themselves with heavy objects, prepared to defend the bridge against assault. Frankly the odds were on the officers’ side. Access to the bridge was by a single steep ladder which a determined armed man could hold against a number of attackers. At this point the first glimmers of dawn began to appear on the horizon and after a lot of screaming and shouting the pirates divided into two groups, one lowering a small boat over the stern whilst the other set fire to the ship.
Not far away a Royal Navy sloop was on its way north, every turn of the screw bringing it near to the scene of the piracy. The first billow of smoke crawling its way into the sky was spotted by the sloop’s ever-watchful bridge. There was no need to ask questions. That smoke could mean only one thing – a fire at sea. In a moment the sloop increased its speed, the captain was called to the bridge, the boat turned out and the pumps brought to the ready. As the burning ship came clearly into view, a boatload of men frantically rowing away was noticed. The order was passed along the upper deck and in no time the sloop’s motorboat, with a Lewis gun mounted on the forecastle, sped away in pursuit. One short burst was fired over the men’s heads, at which they all stood up and raised their hands in the air. Back coursed the motorboat, and whilst some seamen drove the captured pirates down to the cells, others connected fire hoses and, with the sloop standing alongside the burning ship, a row of powerful water spurts hit the fire in the very centre. This prompt action by the Royal Navy soon put out the fire and, under the convoy of the sloop, the ship, officers, passengers, and valuable cargo were brought into Hong Kong. Altogether seventeen people were brought to trial, of whom one was acquitted and sixteen were sentenced to be hanged for piracy on the high seas.
Graciously the local paper restored to the Navy its honourable reputation, but old China hands among the seamen suspected that our elevation was only temporary and that any day we would come crashing down again like Humpty Dumpty.
In those years China, with its different warring groups, was something like Chicago in the days when rivals contested for the exalted position of Public Enemy Number One. Any half-penny mandarin could line up his serf-peasants, call himself a general and then proceed to attack and plunder his neighbours. Ships making their way up the Yangtze river had barbed wire around the bridge as well as a couple of Sikh guards. The Navy’s destroyers and gunboats carried defensive mattresses to protect the bridge from machine gun fire or even shrapnel from a First World War field gun. Such measures had hitherto passed Hong Kong by. Apart from the piracies and one very surprising hijacking of a bullion-loaded steamboat crossing to Kowloon in the middle of the day and under the eyes of the Fleet and a harbour full of merchant ships, Hong Kong was well out of all the mainland troubles. And then came grim news from close by that gave us to understand that if we were not in the troubles we were on the edge of them.
The Canton Commune lasted only a few days, but it shook Hong Kong more than any number of piracies. This town lies thirty miles up the West river, in the mouth of which Hong Kong stands, and for days the island was in a state that far from agreed with its name, the Island of Fragrant Streams. The counter-revolution reaped a bloody harvest and heads floated past Hong Kong as if somebody had kicked all the footballs out of a sports shop into the river. Soon the horror merchants were busy, toting round the most hair-raising photos for sale. One family of well-to-do people had tried to leave Canton when the Communists took over. They had piled all their most valuable belongings and their two children in their car and had put on red arm-bands in the hope that these would assure them a safe passage. But unknowingly they left Canton by a road along which the White troops were advancing. No amount of pleading could save them, they wore red arm-bands and that was enough. In the photograph they lay in a row beside their overturned and burnt out car. The children were terribly hacked, the father had suffered multiple stab wounds and his genitals had been torn off, whilst the mother’s legs had been forcibly stretched apart to an unnatural degree to show the hilt of a bayonet sticking out of her vagina. Such photographs swept the previous best-sellers off the market.
But China, that cauldron of trouble, never gave any atrocity the chance to hold the public interest for long. Unlike a volcano, its seat of activity was not permanent and nobody knew where the next eruption would take place.
By this time our ship had been pulled out of dry-dock and we found ourselves getting up steam for an emergency sailing. What our wagon could have done in an emergency was difficult to say. True, there was one 4.5 gun standing on one side of the quarter-deck, but it looked so insecure that one expected the first shot to send it toppling over the side. Our gunnery instructor, who had been on the staff of the Gunnery school, simply ignored its existence. Instead two submarines, each equipped with a proper 4.5 gun, were to accompany us on our secret mission.
Our destination turned out to be the port of Amoy, where everybody was on strike and five different political factions were fighting amongst themselves somewhere outside the town. Offshore, in the mouth of the extremely fast-moving river, was an island on which lived all the Europeans, consuls and business people. An American destroyer 222, the Bulmer, had already arrived, like us, to cope with the emergency. Like us too, the men were not allowed ashore on the mainland but could take walks only on the island. the Europeans were just the opposite of the Hong Kong snobs, and bent over backwards to entertain us with tea parties, dances and very amateur concerts – but only till 6 pm, when our leave ended. Their life on that island must have been as boring as a book by Anthony Trollope, and in everything they were ten years behind the West. At that time the Charleston had just swept Europe and my chum and I had mastered this somewhat energetic dance before leaving England. When our hosts learned of this they demanded to be taught, so we set up lessons in the Charleston in their little club. Our pupils were all well-equipped matrons of the light-heavy-heavyweight class. With a memory of the shabby treatment served out to us by the ladies of Hong Kong, we got those bulging bosoms and buttocks bopping and gyrating and shaking whilst the floor vibrated like a couple of hundred tam-tams. They grasped and they sweated but each was vying with the others to impress their teachers. By the time we called a halt their eyes were sticking out like organ stops and I realised it was less a dancing lesson than a slimming exercise. I am sure they lost a stone each.
That dancing lesson was the only departure from routine in the whole emergency. Our officers no doubt realised that we were there to do something other than just watch the river flow out to sea. We were taken round the little island, boasting, like all similar places in China, its King Edward the Seventh Hotel, and shown where we should mount a Lewis gun if the worst came to the worst. But the trouble, if there was any, preferred to remain on the mainland and not even a whiff of it reached the island. Nothing happened to lighten the burden of our monotony except a visit by a Japanese fleet containing every type of warship of that day. A Japanese ship, or group of ships, was its own personal leper colony. One day we took one of our officers over to the flagship, and the moment he had stepped out of the boat, a Japanese officer leaned over the rail and ordered us to lay off two hundred yards. There was no suggestion that we might tie up to there lower boom, which would have made things easy for us: keeping the boat up with the ship in that current was very difficult and demanded considerable manoeuvring with the motor. Likewise we only once saw the Japanese seamen ashore, and then they were in groups, no man being allowed to walk alone. they carried their own supply of drinking water in water-bottles slung from the shoulder on a white strap, and they passed us without the usual smile that sailors of different countries give each other even if they cannot speak each other’s language. They may have been wearing sailor’s uniform but to us they were more like prisoners from a special security block.
Our return to Hong Kong, with nothing achieved except an unofficial dancing class guarded by two submarines and a parent ship, dropped us right in the middle of trouble with a rolling `r`. The pirates had struck again and this time there was no fourteen-pound sounding lead to foil their plot. Now the `Monocled Menace` was raring to go.
Through diplomatic channels arrangements had been made with the government in Nanking to clean out the pirates’ lair. Close to midnight the expedition, consisting of a cruiser, an aircraft carrier and two sloops was to set off. Evidently someone meant business, to throw all that armament against Mausers. All the ships engaged were to prepare landing parties of seamen and marines which together would make up a sizeable invasion force. On the day before the assault our little party, including me, muffled the twelve oars of a cutter, which was later hoisted aboard the cruiser. It was done in absolute secrecy, or so the chiefs believed at any rate.
With lights out the force moved towards Bias Bay. When the cruiser had got as far as it could without running aground, the sloops took all the cutters in tow, and when the sloops in turn could go no further, we were to go on to the beach under our own power, the fifteen-foot cutters’ oars. Motorboats were also lowered, but remained in tow of the sloops in case the chug-chug of their engines endangered the secrecy screen. The boats grounded on the beach a few minutes before daylight, and armed marines and seamen poured out of them to advance on the small village set back a few yards from the beach. Our secrecy had been broken long before we got there, for the village was absolutely deserted. Half-finished breakfasts on the sandalwood tables were the only signs of human habitation.
Then we began our destruction, setting fire to sampans of all sizes and to a single large junk moored off the beach. But the first casualty was our own: our cutter, which had been lying in the dockyard so long that its boards had warped. The moment we began to embark the detachment of marines, water poured in from everywhere and with the marines trying to get out of the sinking cutter and three or four officers shouting orders from different parts of the upper deck, it was a scene of panic.
It was now full daylight and cutters loaded with armed men were spread all over that part of the bay. When I looked at them I remembered that `If…` Yes, I thought, if the pirates had found that cache of smuggled arms….
Somehow we managed to beach the leaking cutter and at that moment the explosions began. Sixteen-and-a-half-pound charges were placed under all the dwelling houses, all of them one-storey, one-room structures, and a whole street went flying in the air. In the meantime the marines marched inland and began their destruction there. All day the destruction continued until every building was blown up except the temple. On its locked door, notices prepared and printed beforehand were hung up, warning that any further acts of piracy would be met by more strenuous measures. Whether anyone in that village could read or write I cannot say, but probably not, for within two weeks of our raid another piracy had taken place. Considering the amount of damage we had done to both pirates and non-pirates, it is best to put down this almost immediate return to piracy to their inability to read. Or maybe they just ignored the notices, there were so many ruins to look at.
Then appeared an apparition. A motorboat nosed itself slowly through the shallow waters to ground its prow gently on the soft gravel, and a long figure in riding breeches with a sports coat and cap and a malacca cane in his hand (shades of General Gordon) stepped on to the beach. It was the Monocled Menace. Any second I expected him to say `Lead on my nag, I wish to see if my vassals have been subdued`. In stead he gave the order to retire and then left in the motorboat. We, with our leaking cutter, were told to stay to the end and take off the captain in command of the operation, who, in accordance with naval tradition, must be the last to leave.
All this time there had been no sight of the villagers. They seemed to have walked into the ground, or maybe sky. But while the captain was backing down the beach, a service revolver in either hand aimed at the destroyed village, the scene suddenly changed. It was as if a trick artist, with one sweep of his brush, had filled an empty page with a large body of people, still and quiet. They were the inhabitants of the village, men, women and children, clustered all together and slowly moving down towards the beach. Old men and women were crying. The first one on the beach was an old man who, not paying the least attention to us, continued to walk slowly straight into the water to a burning sampan and with tears streaming down his cheeks made feeble efforts with his hands to throw water on the burning wreck.
Soon a large number of men and women followed his example, standing up to their waists in water and making hopeless attempts to save the now smouldering boats. No cinema producer ever imagined such a scene – attackers and attacked together in the same waters, the one sitting in boats and the other standing in the sea. No words or gestures were exchanged, not even scowling looks. The fist-shaking and shouting of insults that the cinema is so fond of did not happen, but the Chinese remained mute and crying, their only care for their boats, and the British went about their evacuation. Finally the captain climbed aboard our cutter and a motorboat towed us to the cruiser for our return trip to Hong Kong.
As I have said, a piracy took place very soon after this punitive raid. all naval vessels were thereupon ordered to go round the bay instead of bypassing it. This measure had no effect either. The pirates were irrepressible. Finally our submarines were instructed to cruise the bay on fortnightly reliefs, submerged by day and surfaced at night.
One very dark night when the submarine on duty was on the surface charging its batteries, the men on the conning tower saw a massive black object coming slowly towards them. In a second it was clear what had happened: another ship had been hijacked and now, in the hands of the pirates, was making its way to the looting rendezvous. The signal to stop was flashed, the alarm sounded, and the gun crew closed up to their stations. Slowly the high prow of the ship swung round until it pointed directly at the submarine, then increasing speed it plunged forward to ram. A blank shot left the gun and whistled over the forecastle. Still the ship came on, gaining momentum with each yard.
Without hesitation the submarine captain took a momentous decision, and the next moment a lyddite shell crashed into the advancing ship. It landed amid ships, shattering the main steam pipe, and at the same time fire broke out aboard where the lifeboats were stowed. on board, as well as the gang of desperate pirates, were the European officers, some cabin passengers and hundreds of panic-stricken coolies. But once again the submariners showed their indomitable courage.
The hijacked ship’s boats were on fire and the submarine had no boats to lower, but by now the flames were casting a circle of light on the water to one side of the ship. The submarine moved in closer. The passengers were ordered to jump overboard and as they did so, the submariners dived into the sea and helped them on board the submarine – women first, of course. As they came aboard, they were quickly stowed below and the men dived again to carry out their rescue work.
As always a pirate looked no different from a coolie passenger, and sailors who went to the rescue of a man struggling in the water sometimes found themselves facing a hate distorted face an unpraised arm with a vicious-looking knife in it. A crashing right to the jaw and a knew in his balls, and the pirate was soon screaming with fear. But still the sailor grabbed him by the hair and pulled him aboard the submarine. With the fire increasing in intensity, the submariners kept up the good work, managing to save more than two hundred from the burning ship and stow them into the very confined space of the submarine, which then brought them full speed into Hong Kong.
I was on duty in the motorboat that night when we received a call for the rapid manning of the big motor-launch. Within a few moments we had run alongside the submarine, where a couple of police launches were already in position. Flanked by policemen the Chinese compradore of the burned ship stood by the fore hatch of the launch, carefully scrutinising each person as they came on deck. When the compradore pointed anyone out as a pirate, he was seized and handcuffed. Some already had their hands tied behind their backs as they had been recognised by sailors who, in attempting to save them, had been met with a knife.
The story ended a little differently from that of most unsuccessful piracies, for besides the trial and hanging of about fifteen of the pirates, the captain of the submarine was also tried, by court-martial, where he was acquitted with honour and then awarded the DSO.
All these events took place with two years of my arrival in China.
One other event, a personal one but important to me, also took place. I passed professionally for Leading Seaman and in so doing placed my foot on the first rung of the extraordinarily designed promotion ladder of the British Royal Navy. It is a unique structure, that ladder, for at the bottom there are only a few rungs, each painted a plain navy blue. Then there is a tremendous gap, without any rungs. Beyond the gap the rungs begin again, but these are painted gold and there are many more of them than at the bottom. In the gap there is a notice: `Plebeians of Britain, Keep Out! You have nothing to gain here. You will get all you are allowed down below`.
The old Ambrose went the way of all ships. She was ordered home to be replaced by a new parent ship, and we were somehow to drag her across the seven seas in company with a few old submarines which might need a tow if their decrepit engines should fail. It was a long trip. We slunk from port to port. But although we did have to tow one or other of the submarines from time to time, to our great good fortune the sea behaved like a gentleman throughout. Finally we crept into Portsmouth Harbour, delivered the underwater old crocks to Gosport, and then went right up the creek where we would not be an eyesore. Where the Ambrose stood meant nothing to us.
Before us was long foreign service leave and for the majority a neat little sum in the bank to break the boredom. For others there was no sum in the bank; they had sacrificed it for a wife and children; but what a homecoming they would receive in return for that noble sacrifice! For a few there was no joyful homecoming, but wives who had not waited. It is best to pull a dark blind over that. It was a tragedy if the husband came home to an unfaithful wife, but what if the wife had come out there where her husband had left his sins thousands of miles away?
Six months later the ship’s company of the old Ambrose returned to their own port division, Devonport, by specials train, the hundred-foot-long paying off pennant tied to the chimney of the engine. On arrival at Devonport it was a three-foot dirty rag. `That`, said one of the men, `is the way to pay off. The ship is being broken up, the men are going their different ways, and the paying off pennant is torn to shreds`.
- 1Murderer of Rasputin Grigori Efimovich (1871-1916), Serbian peasant-monk and `Holy Man,` who was influential at the court of Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandria.
- 2 Baron Peter Nikolaievich Wrangel (1878-1928), general commanding White Russian forces in Crimea. He was defeated by the Bolsheviks in October-November 1920. [Actually he was defeated largely by the Ukrainian Insurgent army led by Nestor Makhno, who had a brief alliance with the Bolsheviks, before the Red Army tried to liquidate them in the aftermath of Wrangel’s collapse. Reddebrek]
- 3David Beatty (1871-1936), British Admiral, created first Earl of the North Sea and Brooksby in recognition of his outstanding service during World War I.