by Nick Cooper © 1999-2001
The Modified Black Swan Class Sloop HMS Starling (U66) -
as the Amethyst would have appeared during WW2
Launched in May 1943, HMS Amethyst was a Modified Black Swan Class sloop, a type designed just before WW2 for convoy escort duty. Such work was also done by the more well-known corvettes, which were slow vessels with a speed of around 16 knots, but this was no disadvantage as the anti-submarine detection equipment then available was useless at higher speeds, while most merchant vessels weren't particularly fast, either. Capable of 19 knots, the Black Swan sloops had a speed advantage when needed, but also better anti-aircraft defence, and a greater long-range endurance than the corvettes, making them ideal for the Atlantic convoys, even though they had originally been intended for the Mediterranean and South Pacific theatres. They were armed with six 4-inch guns (in three turrets - two forward and one aft), four twin 0.5-inch machine-gun mountings, and depth charges.
Another view of wartime Modified Black Swans - HMS Starling
and HMS Wild Goose (U45) at Liverpool docks
Entering Royal Navy service late in the War, HMS Amethyst operated in the Atlantic, and was credited with sinking the German submarine U-1276 (originally this was thought to be U-1208, while the joint-sinking with other Royal Navy ships of U-482 has since been reappraised as a non-sub target). After the War, the ship's original armament was augmented with a single 20mm Oerlikon quick-firing cannon, while the 0.5-inch machine-guns were replaced with four 40mm semi-automatic Bofors cannon. She was re-designated as His Majesty's Frigate F116 Amethyst, and ended up in the Royal Navy's South China Sea Squadron.
In May 1948, a gangly green-eyed black-and-white Tom cat was found wandering alone and hungry on Hong Kong's Stonecutters Island by the Amethyst's captain, Lieutenant-Commander Bernard Skinner, and so it was that two year-old Able Seacat Simon joined the ship's complement. Cats had long been popular as shipboard mascots in the Royal Navy, not least for their pest-control skills, but also because of their remarkable ability to adapt to new surroundings in a manner which will surprise only those who have never chosen to share their lives with them. Even in wartime, they proved completely unaffected by the often frantic activity around them, to the point where un-neutered Toms and queens sharing the same ship were known to produce healthy kittens even under shell-fire! The sailors themselves - a notoriously superstitious breed - valued the cats for their uncanny intuition, as well as their near-miraculous survival abilities. One cat, known as "U-Boat," would immediately go ashore whenever his ship went came into port, and only return shortly before departure, often with less than thirty minutes to spare. When on one occasion he did not reappear, it was immediately taken as a bad omen by the crew, but just as the ship was casting off, U-Boat was spotted running down the jetty. Launching himself across the widening gap between pier and ship, he landed perfectly on the deck, where he proceeded to sit calmly washing himself. Legend also has it that when the German pocket battleship Bismarck was sunk, its cat survived to be adopted by the British crew that rescued it, and again when their ship was sunk. Thereafter, the cat was only posted to Royal Navy shore stations! With the war over, most ship's cats settled down to a more routine existence, and Simon's initial service was no exception, although having been found by the captain himself, he perhaps enjoyed a few more perks and a bit more tolerance than most. He slept on Lt-Cdr Skinner's bunk, and was even permitted to plod across the chart table while he was trying to plot a course, while his party trick to entertain officers and their guests was fishing ice-cubes out of a jug of water. Although on active service in a world in which Britain's declining colonial responsibilities still led to skirmishes large and small, his life should have been a relatively safe one....
In 1949, as the civil war between the opposing Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists drew to a close, the destroyer HMS Consort was standing as guardship to the British Embassy in Nanking, ready to evacuate the staff and other British nationals if necessary. As the Consort was running low on fuel, the Amethyst was ordered to proceed up the Yangtze River to Nanking and replace her. Although under the 1858 Treaty of Tiensin the Royal Navy had been granted the freedom of navigation in all Chinese waters and had maintained a fleet on the Yangtze for nearly a century, some observers have since questioned whether the British actually had any right to operate on the Yangtze by 1949. While the Nationalists tacitly honoured the Treaty, the Communists had declared otherwise. China, however, had been in a state of civil war since the 1920s, and while the Communists had the upper hand by 1949, neither side was in overall control of the country. All this would have been fairly academic, but for the fact that by the time the Amethyst was ordered to Nanking, the Communists had reached the North bank of the Yangtze, while the Nationalists held the South side. Although there was a temporary truce, it would expire on April 20, and if the Communists were not allowed to pass unopposed, they would make an assault crossing on April 21.
Faced with this tight window in which to operate, on the morning of April 19, the Amethyst slipped her moorings at Shanghai, and proceeded up-river at a leisurely 11 knots. Despite the previous antagonistic declarations by the Communists, it was not seriously expected that they would attack the ship, but even so live ammunition was prepared as a precautionary measure. By late afternoon, she was a hundred miles from Shanghai, and dropped anchor at Kiang Yin, as few vessels attempted to negotiate the River's many navigational hazards at night. The journey recommenced at 05:15 on April 20, and at 07:30 the Lt-Cdr Skinner advised the crew that they were about to enter the war-zone. At 08:31, a Communist field gun battery fired a half-hearted salvo of twelve shells from the North bank, but they all fell well clear of the ship, so it was assumed they were part of a routine bombardment of the Nationalists on the other side of the River. Even so, two large freshly-painted canvas Union Jacks that Skinner had had prepared earlier were hung over the side of the ship, while speed was raised to the 19 knot maximum until they were out of range of the apparently errant battery.
At 09:20, as the frigate approached the village of San-Chiang-ying, another Communist battery opened up, and this time there was no doubt at to their intentions. As the first shell screamed closely over the ship, the Amethyst went to Action Stations, and again the ship's turbines whined to full-power, but it was too late. A second shell scored a direct hit on the wheelhouse, leaving only Leading Seaman Leslie Frank on his feet, desperately trying to hold course, even with the engine-room telegraph and the gyro-compass out of action. Communication with the bridge was also cut, as it too had been hit in the first salvo, killing or wounding virtually every man there. Lt-Cdr Skinner, bleeding profusely and barely conscious, ordered the Amethyst to return fire, an instruction which was passed on by First-Lieutenant Geoffrey Weston, even though he himself had a bad chest wound. With the wheelhouse disabled, the ship slewed out of control into the muddy bank of Rose Island at 09:35, while her antagonists continued to pound her with 75 and 105mm shells. At what was effectively point-blank range, even steel armour plating was next to useless. Shells exploded in the sick bay, the Port engine room, and finally the generator, just after 1st-Lt Weston's last transmission: "Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx position 31.10' North 119.50' East. Large number of casualties." With the main gun turrets hit and inoperable, some of the unwounded crew took up sniping positions with rifles and Bren guns, but their undeclared enemy brought up heavy machine-guns to rake the decks, further hampering efforts to get the dozens of injured crewmen below. The slaughter was almost unimaginable, the blood flowing across the deck into the scuppers.
Realising the gravity of their situation, Weston ordered the immediate evacuation of most of the crew, and everyone capable of swimming was ordered over the side, while the non-swimmers and walking wounded used the only one of the ship's boats left undamaged. Fifty-nine ratings and four Chinese mess boys made it to the Southern bank, but several more were cut down in the water before reaching safety. Those that survived were taken to a nearby Nationalist Army hospital, and afterwards trucked back to Shanghai. Back aboard the Amethyst, a towing hawser had been rigged at the stern in preparation for the expected arrival of HMS Consort, and while the shelling had finally ceased, sporadic machine-gun fire was still aimed at any movement on the ship. Seventeen men were dead and twenty-five were seriously wounded. Lt-Cdr Skinner drifted in and out of consciousnous, while one of the Chinese river pilots who had been aboard at the time was in such intense agony from a horrific head-wound that he tried to commit suicide by swallowing his own tongue. At the time of the initial attack, Simon was - somewhat typically - asleep in the captain's cabin when it took a direct hit, the shell blasting a 15" hole in the bulkhead three feet from where he was curled up. He was thrown into the air and landed heavily, lying motionless on a debris-strewn gangway.
Around 14:30, two Nationalist aircraft arrived and began strafing the Communist positions, and a few minutes later HMS Consort was sighted racing towards the stricken Amethyst at 29 knots - the highest speed ever recorded on the Yangtze River. Flying three Union Jacks and seven White Ensigns, and with black smoke belching from her funnel, when she too became the target of the Communists she replied without hesitation, quickly knocking out three of the enemy guns. Urgent signals passed between the ships: the Consort's captain, Commander Robertson, wanted to take the Amethyst in tow, but Weston refused to countenance it, knowing that she would also become an easy target. Sweeping past, Consort turned around half a mile downstream, but again came under fire as she neared the Amethyst. With ten men dead and three seriously injured, Robertson was forced to admit defeat, and so turned again and headed down-river. A sense of dread swept over those still aboard the Amethyst, but even amidst the human carnage, Simon was picked up and carried below. His whiskers and eyebrows had been burnt off, and his singed fur was matted with grime and the blood from numerous shell splinter gashes to his back and both his left legs. The shards of metal were carefully removed from his wounds, and he was made as comfortable as possible, even though nobody expected him to last the night.
With pieces of shrapnel in his lungs and liver, dosed with morphia for the pain and benzedrine to keep him awake, 1st-Lt Weston tried to get the ship refloated. On the second attempt, at 01:15 the next morning, she slipped off the mudbank and limped slowly two miles up-river, dropping anchor out of range of the main Communist batteries. Meanwhile, Weston's signal had also been received at Shanghai by Vice-Admiral Madden, second-in-command of the China Station, who decided to take the cruiser London and the Amethyst's sister-ship, HMS Black Swan, up-river at dawn on April 21. A few hours later a Sunderland flying boat took off from Hong Kong and also headed North. The two ships arrived at 11:30 and also came under attack, but the London's powerful 8-inch guns were unable to locate any definite target, and with her captain and fourteen other crew members dead, she too withdrew. Madden signalled the Amethyst: "Am sorry we cannot help you today. We shall keep on trying."
Weston sought the help of the Chinese Nationalists, who sent one of their doctors, Chu Wei, but without anaesthetic or drugs, there was little he could do beyond change the dressings of the wounded. Having first flown to Shanghai to refuel, the Sunderland landed near the Amethyst at 16:00 with much-needed supplies and an RAF Medical Officer, but when the Communists opened fire on the plane, the ship's chief gunner and one of the doctor's who had gone across to meet it in a fishing boat were inadvertently trapped as the pilot was forced to make an emergency take-off. The RAF medic was left stranded on the boat with a fisherman who spoke no English, but a drawn revolver and a gesture towards the Amethyst got the message across. Climbing aboard the Amethyst, Flight-Lieutenant Fearnley found himself on a ship which resembled a front-line dressing station. "Good God," he exclaimed, "Doesn't the Navy have any doctors left?" With Dr Chu Wei, he arranged for the evacuation of the most serious cases, many of whom required amputations. Weston then moved the ship into the more sheltered Hsiao-Ho Creek.
At Nanking, the Embassy's Assistant Naval Attache, Lt-Cdr John Simon Kerans, was sent down-river to take command of the Amethyst, a 72-mile journey along rough roads in a borrowed Australian jeep. Unfortunately, just before he arrived at Hsiao-Ho, Weston received orders to move a further ten miles up-river. Eventually, on the afternoon of April 22, Kerans arrived on board after hitching a lift on a Chinese Nationalist landing craft. The sight that greeted him was the hammock and blanket covered bodies that had been moved to the stern gundeck. Skinner had died the previous day, and Kerans assumed command after ordering the badly-wounded but stubborn Weston ashore. Including Kerans and eight Chinese mess boys, this left only 81 men on the ship. Late that evening, a signal from Madden was received: "The safety of your ship's company being now the first consideration, you are to prepare to evacuate from the ship and and sink. Report when you are ready." The next day, Mao Tse-Tung's forces crossed the River, but there were no further attempts to attack the frigate. The Nationalists had already retreated, so the assault went unopposed, much to Kerans' relief as the last thing he wanted was the ship to get caught in the cross-fire, although it did mean that the Amethyst was now totally surrounded by Communist forces.
Simon, meanwhile, had made a miraculous recovery, surviving that first night when he had been expected to join the list of fatalities, and though still severe, his wounds were starting to heal, while his hearing seemed unaffected by his close proximity to the shell-blast. It was not a moment too soon. Disturbed by the shelling, hoards of rats had started to raid the ship's dwindling food supplies and were even invading the sleeping quarters. Much of the Amethyst's fuel oil had had to be dumped to lighten the ship during the refloating, so what was left had to be conserved, even to the point of switching off the ventilation system. As the crewmen tried to rest in the increasingly stifling heat, the rats were literally nibbling at their toes, and Simon wasn't having any of that, so Kerans gave him a "roving commission," as he was best-suited to deal with the vermin. Slightly-cosseted captain's cat he may have previously been, the skills he must have had good need of when a stray on Stonecutters Island came back with a vengeance. When he caught his first large rat, the boost to the crew's morale was unimaginable; in a situation in which surrender might have seemed preferable, his devotion to his ship and his shipmates was an inspiration, and he did not fail them, making on average at least one kill every day.
On April 26, the local Communist commander, Major Kung, opened negotiations for the safe passage of the Amethyst. Mindful of potential duplicity, Kerans did not go ashore himself, but instead sent Petty Officer William Freeman, decking him out in a borrowed Lieutenant's uniform to avoid offending Kung. The Major revealed that he commanded the battery which had fired on the Amethyst, and - much to Freeman's satisfaction - that more than 250 of his men had been killed when the Royal Navy ships had returned fired. Kung demanded, however, that the British admit to having opened fire first. This was palpably nonsense, as there was absolutely no reason for the Amethyst to fire on anyone, and Freeman refused make such an admission, but did at least secure a line of supply to the ship. What the the Communists eventually delivered, though, always fell short of everything that was needed, and so rationing had to be introduced. On May 18 the negotiations became more formal, with the Communists supplying Kerans with a comprehensive list of demands, which included an admission that the Amethyst had, "wrongfully and criminally invaded Chinese waters." While Simon roamed the stranded ship hunting vermin, the diplomatic game of cat-and-mouse ground to a halt.
During the weeks of captivity which followed, the crew were kept as occupied as possible, so much of the original battle damage was eventually repaired, and the ship was kept spotlessly clean. But coupled with the debilitating effect of the constant heat and humidity, the tedium the crew faced would have had a more adverse effect were it not for Simon's other contribution. While he showed no mercy with the rats, he was often to be found comforting his shipmates, and along with Peggy, the ship's four year-old terrier (with whom he apparently got on well), he provided a vital focus of reminding the men of the domesticity of home some thought they might never see again. Simon and Peggy were invaluable simply for being themselves.
By the beginning of July, the crew was on half rations, with bread being issued only twice a week, while after every meeting with Colonel Kang, the chief Chinese negotiator, warned Kerans: "If you move your ship, every effort will be made to destroy it. If you do not, all will be well." Unfortunately, while escape was hardly the last thing on the new captain's mind, he was hampered by a Chinese embargo on new supplies of fuel oil, and what was already left in the ship's bunkers would not be sufficient for a dash to Shanghai. Unexpectedly, on July 11, the blockade was inexplicably lifted, and the Amethyst took delivery of 54 tons of oil. Kerans calculated that taking account of what would be needed to run the auxiliary equipment in situ, they would not have enough to escape after July 30. During the next nineteen days, Kerans issued some unusual orders, including that the anchor chain should be wrapped in blankets and heavily greased, and that black canvas sheeting be prepared to cover certain sections of the superstructure because of, "ineffective blackout," at night. It was only towards the end of the month that he took some of the officers into his confidence, as well as Vice-Admiral Madden by way of a cleverly-worded radio message ostensibly referring to a typhoon expected to pass close by. At 18:00 on July 30 the rest of the crew were informed that in four hours time they would attempt to slip away.
Just before 22:09, a merchant vessel - the Kiang Ling Liberation - appeared heading down-river, solving Kerans' primary worry about whether they could negotiate the deep-water channel without a pilot. Its chain muffled by the blankets and grease, the anchor was raised, and the canvas sheeting on the upper deck would hopefully disguise her outline sufficiently to fool any observers on the banks. Dropping astern of the Chinese ship, the Amethyst followed for around 15 minutes before the Communists realised she had gone, and flares arched skyward from the Taiching shore battery. A patrol boat was spotted coming out of the gloom, but it inexplicably opened fire, not on the Amethyst, but the shore battery. The guns returned fire, and Amethyst added to the confusion with her own armament. At 22:30 Kerans signalled Hong Kong: "I am under heavy fire and have been hit." Kerans ordered the ship to full-speed, and the remaining 4-inch gun to open fire. Now herself grounded on a mudbank, the Kiang Ling Liberation became the focus of the shore battery, while the Amethyst escaped. "Passed Rose Island," she signalled Hong Kong, and then: "Passed Bate Point."
At 01:00 the ship approached the shore batteries at Kiang Yin, where there was also a defensive boom stretched across the River. The safe channel through the boom should have been marked by two lights, but Kerans could only see one. As a patrol boat moved out to meet them and opened fire with tracer shells, the captain made a snap decision to steer to port of the single light on the boom. It was the right choice, and having passed through the clear channel, by 02:42 the ship was only 42 miles from the sea, but first they had to get past the forts of Woosung. Just before three o'clock, the frigate approached a Chinese junk, but at its full 19 knots a collision was unavoidable, and the vessel was slice in two by the Amethyst's bows. Approaching Woosung, the forts' searchlights danced across the water, but even though one caught the ship squared in its beam, the guns did not open fire. Perhaps finally Mao Tse-tung's commanders were glad to be rid of the diplomatic problem they had been saddled with by the impetuousness of their subordinates. Sweeping past Woosung and out of the Yangtze Estuary, the Amethyst spotted a large warship approaching - it was HMS Consort coming to greet them. Kerans signalled: "Have rejoined the Fleet south of Woosung. No damage or casualties. God Save the King." Before long, the Amethyst crew received in return a message from their Sovereign: "Please convey to the commanding officer and ship's company of HMS Amethyst my hearty congratulations on their daring exploit to rejoin the Fleet. The courage, skill and determination shown by all on board have my highest commendation. Splice the mainbrace." The news of Amethyst's gallant escape flashed around the world, and many of the crew put forward Simon as the real hero of the whole incident.
The battered HMS Amethyst after her escape from the Yangtze
During WW2, Maria Dickin, founder of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, had instituted the Dickin Medal for acts of bravery in wartime by animals serving with the police, Civil Defence, or any branch of the armed forces. Cast in bronze, the medal bears the initials of the PDSA and the legends "FOR GALLANTRY" and "WE ALSO SERVE", surrounded by a laurel wreath. The medal ribbon is green, dark brown and pale blue, representing water, earth and air to symbolise the naval, army, civil defence and air forces. Kerans wasted no time in contacting the PDSA, recommending Simon for the Medal:
"There were a large number of rats on board that began to breed rapidly in the damaged portions of the ship. They represented a real menace to the health of the ship's company. Simon nobly rose to the occasion and after two months the rats were much diminished. Throughout the Incident Simon's behaviour was of the highest order. One would not have expected him to have survived a shell making a hole over a foot in diameter in a steel plate, yet after a few days Simon was a friendly as ever. His presence on the ship, together with Peggy the dog, was a decided factor in maintaining the high level of morale of the ship's company. They gave the ship an air of domesticity and normality in a situation which in other aspects was very trying."
On August 8 a letter from the secretary of the PDSA's Armed Forces Mascot Club confirmed Simon's award, and in lieu of the medal itself, he was sent a collar in the colours of the ribbon. It was one of many thousands of gifts sent to what was suddenly the world's most famous cat, but Simon was a reluctant celebrity, and he often found no difficulty in avoiding visiting reporters and photographers on the 300-foot ship. Since he was now receiving almost as much mail as the captain, a Cat Officer was appointed to deal with it!
On November 1, the Amethyst sailed into Plymouth harbour to a tumultuous welcome, but while the crew were reunited with family and friends, Simon was packed off to quarantine kennels in Surrey. On November 28, Simon died. It was suggested that he had been born with a weak heart, and that his wounds and frequent battles with oversized rats had finally taken their toll. Members of the crew who visited him in quarantine maintained that it was more due to a broken heart, separated from - and thinking he had been abandoned by - his beloved shipmates. He was less than four years old. A few days later, his body wrapped in cotton wool and his tiny coffin draped with a Union Jack, Simon was laid to rest in plot 281 of the PDSA's pet cemetery in Ilford, Essex, with full Naval honours. His medal was later awarded posthumously, accepted by Lt-Cdr Kerans in the company of the officers and men of the Amethyst, who had all been affected deeply by Simon's death, which cast a black shadow over the sense of achievement they had previously felt. There was an immediate search for a news ship's cat, and a black-and-white tom, named Simon II, eventually joined the crew. In 1950, American author Paul Gallico dedicated his novel Jennie (perhaps the definitive work of fiction about a cat) simply, "To the late Simon, of the Amethyst".
Simon plays with a kennel maid while in
quarantine, shortly before his death
In 1956, a film was made based on Lawrence Earl's book Yangtse Incident,
starring Richard Todd as Lt-Cdr Kerans, Donald Houston as Lt Weston, and
William Hartnell as LS Frank, while the real HMS Amethyst - then in
reserve - re-enacted her most famous exploit. Although simplified for narrative
purposes, and lacking any direct mention of Simon, nevertheless a black-and-white
cat - perhaps his successor - is visible in a number of scenes, either hanging
around the ship's galley, comforting a shipmate, or lying in a blood-stained
In 1957 the Amethyst was broken up at Plymouth. In the four ships involved in the Incident, the human cost was 46 dead and 68 injured. Three Distinguished Service orders were awarded, along with one MBE, four Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Flying Cross, seven Distinguished Service Medals, and many "Mentioned in Dispatches." Simon also received the Blue Cross Medal of the Dumb Friends League, and of 53 Dickin Medals issued, his was the only one ever awarded to a cat. When it was auctioned at Christie's in May 1993, it sold for £23,467, a record for the Dickin Medal, which has now been replaced by the PDSA's Silver Medal. The purchaser was a company working on a film (possibly animated) about Simon, and the Medal was to be used for publicity purposes. Sadly, the project seems to have come to nothing.
The item below the Amethyst's bell is a
(now defused) small-calibre Chinese
anti-aircraft shell, which thankfully
failed to explode when it hit the ship.
The medal [left] is one awarded to a
With thanks to Susan Toffelmire.
Frigate Under Fire - HMS Amethyst's 100 Day of Hell [Edwyn Gray, 1987
The Battle of the Atlantic [Chris Howard Bailey, 1994 Royal Naval Museum]
Silent Heroes -The Bravery & Devotion of Animals in War [Evelyn Le Chêne, 1994 Souvenir Press]
Sea War 1939-1945 [Paul Kemp, 1995 Brockhampton Press]
Your Cat [May 1999]
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