The Australian Numismatic Society
engagements bond the combatants. This
bonding is reinforced by the bestowal of service medals specific for
operation, especially if these involve intense exposure to shot and
shell. The Yangtze Incident of 20 April 1949 was a
brief but bloody engagement involving the Royal Navy frigate HMS
Amethyst, during the course of the
Chinese Civil War of 1945-1949. HMS
Amethyst had steamed up the Yangtze River, preparing to evacuate
Commonwealth citizens from Nanking, from being engulfed in the Civil
The Amethyst was fired upon and was gravely but not totally
disabled. 46 crew were killed or died from wounds,
including the surgeon and the Sick Berth Petty Officer, and the
Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner, who died the next day. HMS
Amethyst finally escaped the blockade
under the cover of darkness on 31 July 1949.
The sailors, soldiers and airmen involved in the Yangtze Incident
received the Naval General Service Medal with the Yangtze clasp.
The ship’s cat, Simon, was also wounded; and
was awarded the Dickin Medal, the “Animal VC”, by the People’s
Sick Animals. He was recommended for
this award by the surviving members of the crew, an example of the
are forged under fire; and which transcend the normal barriers between
kind and the animals who serve with them.
The commissioning and bestowal of medals becomes
one of the most enduring records of historical events.
Such comprise a permanent witness of events,
both great and small; and are occasions of both great societal
of intense personal significance. Once
such military engagement was the Yangtze Incident, a brief, local but
battle between guns of the Communist Peoples’ Liberation Army and
Navy vessels, particularly the frigate HMS
Amethyst. At that time (20 April
1949), one of the present authors Rod Sell was a five year old boy
living in Hong
Kong, in the aftermath of his family’s incarceration as Japanese
war, in Shanghai. The other author John
Pearn, had researched the unusual subject of animal courage and
altruism.1 Both were
enjoined in an interest in
the medallic heritage of the Yangtze Incident. That medallic record
long after all material and artefacts of that tragic episode had
In 1949, the Communist
north of China fought and won
a decisive war over the established and
democratic South. It was a war whose
outcome was to shape Asian history and its wars over the ensuing
decades. Its outcome was ultimately to lead to the
China of the twenty-first century , as a dominant world power.
overthrow of the Ch’ing
Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1911, China was ruled by various competing
foreign powers, especially Japan (1937-1945).
Civil war simmered from 1945, between the Chinese Communists and
Nationalists. Full scale civil war was
being fought by January 1947. In spite
of superior numbers of the Nationalist Army (2,700,000), the strategic
initiative had passed to the Communist Peoples’ Liberation Army with
Nationalist soldiers. The Nationalists’
were widely spaced, and the ethical stance and charismatic brilliance
leadership of Mao Tse Tung meant that by 1948, decisive battles had
been won at
Shantung and in Manchuria.
1949, the Chinese Communist
Army, following a series of major battles, had moved south to the
River. On 1 October, Mao proclaimed the
establishment in Peking of the Peoples Republic of China. The
defeated Nationalist Army and Government
regrouped itself on Taiwan.
In early 1945, warships of the Royal
Navy were stationed in Shanghai, at Nanking in the upper reaches of the
River and at Hong Kong. They were there
to protect British interests and to evacuate British and Commonwealth
Nationals, and to defend the British colony of Hong Kong.
In early April 1949, HMS
Amethyst was stationed in
Hong Kong. She sailed from Hong Kong on
the 12th of April for Shanghai; and on the 19th
left Shanghai to proceed up the Yangtze River to relieve the HMS
Consort at Nanking. The Peoples Liberation
territory on the north side of the river where their forces had medium
artillery. Since the Communists did not
have a Navy, all Naval ships were regarded as the enemy.
HMS Amethyst was fired upon with deadly
accuracy from shore batteries positioned on the north side of the
River, opposite Low Island.
Nevertheless she steamed on and was came under artillery fire
shore batteries positioned on the north banks of Xou An Reach and on
Island. She sustained at least five direct
hits.2 The frigates Captain,
Leiutenant Commander Bernard (Bill) Skinner, was mortally wounded and
his injuries the next day.
In the height of battle Amethyst received over
twenty direct hits with the bridge and wheel house and both A gun and B
out of action3. Shell holes
below the water line were plugged with hammocks and bedding. Both the
and the Sick Berth Attendant were killed by an artillery shell. Fifteen were killed and twelve were
wounded. Forty unwounded men remained
on board and the rest were ordered to swim ashore to Rose Island. HMS Consort, which had been stationed at
Nanking, arrived under full steam with battle penants flying at 2.00pm
returned fire with deadly effect. The
wheel house and primary steering system of Consort was also partly
and after another run up the Yangtze, “Still firing hard”, she was then
to proceed down river to Shanghai.2
Comparative quiet descended on the scene with HMS
Amethyst still embedded in the mud on Rose Island, with the First
Leiutenant Weston, in command. An
attempt was made to rescue HMS Amethyst by Vice-Admiral Madden, on HMS
with HMS Black Swan as escort. Both
ships were badly damaged and had to retire down stream after suffering
killed and twenty-two wounded.
A Sunderland aircraft was quickly prepared with
medical personnel and flown to HMS Amethyst, with Flight Leiutenant M.E
inserted as Medical Officer. An
Australian Naval Officer, Leiutenant Commander J.S Kerans was also sent
take command. On the night of 30/31st
July under the cover of darkness, HMS Amethyst slipped her cable and
smoke cover, passed through and completed the 104 mile dash for
the gauntlet of Communist guns on both banks of the River…where, at
ahead passed through the mouth of the River and sent the time honoured
“Have rejoined the fleet at Woosong….God Save the King”.3 In all, forty-six servicemen were killed or
died, as crew of the four ships, HMS Amethyst, HMS Consort, HMS London
Black Swan. Military historians have
described this action “During the end of the Chinese Civil War of 1949
of the most heroic, hopeless, bizarre and ultimately triumphant
post-war Royal Navy history”3.
Images of HMS Amethyst, taken by Herbert Sell in Hong Kong in 1949
A Parade through London by those involved.
Image from 'Escape of the Amethyst"
“Simon”, the ships’ cat on
HMS Amethyst was also
injured in the engagement. As a perhaps
trivial subscript to this amazing story, the surviving crew of HMS
recommended that Simon also receive a medal for continuing to serve as
NUMISMATICS OF THE
All those who had served at the
were awarded with the Yangtze Clasp.
This included the rare awards of the Naval General Service Medal
soldiers and members of the Royal Air Force who were involved. Approximately 1400 medals with the Yangtze
Clasp were issued. Because of the
unique, heroic and ingallant nature of the Incident, the Naval GSM with
Yangtze Bar reading “Yangtze 1949” is one of the proudest post-war
medals. Sadly, a number of such medals
has not remained with the recipients or their families, and have become
most sought after post World War II medals sought by collectors.
Profoundly in 1999, fifty years after the Yangtze
Incident, a memorial grove to the fallen was unveiled at the National
Aboretum in England. In the Grove, have
been planted four Ginko trees, “Living fossils” with origins in China,
representing one of the four ships. This is surrounded by a circlet of
fourty-six Euphorbia shrubs, one for
each man who died during the Incident.3
The genis Euphorbia was so named to honour the service of the
Greek Physician and Surgeon General, Euphorbus “fl 30BC-20AD”, who
the Surgeon-General to King Juba II in North Africa.4
Image of the Medal from the late Ron Byatt's collction.
In recent years, Benhams “A United Kingdom publisher
of Great Britain first day philatlic covers’, produced what are termed
PHILATLIC-NUMISMATIC COVERS featuring British service medals. Among such covers have been two which have
featured the Naval General Service Medal with the Yangtze Bar.
In error, the first series was
a replica Naval General Service Medal with Queen Elizabeth’s portrait
erroneously featured on the obverse “The Queen’s Coronation did not
1953!” Subsequent issues corrected this
numismatic and historic error.
“MEDALS FOR EVERYONE”
and Australian several
Defence Acts do not permit the award of service medals to animals. Nevertheless, the countries, particularly
the United States, bestow such service medals on animals who render
service in war time. One such example
was the US Marine Corp mascot “Corporal Chesty III”, who was awarded a
Nevertheless, the only dog known to of been officially listed in
Royal Navy, the only dog (“Just Nuisance”), was also buried with full
honours upon her death in 1944.1
Following the Yangtze Incident, the
surviving crew members of HMS Amethyst nominated “Simon” the ship’s cat
award. He was awarded the Dickin Medal
in 1949 for his apparent courage following his injury in one of the
blasts that partly disabled the ship and killed other members of the
crew. The Dicken Medal is the highest
international award for courage. A bronze disc thirty-six millimetres
it is suspended by a ryband of three equal bands of green, dark brown
blue. The ribbon symbolizes the three
domains (land, sea and sky) which are the worlds of animals. The obverse bears the central inscription
“For Gallantry We Also Serve’. The
Dicken Medal was instituted by Mrs Maria Dickin (1870-1951) in 1942,
the many reports of conspicuous courage displayed by animals working
armed forces and civil defence units in the London Blitz.6 The Dickin Medal, sometimes called the
“Animals VC” is awarded by the “UK People’s Dispensary for Sick
Animals”. Sixty-three such medals have
been awarded to
date. “Simon”, of HMS Amethyst, is the
only feline award.
P.O. Alfred White with Simon. Image from "Escape of
The Grave of Simon. Photo courtest of J. Gardiner from her
book "The Animals' War".
The Dickin Medal, awarded by the People's Dispensary for Sick
Animals. Instituted in 1942 as the highest award for animal
courage. It was first awarded in 1943. Of the 63 medals
awarded to 2012, only one, that awarded to "Simon" of HMS Amethyst, is
a feline award.
Sixty-five years have passed since
those events as
the Chinese say, “Ch’ien Men Ch’u Hu”- tiger has been driven out of the
gate”. As the Australian historian of
China C.P Fitzgerald wrote in 1964, the tiger, be it the Japanese or
powers, has certainly been driven out of the front gate of China….[The
nation] have now been wholly under the control of the Chinese; the
are gone and gun boats no longer sail upon the Yangtze.” 7 The Memorial Grove in the British National
Aboretum blooms to honour the service of brave sailors who did their
duty. So also bloom flowers beside a tiny
Simon the ship’s cat, enjoined in the written heritage of animals who
served with their human counterparts in times of conflict8;
whose service will endure in the centuries ahead in the numismatic
Numismatics of Brave Animals. Numismatics Association Australia 2012; 22: 50-66.
Amethyst-the Yangtze Incident 1948” (sic: 1949 is correct). Naval
Historical Review. Sourced online
at http://www.navyhistory.org.au/hms-amethyst-the-yantze-incident-1948/ Accessed 11 June 2012.
fire, am aground.” H.M.S Amethyst April 20th, 1949.
http://britains-smallwars.com/RRGP/AMETHYST.htm Accessed 11 June 2012
– Green Physician in Africa. Fl.c. 30BC- c. 20AD. In: A
Doctor in the Garden. Brisbane. Amphion Press, 2001: 151-152.
Marine Corp Press, Heritage Press, Marine Corps Mascot.
www.usmcpress.com/heritage/marine_corps_mascot.htm Accessed 6 September 2011.
G. “We also
Serve” – Maria Dickin and her “Animal VC”. Royal United Service
Institute … 2002; 22-25.
C.P. The Birth of Communist China, London,
Penguin Books Ltd, 1964. Chapter 9. The Chinese Revolution and the Far
J. The Animals’ War: Animals in Wartime from
the First World War to the Present Day. London, Imperial War
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16th June 2012