The Australian Numismatic Society


Military engagements bond the combatants.  This bonding is reinforced by the bestowal of service medals specific for the 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 British and Commonwealth citizens from Nanking, from being engulfed in the Civil War. 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 Captain, 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 Dispensary for Sick Animals.  He was recommended for this award by the surviving members of the crew, an example of the bonds which are forged under fire; and which transcend the normal barriers between human 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 importance and of intense personal significance.  Once such military engagement was the Yangtze Incident, a brief, local but intense battle between guns of the Communist Peoples’ Liberation Army and several Royal 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 Prisoners of 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 will endure long after all material and artefacts of that tragic episode had disappeared. 

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.

Following the overthrow of the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1911, China was ruled by various competing warlords and foreign powers, especially Japan (1937-1945).  Civil war simmered from 1945, between the Chinese Communists and the 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 1,150,000 Nationalist soldiers.  The Nationalists’ were widely spaced, and the ethical stance and charismatic brilliance of the leadership of Mao Tse Tung meant that by 1948, decisive battles had been won at Shantung and in Manchuria.

By January 1949, the Chinese Communist Army, following a series of major battles, had moved south to the Yangtze 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 Yangtze 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 of April left Shanghai to proceed up the Yangtze River to relieve the HMS Consort at Nanking.  The Peoples Liberation Army controlled 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 Yangtze River, opposite Low Island.  Nevertheless she steamed on and was came under artillery fire again from shore batteries positioned on the north banks of Xou An Reach and on Rose Island.  She sustained at least five direct hits.2  The frigates Captain, Leiutenant Commander Bernard (Bill) Skinner, was mortally wounded and died from 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 gun put out of action3.  Shell holes below the water line were plugged with hammocks and bedding. Both the Surgeon 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 and returned fire with deadly effect.  The wheel house and primary steering system of Consort was also partly destroyed and after another run up the Yangtze, “Still firing hard”, she was then force 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, Leiutenant Weston, in command.  An attempt was made to rescue HMS Amethyst by Vice-Admiral Madden, on HMS London with HMS Black Swan as escort.  Both ships were badly damaged and had to retire down stream after suffering fifteen killed and twenty-two wounded. 

A Sunderland aircraft was quickly prepared with medical personnel and flown to HMS Amethyst, with Flight Leiutenant M.E Fernely inserted as Medical Officer.  An Australian Naval Officer, Leiutenant Commander J.S Kerans was also sent in to take command.  On the night of 30/31st July under the cover of darkness, HMS Amethyst slipped her cable and under smoke cover, passed through and completed the 104 mile dash for freedom, running the gauntlet of Communist guns on both banks of the River…where, at full speed ahead passed through the mouth of the River and sent the time honoured signal “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 and HMS Black Swan.  Military historians have described this action “During the end of the Chinese Civil War of 1949 as one of the most heroic, hopeless, bizarre and ultimately triumphant episodes of 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 Amethyst, recommended that Simon also receive a medal for continuing to serve as part of the crew.

All those who had served at the Yangtze Incident were awarded with the Yangtze Clasp.  This included the rare awards of the Naval General Service Medal to both 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 the Yangtze Bar reading “Yangtze 1949” is one of the proudest post-war service medals.  Sadly, a number of such medals has not remained with the recipients or their families, and have become one of 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 Memorial Aboretum in England.  In the Grove, have been planted four Ginko trees, “Living fossils” with origins in China, each one 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 served as 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 produced with a replica Naval General Service Medal with Queen Elizabeth’s portrait erroneously featured on the obverse “The Queen’s Coronation did not occur until 1953!”  Subsequent issues corrected this numismatic and historic error.

The British 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 exceptional service in war time.  One such example was the US Marine Corp mascot “Corporal Chesty III”, who was awarded a US Good Conduct Medal.5  Nevertheless, the only dog known to of been officially listed in the Royal Navy, the only dog (“Just Nuisance”), was also buried with full military honours upon her death in 1944.1           

Following the Yangtze Incident, the surviving crew members of HMS Amethyst nominated “Simon” the ship’s cat for an award.  He was awarded the Dickin Medal in 1949 for his apparent courage following his injury in one of the artillery 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 in diameter, it is suspended by a ryband of three equal bands of green, dark brown and pale 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, following the many reports of conspicuous courage displayed by animals working with the 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 Amethyst"

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 front gate”.  As the Australian historian of China C.P Fitzgerald wrote in 1964, the tiger, be it the Japanese or Western powers, has certainly been driven out of the front gate of China….[The Chinese nation] have now been wholly under the control of the Chinese; the Treaty Ports 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 grave of Simon the ship’s cat, enjoined in the written heritage of animals who have served with their human counterparts in times of conflict8; and whose service will endure in the centuries ahead in the numismatic record.8


1. Pearn, J. The Numismatics of Brave Animals. Numismatics Association Australia 2012; 22: 50-66.

Hughes, W.R.N. “H.M.S Amethyst-the Yangtze Incident 1948” (sic: 1949 is correct). Naval Historical Review. Sourced online at  Accessed 11 June 2012.

[Editor]. “Under heavy fire, am aground.” H.M.S Amethyst April 20th, 1949. Accessed 11 June 2012

Pearn, J. “Euphorleus – Green Physician in Africa. Fl.c. 30BC- c. 20AD. In: A Doctor in the Garden. Brisbane. Amphion Press, 2001: 151-152.

Editor, United States Marine Corp Press, Heritage Press, Marine Corps Mascot.
Accessed 6 September 2011.

Wilson, G. “We also Serve” – Maria Dickin and her “Animal VC”. Royal United Service Institute … 2002; 22-25.

Fitzgerald, C.P. The Birth of Communist China, London, Penguin Books Ltd, 1964. Chapter 9. The Chinese Revolution and the Far East: 221.

Gardiner, J. The Animals’ War: Animals in Wartime from the First World War to the Present Day. London, Imperial War Museum, 2006.


Return to Library

Return to ANS Main Page

16th June 2012