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  Inter-War Period 1918-1939 - In Memory of


Captain ALBERT ROBERT WILLIAMSON OBE, DSC, Merchant Navy, his career, and the WANHSIEN INCIDENT in China, September 1926


with thanks to his Granddaughter, Liz Randall

Captain Albert Williamson at the award ceremony after the Incident (click to enlarge) return to inter-war, 1918-1939

Liz Randall sent Naval-History.Net three articles and a number of photographs, all of which follow. The first article is a brief autobiography of her Grandfather's illustrious maritime career, which covers the Wanhsien Incident in brief. This is followed by a more detailed description of the event. Finally there is an account by a Mr Lortsen. As the latter is mainly background, only the first two pages have been transcribed although the remainder can be accessed. Other information has also been added.


It took me a little while to discover how a Merchant Navy captain came to find himself at war in peacetime, and being awarded the OBE! Simply, his ship the SS Kia Wo (or Kiawo - right) was requisitioned by the Royal Navy to help deal with an incident at Wanhsien (present day Wanzhou) on the Yangste River. Although a Royal Navy officer, Commander Darley took command, Captain Williamson remained on board as Sailing Master. Cdr Darley was killed, and Captain Williamson successfully took over. (Gordon Smith)

After his retirement from Jardine Matheson & Co Ltd in 1947, Capt AR Williamson researched and wrote articles on the early personalities and ships of his company. These were published one by one in the company's Christmas newsletters. Eventually they were published all together for 'private circulation' in the book 'Eastern Traders'.


The following is the account of his own life which he included in the book. I have scanned it from my copy of 'Eastern Traders' and reproduce it below.

Liz Randall, February 2008





A R Williamson by Himself

The Wanhsien Incident by A R Williamson

The Battle of Wanhsien by Mr A K Lortsen

Background to China, late 1920's

Casualty Lists

Honours and Awards
Other Published Accounts of the Honours and Awards


Another famous Indo-China Steam Navigation Company ship - HMS Li Wo

The End of HMS Bee, 1939

HMS Cockchafer in World War 2





Master and Marine Superintendent, Indo-China Steam Navigation Company Limited 1920-1946


by Himself



1906 to 1914 – Merchant Navy Steam and Sail World-wide


My decision to go to sea was taken in 1906, at the age of 15, when my father's business was at a low ebb. My ambition to serve in a sailing ship was sparked off by the example of a distant relative who was then First Mate of the Barque Silver How. At that time steam was fast supplanting sail and I was unable to obtain a berth in a deep-water sailing ship except at a premium which my father could not afford. However through the good offices of a schoolmaster with shipping connections I was offered an apprenticeship, without premium in the King Line of tramp steamers. I was therefore indentured to this company for three years, the wages being £5 for the first year, £8 for the second year and £12 for the third year. Apart from this meagre wage the Company provided the apprentice with nothing—not even bedding or mess utensils—except food on the minimum B.O.T. scale and of indifferent quality.


In September 1906 I joined the new steamer King Howel in Penarth in the Bristol Channel. Just arrived from the builder's yard on the Tyne, she was an ordinary coal and grain tramp steamer, carrying about 5,000 tons deadweight, of a type built in large numbers in the early part of this century. They were so similar that they were said to be "built by the mile, cut off by the fathom and the ends hammered in". They were strictly functional with a maximum speed of about 8½ knots. There was no electric light or power and the only aids to navigation on board were one chronometer, two compasses, one sounding machine and a patent Log. With this minimal equipment they roamed the seas of the world.


On her maiden voyage the King Howel carried a cargo of bunker coal to the Argentine Naval Base in Bahia Blanca, south of the River Plate, and returned with a cargo of Argentine grain to Antwerp. She was thereafter employed during my apprenticeship carrying coal from Bristol Channel ports to the Mediterranean and thence to the Black Sea for grain, or to India for a general cargo.


In the autumn it was customary for the tramp steamers to load coal for River Plate ports and return with Argentine grain. This arrangement was highly approved of in the half deck for we avoided the discomfort of unheated quarters and inadequate clothing in the wintry seas of northern latitudes by steaming to the southward to enjoy tropical heats and the summer sun of the southern hemisphere. It was therefore with howls of dismay that we greeted the news, received in the late autumn of my third year on board, that we were to load coal for the Adriatic ports and proceed thence to the Black Sea for grain. Fully loaded we set out on the worst voyage I made in the King Howel.


After being blown away from the quay in a Bora (strong northerly gale) in a small port south of Fiume (the modern Rijeka) we arrived off Ochakov, in the Black Sea, early in December. The whole country was under snow and ice—the cold was intense. We were bound for Nikolayev about 20 miles up the River Bug which was frozen over. A powerful ice-breaker preceded us to our loading berth and periodically churned up the ice alongside to enable the stem and stern draught marks to be read during loading. We rigged up a minute coal stove in the half deck but nevertheless conditions on board were most uncomfortable. Two days before Christmas, being fully loaded, the ice-breaker preceded us down river and clear of ice. The icy haze, however, made visibility very poor, the channel buoys had been removed on account of drifting coastal ice, the steamer got out of the fairway, ran aground on a mud bank and stuck fast. Tugs were sent to us but failed to move the vessel and we had to discharge about 1,000 tons of grain into lighters before she could be refloated. We then ran into Odessa harbour, reloaded the grain and sailed, finally, late on New Year's Eve. Early on New Year's Day the cook went aft to fetch the geese which the skipper had bought in Nikolayev to be a Christmas treat for all hands. On December 25th, however, we had been fast aground and hard at work, therefore the geese were left hanging in an empty locker on the poop pending a more fitting occasion. But they did not, after all, provide us with a New Year feast; they had been stolen by the Odessa stevedores. So we dined, as usual, on salt pork thinking hard thoughts the while about those Russian thieves. But we soon forgot our disappointment—we were, at last, homeward bound.


My indentures having expired, I left the King Howel in the autumn of 1909, having still to serve a further 12 months before the mast to complete the minimum four years then required to qualify a seaman to take the examination for a Foreign-going Second Mate's Certificate. I was now keen to gain some experience in sail and as there were still some windjammers sailing under the Red Ensign, I signed on before the mast (at £3 per month) in the ship Dechmont. She was a 20 year old full-rigged ship of about 1,650 registered tons and lifted about 3,000 deadweight tons of cargo. She carried a complement of 25 in all—Master, two mates, carpenter, sailmaker, steward, cook, eight apprentices and ten foremast hands. We towed to sea from the West India dock in the late autumn of 1909, made sail off Dungeness and 80 days later anchored in the Semaphore Anchorage outside Port Adelaide, South Australia. After final discharge of the general cargo in Melbourne the ship was towed to Geelong to load a full cargo of grain for Falmouth or Queenstown for orders. It was late autumn in those southern latitudes when we sailed and our passage through the Roaring Forties was a stormy one with the decks being constantly swept by heavy seas.


One evening when approaching the Horn, a strong following gale increased rapidly to hurricane force with a tremendous following sea, conditions which made heaving-to impossible. The ship was already under reduced canvas but after a hard struggle aloft in the shrieking tempest we succeeded in furling everything except the main lower topsail. It was a wild night but during the next day the wind shifted, the storm died down to a hard gale and a couple of nights later the clouds cleared, giving us our first glimpse of the heavens for some weeks and there we saw the splendid sight of Halley's comet then making one of its periodical and spectacular appearances. We were greatly favoured for we were in the most favourable position on earth to see this wonderful sight at its best. We rounded the Horn and some weeks later passed the Azores. Now we met easterly winds which prevented us from making for the Channel and Falmouth. We made our landfall S.W. of Ireland and when we went about and stood to the southward we passed through a squadron of battleships steaming in line abreast. Working aloft I looked down on H.M.S. Hannibal as we sailed fairly close past and little thought that I was to have a closer acquaintance with that old battleship in the not far distant future. After making a couple of long tacks to the southward we made Queenstown and were towed into the harbour to await orders. Three days later we received instructions to proceed to Antwerp. Having prepared for sea we weighed, towed out and made sail off the Daunt Rock Lightship. The wind was still easterly but the next day it shifted to N.W. We squared away to this fine, fair wind which blew fresh and steady giving us a fine run up Channel. With everything set the Dechmont surged along passing the old King Howel type of tramp, going almost two knots to their one. We sailed right up to Flushing, backed the main yards to pick up the pilot, squared away again and sailed up the Scheldt until the tug which had been sent from Antwerp to meet the ship arrived to tow her into dock. The Dechmont was a happy ship and I intended to make another voyage in her but, alas, on arrival we learned the sad news that she had been sold to the Norwegians.


I returned to London and was offered a berth in another full-rigged ship but while waiting for her to load I met, fortuitously, the skipper of the brigantine Huntleys then berthed in the Albert Dock loading grain for Hull. Being short of an able seaman the skipper offered the job to me. I hesitated at first but finally agreed to sail in the vessel to Hull and help discharge the cargo (300 tons of grain in bags) for the sum of 35 shillings. I thought it would be a quick job but I was mistaken. First we were delayed in the dock because the B.O.T. inspector made a surprise visit on board and condemned the navigation lights. He was particularly irate when he discovered that an old stable lantern had been doing duty as a stern light. By the time a new set of lights had been procured and passed, a thick fog settled down and stopped all traffic on the River for 48 hours. When we did sail we had to spend three days wind-bound in the Lower Hope below Gravesend. Thus a fortnight elapsed before I collected my money in Hull. The skipper now pressed me to stay in the old craft and as I was finding life on board not only diverting but interesting, I signed the ship's articles as able seaman at £3-10 per month. I sailed in that old brigantine until the following spring of 1911.


The Huntleys was an aged craft having been built in Sunderland in 1865. Originally built as a brig, square rigged on two masts, her early years had been passed in the Baltic trade and legend also related that she had been at one time a South Spainer, or Mediterranean trader. Towards the end of last century she had been razeed, or reduced, to brigantine rig - square yards on the foremast and fore and aft rig on the main. Her crew had also been reduced from 12 to six all told. In her youth she had been a Clipper Brig but now, stripped of square yards on the main, her royals and flying kites, she was just an old slow coach, so slow that her nickname on the Coast was the Whitstable Mail Boat. Her rigging was old fashioned—heavy hemp shrouds and stays with deadeyes and lanyards (which had to be set up, "lull on lull", after every blow) and other old world fittings strange to a modern sailor. However, she had her virtues. Strongly built with heavy oak frames and beams she was remarkably tight in spite of her age and seldom leaked and then but very little. As she could only set half the canvas her hull was designed to carry she was very stiff and we seldom had to reduce sail. With fore top-gallant sail and gaff topsail furled she would stand up to everything except a real hard blow when it might be necessary to furl the square foresail, set the storm foresail (set on the forestay) and take a couple of reefs in the mainsail. She could not beat against wind and tide so when the winds were foul and we were in tidal waters the skipper would run her into a wind-bound anchorage. She was, however, easy to handle. I never knew her to miss stays when tacking and our experienced skipper could sail her "through the eye of a needle". All in all, she was a com­fortable old craft to sail in.


During the time I served in her the Huntleys carried grain to Hull, coal to Exeter (being towed by three horses up the Exeter canal to the gas works), china clay from Cornwall to Dunkirk, fertilisers to Ipswich, burnt ore to the Tyne and coal to Whitstable. As the crew had to load and discharge the cargo there was plenty of hard work, but life on board was anything but dull and there were many amusing, even hilarious, incidents. It was all good experience and I gained a knowledge of coastal navigation which was to prove invaluable in years to come. Naturally, as we were in and out of port so frequently, money was spent as soon as it was earned. Therefore I left the Huntleys in Whitstable in the latter part of May 1911 and went to London to look for a deep-water ship voyage in order to return with sufficient money to enable me take the examination for Second Mate.


After a few days at home I set out to "look for a ship" and in the West India Dock saw the Auxiliary Barque Discovery fitting out for her annual voyage to Hudson Bay. This was the vessel in which Captain R. F. Scott, R.N., sailed to the Antarctic in 1901/04. After his return the Discovery was bought by the Hudson Bay Company. At that time the railway had not reached Hudson Bay so the Bay posts had to be supplied from sea as they had been since the Company was founded more than 200 years earlier. The Discovery, therefore, was employed to make an annual voyage to the Bay leaving London in June loaded with general stores for the Posts and returning in the late autumn with the season's furs, etc. I had heard about the vessel and as her unusual voyage promised adventure as well as the much-needed "pay day", I hastened on board to offer my services. The Second Mate was in charge at the time, my answers to his questions about age and experience were satisfactory and he engaged me as an able seaman for the forthcoming voyage, subject to the Captain's approval. In due course Captain Ford approved the crew, articles were signed and in mid June the Discovery sailed from London and steamed northwards. After a short call at Peterhead to load more stores and top up with coal and water, we continued our voyage northwards until we turned west past Fair Isle between the Orkney and Shetland Islands. All sail was now set, the engines stopped and boiler fires drawn. Her bunker capacity being small the Discovery made all her sea passages under sail, the engines only being used to work through ice and to enter and leave port. We therefore sailed across the Atlantic from the Fair Isle Passage to Resolution Island on the north side of the entrance to Hudson Strait. Soon after entering the Strait our passage was barred by a large ice field, boiler fires were lit, the sails furled and we proceeded thence under steam only.


Ice conditions in the Strait were particularly heavy that year. Field and pack ice, studded with bergs of fantastic sizes and shapes, filled the passage from shore to shore. This vast mass of ice was not stationary, except for grounded bergs, but was in constant motion, silent and imperceptible, being moved by tidal currents causing the floes to close and grind together and to open out again leaving navigable gaps and leads studded with isolated pieces of drift ice. The officer of the watch conned the ship from the foretop calling for frequent changes of helm to steer through the most open leads he could see between the floes. As we proceeded, thrusting aside the pieces of drift ice between the floes, the frequent crashing beneath the bow and grinding alongside disturbed the local inhabitants. Seals and walruses were there in abundance, basking in the sun on the ice or swimming between the floes and on several occasions Polar bears were in view ambling over the ice in the near distance. The weather was generally fine and sunny causing much refraction and shimmering haze making it difficult for the O.O.W. to assess what the actual conditions were for more than a mile or two ahead. Occasionally, therefore, a promising lead might end in a cul-de-sac. Further progress being then impossible the ship would be moored to a floe to wait until the tidal current opened up new leads. These delays were turned to advantage by rigging a hand pump on the ice and topping up the water tanks on board from the shallow pools of melted snow on the surface of the floe.


Progress through the Strait was thus slow work and nearly a fortnight elapsed from the time we first entered the ice until we cleared the western entrance and steamed into open water. During this period we had constant daylight but as we steamed south and west across the Bay towards Fort York (our first port of call) there were hours of darkness each night during which magnificent displays of Aurora Borealis filled the heavens. Shafts and bands of light shot across the sky, quivered and faded while curving bands of faint luminosity were traversed by patches of stronger light giving the impression of the bottom edge of a gigantic curtain gently moving in a breeze. It was a spectacular phenomenon.

Having arrived off Fort York at the mouth of the Nelson River the Discovery was anchored outside and the cargo for that Port discharged into lighters. We then weighed, steamed past Cape Henrietta Maria and thence south into James Bay. Several important rivers discharge into this bay and Hudson Bay Company Posts are situated at their mouths—Fort George, Fort Albany, Moose River and Rupert House in the south east corner where it is believed Henry Hudson wintered in 1610, in the first Discovery, before he was set adrift with seven companions by a mutinous crew. This occurred in the spring of 1611 exactly 300 years before our voyage to those waters in the sixth Discovery, the last of her name. As the shores of James Bay are too shallow to allow a sea-going ship to approach the Posts, Charlton Island in the southern extremity of the bay had been long established as a central depot where cargoes could be landed and distributed thence by small schooners.


Charlton Island was first visited by Captain James of Bristol during a voyage of exploration. After bumping about among the rocks and shoals of the bay (which is named after him) he fetched up, providentially, in a sound between two islands and wintered on the shore of the larger one, most probably where the depot now stands. He named his wintering place Charles Town (now Charlton) after King Charles the First, and the smaller island opposite he named Danby after a courtier and a sponsor of the expedition. The crew of 22 passed a winter of great hardship during which four men died but the remainder survived to return to Bristol in 1632. James's somewhat doleful account of the tribulations of his hazardous voyage was dubbed by a contemporary "a book of lamentation and weeping and great mourning" but that gentleman had not wintered in James Bay, frozen in, short of provisions, stricken with scurvy and with small chance of survival. James was lucky to escape with the loss of only four men—other expeditions to the Bay were not so fortunate.


At the time of our visit Charlton Island was almost uninhabited, the only permanent residents being Adams, a Company employee, and his family plus a few Eskimo families. Apart from Adams' house and the native huts the only buildings at the depot were a large cargo shed and the house with office where the governor of one of the Posts resided when he came over to meet the ship and transact the cargo business. There was also a bunkhouse for the use of the gang of stevedores who crossed to the island with the governor. In the spring, after the ice broke up, Adams and the Eskimos sounded and buoyed the approaches to the depot and erected a temporary pier comprised of angle irons and planks. Rails were laid on the pier and connected to permanent rails ashore leading in the cargo shed.


Having steamed down the length of James Bay the Discovery rounded the southern end of the island, flying at the fore a large banner emblazoned with the arms of the Hudson Bay Company and firing rockets to announce our arrival. Off the depot the vessel was moored fore and aft with the end of the pier abreast the main hatch. The gangway was rigged and Captain Ford was welcomed by the Governor of Fort Albany.


All cargo work on board was handled by the crew, the slings of goods being landed on the pier and transported to the shed by the stevedores. At intervals small schooners arrived bringing bales of furs and taking back the goods consigned to the Posts to which they belonged. The only power craft among them was the small steamer Ininew belonging to Rupert House. Their cargoes had to be discharged and loaded across the Discovery and on the days we were unable to work in the hold we were employed aloft overhauling all the rigging. All the sails were sent down, repaired, sent aloft again and bent to the yards ready for the rigours of the homeward passage. But what we most enjoyed on these "off" days was to sling an empty water tank into a scow and tow it with the ship's boat about a mile along the beach to fill the tank with clear sparkling water from a stream which issued from the woods. A delightful spot and this old-fashioned method of watering ship was most pleasant.


When the cargo had been discharged we ballasted the vessel with sand from the beach and loaded the consignment of furs, all of which were loaded in the 'tween decks. It was early in September when loading was completed, the hatch closed and battened down. Steam was raised, the vessel was unmoored and as we exchanged shouted farewells with the small group ashore the Discovery gathered way and commenced the homeward journey.


During our stay at Charlton Island the weather had been sunny and warm but as we proceeded north through Hudson Bay the temperatures fell steadily and we encountered much fog. Once into the Hudson Strait we met with hard gales, thick gloomy weather with freezing temperatures— winter was close at hand. Several times we had to heave to, uncertain of our position, with the engine turning over to check the leewardly drift. At length we got a favourable slant, cleared the Strait and sailed out into the open sea. The main hazards of the voyage were now astern and after a somewhat rough passage across the Atlantic we sailed into the Channel, furled the sails off the Isle of Wight and steamed thence to London. When the Discovery was moored in the River on a Sunday evening at the close of October, 1911, the Mate said, in time-honoured sailing ship fashion, "That will do, boys!", we raised the customary cheer and the voyage was at an end.


I had now completed five years sea time so I took the examination in London and passed for Second Mate Certificate in mid-December 1911.


In January 1912 I was offered an appointment as Second Mate in s.s. Don Emilio belonging to the Buenos Aires-Pacific Railway. This company owned five steamers which were steadily employed carrying Welsh steaming coal from Newport, Mon., out to Buenos Aires for the use of the railway and returning with grain. I served for four voyages in s.s. Don Emilio and left her in the spring of 1913 to proceed to London to take the examination for First Mate. I passed the examination in the early summer and then joined Scrutton & Company's direct line from London to the West Indies, being appointed to s.s. Santaren as Third Mate. Scrutton's vessels loaded for Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and Demarara outwards and then loaded sugar, molasses, etc. round the Islands homewards—the round trip taking about 2½ months. On return from my first voyage I was promoted to Second Mate of the Santaren. When we arrived in the West Indies in the spring of 1914 instead of loading for London as usual we received orders to load a cargo of sugar and molasses for Quebec and Montreal and to continue on the West Indies/Canada run until navigation on the St. Lawrence River ceased at the onset of winter. This programme was however interrupted, after we had made two trips, by the outbreak of the 1914 War on 4th August 1914. We arrived in Canada soon afterwards and after discharge of the sugar and molasses we were ordered to load a cargo of timber in various ports in the St. Lawrence River for Glasgow and Manchester. After completion of discharge in the latter port the ship proceeded to Cardiff to drydock, fill up with bunkers and await orders.



1914 to 1919 - World War 1 Service in the RNR


Had the War not upset my plans I intended to take the examination for Master's Certificate in the spring of 1915 and then apply for a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve. In that autumn of 1914, however, the mobilisation of the Royal Navy for war caused the Admiralty to offer General Service Commissions as Sub-Lieutenant Royal Naval Reserve to selected Merchant Navy officers holding First Mate's Certificate. On making enquiries about this in Cardiff I was instructed to report to the Admiralty and having been released from s.s. Santaren I proceeded to London to report to the Admiral Commanding Reserves. I was passed for service, given 48 hours to procure R.N.R. uniform, greatcoat, cap and sword, and ordered to report to H.M.S. Pembroke - the Chatham depot of the Royal Navy. After a gunnery and fire control course I was appointed to H.M.S. Crescent as Sub-Lieutenant and served in that rather elderly cruiser until the spring of 1915 when she was withdrawn from sea-going duties and converted into a Guard Ship at Scapa Flow. All the Crescents were then transferred to H.M.S. Hannibal to take that old battleship to the Clyde for conversion to a depot ship. All hands were then sent back to Chatham Barracks for dispersal. Soon afterwards, I received an appointment to join H.M.S. Phaeton, a new light cruiser, about to be commissioned but before I left the barracks this appointment was changed and I was ordered to proceed to Granton Naval Base in the Firth of Forth to take command of a dozen drifters in that base, engaged on anti­submarine net laying.


The reason for the change of appointment was that large numbers of trawlers and drifters were being hired by the Admiralty to form an Auxiliary Service for minesweeping, patrol and anti-submarine duties, and a further recruitment of R.N.R. officers thus became necessary. As a temporary measure a number of General Service Officers, of which I was one, were withdrawn from the fighting ships to command these small craft. After organising the Granton drifters I was promoted to Lieutenant R.N.R. and appointed to command a flotilla of minesweeping trawlers engaged on sweeping the approaches to the Firth of Forth. Later I made a cruise as navigator and gunnery officer in the Q-Ship H.M.S. Ready, a brigantine fitted with concealed guns and used as a decoy against sub­marines. The cruise was uneventful and I returned to the mine-sweepers.


During my service at Granton I took advantage of the odd few hours leave to go to Leith and study in the Nautical School preparing myself to take the examination for Master and in due course I was granted a week's leave during which I sat and passed the examination, thus gaining my Certificate as Master, Foreign-going.


Later I was given charge of half a dozen drifters to work on an improved anti-submarine device consisting of the laying across the tracks used by submarines, of lines of moored wire frames, supported by floats, in which contact mines were suspended. This device was worked out and perfected in the Firth of Forth under the direction of Commander Willoughby, R.N., an Officer of the Anti-Submarine Division of the Admiralty.


In the summer of 1917 I was transferred from Granton Base to the R.N. Base at Poole to organise rigging of the nets and mines, and train drifter crews in the methods of mooring the gear and eventual recovery. When I was about ready to begin laying lines of the gear in the Channel, there arose an urgent need for a considerable reinforcement of drifters to be based on Dover to patrol the great minefield laid between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez to close the Channel to German submarines proceeding submerged to the westward. Late in 1917 therefore I was ordered to close, temporarily, activities at Poole, assume command of the 25 drifters which had been concentrated at Poole and take them to reinforce the Dover patrol. On arrival at Dover the boats were incorporated in the minefield patrol in divisions of eight drifters, one of which I commanded throughout the wild, grim winter of 1917/1918. Gale followed gale and rolling, lurching to and fro across that minefield in a small drifter (and on short rations) was the height of discomfort.


In March 1918, I was relieved on orders from the Anti-Submarine Division and instructed to return to Poole to organise resumption of work in the net and mine base. Drifters to the number of 15 were sent to the Base to be under my command and as they arrived they were trained in the evolution of laying the gear. Each drifter carried I mile of gear—wire frames, moorings, mines, etc. and 10 boats were organised in a unit to lay 5 miles of what was, in effect, a portable minefield. These 5 mile units were eventually laid in various positions between the Owers Lightship, east of the Isle of Wight, and Start Point, as ordered by the Anti-Submarine Division. The device was credited with some success and I was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.


At the same time I was ordered to hand over to a relief and to proceed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a working party and 200 tons of stores to rig and lay defensive lines of mine nets in the approaches to Halifax Harbour, and at the same time to train Canadian crews in the working of the gear. I proceeded in the ocean escort H.M.S. Columbella with my party and gear from Sheerness and arrived in Halifax in September 1918. At first I met with much difficulty, but this was overcome, positions selected and several lines of gear successfully laid. The Armistice of 11th November 1918 put a stop to all operations and in due course I received orders from the Admiralty to lift all the gear and hand all the stores over to the Canadian Navy. All this was completed by the middle of December and I, with my party, returned to England in H.M.S. Olympic.


On arrival I proceeded to my depot, H.M.S. Pembroke and when I reached Chatham Barracks I was instructed to proceed on shore leave and report to the Anti-Submarine Division. I duly made my report on the Halifax operation and later received from Their Lordships a commendatory letter on the way in which their orders had been carried out.


While on leave I called on Scrutton & Co. and was told that only two of their ships had survived the war and they were unable to offer me a berth (in the event of demobilisation) until new ships were either built or acquired. I reported this fact to the Admiralty and was informed that there would be employment for some time for R.N.R. Officers who did not wish to be demobilised. I was therefore transferred to the books of H.M.S. Victory and proceeded to Portsmouth Barracks for appointment. Here I was variously employed, being first sent with a navigating party to Smith's Dock on the Tees to take delivery of H.M.S. Kilmartin, a patrol gunboat, just completed. After running her trials I signed, on behalf of the Admiralty, for the ship and took her round to Southampton Water and moored her in a lay-up berth. I was then sent to Cowes to look after some hired trawlers which were being docked and repaired at Samuel White's yard before being returned to their owners. When the last one was despatched to her home port I returned to Portsmouth Barracks and was handed my appointment to command H.M. trawler Sure Axe.


In the early part of the war the British Government lent the Russian Navy half a dozen large trawlers for service in the White Sea and after the Russian Revolution, when we sent a force to that area, some of these craft were recovered from the Bolsheviks and sent to the U.K. for reconditioning and return to Murmansk. All the trawlers were named after the various types of axe. Three of them were refitting in Portsmouth in the late summer of 1919 and I was appointed to command the last one to be ready. In due course I commissioned the Sure Axe, ran her steaming and gun trials and was within two days of leaving when my sailing orders were cancelled as the Government had decided to abandon the White Sea adventure and recall all British forces from that area. Eventually I was ordered to de-commission the Sure Axe and reduce the crew to a care and maintenance party. I was then sent on demobilisation leave which expired on 30th November, 1919, after five years on active service.


1920 to 1940 – Merchant Navy in China


I reported to Scrutton & Co. hoping to be reengaged but was in­formed that they were selling all their shipping interests to T. & J. Harrison intending to concentrate solely on the stevedoring business of Scrutton Limited. I was now out of employment at a difficult period for a large number of R.N.R. officers were demobilised at the end of 1919 and we were a drug on the market, owing to the severe merchant ship losses. I applied to a large number of shipping companies without success until I met a friend who had done business with Matheson & Co. and he suggested applying to the Indo-China S.N. Co. and gave me a letter of introduction to Mr. Hamilton at "No. 3". I presented this letter forthwith only to be informed that a number of officers had been engaged and no more were required. I was, however, asked to complete an application form and I did this without much hope of hearing anything further.


Within a week, to my surprise, I was asked to call at No. 3 when I was offered employment as Second Mate which I accepted at once, and signed an agreement to serve for three years at the Indo-China S.N. Co. pay and conditions. A fortnight later I was outward bound in the P. & O. s.s. Novara. Arriving in Hong Kong early in April, 1920 I disembarked and reported to Captain Wheeler, the Company's Marine Superintendent. I was longing to get back to sea but after only one passage up the coast to Shanghai I was taken ashore by Captain Rolfe for service on the Yangtsze River. This I found very dull and irksome but Rolfe explained that there was a dearth of junior officers in the Company holding a Master's certificate, several serving on the River only held First Mate's certificates and he required me to relieve some of them, as a temporary measure, to enable them to go to Hong Kong to obtain the senior certificate. I therefore served as Second Mate in the Tuckwo and the Loongwo on the Lower River and as Acting First Mate of the Chang Wo (the old stern-wheeler) and the Kiangwo on the Middle River. At Ichang I first became acquainted with the Upper River and its navigation and also learned that the Company had on order an Upper River Steamer from Yarrow & Co. which was being sent out in sections for erection in Shanghai. Captain F. Scurr, destined to command the new vessel, had been seconded to study the Upper River and was then running a small Chinese steamer, the Hsai Kiang, between Ichang and Chungking. After being relieved in the Kiangwo I spoke to Captain Rolfe about the new vessel and he said that if I would volunteer to serve on the Upper River he would appoint me to her as First Mate when she came into service and I accepted this offer.


While serving on the Middle River I became friendly with Captain F. Brandt commanding the Shu Hun, one of the pioneer Upper River steamers, and through him met some Chinese merchants who were having an Upper River steamer built at the Kiangnan Dock in Shanghai. They proposed to operate the vessel under the French flag, a popular flag of convenience at that time. There was no French capital in the concern but the Chinese were required to have a French "flag captain" on board. As no such man was available the owners, with the approval of the French, offered me the command pending the arrival of a man from France. I referred the owners to my Company and the upshot was that, as it would be valuable experience, the General Managers agreed to second me until I was required to join their new vessel, the Fuh Wo. This suited all parties, therefore I joined the Chinese s.s. Hsin Shutung in the spring of 1921, ran her trials and operated her on the Upper River for the Chinese owners until the end of the year when I took her to Shanghai for docking and overhaul.


The Fuh Wo was now in course of erection and I returned to the Company's service early in 1922. At that time, however, the Kung Wo arrived in Shanghai, a new ship, having been built in Hong Kong for the Lower River service. Captain W. Gibb was in command, I was appointed to her as First Mate pending completion of the Fuh Wo. Captain Scurr now arrived to stand by this vessel and in due course, when she neared completion I was appointed to her as First Mate, Taffy Hughes being Second Mate and Horace Kingswood, Chief Engineer (later Chief Engineer of HMS Kia Wo during the Wanhsien Incident). After trials and loading the Fuh Wo left Shanghai in the early summer of 1922 but her design (long shafts in tunnels, in-turning propellers, etc.) proved to be unsuitable for operation in the turbulent water of the Upper River. We managed, however, to keep her running until the late autumn, when the falling river caused all the larger steamers to cease operations for the winter, the Fuh Wo returned to Shanghai for docking and overhaul for various adjustments.


Soon after our arrival some Chinese interests approached the Company to ask if they would consent to temporarily second me to take delivery of a small steamer being built for them in Shanghai for winter service on the Upper River. The General Managers agreed and I took over s.s. Dah War, ran her trials and took her to Ichang and ran her on the Upper River for a few weeks until the owners sent a permanent master to take over. I then made a trip up river with the River Inspector in his "kwadsze" — junk rigged house boat—to assist him surveying, painting water marks etc. When we reached Wanhsien it was time for me to proceed to Shanghai to rejoin the Fuh Wo. I returned from Wanhsien to Ichang with the mails in a Post Office sampan - fascinating experience.


On arrival in Shanghai I found that Captain Scurr had joined the Shanghai Pilot Association and that I was appointed Master of the Fuh Wo, Taffy Hughes being First Mate. I took the vessel to the Upper River to commence the season of 1923 and for several voyages all went well but when the river rose to the high summer levels the swift turbulent currents found the Fuh Wo's fundamental weakness. When upbound and negotiating a very swirly reach about 60 miles above Ichang the starboard engine room telegraph rang "Stop" and the Chief Engineer reported that the starboard tail shaft had broken. To proceed up river on one engine was impossible but I manoeuvred the steamer down river into an anchorage where the broken shaft was secured. The next day we proceeded down river and reached Shanghai safely.


When the news of the mishap reached Shanghai the General Managers approached the Kiangnan Dock Co. and offered to buy a small Upper River steamer then being built as a speculation, but it was then learned that Butterfield & Swire had taken an option on the vessel. The Manager of the Dock Co., R. B. Mauchan, informed the General Managers that the B & S option was about to expire, he knew they intended to ask for it to be renewed for a further period and that he would refuse to do so if the General Managers signed a contract to buy the vessel. In due course the option expired, extension was refused and the vessel became the property of the Indo-China S.N. Co. The steamer was now nearly ready for launching and in anticipation she had been painted China Navigation colours. However she was now hastily painted "stone colour" and a few days later she was named s.s. King Wo and launched as the latest addition to the Indo-China fleet. I believe B. & S. were not amused!


The Fuh Wo arrived in Shanghai just before the launch took place and I was able to attend the ceremony, having been already appointed to command the new vessel. After completion and satisfactory trials, the King Wo was loaded for Chungking. The autumn season had now commenced and the river levels were falling. The Standard Oil Co. were very anxious to build up their stocks of kerosene oil at Suifu, 200 miles above Chungkong, before navigation ceased due to low levels and shallow channels. No British merchant steamer had, at that time, been higher up the river than Chungking, although Barry & Co. did operate a small motor vessel to Suifu during the summer season. When, however, the Socony agent offered a full cargo of case oil for Suifu at a highly remunerative rate of freight, I consulted the River Inspector and decided the passage was feasible. Having obtained charters and a reliable pilot the King Wo was fully loaded with case oil and was thus the first merchant steamer to show the Red Ensign and Indo-China House flag at Suifu (now named "Ipin") about 1,600 miles from the mouth of the Yangtsze. This is the limit of power navigation for there are some impassable rapids a few miles above the town. Socony offered another cargo for Suifu but channels below the town were now too shallow for safety but I decided the vessel could reach Luchow, a town some miles below Suifu, and Socony gave the ship two full cargoes of case oil for that town before low levels made some of the channels above Chungking too hazardous. The returns from the venture above Chungking had been highly satisfactory and the King Wo now resumed operations between Chungking and Ichang for the rest of the winter, when levels permitted.


In the spring of 1924 Taffy Hughes relieved me in command of the King Wo and I returned to Shanghai to resume command of the Fuh Wo which had been overhauled and fitted with a new shaft. I took her to Ichang and commenced the season's operations in April. At the same time the King Wo inaugurated a regular service between Chungking and Suifu and thus the Indo-China was able to offer a service covering the full navigable length of the Yangtsze Kiang. For a few months all went well until the river had again reached its highest levels, and conditions of greatest turbulence, when disaster again struck the Fuh Wo. Proceeding up river and negotiating a reach, about 30 miles below Chungking, full of reefs awash and swirling currents, the port engine room telegraph was rung to "Stop" and an urgent message came up from below informing me that the port tail shaft had broken. It was an awkward situation but I succeeded in working the vessel down river to a quieter reach. Here the steamer was anchored and the broken tail shaft secured while a messenger was sent to the nearest town to despatch a telegram to the Chungking Agent informing him of the mishap and suggesting that the King Wo be sent to tranship the Fuh Wo cargo to Chungking. The messenger returned with the reply that the King Wo would be despatched as soon as possible and a couple of days later she arrived and moored alongside, but as her capacity was not much more than half of that of the Fuh Wo the smaller vessel had to make two trips to lift the whole of the larger steamer's cargo. Discharge having been completed the Fuh Wo made her way down river and so to Shanghai.


It was now obvious that there was something seriously wrong with the Fuh Wo and Lloyd's Principal Surveyor for the Far East was asked to examine and report on the vessel. He recommended shafting of an increased size and the fitting of additional shaft brackets. These measures having been adopted the Fuh Wo ran thereafter trouble free and was a successful Upper River steamer.


As I was due for home leave in the following year I was sent to Ichang in the late autumn of 1924 and relieved Taffy Hughes for a spell of local leave. When he resumed command of the King Wo I returned to Shanghai and went on long home leave in the spring of 1925.


During my absence a high level Upper River steamer, the Kia Wo (or Kia Wo), was built for the Company at the Kiangnan Dock and when I returned to China early in 1926 I was appointed to command the new vessel. I took her to Ichang and commenced operations on the Ichang/Chungking section as soon as rising water levels permitted. The Kia Wo ran most successfully throughout the following months until serious trouble occurred up river.


5 September 1926 – The Wanhsien Incident

In September 1926, Yang Sen, leader of a bandit army and self-styled general, seized the two China Navigation Co.'s steamers, Wanhsien and Wantung at Wanhsien on trumped-up charges and kept the Masters and officers on board under armed guard. Yang Sen had long been a pestiferous nuisance to Chinese and foreigners alike in Szechuan and in view of this latest attempt at gross blackmail, it was decided to take action against him. The Kia Wo was at Ichang and she was requisitioned by the Navy, armed with two pom-poms and manned with a naval party from H.M.S. Despatch (then at Hankow) commanded by Commander Darley, R.N. I consented to act as Sailing Master to the expedition and my officers (Chief Officer Stanley Barden and Chief Engineer Horace Kingswood) also agreed to serve in the steamer. We proceeded to Wanhsien, were heavily fired on and fought a hard battle.

Some of the men involved (MID - Mentioned in Despatches, KIA - killed in action)

Probably Chief Officer
Stanley Barden (MID), Captain Williamson (OBE), believed to be Cdr Frederick Darley RN (KIA, MID)
Chief Engineer Horace Kingswood (OBE)

I ran the Kia Wo alongside the Wanhsien and a boarding party rescued the Master, but the First Mate and Chief Engineer, threatened by the guards, had jumped overboard to swim to a French gunboat anchored some distance away. The Mate made it but the Chief was unfortunately fired on and killed in the water.


The gunboats Widgeon and Cockchafer were also anchored at Wanhsien and they were both heavily engaged sustaining several wounded, including the Commanding Officer of the Cockchafer. The Kia Wo party had now suffered severe casualties, Commander Darley, two officers and four ratings having been killed and many wounded. It being impossible to seize the two C.N. vessels at that time, the Kia Wo broke off the action and steamed downriver. The two gunboats followed later and the following day the three vessels returned to Ichang to land the wounded, refuel and be reinforced to return to Ichang to finish the job. Yang Sen, however, had had enough and he offered to hand over the two ships, which was done. Nevertheless the second R.N. expedition consisting of H.M. gunboats Widgeon, Teal and Mantis, with H.M.S. Kia Wo leading, proceeded up river to Wanhsien, cleared for action. The port was, however, perfectly peaceful—there was not a soldier/bandit to be seen. One gunboat was left at Wanhsien and the other two, with the Kia Wo proceeded to Chungking. The latter had been filled with stores for the gunboats in the event of their being boycotted, and having handed over the stores the Kia Wo returned to Ichang for another consignment. These additional stores were duly handed over to the gunboats at Wanhsien and Chungking, and Kia Wo then proceeded down river to Hankow. Here, after a noteworthy farewell party, the white ensign was hauled down and the steamer returned to her owners. It was now late November and I was ordered to take Kia Wo to Shanghai for docking, overhaul and repair of the damages she had suffered during the action at Wanhsien. For my services at Wanhsien I was awarded the O.B.E.

Account of the action by the artist follows - "Very muddy river, action took place at dusk, with thousands of Chinese troops on each bank using rifle and machine-guns. On South bank, battery of 7 guns nearly abreast of Cockchafer and engaging her.

Left to right - (1) "HMS Widgeon engaging shore batteries with main armament and the SS Wantung with machine-guns; (2) SS Wantung, 400 Chinese soldiers and 3 prisoners; (3) French Gun Boat Doudart de Lagrée (an interested spectator); (4) SS Wahnsien, 400-500 Chinese soldiers aboard, 3 prisoners. Behind her, SS Kia Wo (funnel painted black to disguise her) boarding SS Wanhsien; (5) HMS Cockchafer bombarding Wantung and Wanhsien.

The Kia Wo moved up to the SS Wantung at the end and rescued the Captain. The Mate swam to the Doudart, and the Engineer was killed in the water"

(see below for fuller account)



On 12th December 1926 the Shanghai/Tientsin steamer, s.s. Lien Shing was wrecked on the Amherst Rocks in the Yangtsze estuary. Captain W. Gibb, under whom I had served in the Kung Wo, was now Marine Superintendent in Shanghai and he employed me to assist him by going out to the wreck with Lloyd's surveyor, dockyard people, divers, etc. At this time also, a nationalist movement was sweeping China and violent anti-foreign feelings were being whipped up. Strong forces led by Chiang Kai Shek were advancing from Canton, the British Concession in Hankow was surrendered to the mobs and the security of the International Settlement in Shanghai was so seriously threatened that the Powers concerned sent strong forces for its protection; the British contingent ("Shaforce") amounting to a full division of troops. The Royal Naval forces on the Yangtsze were also augmented and to serve the ships the Kia Wo was again commissioned, with a full naval crew, to operate as store ship for some months during the crisis.


During this period of turmoil trade was carried on with difficulty, extra work was thrown on the Marine Superintendent and Captain Gibb retained me ashore to help him with the additional burdens. By the end of 1928 affairs were settling down and Captain Gibb being due for home leave, Captain Rolfe arrived from Hong Kong to relieve him. I now expected to return afloat but Rolfe intended to retire when his next home leave became due in 1931 and he suggested to the General Managers that I should be appointed Assistant Marine Superintendent and groomed to relieve him when he retired. This recommendation was approved and I was duly appointed to act as assistant to Captain P. H. Rolfe. In 1930 I was sent on home leave and when in the spring of 1931 I returned to duty, Rolfe handed over to me and then departed on home leave and retirement. I was then appointed Marine Superintendent in Shanghai.


I served in Shanghai as Marine Superintendent for the following nine years. I was due to go on home leave at the end of 1937 but the Sino­-Jap war and its aftermath prevented my departure so I postponed my leave until 1940; and then the European War had started ........


1940 to 1945 – Ministry of Economic Warfare; Retirement in 1945


..... However I flew home and when I arrived in London I was requested to report at the Admiralty where I was informed that after a short spell of leave I would probably be required for service in the Admiralty Salvage Division. Later, however, I was told that as war with Japan was highly probable, my services would be more useful in the East and a passage was arranged for me to return in the Blue Funnel s.s. Glaucus. On arrival in Hong Kong early in 1941 I was informed by Mr. J. J. Paterson that I was conscripted by the Ministry of Economic Warfare for service in Malaya and that I was to proceed to Singapore to report to that organisation. Having done so I was employed on various enterprises and jobs until the Japs struck at Malaya in December, 1941. I understand that I owe to Sir John Keswick my appointment to the Ministry of Economic Warfare. The main M.E.W. organisation proceeded to India and I was instructed to make my way there when and how I could. The Malayan and Singapore defences began to crumble and I eventually left in a small Straits Company's motor vessel, the Pahang, which was short of officers and was filled with women and children bound for Madras. When we arrived Chris Tod had applied to the M.E.W. for my release and I proceeded to Calcutta where Chris and Hector Tod were installed in Jardine Skinner's office. When the Japs struck at our shipping in the Bay of Bengal we shifted our small organisation across to Bombay and installed ourselves in an office above the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building in May, 1942.


In the autumn of 1944 the Ministry prepared plans for five store ships for the forthcoming Burma campaign and they took as basic design the plans of our Taksang, built by Lithgow's in the thirties. The Ministry of War Transport then suggested that as the vessels would be China Coast types they should be built for the account of the Indo-China & China Navigation Company. This was agreed and in November 1944 I was flown home from Bombay to discuss the plans with the Ministry of War Transport Principal Surveyor to ensure that the general arrangement would, in the main, be suitable for our service and would thus require but minimum alterations when delivered to us after the war. Short Bros. of Sunderland, received the contract to build two vessels and these were paid for by the Indo-China, while the other three were built in West Hartlepool for account of the China Navigation Company. The vessels were laid down in 1945 but owing to the Japanese collapse they were not operated by the M.O.W.T. and our two vessels were completed and delivered to us as the Taksang and Loksang. When the ships sailed for China in 1947 I retired from the Company.



by A R Williamson

(extracted from his unpublished autobiography)


Albert Robert Williamson was captain of SS Kia Wo in 1926, working for the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company (part of Jardine Matheson & Co) - see above



In the latter part of July (1926) the commander of the British gunboat in Yichang (Ichang) came on board and said we were going to have another important passenger - this time a British admiral! The flagship of the China station was at Hankow, and the commander-in-chief, Admiral Sinclair in HMS Hawkins, was going to make an official visit to Chongqing, inspecting the British gunboats on the Upper Yangtse. He would be fixed up by Jardines, travelling up on Kia Wo. The others in his party were his secretary, Prince George (the youngest son of George Vth, who was lieutenant in the navy and serving in HMS Hawkins the flagship of the China Station), and his companion, one of the young lieutenants from HMS Hawkins. The Admiral was bringing Prince George to see the gorges. So they would be a party of 4.


Very quickly I received notice from my agent that the party had arrived and were coming on board that evening. This went off alright, and we sailed at daylight, about 4.30 am, the next morning. During the forenoon, while we were steaming up-river through the gorges, Admiral Sinclair came on the bridge, bringing Prince George with him. He introduced him to me and they both asked me questions about the gorges, and so forth. Then I arranged for them to have deckchairs above the bridge so that they could sit high up and admire the scenery. We did the usual day's run up to Kweifu, about 110 miles from Yichang, above the Windbox gorge. I anchored there about 7 o'clock in the evening, having myself been on the bridge all day in case of emergencies.


I went back to my cabin and had a wash and brush-up ready for dinner. Then the chief officer came along and said "Captain, the Admiral would like you to join him at the after end of the ship", so I went aft and joined the party of 4. We sat and chatted over gins together. Very pleasant. Prince George was quite an amusing young fellow; he was a bit of a gay boy... a young naval officer.... full of life, full of beans. I asked him how he was enjoying his commission out in China: he told me he was enjoying every minute of it. He showed me one thing that amused me. On board the Hawkins he was known as "PG". He said when the Hawkins got up to Hankow, (in high season big 10,000 ton ships could get right up there), they all went to the race club where everybody met. When he was leaving he was presented with his bill from the bar. The old Chinese schroff who made out the bills knew he was a prince, but didn't know how to address him. George showed me his mess bill, made out to "P George Esquire". He was going to keep this as a souvenir of his commission in China!


From Kweifu we carried on up-river, having a bit of a tough time getting through some of the rapids, as the river was running very high; but we made it to Chongqing without incident. I had asked the Admiral what he was going to do when we got to Chongqing, considering we didn't usually moor in the harbour, but went on up to the SOCONY installation 4 miles above the city. We had wired ahead that we were coming, of course, and when we got to Chongqing a couple of launches came out to the Kia Wo, with the consul and his people; I stopped the steamer in the middle of the river off the city, and held the ship on the spot using her engines while they came on board for about an hour. Then they left and I carried on up to the installation, and that was the end of my journey with the Admiral and the Prince.


I had to get back down to Yichang, but they stayed on for several days in Chongqing, making their official visit to what was virtually a small naval base up there - on the Upper Yangtse there were 3 British gunboats - there was one of the Insect class, the Cockchafer, on which were mounted two 6" guns and other armament; and 2 smaller craft, the Teal and the Widgeon - all were named after wildfowl. These two were very old, only had about 12 pounder guns, they didn't hold anything higher than that. The captain on the Widgeon was the senior officer on the Upper River. They had a naval base opposite Chongqing river, where there was a line of reefs parallel to the bank, and inside was a nice little natural harbour, Lungman How ("dragon's gate harbour/inlet"). The navy had a pontoon here and the gunboats were moored. In times of stress they went off down river together, though usually they left one ship in Chongqing for the protection of British interests. On the shore, opposite Chongqing, was the customs club (all the customs officers were British, as they were in all the main ports). Chongqing was a treaty port, and had resident a British consul, a British naval presence, and quite a number of Britishers and other foreigners. Anyway, it was all this that the Admiral had come to inspect on his official visit.

Believed to be HMS Cockchafer alongside HMS Teal
HMS Widgeon, Widgeon-class
The three gunboats at Yichang/Ichang after the action

I carried on normal running after that for a while; all the time the river was rising, and it turned out to be a high level season. By the time we got into August it was very high, though there were no particular incidents. Then, in the latter part of August, there was very serious trouble brewing due to the political situation.


1926 was another summer when Yang Tsen and the other Sichuanese generals Tang and Pang fought. Yang Tsen had been in charge as governor in Chongqing until the spring of 1926. Then, when trouble was imminent between Sun Yat Sen and Chang Kai Chek coming from Canton, the northern troops who had supported Yang Tsen were withdrawn to go back north. Yuen Shikai had died and had been succeeded by a Manchurian warlord named Chang Zolin. Wu Pei Fu, my old friend, had left the government (don't know what really happened), resigned all his offices and went off to a monastery in the mountains, a very religious man. In the Canton crowd Sun Yat Sen was forming an army (the Mon Pole ?? academy, as they called it), of which Chang Kai Chek became the chief - he was a scoundrel of the first water - well they all were really, you see. Well all this meant that there was no interference with Sichuan at all. Up there in the mountains nobody bothered with them - they were left alone and they could do what they liked without any check on their excesses. In about April 1926 Tang and Pang had moved against Yang Tsen, and chased him out down to Wanhsien, halfway between Chongqing and Yichang. They had just taken over Chongqing when I brought the American Admiral up-river, and it was they who had fired on us in Kia Wo - totally irresponsible. I went up to the installation to discharge the kerosene, and by the time I got back to Chongqing harbour the city was quiet and the new governors Tang and Pang had settled themselves in in control of Chongqing, and Yang Tsen was in control of the half-way house at Wanhsien.


The trouble that was brewing in summer 1926 was over using ships for troop movements. We were used to the 'generals', when they wanted to move troops about, just coming on board and demanding to be taken. But both we and the American ships on the Upper River were under strict instructions that they were not permitted on our ships; we were not allowed to sail with them. However the ships flying the French and Japanese flags, although they protested, didn't do anything about it and ended up carrying Yang Tsen's troops. So he swore that he was going to make British and American ships carry his troops, too. And that was the cause of the trouble. There were several incidents between Yang Tsen, the swine, and the foreigners in Wanhsien when he tried to make a levy on all the ships (to fill his own pockets, nothing to do with the administration of the port, of course). Friction was growing in Wanhsien.


So the gunboat Cockchafer was moved up and moored in Wanhsien harbour. The commander told Yang Tsen he was not to interfere with British ships. So there was bad blood between Yang Tsen and the British authorities. This was getting worse as the season wore on. Yang Tsen was getting more uppity, having got away with things with the French and Japanese. The French had one tiddly little gunboat in Wanhsien, but the Japanese had no force and no means of resisting at all. This meant that things were getting more and more difficult for the British ships. On top of this I had a very hard passage in the middle of August with the river at its highest. It was getting on towards the end of August when things came to a head politically.


The revolutionary party in Canton were growing and eventually Chang Kai Chek became the strong man. Then they moved away from the western provinces, the idea being that they were going to march up to the north to seize control of Peking and chase out the warlords - of which Wu Pei Fu was one. This caused him to withdraw his troops from Chongqing up to the north. When that happened, Tang and Pang, to whom Yang Tsen was a traitor so far as they were concerned, combined and swooped down on Chongqing in spring of 1926. Yang fled to Wanhsien, where he proceeded to fleece everyone as much as he could. Of course Wanhsien was not a terminal port, so there were very few merchants there for him to fleece. But it was a treaty port, so all ships had to stop there and also a certain amount of local trade, principally the wood oil (tung oil) trade, which was extremely profitable. There were also a number of mountain roads which converged on Wanhsien too.


But Yang Tsen's chief target was the ships. First of all he imposed a wharfage tax. This was damned nonsense - there were no wharves in Wanhsien at all - he just demanded that every ship must pay wharfage tax for improvement of the wharves which didn't exist. In Wanhsien there was a difference in river level between winter and summer of over 100 feet, so it was impossible to have wharves in a place like that. The British and American ships refused to pay this tax. The other ships, flying the French and Italian flags as flags of convenience, there was no national support for them at all - so they had to pay any taxes which the authorities chose to impose on them. But the British and Americans - it was a different pair of shoes - their ships were owned by their nationals and protected by the extra-territorial rights we had in China in those days. They paid customs dues, but not damned nonsense taxes like 'wharfage' taxes.


So trouble was fast brewing. Yang shouted that he intended to make all ships pay (whatever the nationality) for whatever he chose.


The principal source of trouble was that he insisted that they should carry his troops up and down river whenever he liked. Of course he never paid. The ships under French and Italian flags couldn't do anything about it - they had no means of resisting. The Chinese troops went on board and not only did they demand a free passage, but they demanded to be fed, and they paid nothing. Well, the British and American ships wouldn't stand for that. We had 3 gunboats on the Upper River - the 2 smaller ones with 12-pounder guns, Widgeon and Teal. Also one more powerful gunboat, of the Insect class, with 6" guns, called Cockchafer. So we had force up there to resist any attempts to compel our ships to carry troops.


It so happened that, at the end of August, very serious trouble broke out. There were two British firms operating on the Upper River, the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company (owned by Jardine Matheson) and the China Navigation Company (owned by Butterfield and Swire). Butterfield's had three ships operating between Chongqing and Yichang at the time, whereas we only had one, my Kia Wo. Our King Wo was operating up above Chongqing to Suifu, so she was out of harm's way. Butterfield's had 3 steamers operating - the Wanhsien, the Wanliu, and the Wantung.


Trouble broke out when the Wanliu came down-river from Chongqing. She cleared Wanhsien and carried on down river about 20 miles to Yuen Yang, an important city where we always stopped to set down and pick up passengers. We stopped out in the stream and the passengers were ferried out under oars in large lighters. The Wanliu stopped as usual and turned round off Yuen Yang to pick up loads of passengers. After they were boarded, when she turned round and proceeded down-river again, she apparently swamped a sampan - there are always little sampans sculling about carrying passengers to and fro across the river and so on. She swamped one of these. They were always a nuisance - they were always getting in your way, and you tried to avoid them. Unfortunately the one swamped by the Wanliu sank.


When this became known at Wanhsien, Yang seized on this and immediately said she was a military sampan, she was carrying military personnel on board, and also a large sum of money for payments - total bloody lies, of course... Just then the steamer Wanhsien came down river and anchored in Wanhsien. Yang immediately put an armed guard on board, and said that the British authorities would have to pay him so many thousand dollars in compensation, and so on... Of course there were ructions immediately: the agents refused to pay anything of the sort.


A couple of days later Butterfields' third steamer, the Wantung, also arrived. Again, Yang sent an armed party on board to hold the ship until Butterfields paid the compensation. Now the fat was really in the fire!


There was no British consul in Wanhsien; it came under the jurisdiction of the British consul in Chongqing. There was the gunboat Cockchafer, though, lying in Wanhsien at the time. The commander immediately went ashore to see Yang Tsen, who blustered and wouldn't listen to any reason whatever. The commander wired to the senior gunboat, the Widgeon, up in Chongqing; whereupon the British consul from Chongqing immediately got on Widgeon, and she steamed down to Wanhsien. The consul went ashore to see Yang, but Yang wouldn't listen to him, even though by this time he had proof from Yuen Yang that a sampan had been sunk but there was nothing on board and the boatman had been saved - all the rest was absolute lies. But Yang Tsen carried on insisting that he had to be paid all this compensation and he would not release the ships. So there was deadlock.


The situation at the beginning of September was that Cockchafer and Widgeon were at Wanhsien, where Wanhsien and Wantung were being held. All shipping was stopped on the Upper River, and I was down in Yichang on Kia Wo, where, having discharged our cargo, we found we couldn't move until all this business was cleared up.


The British authorities decided they would have to send a naval force up to board the two ships and clear Yang Tsen's troops out of them. In Yichang there were two other gunboats with 6" guns - the Mantis and the Scarab. But instead of sending these up, it was decided that my ship Kia Wo would be commandeered to take a naval boarding party up to Wanhsien to clear the troops off and release the ships. So the senior naval officer in the senior gunboat came on board and said that the naval commander in chief, in consultation with the British authorities, had decided that my ship was to be taken over to convey this naval party up to Wanhsien.

HMS Mantis, Insect-class
HMS Kia Wo and HMS Scarab, Insect-class
The three gunboats also at Yichang/Ichang after the action

I asked how he was going to do this; would there be armaments on board? He said they would put a couple of pompom guns from one of the gunboats - one forward and one aft. There was a cruiser, HMS Dispatch of the China station, lying at Hankow; he decided that a party from the Dispatch would be sent up to be the boarding party to release the ships. The commander of the Dispatch, Commander Darley, a party from the Dispatch, and a party from each of the gunboats would be put on board Kia Wo to make up a naval force under Commander Darley (killed). There would also be 3 officers - Lieutenant Higgins (killed) from the Dispatch, Lieutenant Jack Peterson from Scarab, and Lieutenant Bridge (killed - should read Sub-Lieutenant Ridge) from Cockchafer (who had been ill and was down in Yichang recuperating). Plus 20 men from the Dispatch and made-up contingents from the Scarab and Mantis, of about 40 petty officers and ratings. (Note: is this 40 men from Scarab and Mantis, or 40 men in total? Of these, four Able Seamen were also killed). Then I confirmed she would sail under the white ensign - so the red ensign came down and the white ensign went up on SS Kia Wo. (Capt Williamson also refers to Lt Fogg Elliot as the senior Lieutenant).


HMS Despatch (note spelling - Navy Photos/Mark Teadham)


Then I asked what they wanted me to do; they wanted me to remain in command (none of their officers had any experience of the Upper River), which I agreed to. I asked my two officers if they would go with me - they said they would if I was going. All the rest of the crew were Chinese - they didn't demur at all, said they would go.


So two pompom guns were unshipped from the gunboats and one was mounted forward and one aft on Kia Wo. Then the party came on board, and it was about the 3rd September 1926 when we left Yichang.


HMS Mantis alongside Kia Wo at Ichang, fixing position for forward pom-pom gun
Port pom-pom

Bridge fitted with armour plating, and ship flying the White Ensign as HMS Kia Wo

Lewis gun

Vickers machine gun, probably practise


Some of the other armament carried - last four images probably taken on passage to Wanhsien


Everything was ready, so when daylight broke the next morning we steamed out of Yichang harbour on our way. During the day commander Darley was busy organising and instructing the boarding parties - 3 parties of 10 men, each commanded by an officer. Lieutenant Fogg Elliot was the senior lieutenant among them; he was to act as no.1 to Commander Darley. The rest of the party, about 15 men, formed the party to man the armaments (the two guns) on board Kia Wo and to form the machine gun crews. By the evening we were approaching the Wushan gorge. I said to Commander Darley that normally I would have gone on through the gorge to reach the town of Wushan to anchor for the night; but I had been thinking about it and suggested to him that we stop at an anchorage at Fu Ling Chi in the Wushan gorge. At that level of the river this was a nice anchorage at the foot of a mountain stream and off which there was a small sandbank. I advised him not to go on to Wushan because Wushan had a post office and telegraph station, and if we anchored off there the Chinese would be bound to advise Wanhsien that the ship was coming on. He quite agreed with that, and that we should stop in the gorge in this deserted spot where no-one would see us or report that we were on our way. When we reached Fuling Chi, with cliffs and no habitations anywhere near, I anchored the ship. That evening Darley continued with his preparations, giving orders, serving out arms and ammunition to his people. Then we spent the night there. At first glimmer of light we got the ship under way and steamed up out of the gorge. It was a long day's run before us, to reach Wanhsien, and I told Darley we would arrive about 4 in the afternoon. During the day they carried on with their preparations, and it was about half past four when I turned the corner and Wanhsien harbour came in sight.


Five officers served with the Royal Navy boarding party carried by HMS Kia Wo - Cdr Frederick Darley (in command, killed, MID), Lt Alfred Higgins (seriously wounded and died, MID) both from light cruiser HMS Despatch, Lt Jack Peterson (awarded DSC) from HMS Scarab, Sub Lt Christopher Bridge (killed, MID) from HMS Cockchafer, and also Lt Oliver Fogg Elliot (MID), referred to as the senior Lieutenant


Believed to be Cdr Darley in the centre, flanked by two Lieutenants


Believed to be Cdr Darley on left, and two of the three Lieutenants on the right. Sub-Lt Bridge second from left?

  ..... and some 40 (or 60) Petty Officers and Men (see note above) - 20 from HMS Despatch and about 20 (or 40) from HMS Scarab and Mantis. Here, around 40 are seen with Capt Williamson in the front.


Of the men, four Able Seamen were killed -
Norman Farminer of HMS Despatch, and Frederick Farrow, Herbert Haslam and William Marrotte of HMS Scarab.

PO Frederick Warburton and AB Clifford Beese were awarded the CGM, and AB William Kell, Francis Image and OS Joseph Baldock, the DSM


And there were the ships. The anchorage was not alongside the town, but on the other side of the river, where there was a big bank of mud and shingle. All the ships were anchored there - HMS Widgeon (down from Chongqing) at the head of the harbour; below her was lying the Cockchafer with her heavier armaments and two 6" guns; and inside the Cockchafer was the steamer Wanhsien and the steamer Wantung which was above her. The French gunboat was also anchored there, astern of the Cockchafer. The commander of the Widgeon, Commander Erriman was the senior commander there and he had got information over the wireless that something was afoot (our coming). He requested the commander of the French gunboat to move - warned him that there might be trouble when we got up there. The Frenchman refused (whatever you asked the French, they were bound to refuse to do, and would do something else). As it turned out it was just as well he didn't move. Then there was the Cockchafer and inside the Wanhsien and the Wantung above her.


As we came round the bend in the river I pointed them out to Darley and asked him what my orders were. He said "Place me alongside, Mr Master" like they used to say in the old navy. The Wanhsien being furthest down-river I ran up alongside her. I daren't anchor because if I had anchored and there was trouble, I wouldn't have been able to get the anchor up again. So I decided I would hold the ship alongside on the engines. As we came alongside our boarding parties stood waiting on the deck below and Darley was on the bridge with me.


The Wanhsien had three British officers on board - the master, the chief officer and the chief engineer; all the rest of the crew were Chinese. As we approached I saw the officers on the upper deck sitting at a table - they had obviously just had tea or something. I ran up alongside and threw mooring ropes on board fore and aft. From the bridge I couldn't see any Chinese troops - but they were there, she was full of Chinese troops, on the deck below....


The Chinese crew of the Wanhsien made our ropes fast. I kept the engines running very slowly. Darley then gave orders for the 3 boarding parties to go over the side. As the forward party went over there was no opposition. I couldn't see the other parties, as they were aft out of my sight; then there was a sudden burst of rifle fire on board Wanhsien. In the meantime, as soon as we touched alongside, Darley shouted to the officers on the Wanhsien to come on board. They only had to scramble over the rail and onto our deck, so they were on board right away. But by this time the boarding parties had gone on board, and the Chinese troops opened fire on them.


There was a burst of fire and Darley shouted and ran off the bridge - he ran aft to command whatever was going on. The firing went on for some time, but I knew I had got the Wanhsien's officers safe on board. The other ship was lying ahead, the Wantung. She also had a British master, chief officer and chief engineer. For some time I couldn't see them from my bridge. But I was very anxious to know what was going on with them, because there was a lot of firing going on now. Not only on the ship but we were being fired on from the shore, too. At the head of the harbour the Widgeon and the Cockchafer were at action stations - a couple of field guns suddenly started firing at us from some low hills beside the harbour. The Widgeon, ahead up the harbour, immediately replied to them with her 12 pounder guns. She had obviously got the range of them beforehand. After a couple of rounds she scored direct hits and blew the field guns to blazes. That finished that lot.


In the meantime the firing had become general. It was obvious we couldn't take the Wanhsien, so I wanted to get on to the Wantung to rescue the people from her, the object of the expedition. All of a sudden Fogg Elliot rushed on the bridge and said Commander Darley had been killed. I said "Look, forget him. You're now in command - what are you going to do?" This young fellow, he wasn't sure what to do. I said "Get your party, all your people back on board - they're doing no good; you can't take the ship. Get them back on board and I'll get up to the Wantung and try to rescue her officers. He dashed off. Now suddenly the Cockchafer and we were being fired on by troops from all along the river bank, heavy firing. The Widgeon and Cockchafer were both busy firing back at them all along the foreshore. We had Kia Wo's after pompom gun blasting away at them, too - the forward one was blanked by the Cockchafer. Every now and then the Cockchafer's 6" guns would go "boom" and a shell went screaming over the town.


It was the commander of the Cockchafer, a man called Achieson, who had tried to negotiate with Yang Tsen, but had had the brush off after a lot of argy bargy over the compensation Yang Tsen demanded. Achieson had got the range and direction of Yang Tsen's yarmen and targeted it once the firing started. Those 6" guns made quite a roar as they flew over. I didn't know at the time, but Achieson was wounded - not badly - and he was directing the gunfire lying on the bridge.


Eventually Fogg Elliot told me he had got all his men off Wanhsien; there had been casualties, but he had got all the living ones back on board. Jack Peterson, from the Scarab, who had gone over forward came back with all his party all right. I suddenly saw we were being fired on from the Wantung ahead. They were firing right into the bridge - one bullet came in and hit the beam just above me and wounded the man at the wheel (not badly, but still he dropped). There was somebody standing by who took the wheel at once. I could see these blokes standing on the Wantung, rushing up to shoot at us. I called to the machine gunners who were on the deck below that I had come under personal fire, and that was that. But just at that time I saw two men jump overboard from the Wantung - they were the chief officer and the chief engineer. The troops on board were obviously rushing round the deck to shoot them, so they both jumped overboard and swam to the French gunboat.


But Captain Bates, for some reason (I don't know if he couldn't swim or what), made his way aft. These ships had houses at the stern which offered passenger accommodation and wooden fenders all round the sides. The captain managed to evade the troops on board, and got abaft the house, round the stern. It had windows, and he was hanging on the guard deck, hanging on the windows there out of sight where the troops on board couldn't see him. But of course we could see him from the bridge of Kia Wo, and I was anxious to get going. As soon as Fogg Elliot came on the bridge and told me he had accounted for all his men, I said we had to get going to rescue Bates.


So we cast off from the Wanhsien and steamed up very, very gently, so as not to squash Bates. We edged up, trying to time it right. We had stock anchors (old fashioned, with a long stock); the anchor cables came out of the hawspipe and up on the fo'castle head, shackled to the anchor, which meant there was quite a cable hanging down from the bows. I nosed the ship up gently and Bates managed to get hold of the cable and clamber up it. When I saw him come over the fo'castle head I felt such a relief. As he scrambled over he tripped and fell. I thought he'd been shot, as there were bullets flying about all over the place by this time. Thought "Oh dear, oh dear". However, by now Fogg Elliot had come back on the bridge, and I said again "You won't be able to do any more now, you won't be able to take the ships. Don't you think we'd better get out of it? You're in command." He said yes, there was nothing else we could do, and we had quite a number of wounded on board. I said all right, I would take the ship out.


So I took her round and moved away down river clear of the harbour, and that was the end of the action as far as we were concerned. Of course I didn't know what was happening about the Widgeon and the Cockchafer. We couldn't do anything about them -anyway, they could look after themselves; after all, they were warships. I carried on down round the big bend below Wanhsien. About 8 miles below that was a good anchorage ('big tree' anchorage) where I anchored the Kia Wo and we took stock of what had happened.


Fogg Elliot came on the bridge and I asked if he had many casualties. He said Commander Darley and Commander (Sub Lieutenant) Ridge had been killed, and Commander (Lieutenant) Higgins was very seriously wounded. We had a surgeon on board, but Higgins was mortally wounded. Commander Darley and Lieutenant Bridge had been killed on the deck of the Wanhsien. Three ratings had been killed, and another, whom they had got back on board, was mortally wounded and died that night. Quite a number were wounded, the majority with minor wounds, but some with rather serious wounds. So I asked Fogg Elliot what his orders were. He said he was worried what was happening with the Widgeon and the Cockchafer. I said they would take care of themselves - they had the armaments and could blow the place to bits, but we couldn't do anything more. The surgeon came up and said we must get down-river as quickly as possible: some of these men would die if they weren't got into hospital soon. Elliot said all right. But I knew we couldn't go down-river now, as it was getting dark - we would have to wait till morning. Anyway, Widgeon and Cockchafer would be coming down any minute. The surgeon, with the help of 2 or 3 other men, was doing his best for the injured down in the cargo room.


The night was quiet, nothing happened. At the first glimmer of daylight we got under way, going all out down the river, and steamed into Yichang harbour just after midday. The wounded were transferred ashore. By this time Lieutenant Higgins and this other rating were dead. The total was 3 officers and four ratings killed. About a dozen or so injured were sent to the mission hospital in Yichang, but soon recovered, fortunately.


A couple of hours after we anchored in Yichang the Widgeon and Cockchafer came round the bend and anchored. So we were all together. Of course the commander of the Widgeon sent reports by wireless down to Shanghai. There was then the question of clearing up. The naval ratings and officers were all sent back to their ships, to the Dispatch at Hankow, and to the Mantis and Scarab. Kia Wo now waited for new orders.


HMS Kia Wo arriving at Ichang after Wanhsien action
HMS Mantis dropping alongside Kia Wo at Ichang
Concentration of HM Gunboats at Ichang after the action. HMS Kia Wo alongside HMS Scarab. Astern of Scarab is HMS Mantis. HMS Widgeon and Teal inside. HMS Cockchafer is believed laying alongside HMS Teal. (See following for the tall-funnelled vessel on left)
Possibly depot ship SS Kian at Ichang - see log of HMS Snipe
Damage in HMS kiawo's saloon

News of this affair created quite a stir. It was decided that another expedition would be prepared as soon as possible, in which my ship was again to carry the parties. It was the Cockchafer's commander, Achieson, who had been wounded; not seriously, but she couldn't go back up again immediately. The gunboat Mantis, which was the same class, was detailed, and also the Widgeon's sister gunboat on the Upper Yangtse, the Teal. She had also come down to Yichang. She been above Wanhsien, but had received all the news over the wireless and had been ordered to come down to concentrate the force. It was decided I was to take the boarding parties again - this time from the HMS Hawkins, the China station flagship which had come up the Yangtse to Hankow. So the complement this time was to be the Kia Wo with the Hawkins boarding party commanded by Lieutenant Commander Mack (the first lieutenant of the flagship Hawkins); two other officers from the Hawkins; and a strong party of the crew of Hawkins. The Mantis would go up in place of the Cockchafer; the two small gunboats, the Widgeon and the Teal would come too.


We were ordered to prepare and leave as rapidly as possible. Yang Tsen knew what was going on. The Chinese knew and he had been informed. He was a poltroon really. There was no doubt the shelling of his yarmen by the Cockchafer shook the daylights out of him, so when he found we were going up again he made noises that he wanted to negotiate. Immediately an official dispatched from Yang indicated that he was prepared to hand over the Wanhsien and the Wantung. He completely caved in! He knew what he was up against, and knew he would get no mercy, we'd blow the daylights out of everything.


A small steamer was taken over to take up this official, also the captains and the officers of the Butterfield steamers the Wanhsien and the Wantung, and they all went off to negotiate the handover. The party was guaranteed safe conduct and they went up to Wanhsien. Yang Tsen agreed to hand over the ships to the masters. The former crews were on board, and the ships were immediately sent down river. So within a few days the two ships had been recovered and were safe in Yichang harbour.


Nevertheless it was decided to teach this B a lesson and the expedition was to proceed as soon as possible anyway. It took about a week for the reorganisation of everything. By that time the two ships had been released and returned to Yichang. Then we set off again. This time my ship was leading, followed by the Mantis, the Teal and the Widgeon. Well we steamed to Wanhsien and by god there wasn't a sign of a Chinese soldier to be seen - not a sign! Nothing. Yang Tsen had disappeared, don't know where he had gone to. We left the Teal anchored in Wanhsien and carried on to Chongqing. In Chongqing there were all sorts of negotiations going on - lots of straight talking to everybody. We spent about a week there, and then we were ordered down-river and the Widgeon remained in Chongqing under Commander Erriman. The Mantis returned down-river with me, and anchored in Wanhsien in place of the Cockchafer. So having left the Mantis and Teal in Wanhsien, I carried on down to Yichang. By this time it was getting towards the end of the season, the river was falling fast and there would be no more commercial trading that season for the big ships.


I was still carrying the white ensign, under naval orders. I received orders from Lieutenant Mack to proceed to Hankow. When I got there the naval parties left the ship and I was decommissioned. HMS Bee, the flagship of the Yangtse flotilla, was there. We had an uproarious night on board the Bee for the decommissioning - great fun. And that was the end of it. The white ensign came down at sunset and the next morning the red ensign was hoisted and I was a merchant ship once more, turned over to the Company's service.


SS Kia Wo



An account written by Mr A K Lortsen and published in the "MEIFOO SHIELD" of January 1927


To understand the underlying causes of the now famous "Wanhsien Battle", it will be necessary to go back for a considerable period in order to trace various incidents leading up to the actual fighting. As, however, most of the readers of the SHIELD are familiar with conditions in China generally – including conditions on the Upper Yangtze River – I shall refer only to those incidents which took place after my arrival, and which I believe have a bearing on the case.


When I arrived in Wanhsien at the end of May 1926, HMS Cockchafer had already taken up her station there, and the first gossip I heard was that Commander Acheson of the Cockchafer and the local Military were not on good terms.


Information obtained from various sources indicated that trouble had been brewing for a long time because British and American merchant ships refused to carry Chinese troops. Soldiers would board the steamers of various foreign companies at different ports along the river and force the ships to carry them, in most instances without paying for food or passage. It was reported that ships flying the French and Japanese flags did so without much protest – as a matter of fact it was commonly reported that the latter had an agreement by which soldiers were allowed to travel unhindered as long as they paid half fare. This was very naturally used an argument against the British and American ships.


The Military had also imposed a so-called wharfage tax at Wanhsien and were enforcing a search of all steamers – with the exception of our own. We were requested to arrange to have our vessels stop also; but the writer informed the Military that the movements of the ships were controlled directly from Shanghai and that orders for their stopping for search would have to come from there. This matter was referred to our Chungking Office, from which orders were received to inform General Yang Sen that he would have to apply to the American Consul. Since then we have heard nothing more about the matter. The above matters had been the cause of endless correspondence, as well s personal negotiations between Commander Acheson and the Military, not to mention the Consular representatives. However, not satisfactory result were obtained. Commander Acheson therefore gave orders to the British merchant ships to remain at anchor if they were boarded by soldiers, and to remain at anchor until the soldiers left the ships. He also threatened to take some drastic action of this interference did not stop. Owing to the unsatisfactory results of his negotiations he wrote a letter to General Yang Sen informing him that he would no longer negotiate with the General's secretary, as he considered him ignorant and incompetent. It is quite certain that this letter never reached General Yang, as it would first have gone to the secretary for translation and this would have meant too much loss-of-face to the latter. This injected a personal animosity into an already difficult situation.


The next serious incident was the boarding of the SS Wanhsien on August 27th, by General Kou Ju Teng with a lot of his ex-bandits. The ship remained at anchor as per orders, and as the ship refused to sail or the soldiers to leave the ship, matters were more or loss at deadlock. General Kou was reported to be sitting tight in a cabin, passing the time away by playing mahjong, and in a fine rage over the indignity offered to him as a Chinese General. As a matter of fact none of the Wanhsien's officers knew that he was on board until the day after he had boarded the ship, as he refused to any one.


As soon as the ship was seized, Commander Acheson wrote to General Yang Sen requesting him to order the soldiers off the ship. General Yang however refused to receive the letter, or to negotiate with him, and the matter was therefore referred to the British Consul in Chungking.


In the meantime General Yang had sent his secretary down to the Cockchafer to try to arrange for the Wanhsien to carry General Kou and his soldiers. As might be expected after the notice sent to General Yang, Commander Acheson refused to see him and I understand that he was forcibly put off the ship. This made the secretary furious and it required only a little imagination to picture the effect this would have in the Yamen (?) when the Secretary reported what reception he had received and there is no doubt that this had a great deal to do with clocking the negotiations later, as personal feelings were running high on both sides. The secretary was ready to do anything to even the personal score with Commander Acheson and there is no doubt that General Kou did all in his power to stir up trouble.


The SS Wantung came in on Sunday afternoon August 29th and shortly after the SS Chi Ping arrived. As soon as the latter ship arrived, General Kou and his soldiers boarded her and went up to Fowchow on her. Before leaving he sent another lot of soldiers aboard to hold the Wanhsien. (The Wantung came from Chungking).


Shortly before the Chi Ping arrived, the SS Wan Liu also came in from down river. As soon as the Wan Liu anchored she was boarded by armed soldiers who stated that they had orders to hold her – by force if necessary – as she had sunk a couple of junks at Yungyang on her way up, and that about 56 lives and a lot of money had been lost. From all reported the officers and crew had a very nasty time when these men came aboard. As soon as this was reported to Commander Acheson he sent an armed partly over to the Wan Liu, the soldiers weredisarmed and driven off the ship, and the arms taken over to the Cockchafer. The Wan Liu immediately sailed for Chungking.


At this point in the proceedings, I think Commander Acheson made a mistake; that is in not sending armed parties to the Wanhsien and Wantung also. It is, however, very easy to be wise after a thing has happened, and the next move of the Chinese military was so entirely unlooked for and so absolutely without precedent that any one might have made the same mistake.


Just after dark Chinese soldiers boarded the Wanhsien and Wantung in force and declared that they would hold the ships until the Wan Liu was returned or until the losses claimed had been paid. On the 30th August another letter was sent by Commander Acheson but this also, was not received by General Yang Sen. These new developments were also wired to Chungking, and the British Consul, Mr Eastes, started down for Wanhsien on Tuesday morning on HMS Widgeon. Owing to an accident to the ship, he was delayed and did not arrive in Wahnsien until Wednesday on the SS Tienkwang. The Widgeon arrived late on Friday evening.


As soon as the Consul arrived on Wednesday morning, the first conference between General Yang Sen and himself took place. At this conference General Yang promised to release the officers of the two ships, as further negotiations were mad conditional on this point by the Consul. On Thursday forenoon another conference took place – this time at the residence of Mr D'Alton, at which conference General Yang withdrew his promise to release the officers. This conference broke up in a very hostile atmosphere.


Mr Davies of the Customs went on board the Wantung on Tuesday morning and was forcibly detained by the soldiers who put him under guard and refused to let him go ashore again. He ........ (this concludes the first two pages of this background information - readers can explore the remaining five pages by clicking on pages 3 to 7 following)

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(from HMS Durban, China Station, 1926-28)


The ancient Chinese Manchu Empire came to end in 1911 when Yuan Shih-kai took over as an authoritarian Prime Minister in Peking (Beijing), while at the same time Sun Yat-sen was proclaimed President of a new republic in Nanking. Sun was leader of the Koumintang (a nationalist party dating from 1891, which wanted a democracy based on parliamentary majority). However to avoid civil war, Sun stepped down in favour of Yuan. It was at this time that the six-year old Pu Yi was forced to abdicate - the subject of the 1987 film, "The Last Emperor".


Although the Koumintang won a majority in parliament, Kuan wanted to be more than a figurehead, outlawed Sun and his party and dismissed parliament. Sun regrouped in the Canton area where he set up a rival government. In 1916 Yuan died, a weak government was established in Peking, the Koumintang managed to hold onto Canton, but most of China fell into the hands of rival, lawless war lords. China gained little profit or prestige from entering World War 1 as an ally. A few Chinese turned to the new Soviet Union for help and in 1921 formed the Chinese Communist Party. They even persuaded Sun Yat-sen to accept Soviet help and within a year the Koumintang and Communists were working together. A Nationalist army was created, the authority of the Koumintang around Canton consolidated, and a start made on helping the poor and resisting foreign exploitation.


Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek emerged as his successor in 1926 and lead Koumintang forces north, and in 1927, occupied Nanking. In their advance, his troops seized foreign property, especially British and American, and routed the war lords. Chiang was a nationalist, Japanese Army-trained, and had studied the Russian military in Moscow in 1923, but did not approve of communism nor the Chinese Communist's treatment of businessmen and landlords. When the Nationalist Army took Shanghai in 1927, he turned his forces against the communists and their supporters in the Koumintang in a bloody purge which killed many. The Communists retired south while Chiang headed north and entered Peking in June 1928. Chiang set up the Koumintang government in Nanking.


China had a government, but largely in the east, while the communists reorganised in the south, the Japanese were in Manchuria, and large parts of central and western China remained untouched. By 1930, Chiang had decided to eliminate the growing communist presence, by which time a certain Mao Tse-tung had entered the scene. By 1934, Mao was leading The Long March to escape the Nationalists.


(Paraphrase from "Success (Studybooks) in Twentieth Century World Affairs" by Jack Watson, 3rd edition 1985, pp277-8 - an excellent series of books)

(with thanks to Don Kindell)

Sunday, 5 September 1926


All members of landing party from auxiliary steamer Kia Wo. All killed or mortally wounded


Cockchafer, river gunboat,

 RIDGE, Christopher F, Sub Lieutenant (mentioned in despatches)


Despatch, light cruiser

 DARLEY, Frederick C, Commander (mentioned in despatches)

 FARMINER, Norman J, Able Seaman, J 108648

 HIGGINS, Alfred R, Lieutenant (mentioned in despatches)


Scarab, river gunboat

 FARROW, Frederick J, Able Seaman, J 91863

 HASLAM, Herbert, Leading Seaman, J 102105

 MARROTTE, William, Able Seaman, J 46224


(with thanks to the London Gazette)



LONDON GAZETTE 6 May 1927, No. 33272


page 2952



St. James's Palace, S.W. 1, 6th May, 1927.


The KING has been graciously pleased to give orders for the following appointments to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, in recognition, of services at Wanhsien, Yangtse River, China, on the 5th September, 1926, and connected events: —


To be Officers of the Civil Division of the said Most Excellent Order:


Captain Albert Robert Williamson, D.S.C., Mercantile Marine, H.M.S. "Kia Wo." Handled his ship most ably when taking her from alongside the s.s. "Wanhsien" to s.s. "Wantung" under heavy fire, to rescue the latter's Captain.


Captain Stuart Harcourt Bates, Mercantile Marine, s.s. "Wantung." Displayed considerable courage in very dangerous circumstances.


Lieutenant-Commander William Goggan Lalor, R.D., R.N.R., s.s. "Wanliu." His action in enforcing the legitimate rights of the ship under his command required great courage, whilst his services in promptly taking a relief ship with a naval crew from Ichang to Chungking during the disturbance in 1925, when Chinese crews and pilots deserted, was most valuable and praiseworthy.


Chief Engineer Horace Kingswood. Mercantile Marine, H.M.S. "Kia Wo." Exceptional services in charge of the engine and boiler room of H.M.S. "Kia Wo.''



pages 2958/9


Admiralty, 6th May, 1927.


The KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the following Decorations and Medals to officers and men of His Majesty's Navy and of the Mercantile Marine in recognition of their services at Wanhsien,

Yangtse Eiver, China, on the 5th September, 1926, and connected events.


To receive the Distinguished Service Cross.


Lieutenant Jack Peterson, R.N., H.M.S. "Kia Wo." For special gallantry and leadership of the after boarding party from H.M.S. "Kia Wo."


Captain Alexander Craig Thomson, Mercantile Marine, s.s. "Wanhsien." Held the bridge of the s.s. "Wanhsien" until the arrival of H.M.S. "Kia Wo." Later showed considerable bravery in returning without escort to recover the s.s. "Wanhsien " and "Wantung." It was largely due to his initiative, enterprise and good seamanship that the s.s. "Wanhsien," which could not raise steam, was brought away lashed alongside the s.s. "Wantung."


To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.


Petty Officer Frederick William Warburton, O.N. 239084 (Po.), H.M.S. "Kia Wo." Showed conspicuous courage and fearlessness and took command of the boarding party after Lieutenant A. E. Higgins, R.N., was killed.


Able Seaman Clifford Beese, O.N. J. 103009 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Kia Wo." For conspicuous courage amongst the survivors of the boarding party.


To receive the Distinguished Service Medal.


Petty Officer William Thomas Bourne, O.N. J.3918 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer." Was at the wheel during the action when Lieutenant-Commander L. S. Acheson, D.S.C., R.N., his commanding officer, was wounded and unable to stand. His personality throughout was of great moral and practical value.


Able Seaman William Kell, O.N. J.77349 (Po.), H.M.S. "Kia Wo."

Able Seaman (now Acting Leading Seaman) Francis Herbert Image, O.N. J. 100599 (Ch.), H.M.S. "Kia Wo."

Ordinary Seaman Joseph Baldock, O.N. J.108966 (Po.), H.M.S. "Kia Wo."

The remaining surviving members of the boarding party, who acted with courage and resource in extremely trying circumstances.


The following officers and men have been mentioned in despatches: —


Commander Frederick Campbell Darley, R.N. (Killed), H.M.S. "Kia Wo." Organised the expedition, acted with considerable gallantry, and by personal example instilled enthusiasm in all the officers and men under his command in H.M.S. "Kia Wo."


Commander Paul Felix Palmer Berryman, R.N. H.M.S. "Widgeon,"

Lieutenant-Commander (now Commander) Leon Stopford Acheson, D.S.C., R.N., H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Lieutenant Oliver Fogg-Elliot, R.N., H.M.S. "Kia Wo."

Lieutenant Alfred Rowland Higgins, R.N. (Killed), H.M.S. "Kia Wo."

Lieutenant Christopher Frederick Ridge, R.N. (Killed), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Chief Petty Officer George Daniels, O.N. J.7399 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."'

Chief Petty Officer Daniel Patrick Scanlon, O.N. 236547 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Shipwright, 2nd Class, Reginald Arthur Roach, O.N. M.6462 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer.''

Leading Seaman Bernard West, O.N. J.70916 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Leading Seaman George Wright, O.N. J.93727 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Leading Seaman William Nash, O.N. J.634 (Ch.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Leading Seaman Arthur Charles Estcourt, O.N. J.95958 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Able Seaman Leslie Leahy, O.N. J.24514 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Able Seaman Thomas John Stanbridge, O.N. J.52818 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Able Seaman Frederick James Vass, O.N. J.84719 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Able Seaman Richard Roberto Frederick Liddall, O.N. J.10.3859 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Able Seaman Joseph Colin Sadler, O.N. J.97604 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Able Seaman Albert George Thomas Smale, O.N. J.105381 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Cockchafer."

Petty Officer Ernest Frederick Curtiss, O.N. J.11872 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Widgeon."

Acting Petty Officer William Arnott, O.N. J.90300 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Widgeon."

Shipwright, 2nd Class, Harry Onion, O.N. M.2909 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Widgeon."

Stoker Petty Officer' John Henry Walters, O.N. K.16130 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Widgeon."

Able Seaman Eric James Thomas, O.N. J.102072 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Widgeon."

Able Seaman Arthur Ernest Green, O.N. J.90605 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Widgeon."

Able Seaman Albert Edward Mills, O.N. J.16146 (Dev.), H.M.S. "Widgeon."

Chief Officer Stanley James Barden, Mercantile Marine, H.M.S. "Kia Wo."

Other Published Accounts of the Honours and Awards

At investiture of Captain Williamson, HBM Consulate-General Shanghai 1929, Mr Milton; Captain Taylor, HMS Delhi, Sir Sidney Barton, Captain Williamson OBE, DSC, Commander Rolfe


from The Evening News, September 10, 1926


Awards in different newspapers

other accounts and awards lists

from the Daily Chronicle

from Captain Williamson Archives

Another famous Indo-China Steam Navigation Company ship - HMS Li Wo


The End of HMS Bee, 1939
The ship on which Captain Williamson celebrated the end of the Wanhsien Incident


HMS Bee, Insect-class and former flagship of the British Yangtze Flotilla, seen on March 24, 1939, going to the breakers at Pootung, Shanghai


HMS Cockchafer in World War 2

HMS Cockchafer, Insect-class, in "The Sphere", April 24, 1943


revised 6/5/12