Tuesday, February 21, 2012

HMS Cockchafer

Figure 1: HMS Cockchafer at Wanhsien, China, 1926. The Insect class gunboat HMS Cockchafer assists in the rescue of British hostages from two British merchant ships that were taken by a local Chinese warlord in August 1926 on the Yangtze River at Wanhsien. The painting shows Cockchafer as she is shelling Wanhsien with another British gunboat, HMS Widgeon, in the distance. The hostages were rescued by a naval boarding party on board the steamer SS Kiawo, which was used to retrieve the hostages while the gunboats provided covering fire for the actual rescue. All of the British hostages were saved. This painting is from Yangtze River Gunboats, 1900-1949, p. 17, and was published by Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2011. The illustration was done by Tony Bryan and the text in the book was written by Angus Konstam. This book is highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about gunboats on the Yangtze River. Click on the photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: HMS Cockchafer underway in the company of HMS Cricket, HMS Glowworm, and HMS Cicala, circa 1939 to1945. Royal Navy photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London, England. Click on the photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: HMS Cockchafer on the Yangtze River, China, date unknown. Royal Navy Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: HMS Cockchafer on the Yangtze River, China, date unknown. Royal Navy Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after a large, brown, European beetle, the 645-ton HMS Cockchafer was an Insect class gunboat built in 1915 by Barclay Curle & Company at Glasgow, Scotland. The ship was approximately 237 feet long and 36 feet wide, had a top speed of 14 knots, and had a crew of 53 officers and men. Cockchafer also had a draft of only 4 feet, allowing her to steam in very shallow waters, such as rivers. As built, Cockchafer was armed with two 6-inch guns, two 12-pounder guns, and six machine guns, but this armament varied over the years.

After being commissioned, Cockchafer was based at Brightlingsea and patrolled off the southeast coast of England during World War I. After the war ended, Cockchafer and some of her sister ships were sent to support White Russian (or anti-communist) forces on the Dvina River in northern Russia from 1919 to 1920. On 17 January 1920, Cockchafer, along with four other Insect class gunboats, were ordered to sail to China to be stationed on the Yangtze River. The shallow draft on these gunboats made them ideal ships for patrolling the Yangtze and their primary duty was to protect British lives and property along the river.

China in the 1920’s and 1930’s was wracked by political, military, and criminal turmoil. There were warlords, pirates, corrupt generals, and nationalist troops all preying on civilian shipping on the Yangtze for profit. Most of the time, gunboats from various western nations (as well as Japan) were the only forces available to maintain order on the Yangtze. One of the most notorious incidents where a British gunboat had to step in to rescue British citizens and property involved Cockchafer.

On 29 August 1926, a sampan carrying Chinese soldiers capsized while trying to illegally board the British river steamer SS Wanliu near the city of Wanhsien on the upper Yangtze River. The incident sparked an immediate confrontation between the local warlord, General Yang Sen, and Great Britain. HMS Cockchafer, under the command of Lieutenant Commander L.S. Acheson, happened to be nearby and immediate action was taken. Acheson ordered a boarding party to take back Wanliu, which they did. The British sailors boarded Wanliu, disarmed Yang’s troops, and forced the unarmed troops off the ship. Upon being freed, Wanliu quickly left the area.

Normally, that would have been the end of the matter. But General Yang, who was outraged not only at the loss of Wanliu but also at the way his troops were humiliated in the subsequent rescue, struck back. He seized two British merchant ships, SS Wanhsien and SS Wantung, which were docked off Wanhsien, and took both the ships and their crews’ hostage. Lieutenant Commander Acheson did not have enough sailors to board and take both ships, so he radioed for help. Soon another British gunboat, HMS Widgeon, carrying the British consul from Chungking arrived on the scene. Negotiations between the British consul and General Yang rapidly deteriorated. By 2 September 1926, General Yang brought in roughly 20,000 troops into Wanhsien and they were taking up positions along the shore, directly opposite the two British gunboats. Eleven cannons of various calibers were also brought into the city, one within 50 yards of the shoreline.

On Sunday afternoon of 5 September 1926, Cockchafer drifted near SS Wanhsien and Widgeon moved into position about 150 yards away from SS Wantung. Suddenly, steaming up the river was a merchant steamer, SS Kiawo, and apparently there was a British naval crew on board. The ship had been commandeered by the Royal Navy at Ichang, armed with cannons and machine guns, and manned by seamen from the cruiser HMS Despatch and the gunboats HMS Scarab and Mantis. Commander F.C. Darley was placed in command of both Kiawo and of the whole operation that was about to begin. On board Kiawo there were roughly 110 officers and men facing a Chinese field army on shore.

Kiawo steamed right alongside SS Wanhsien’s starboard quarter and the British sailors jumped over the railings and boarded the merchant ship. But General Yang’s men were waiting for them and opened fire on the British sailors. For almost an hour, both sides fired at each other at point-blank range. During the first few minutes, the British seamen suffered heavy casualties, but then they rallied and the Chinese soldiers began to fall. Commander Darley was last seen with a pistol in each hand, leading the second wave of the boarding party over Wanhsien’s bloody deck, getting off two shots before his body was riddled with bullets. The British sailors continued the fighting as Chinese troops began firing from shore.

By this time, both Cockchafer and Widgeon opened fire on the shoreline and on the city itself. The gunboats were hitting Chinese gun positions and hitting as many troops along the shoreline as possible. There was a hail of gunfire coming from the shore, with one bullet hitting Lieutenant Commander Acheson in the back on board Cockchafer’s bridge. For more than two hours, Acheson lay on the deck directing operations throughout the battle. After almost an hour of fighting, Kiawo cast off from SS Wanhsien, having rescued the British officers from the merchant ship. During the confusion of the battle, the officers from the nearby SS Wantung were able to jump off their ship and swim to Kiawo. With all of the hostages rescued, Cockchafer’s and Widgeon’s firing began in earnest. Since the British could not retrieve the two merchant ships and since they did not want General Yang to keep them, the gunboats shelled them mercilessly. Both of the merchant ships were almost blown to pieces. The gunboats also continued firing on Chinese troop positions both along the waterfront and inside Wanhsien.

Once the battered Kiawo steamed out of range, the gunboats ceased fire. Casualties during the assault were heavy. Of the 110 British officers and men at the start of the attack, 20 percent were casualties. Out of 7 officers, 3 were killed and 2 wounded. Four sailors died and 13 were wounded. Approximately 250 Chinese troops were killed during the attack with another 100 civilians killed in the crossfire between the opposing sides. The quick and accurate shelling from Cockchafer and Widgeon subdued much of the Chinese small arms fire, keeping British casualties a lot lower than they could have been.

The action at Wanhsien turned into a major diplomatic and international incident, with the Chinese claiming that “thousands” of “helpless” Chinese were killed. But the Royal Navy did not back down from the attack, claiming they had every right to protect their citizens and their ships.

Cockchafer remained on the Yangtze until 1939. She was going to be converted into a minelayer, but was instead transferred to the East Indies Squadron. In 1941, Cockchafer participated in the landings of British and Indian Army troops at Basra, Iraq, during the British invasion of that country during World War II. The gunboat was also used to host the regent of Iraq, Amir Abdul Illah, who had to flee Baghdad because of an assassination plot.

Cockchafer also participated in the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, codenamed Operation Countenance, from 25 August to 17 September 1941. The purpose of the invasion was to seize the Iranian oil fields for the Allied war effort.

In 1943, Cockchafer was assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet at Malta. She assisted in supporting Operation Husky, which was the invasion of Sicily. Once the invasion of Italy had taken place, Cockchafer was used for harbor defense duties in Taranto, Italy, in late 1944. In 1945, the gunboat was ordered to steam to the Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean and support operations in Burma. After the war with Japan ended in August 1945, Cockchafer was sent to Singapore where she was placed in reserve. In 1949, HMS Cockchafer, a remarkable gunboat that saw service all over the world, was sold for scrap and broken up.