Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst (1957)



Director:     Michael Anderson. 

Starring:     Richard Todd (Lt. Cmdr. Kerans, RN),   William Hartnell (Leading Seaman Frank),  Akim Tamiroff (Col. Peng),  Donald Houston (Lt Weston RN),  Keye Luke (Capt. Kuo Tai),  Sophie Stewart (Miss Charlotte Dunlap),  Robert Urquhart (Flt Lt Fearnley RAF),  James Kenney (Lt Hett RN),  Richard Leech (Lt Strain RN),  Michael Brill (Lt Berger RN),  Barry Foster (PO McCarthy RN),  Ray Jackson (Telegraphist French, RN).

1949, British warship Amethyst blocked by Communist Chinese shore batteries on the Yangtse River


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"The story of H.M.S. Amethyst is true and this dramatic reconstruction was shot with all possible accuracy in and aboard the Amethyst herself."

"On April 19, 1949, a frigate of the British Navy, HMS Amethyst left Shanghai for Wu-sung and passage up the Yangtze River to Nanking, the Chinese capital.  China was then in a state of civil war and Amethyst was taking essential supplies to the British Embassy.  She was also ordered to relieve the destroyer Consort, which had been standing by in Nanking ready to protect British lives and property there. She was on her lawful and peaceful occasions."

 On board ship a sailor named Martin asks Leading Seaman Frank if there are any available girls in Nanking.  Frank starts telling him yes, when all of a sudden a shell explodes in the water close to the ship.  The call goes out for Action Stations.  The sailors scramble to their positions.  The engine room is ordered full ahead.  Large British flags are draped over the sides of the ship.  They determine that the shelling is coming from the northern bank of the river. The order is given:  ""Open fire!"

A shell lands near Frank.  He and several men go down with the explosion.  Frank survives, but the man next to him is dead.  The bridge is struck too and the Captain is hit hard.  To make things worse, the ship is stuck fast.  They sent out a message:  "Under heavy fire from the ground; large number of casualties; position, not certain."    The order is given to lower the boats and then to evacuate ship.  The ship's doctor is hit and killed along with a sailor. 

At headquarters they look at a large map.  The reported position of the ship is sixty miles inland, but it's probably wrong.  The American Ambassador is on the phone.  He tells the Brits that they would like to send them a US Navy doctor to help care for the wounded.  They accept and thank the ambassador.

Number One Lt. Weston has a message sent to Hong Kong saying that they have destroyed all confidential books.  Now they can signal in plain language.  The Amethyst gets a message from the Consort saying they are on their way.  They talk about towing the Amethyst off the mud and out of danger.  Lt. Weston is wounded in the chest. 

The sailors can see the Consort in sight!  A launch full of wounded sailors and others is ready to pull away from the ship.  But telegrapher French has to report for duty.  They desperately need someone to send messages. As the launch proceeds to land, the Chinese open fire on it.  They are trying to kill the sailors in the launch and those already on land. 

The Consort arrives and opens fire on the Chinese.  But the Chinese also open fire on the Consort.  The ship sends a message to the Amethyst:  "Standing by; will try again; have been hit several times; a number of casualties."  The Consort does try again, but soon another message arrives:  "Sorry.  Not a hope.  Must pull out."  Lt. Weston sends the reply:  "Thanks for trying." 

The Amethyst tries to move off the mud at night.  It is reported that the London and Black Swan will come up to the rescue.  Other news is that the communists have begun an offensive.  And the Black Swan and London have been fired on and have returned to Shanghai.  Nine sailors are dead on the Consort.  The wounded from the Amethyst have been sent on to Nanking by rail. 

But not all of the British sailors on land from the Amethyst made it to Nanking.  The communists captured two sailors, Martin and Banister.  They are placed in a communist controlled hospital.  A Chinese doctor operates on Banister.  He tells Banister that they have to remove a steel splinter from his chest.  He apologizes for the fact that he has to operate without anesthetics. 

Lt. Cmdr. Kerans receives a phone call from headquarters.  He is told that the Amethyst will be refloated.  The communists will cross the river in force tomorrow.  He is go to the ship and evacuate all the sailors to Shanghai.  In fact, Kerans is to take command of the ship. 

The Amethyst continues evacuating its wounded.  Lt. Weston should also be evacuated, but he refuses to go.  A seaplane lands near the Amethyst.  A launch goes out to pick up some supplies from the seaplane.  But as the exchange is begun the communists open fire on the launch.  A doctor on the plane just manages to jump into the launch before it starts returning to the ship. 

A launch approaches the Amethyst.  They get ready to fire on it, but with binoculars they see a British officer signaling with flags to them.  It's Lt. Cmdr. Kerans.  Lt. Hett welcomes the Commander aboard ship.  The first thing the Commander really notices is a number of covered dead men on the front deck.  He wants these bodies buried at sea.  Kerans goes to see Lt. Weston.  The doctor says he is worried about Weston.  Bad news arrives.  The ship's captain has now died from his wounds received while on the bridge.  The doctor tells the Commander that Lt. Weston should be evacuated.  Weston insists he doesn't need to go.  But Kerans insists that Weston go.  Weston goes.

The Commander serves at the burials of sixteen British sailors and one Chinese steward. 

Kerans calls for all hands on deck.  He speaks to the men and tells them that the wounded from their ship are being taken to Shanghai.  He also tells them that their captain died.  Their orders are still that they proceed to Nanking.  He wants the men to clean up the ship as best they can.  After speaking to the men, he speaks to his officers and non-commissioned officers.  He tells them that the communists have batteries all along the river.  This is not going to be an easy task.  He tells them to keep their men really busy so that morale will improve. 

More bad news arrives.  No ships are on their way to save the Amethyst.  Telegrapher French has now been on duty for forty-eight hours straight.  Other news is that the communists have crossed the river fifteen miles east of Nanking.  Kerans says that they are now trapped between two communist river crossings.  The Vice-Admiral sends the message to prepare to evacuate and then sink the ship.  The men will then have to make a 200 mile march on land to safety. 

Kerans says they will not abandon the ship and for now the mean can have all the rest they want and need.  The sailors are told to throw damaged parts of the ship overboard. 

A launch approaches them.  It carries a Chinese communist army officer, Captain Kuo Tai of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.  He delivers the message that the Chinese People's Liberation Army is ready to receive the necessary apologies from the British commander.  The British are accused of invading the territory of the Chinese army.  The Chinese Captain says that the ship will not be harmed as long as it stays put, but if it moves, it will be sunk.  He adds that they will wait for the British response. 

But the Chinese don't wait.  They send a san-pan to pick up two British officers.  Leading Seaman Frank is placed in an officer's uniform.  He will go with the Commander to meet at communist headquarters with the Chinese negotiators.  Captain Kuo Tai comes in.  He says that Col. Peng is coming, but first he must discuss with the British the conditions that must be fulfilled before negotiations can even start.  The most important condition is that the British acknowledge they were in the wrong.  In other, words, the Chinese feel they are owed an apology.  Kerans says the Chinese ought to apologize to them. 

Col. Peng comes in to talk with the British.  He says:  "We are not unfriendly."  Kerans says if that is the case, he would like to have Banister and Martin released to the British.   Peng says that the situation will be investigated.  He also says that he will sell the British food for their sailors. 

Kerans says that the Chinese will play cat and mouse with them.  They like to raise hopes and then shatter them.  They hope to wear their opponents down this way.  The Commander also says that power on the ship will be shut off at night to conserve oil. 

Marrtin and Banister are brought to speak with the Chinese.  The Chinese say they will send them back to the Amethyst.  The men are excited by this possibility.  Peng tells the men that their ship killed lots of Chinese soldiers.  Before he can release the two men, he wants a "statement of the facts" from them.  Banister refuses, but Martin tells Peng that he will give him that.  He says that Peng and his men opened fire on their ship.  This makes Peng angry and he ends the meeting.  He tells the guards that these men don't wish to go back to their ship.  Peng leaves. 

Kerans complains that this is the eleventh meeting between the British and the Chinese.  He still wants Banister and Martin returned.  And he says they still have some wounded on board the Amethyst.  Again Peng says the matters will be investigated.  The negotiations seem somewhat stymied. 

Kerans returns to the ship.  An officer complains that the Chinese farmers have jacked up their prices.  He says:  "It's sheer blackmail."  The Commander replies:  "You're right.  It is blackmail.  We better pay."

Kerans is thinking of making an escape attempt.  He sends a message to headquarters asking advise on the actions to be taken if they become menaced by a typhoon.  This is code for an esape attempt.  The superior officer gives the order to reply in disguised language that he is all for it.  Kerans now goes ahead with his plans to change the shape of the ship with the help of black canvas covers for part of the ship.  He also wants the anchor chain greased up so it will make less noise when being raised. 

Kerans sends for Lt. George Strain.  He tells Strain that they are going to break out tonight.  There are many reasons for this: supplies are getting really low, the moon is right; the element of surprise; and other reasons.  They will leave at 10 p.m.  All white surfaces will be smeared with black. 

A Chinese ship comes down the river.  Kerans decides to follow behind it down the river.  But the Chinese spot them and fire on the ship.  Flares are fired into the sky to light up the river.  The ship fires back, but Kerans tells them to cease fire because the Chinese are getting the range from their gun flashes.  The other boat stops its engines and the Amethyst passes it by. 

The ship gets through a boon meant to stop big ships from going passed the area. 

The next challenge the ship faces is getting by the shore batteries.  The British try to keep their ship out of the spotlights shining on the rivers.  The ship is spotted and the guns open fire on them.  They do, however, get by.  The day is breaking.  The Commander spots the Concord.  He gives the order to tell the engine room that we're out.  The Concord is in sight.  The crew are very jubilant over the news.  The two ships pass each other and the crews of both ships wave at the other ship. 

Kerans sends a message to the commander-in-chief:  "Have rejoined the fleet.  No major damage; no causalities.  God save the King!"

A message is sent from the King.  "Please convey to the Commanding Officer and the ship's company of HMS Amethyst my hearty congratulations on their daring exploit to rejoin the fleet.  The courage, skill and determination shown by all on board have my highest commendation.  Splice the mainbrace."  Signed George R. 


Good movie.  The movie tries to faithfully follow what happened to the HMS Amethyst in 1949.  Therefore, the film starts with a bang with the actual firing upon the ship.  The ship gets stuck in the mud and the Chinese decide not to sink it.  Instead they begin a long, boring session of endless meetings with the British where the Chinese are deliberately prolonging these discussions.  This section is a bit boring, but that's what the film is trying to portray because that's what happened.  Then near the end of the film, the actions starts again.  So the movie gives a good presentation of what actually happened to the ship, as well as to other ships that tried to save the Amethyst.    

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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