Irish Ships and Shipping
Lieutenant Commander John Kerans
yangtse river incident
from John Davis
I was given a fascinating little book recently, entitled 'Last Action Hero of the British Empire' by Nigel Farndale. Now, I am in fact a pacifist, and war time adventure tales of what ho and daring-do aren't exactly grist to my mill, but I do also thoroughly enjoy the tension and heroism of this type of story.
It was about Lieutenant Commander John Kerans (who lived from 1915 to 1985) and the fascinating thing about Kerans was that he was born and grew up in Birr Co.Offaly Ireland a fact that probably only two or three people know about.
Well, what did Cdr Kerans do and why is he so famous?
Kerans possessed a volcanic temperament, was a dipsomaniac and a tad self-destructive.
The Navy couldn't really handle his mercurial nature and sent him off to a dull, mundane job in Nanking, China.
But then history overtook him and he was the right person in the right place at the right time:
in April 1949 a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Amethyst, was shelled in an unprovoked attack by the Chinese Communists. The ship was now without a Captain and was hemmed in, trapped, on the Yangtse River.
The Admiralty called upon Kerans, as the nearest local replacement, to go to the rescue.
What had probably happened was that the communists mistook the Amethyst for a Nationalist ship and fired upon her. (China at the time was in a state of civil war: the Communist army, led by Mao Tse-tung had advanced from the north of the country and were now amassed on the Yangtse. Their opponents, the Nationalists, were led by Chiang Kai-shek and were still nominally in power. The nationalist forces were gathered around the capital, Nanking on the opposite bank of the river).
Afterwards they tried to cover up their enormous gaffe and the New China News Agency issued the statement that the •British Imperialist Navy' had joined forces with the 'Nationalist reactionaries' to challenge the communists and that the Amethyst had fired first.
In Britain the reaction was predictable: In London the Red Flag was burnt. The leader of the British Communist Party was booed and chased from a hall when he said the Communists were justified in their actions. The situation was deemed to be an international crisis.
Once Kerans boarded the Amethyst and took over its command the Admiralty became worried that he would not be fit for the job and they would become a laughing stock. How ever the Commander rose to the occasion marvellously. He kept the men's morale up over an intolerably dull 100 days on the Yangtse and then made a dramatic dash for the sea. Prior to this break for the sea Ferndale depicts him standing on deck weighing up his chances; 'He put his odds of covering the 150 miles to the open sea running a gauntlet of enemy guns, with
half a crew, in a shell-damaged ship, in the dark, over hazardous waters, without lights, pilot, adequate charts, compass, secure codes for signals, gyro or radar - at no more than 50/50.' "
Under the cover of darkness the ship raised anchor and
slipped quietly away. It was an extraordinarily tense night, death was an ever
imminent prospect and there were one or two touch and go moments; eventually
however Amethyst broke free and attained safety.
In the ensuing media hullabaloo Kerans was celebrated as the swashbuckling successor of Drake and Raleigh. Amusingly, his cousin sent the following message to him: 'I was giving up hope, being a pessimist, but I should have realised the supplies of gin would be getting low and it would take all the devils of Hell to stand between you and fresh supplies.'
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