Yangtze River Gunboats 1900–49
Osprey New Vanguard Series Book 181
By Angus Konstam, illustrated by Tony Bryan
Softcover, 48 pages, index, heavily illustrated
Published by Osprey Publishing, June 2011
Dimensions: 7.2 x 0.6 x 9.8 inches
Foreign trade with China was opened in 1858 with the treaty of Tientsin. While nominally one country, there was no real central authority, actual power being vested in local warlords with their own interests. The treaty gave foreign powers the right to trade along the Yangtze River on very favorable terms, and allowed for the protection of foreign nationals and interests by their own military forces. Along with troops in the various ports, the Yangtze saw the presence of fleets of small, heavily-armed vessels whose Captains were charged with protecting their nation’s citizens and had broad discretion to do so. The peak period of what became known as “gunboat diplomacy” lasted from the Boxer Rebellion in 1901 to the beginning of the Second World War.
Several European nations, along with the United States and Japan, sent gunboats to the Yangtze, the local commanders often cooperating to support each other and achieve common goals. The book describes several ship designs and military incidents, focusing mainly on the vessels of the United States and Great Britain due to space constraints. Of these, two actions stand out for me, both of which involve Royal Navy ships. HMS Cockchafer (illustrated on the cover) was instrumental in the rescue of two British steamers and their crews seized by a local warlord in 1926, supported by HMS Widgeon and a boarding party aboard SS Kiawo. The second incident centered around the Black Swan-class sloop HMS Amythyst (F116), which effectively brought an end to the Yangtze Patrol in 1949. With the Chinese Communists in power, she was engaged by shore batteries, damaged, and trapped in the river with her Captain killed. Over the next ten weeks major diplomatic standoff ensued, which was resolved when Amethyst made a daring nighttime dash down one hundred miles of river, running the Communist gauntlet to rejoin the Royal Navy fleet at Woosung.
Like all the books in the Osprey New Vanguard series, space limitations preclude anything more than a brief overview of the topic presented. For those interested in learning more about the Amythyst, there are several newsreels available online as well as the 1957 feature film Yangtse Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst. An excellent depiction events from the U.S. perspective is the 1966 film The Sand Pebbles starring Steve McQueen. This is a fictionalized account set in 1926 which draws on several historical incidents to tell its story.
A valuable introduction to an interesting topic, I can recommend this volume. It is well illustrated with period photographs and quality artwork specifically commissioned for this book. While not the most attractive ships, several of the gunboats represented would make for fascinating large-scale models.