Wuchang II

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Wuchang II
ID /IMO No. 1133250.
Gross Registered Tonnage 3,204 grt. 1,975 nett.
Builder Taikoo Dockyard & Engineering Co. Yard No.139.
Delivery date 1914.
Hull Steel, clncher construction.
Decks 1.
Length 320 ft.
Width 46.0 ft.
Depth 22.3 ft.
Engine Type Steam, 2 triple expansion.
Engine cylinders 3 per engine.
Engine Power Total 171 nhp.
Propulsion mode Twin screw.
Speed 12 kts.
Rigged Schooner.
Fuel Coal.
Original owner China Navigation Co.

History

1940. Withdrawn to Singapore.

1941. Converted to a submarine depot ship, and attached to the Eastern Fleet, and in 1945 attached to the Pacific Fleet.

1946. Returned to C.N.Co. Vessel used as an accommodation ship in Hong Kong, the sides being boarded up to provide dormitories.

Jan 1949. Scrapped in Hong Kong.

Service

Built for the Yangtse river services. Refer to "Shengking I".

Wuchang's appearance was similar to that of Woosung II as per the illustration attached below in the "Images" section.

Events / Stories

The Ship That Would Not Die

From 1937, the Sino-Japanese conflict put a stranglehold on Yangtze River trade and by the outbreak of the Second World War many river ships were laid up at Shanghai. One of these was the China Navigation Company’s Wuchang, at 3,426 tonnes, one of largest of the company’s lower river steamers. Built by Taikoo Dockyard in 1914, she was a veteran of a quarter century’s service on the Yangtze when she was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport and sent down to Singapore, to be used by the RAF as a floating depot for bombs and other armaments.

Painted a virulent orange, as a warning to other ships to keep clear, Wuchang lay rusting in the explosives anchorage at Keppel Harbour - the only reminder of her Yangtze career being her Chinese bo’sun, who had stayed with the ship and kept her in immaculate working order, against the day when she would one day return to China Navigation’s service.

In the second week of February 1942, the Japanese forces had begun to overrun Singapore island and its British administration faced an uncertain future. Rather than let Wuchang’s valuable cargo fall into enemy hands, she was ordered to be blown up. But as the situation became more desperate, a last minute reprieve spared her for a bold escape attempt, which if successful, would also safeguard her valuable war stores.

On the 11th February, Wuchang raised steam. Her bunkers were full and she had a plentiful supply of drinking water, plus beer, whisky, tinned fruit and ships’ biscuits - all that could be found to provision the ship. Her compliment of eight engine room coolie stokers, an Australian RAF officer, two British Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officers and the CNCo bo’sun, were under the command of the Harbour Master at Keppel, Michael Buxton - himself a Reservist.

By this time, the Japanese had taken the dock area and were exchanging fire with the British forces across the harbour. Shells rained all around Wuchang. At around 5pm however, rain of a different kind brought an end to the firing, and under cover of the monsoon downpour, she slipped anchor and began to pick her way through the western minefield which guarded the port. By a combination of luck, dead slow progress and her minimal draft of 15 feet, Wuchang escaped unscathed, and as dawn broke, she reached the open sea.

Now she faced a new problem. As the vessel neared the coast of Sumatra, her local crew decided that they had had enough of this adventure and all eight stokers leapt over the side and swam for the shore. Without the manpower to feed her boiler, Wuchang soon began to slow to a halt, and Buxton turned her into the lee of a small palm covered island. By now, the ship was about 25 miles from Singapore harbour.

Made all too visible by her orange paintwork, Wuchang was soon being buzzed by a Japanese reconnaissance plane. Shortly afterward, a squadron of enemy bombers roared overhead and several clusters of small incendiary bombs fell around the ship. Miraculously, she escaped all but minimal damage to her No.4 hold, where a fire started in a cargo of empty hessian sacks. It was quickly extinguished, but continued to smoulder for several days afterwards, giving off clouds of black smoke.

As Buxton and his men dowsed the flames, a small pleasure yacht motored into view, her decks crowded with unarmed Australian soldiers - more escapees from Singapore. It seemed like a miracle. Almost out of fuel and victuals, the Australians quickly agreed to come aboard Wuchang to replace her deserting stokers and eight of the smallest men were sent below into her tiny engine room.

Soon Wuchang was making good progress again, at her top speed of around six knots, following the contours of the coast of Sumatra. Around mid-afternoon, the lookout spotted a sizeable convoy of warships on the horizon, heading for the Banka Strait. As Wuchang’s crew watched, an escorting destroyer broke away from the convoy and closed rapidly with the little river ship. But after signalling incomprehensibly for a while, it turned and followed its charges away over the horizon. Fortunately for Wuchang, she was too small a prize to divert the Japanese invasion force on their push towards the Sumatran capital of Palembang.

That night, Wuchang sheltered within sight of the friendly lights of an allied Red Cross hospital ship. The following morning, she steamed into the narrow strait between Sumatra and Banka Island. Her only weapon, a World War I water-cooled Lewis gun was at the ready, for pirates, as well as the enemy, were a very real threat in the Banka Strait. Capture was unthinkable, and Buxton had orders to scuttle the ship if challenged.

Clearing the Strait unscathed, he turned Wuchang for the open sea and the Naval base at Batavia, the old Dutch capital of Java. But now, for the first and last time, the little ship failed him. Her bridge compass, unused for several years, had been made inaccurate by the large amount of metal on board, and Wuchang was soon lost amidst the clusters of tiny islands off the Sumatran coast. After three days nosing around in the shallow waters, her bunkers and food and water supplies were beginning to run low. Worse still, her Australian stokers, working in temperatures of over 100* Fahrenheit, were succumbing to malaria, caused by the swarms of mosquitoes that bred in the narrow spaces below deck.

Eventually, Wuchang reached the open sea. But now she met a fresh problem: being almost flat bottomed, she rolled violently and several of her bombs broke loose and began to careen from side to side in her holds. After several days wallowing progress, when it seemed inevitable that Wuchang would either fall victim to her own cargo, or be spotted and picked off by enemy planes, she reached Batavia in safety.

However, Wuchang’s travels were far from over. After the briefest of stays, well out of harm’s way in the explosives anchorage, she was re-bunkered and victualled, and with a new RNVR crew, under Commander Cromarty, sailed for Tjilatjap on the southern coast of the island. She left port again on the 27th February and this time her destination was Colombo, in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), some 2,000 miles away, across the Indian Ocean. She carried 435 passengers - mainly army and RAF personnel being evacuated from Java - who slept where they could find space on deck. Her cargo also now included a quantity of foul smelling and noisy pigs and baskets of chickens, to provide fresh meat.

Rations were nevertheless tight and fresh water, especially, was at a premium. A sudden storm brought Wuchang’s compliment out on deck in force, to wash clothes and bodies with cakes of lifebuoy soap.

On the morning of 4th March, after four days at sea, the alarm was suddenly raised: an enemy submarine had fired two torpedoes at the ship in rapid succession. Their tracks were clearly visible to those on deck: one had passed just astern of Wuchang, the other appeared to plot a line straight through the ship. Wuchang’s lucky star and her shallow draft had once again saved the ship, for the torpedo had passed harmlessly beneath her hull.

Surfacing briefly about 100 yards off, amidst a boiling mass of foam and net-lifting chains, the submarine took a closer look at this unsinkable craft, then – incredibly - gave up the attempt as a bad job, and vanished once more beneath the waves.

Five days later, Wuchang made Colombo Harbour. Thoroughly refurbished, she became a submarine depot ship at the port, before she was eventually returned to CNCo ownership in 1946. Back in Hong Kong, she became a floating accommodation block for Swire staff returning to their jobs in Hong Kong after the war. She survived until 1949, when this gallant little ship finally went to the breaker’s yard.


With thanks to messrs Etheridge and Kitching, who sailed on Wuchang during her epic voyage, and acknowledgements to “Service at Sea with the Royal Navy” by Michael Buxton.

Images