Tuesday 17 December 2013

'Get off my bloody ship!'

HMS Peterel's crest
By the time of the Japanese entry into the war in December 1941, most of Britain's Eastern Fleet, the so-called 'China Squadron' had been withdrawn to home waters or the Mediterranean in order to counter the Axis threat and as a result, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, typical of the British defences of her overseas interests in the Far East was the River Gunboat HMS Peterel, under the command of 62 year old Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn RNR.

Incidentally, the spelling of the Peterel's name, though incorrect, was a perpetuation of a mistake made by a clerk in the Admiralty at the time of the first ship to bear the name in 1777. Built by Yarrow Shipbuilders in 1927, Peterel was armed with two 3 inch guns as well as eight Lewis machine guns dating from the First World War and her job, along with her sister ship Gannet and many other similar gunboats was to patrol the inshore waters of Britain's eastern empire protecting her interests, defending the numerous British merchant ships in the area and generally 'showing the flag' to keep up morale of the expat population. Any serious fighting would be left to the larger warships of the China Station. The trouble was that by December 1941, there were practically no larger friendly warships left in the region and the River Gunboats would just have to do the best that they could.

Polkinghorn was a New Zealander whose peacetime job was as the master of small coastal steamer but on the outbreak of war had been appointed to command the Peterel. War with the Japanese had long been considered likely but their sneak attack on Pearl Harbour had taken everyone by surprise. Nevertheless, Polkinghorn had already rigged scuttling charges on the Peterel so as not to allow her to fall into Japanese hands should war break out and now, on 8th December 1941, war became inevitable.

The Peterel's ship's complement had been reduced from her normal fifty five to a mere twenty one, three of whom were ashore overnight on the night of 7th/8th December. She was moored in the Whangpoo River, Shanghai and with her reduced complement, was acting as a floating W/T Station for the British Consulate. Downstream from the Peterel, lay the American gunboat Wake, which was performing a similar task for the American Consulate. Further downstream, lay the Japanese cruiser Izumo as well as a Japanese destroyer and a gunboat. An Italian gunboat, the Lepanto was also moored nearby, although she was to take no part in the action that followed.

HMS Peterel (NavalHistory.net)

In the early hours of 8th December, a motor launch flying the Japanese flag came in view and was obviously approaching the British gunboat. In the stern of the launch were several senior naval officers and the boat was also crammed full of heavily armed Japanese marines. The scene was described by Desmond Wettern as follows:

"Up on the fo'c's'le Able Seaman Tipping handed Able Seaman Mariner the Quartermaster's pistol and belt. Mariner watched the Japanese launch come alongside and saw a senior Japanese naval officer come on board. He heard the officer say 'We want to keep the peace of Shanghai.' 'Come into the wardroom,' Polkinghorn replied. Mariner gripped the pistol more tightly. The rest of the conversation was lost to him.

The next thing both Munn (another Able Seaman) and Mariner heard was Polkinghorn saying 'Get off my bloody ship.' The Japanese officer, who they later heard was chief of staff to the flag officer in the port, climbed back into the launch after handing a copy of the surrender demand to Polkinghorn. The launch started to move back downstream.

Lieut Stephen Polkinghorn RNR
Polkinghorn and Munn watched the Japanese launch move away from the ship. It had not gone more than a few yards when two red Very lights were fired from it.

After the Japanese launch had left the ship, the Japanese guns on the French Bund and across the river on the Pootung side had joined with the Izumo as well as the destroyer and the gunboat, in firing on the Peterel. As soon as he saw the Very lights go up from the launch, Polkinghorn gave the order for the ship's two manned Lewis guns to open fire. From 'A' gun deck, Petty Officer Linkhorn poured a steady stream of fire into the Japanese launch. Mariner manned the other gun and joined with Linkhorn in firing on the launch. Several of the men in it were hit. Neither had time to realise that they were the first Englishmen to open fire on the Japanese in the war.

The fire from the Japanese ships war murderous. One destroyer only 200 yards away was pumping shells into the tiny gunboat. Fortunately, one shell in the action parted the forward cable and the ship swung across the river, leaving one side comparatively safe from the enemy's fire."

Polkinghorn and the seventeen crew members aboard at the time managed to escape the blazing gunboat but only twelve survived, the Japanese machine gunning several of them whilst in the water. The survivors managed to get aboard a neutral Panamanian registered merchant vessel that was laying in the river but in a clear (and sadly typical) violation of international law, the Japanese boarded this vessel and removed the survivors, the majority of whom spent the remainder of the war in Japanese internment camps in China, although in May 1945, some were moved to camps in Japan itself. All survived the war and upon release in 1945, Polkinghorn was awarded the DSC in recognition of his refusal to surrender despite impossible odds.

A new HMS Peterel entered service with the Royal Navy in 1976 and rather endearingly perpetuated the original incorrect spelling of the name. She was sold as a result of one of the endless rounds of defence cuts in 1991 and with the vastly reduced size of the modern Navy, it is unlikely that we shall see another ship bearing the same name. Stephen Polkinghorn lived in retirement in New Zealand until the age of 97, whilst Jim Mariner, who fired those first shots against the Japanese Navy, spent twenty eight postwar years as a Police Officer in Bournemouth and passed away aged 90, in 2009.

Published Sources:

The Lonely Battle - Desmond Wettern, WH Allen 1960
The War at Sea - editor John Winton, Hutchinson 1967
Warships of World War II - HT Lenton and JJ Colledge, Ian Allen 1973


  1. To add to the above Chief Petty Officer Walter Ernest Munn, now 102 years old, is still alive and well. He is the last surviving crew member of the Peterel, and probably the oldest POW in Britain.

    1. Thanks for the feedback and delighted to hear that CPO Munn is alive and well.

  2. My late Grandfather Mr William Davidson Johnstone (Lloyds trained Naval Architect) lived and worked in Shanghai from around 1928 until internment by Japanese forces in 1939 . He was well known in shipping circles within Shanghai and was a personal friend of the Captain of HMS Peterel Capt Pollkinghorn . I have a wonderful photo somewhere of my Grandfathers British Bulldog at the time wearing a sailors cap and framed by a life belt with HMS Peterel written on it taken just before WW2 . I am also sure I have a photo of aptain Polkinghorn on board the ship .

    1. Thanks Mike - if you'd care to let me have your email address (I won't publish it), I'd like to drop you a line. Thanks & Regards, Steve

    2. My name is Steven Polkinghorn. I am 24 and live in Georgia, USA. I want to know more about Stephen Polkinghorn. Is there any way you can give me more information about him? I want to see how distant put relation is, if there is any. Given the unusual last name I imagine there is some kind of relation.

    3. Hi Steven. Thanks for getting in touch - the information I have on him is that he was born 9 December 1886 at Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire. Parents were James Polkinghorn (1853-1890) and Katherine Gschwind (1861-1936). He had five sisters and a half-brother. He married Ella Eliza Bench (1881-1975) in 1914 at the British Consulate in Shanghai. Ella was a widow (of John William Moss) who had three children from her first marriage. She had a further son and a daughter with Stephen. Stephen survived captivity and after the war, settled in NZ, where he died on 30 December 1985.Hope this might help a little.

  3. Hello, I am a relative of James Mariner. May I please contact you?