In April 1949, communist armies were preparing for a final assault on Nanjing, the Nationalists' capital up the Yangtze River from Shanghai. Contemptuous of the Chinese army's ability and still flush with victory from World War II, a British admiral, disregarding the danger, sent a frigate, H.M.S. Amethyst, on a regularly scheduled supply mission to the embassy. On April 20, about 240 km from the river mouth, a communist barrage hit the ship, wiping out half the crew, including thefatally wounded skipper.
Winston Churchill, then opposition leader, demanded that Prime Minister Clement Attlee dispatch a couple of aircraft carriers to chastise the communists. But cooler heads, conscious of the shifting power in China and the Hong Kong colony's vulnerability, prevailed. Attlee ordered negotiations, which got nowhere.
Enter Kerans. The embassy's assistant naval attachE had earlier commanded a frigate similar to the Amethyst. He made his way through the battle lines and assumed command of the ship and its 72 survivors. Over the next 14 weeks, in stifling, disease-ridden conditions, he endured the insults of the communist negotiators while secretly preparing for an escape. On the moonless night of July 30, Kerans ordered a midnight dash downriver. Under heavy fire, he steamed at 20 knots through hazardous waters without lights, adequate charts, compass, gyro or radar. Reaching the ocean, Kerans radioed London: "Have rejoined the fleet ... God save the King!"
The empire feted its new hero. The Escape of the Amethyst became a best-selling book and was made into a movie—The Yangtze Incident. But the applause—along with the empire's glory—soon faded. Kerans' remaining naval career was lackluster. After his retirement, he was elected to Parliament for one term and became known for sponsoring eccentric causes, including the legalization of female wrestling in pubs.
During two interviews in Britain for Asiaweek magazine in the late 1970s, Kerans told me his real mission in China. I undertook not to publish the info until I had official confirmation from the Admiralty, which was never forthcoming. But I have no reason to disbelieve Kerans. And more than a half-century after the activities he described, I see no need to remain silent.
Like Bond, Kerans was a secret agent—but the Chinese were not his immediate target. The Admiralty had sent him to spy on its American allies. London felt that Washington was withholding its plans for handling the imminent Nationalist collapse. Kerans' mission in January 1949: to find out what the Americans were doing on Taiwan. It had become increasingly clear that Washington was helping Chiang Kai-shek prepare a redoubt on the island but, possibly fearing that British intelligence was riddled with communist agents, the Americans would not share their full strategy.
Kerans embarked alone on what was ostensibly a seaside vacation. Swimming on Taiwan's west coast, he photographed U.S. transports disgorging massive supplies of military material. On the island's east coast, Nationalist authorities caught him in a forbidden zone and threw him into jail for a few days. Some discreet bribes restored his freedom. In the weeks before Amethyst put his name in the headlines, Kerans through his reports from Taiwan had prepared London for Washington's determined support of the Republic of China, a policy now in its 52nd year.
Read Farndale's short book for a taste of the story. But the full account has yet to be written.