Royal Navy gunboat attacked by Japanese... in China

The ships company of HMS Ladybird in Shanghai, 1937. Ernest Fox is circled. Picture:: Derek Fox collection.
The ships company of HMS Ladybird in Shanghai, 1937. Ernest Fox is circled. Picture:: Derek Fox collection.
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Sailors being drafted abroad these days usually fly but in 1936 Ernest Fox was sent by sea from Portsmouth to China to serve in the river gunboat HMS Ladybird. 

Her duties were to patrol the River Yangtze. Those were the days of the British Empire when, if there were any colonial troubles, a gunboat was sent to calm matters.

Derek Fox sent me these memories of his grandfather who fought in two world wars and died in 1980. Imagine leaving the back streets of Portsea to serve several thousand miles away in China.

Derek writes: 'I can remember granddad, in later years, saying it was a great posting and a happy ship. She mainly sailed up and down the Yangtze as a guardship protecting British trade.

‘However, in December 1937 the ship became involved in what became known as The Panay Incident.

‘China had been invaded by Japan. With Britain and America strictly neutral, there was an uneasy truce, but in December 1937 Japanese aircraft attacked shipping on the river.

‘On December 11, Ladybird was guardship at Wuhu, when Japanese artillery opened fire on merchant shipping there.

‘Ladybird put herself between the guns and the ships and came under intense fire, being hit six times. Her forward six-inch gun was hit, along with the wheelhouse. One shell penetrated the deck killing the sick berth attendant SBA Terrence Lonergan and seriously injuring PO Joseph Smallwood. The ship did not return fire for risk of an international incident.’

Derek continues: 'About the same time the American gunboat USS Panay was anchored some miles upriver when she too came under attack, this time from Japanese aircraft. She was hit and subsequently sank.

‘Both the British and American ships displayed large national markings. Britain and the US lodged strong diplomatic protests and the Japanese paid compensation, saying it thought the ships were Chinese. My granddad was posted back to Britain soon after, being drafted to the destroyer HMS Sturdy on Atlantic convoy patrol. 

'As for the Ladybird… as the world situation deteriorated she was sent to North Africa and later sunk off Tobruk in 1941. My old granddad  who had served through the First World War, the intervening war years and the Second World War, finally left the Royal Navy in 1945.’

• The photograph of Farlington Youth Choir I published on Tuesday, October 29, was seen by Jenny Edney.

I did say that with all the photographs Mick Cooper has provided there would probably be one featuring you 50 years ago, and I was right.

Jenny says: 'I just downloaded a copy of today's News and to my surprise I am in the nostalgia section!

‘There is a photo of Farlington Youth Choir which must have been taken in 1972 I reckon.

‘There I am in the back row to the right of the boys – I was always way taller than the others!

‘I remember the names of quite a few of them and my best friend Liz is second from the left in the back row.

‘I loved being in the choir and Mrs Ryan was a very special lady, she trained us so well. I still remember to this day many of the songs we sang and I'm nearly 61 now. Thanks for printing it and bringing back happy memories.’

Jenny can be contacted on

• Last week I published the obituary of Lieutenant Commander James Thake RN who commanded the first plastic ship in the Royal Navy. Dave Quinton got in touch to tell me Wilton was, naturally, nicknamed HMS Tupperware.

• Some letters published in The News last week tackled the subject of the photographic ID we carry nowadays.

Five years ago I presented myself at the reception desk of the National Archive at Kew, west London. I was asked to prove my identity to obtain a search card. I have not had a passport for years so showed my bus pass, my railway identity and bank cards.

Not good enough said the man. He wanted proof of where I lived not what I looked like. A household bill would do. ‘Really? But there is no photograph on household bills,’ I said. He shrugged.

I went home and spoke to my neighbour ‘Dave Smith’. He lent me one of his bills and back I went again the next day when the same pain in the neck was on duty.

I showed him ‘my’ household bill which he accepted and we went on filling in a search card form.

As we approached the bit where I had to sign I told him I was not ‘Dave Smith’ and anyone with a household bill could get one of his cards and his so-called security was a joke. I walked out leaving him to think about it.