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HMS Peterel

This information was supplied to COFEPOW by Mr Warwick Paterson of Campbell Paterson Ltd., PO Box 5555, Auckland 1141, New Zealand and was published in the Campbell Paterson Newsletter ,vol 60, number 12, July 2009

The First POW's Letters

Another example is included in the remarkable series of letters sent by Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn who was imprisoned in Shanghai-War Prisoner's (sic) Camp in the period after the attack on Pearl Harbour. These letters and covers include Polkinghorn's account of the engagement and are of particular interest in that Lieutenant Plokinghorn's story is well known and was written up by the late Peter Oldham in 1984. At that time Polkinghorn was 97 years old and was a source of information for this monograph.

It appears that Polkinghorn, who was enlisted in the Royal Navy Reserve, was in command ofHMS Peterel which was the last commissioned Royal Navy vessel on the YangzteRiver on December 7th 1941 - the date of the Pearl Harbour attack.

Peterel had been stripped of most weapons and was acting as a communication station manned by a skeleton crew and the 3 inch guns had been immobilized. It was not expecred to offer any competition to the Japanese Naval Forces in the immediate area.

Peterel was fully rigged with explosives should relations with the Japanese deteriorate any further than they had already.

Quoting an account of the incident :-

" News of the Pearl Harbour attack was slow to reach Shanghai. At 4.20am (two hours after the Pearl Harbour Attack) news began to trickle into the city. Peterel was immediately notified by Commander Kennedy RN, at the British Consulate, and the Peterel was called to battle stations. Moments thereafter a Japanese launch filled with Japanese marines captured her.

Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn was in command of Peterel and permitted the Japanese officers to come aboard. He was informed that their nations were at war and Peterel must surrender. Polkinghorn attempted to stay on board so that the demolition fuses could be lit and the code books could be passed down a special chute to be burned in the boiler room. He therefore invited the Japanese officers to come below decks to discuss the matter. The Japanese refused and Polkinghorn immediately told them to " Get off my bloody ship! "

Moments after the Japanese officers had retreated to their vessel, the Japanese armoured cruiser Idzumo, together with a Japanese gunboat and the French bund onshore, opened fire at point blank range. Peterel was hopelessly outgunned but returned machine gun fire on the opposing force killing several Japanese.

On fire and having received damage from enemy guns Peterel rolled over and sank as she drifted at her mooring. The Japanese proceeded to machine gun the Royal Navy sailors in the water and it is only due to rescuers in rowboats, who also came under fire, that the majority of the crew survived. Of the crew of 21, 18 were killed and 12 survived the attack, taking refuge on a Panamanian merchant vessel, SS Marizion, which was officered by Norwegians. In violation of international law, the Japanese boarded the ship and took the survivors prisoner. ( Note- records show that the crew of Peterel consisted of 22 not 21.)

Of the three Peterel crew members onshore during the attack, two were captured but the third, PO Telegraphist Cuming, remained at large in Shanghai for the duration of the war. "The Lonely Battle" an account of Cuming's tale was written by Desmond Wettern in 1960.

Survivors captured after the sinking were moved amongst the Hongchew, Kiang Wang and Woosung internment camps in China. Ongoing supplies received from the British Residents Association (Shanghai) and the International Red Cross were critical to the survival of those interned. On May 9th 1945, however, prisoners at Kiang Wang began a long jouney through China, being moved to the deplorable POW camps in Japan itself. Survivors remained there until the conclusion.

In 1945 Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. "