H.M.S. TAMAR

 R.N. Base Hong Kong


By Michael Steemson

Additional research by Tony Drurty


 

"TAM MARTE, TAM PACE"

(Alike in war and peace)

 

The history of H.M.S. Tamar, the Royal Navy's executive shore establishment on Hong Kong Island, is much the same as that of the island itself, its British colonial days, its war stories and its return. to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

It was the centre of the Royal Navy's operations in the north Pacific and Oriental waters, headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Far East, and the military, social and welfare centre of naval activities for a century and a half.

The Royal Navy's earliest formal association with Hong Kong came in 1841 during Britain's involvement in the first Chinese Opium War. H.M.S. Sulphur, a 12-gun, two-mortar Hecla-class bomb vessel, arrived in what became known as Victoria Harbour and Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer claimed the then sparsely-inhabited island as a colony.

Over the following 50 years British influence in Hong Kong increased. Admiralty dockyards and other military bases were built, especially during China's Second Opium War (1856-1860) when the dockyard was extended and the navy's ship victualling facilities added becoming known as 'H.M. Victualling Yard.'[1]

A succession of naval ships had been used as administrative bases until, in 1897, the 30-year-old sail and steam-powered troop ship, H.M.S. Tamar, Barque-rigged, 4,600 tons displacement, was 'hulked' to serve as 'name' ship for R.N. headquarters in Hong Kong, replacing the hospital and 'receiving' vessel, the single-screwed, fully-rigged H.M.S. Victor Emmanuel[2].

Tamar was the fourth warship to bear the name taken after the Cornish River Tamar[3], the estuary of which serves the Naval Dockyard at Devonport. The sail and steam ship was built on the River Thames at Cubitt Town, East London, and launched in 1865 to become a supply vessel and trooper. She served in the Ashanti War in West Africa in 1874 and the R.N. bombardment of Alexandria in 1882.


The name ship arrives

She visited Hong Kong twice, bringing relief crews to the base, before, on April 11, 1897, she arrived off what was then called Victoria City, now Hong Kong Central. She was anchored permanently by the Naval Dockyard, while the administration establishment, to which she gave her name, was being built ashore.

From 1866 all shore commissioned establishments had to have a 'name ship' to bear the commissioned ship's name; this was requirement brought in with section 67 of the Naval Discipline Act 1866.Technially the provisions of the Act only applied to officers and men of the Royal Navy borne on the books of a warship so a 'Nominal Depot Ship' (N.D.S.) was attached to shore bases to bear the name. Such a depot ship could be any size as long as it was afloat and from October 1st 1897, H.M.S. Tamar became the N.D.S. for the R.N. base, Hong Kong.
 

A newspaper photograph showing the harbour and the city of Victoria c.1890s: The hulk of  the former Troop Ship H.M.S. TAMAR is anchored off ashore, lower centre of the image. Click image for larger picture.

The Royal Navy's toe-hold on Hong Kong Island was greatly strengthened over the next years, growing in size and importance just as was the colony itself. Five years after H.M.S. Tamar's arrival, construction began on a seven-acre repair basin, a 180-metre long graving dock and extension to the east arm of the Dockyard, a 32-acre harbour reclamation completed in three years.

It is worth noting that, in days gone by, the H.M.S. Tamar base and the R.N. Dockyard were different things. Tamar, on the north side of Hong Kong island, had both a dry-dock and a basin, but the Naval Dockyard was in Aberdeen, on the south shore. The dock was 550ft long, enough for "C" and "D" Class cruisers and for the later "Leander" class. The "E" Class, the Elizabethans and the County Class Treaty cruisers were too long. All of the pre-Dreadnought battleships on the China Station could use the dock.

 

Dockyard developments

In the Admiralty War Diaries of World War 2 Eastern. Theatre Operations, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, Commander-in-Chief, China Fleet, from September 1940[4], wrote: "Soon after the partial destruction in 1857 of the Cooper Dock at Whampoa on the Pearl River, the Lamont Dock at Aberdeen was commissioned and was a complete success from the start; it received its first ship in 1860 and could accommodate a 50-gun steam frigate of 110m length on the blocks.

Subsequently the larger and deeper Hope Dock, 125m long, 30m wide at the top and 15m wide at the bottom, was constructed adjacent to the Lamont Dock and completed in 1867, in its time being the best in Asia and one of the finest in the world. It could take the largest vessel visiting Hong Kong at the time, even at low water; only one ironclad in the whole of the Royal Navy would be unable to enter.

The smaller l00m-long dry dock at the Hung Hom dockyard in Kowloon, mainly for ships in the coastal trade, was opened in 1868. Subsequently, the much larger Admiralty Dock at Hung Hom was completed in 1888 and later extended in length by some eight metres in 1903, to be followed by further lengthening in 1911 and 1931.

In the summer of 1907, the 170m-long Admiralty dry dock in Victoria, with an entrance width of 29 metres and 9m clearance at lowest spring tides, and Tai Koo's great ashlar-faced 238m long 27m entrance width graving dock (now a car park in the Tai Koo Shing development) at Quarry Bay, the latter capable of accommodating the largest ship then afloat, the (17,200-ton White Star) liner Oceanic, were both commissioned." Incidentally, the No 1 Admiralty Dock at Hung Hom, was eventually lengthened to about 215m.

The Tamar facilities were also improved and grew to such an extent that, in 1913 when the Tamar hulk was routinely moved from its harbour buoy for a refit, it was returned to lie alongside the dockyard quays for the rest of its service as accommodation, storage and training space.
 

The hulk of  the former Troop Ship H.M.S. TAMAR alongside the quay in the R.N. Base in 1941. Photo: By courtesy of the Naval Historical Society of Australia  from the Graeme Andrews collection. Click image for larger picture.

Meantime, after Britain's acquisition of the Kowloon Peninsular and its neighbouring Stonecutter Island, the Royal Navy had also been expanding across the Victoria Harbour establishing another dockyard on the Kowloon shore. Stonecutter Island was, at first, used as a quarantine station and quarry (hence its name), but in 1935, a navy marine radio station was built there.

Until the outbreak of World War II, Stonecutter Island was a radio interception unit for British armed services, the Far East Combined Bureau. The operation was overseen by the R.N. and its Hong Kong offices were four miles across the harbour in buildings at the H.M.S. Tamar base. Its job was to monitor Japanese, Chinese and Soviet Russian radio intelligence traffic[5].

All development activity faltered at the outbreak of World War II and ceased entirely as Hong Kong was attacked and invaded by strong units of the Japanese Imperial Army and air force from December 8, 1941, only hours after the Japanese aerial bombardment on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.

 

Battle of Hong Kong

Hong Kong had only a handful of old fighter aircraft that were destroyed in bombing raids where they stood in the colony's Kai Tak airport. Two aging destroyers of the Local Defence Flotilla, H.M.S. Thanet and Scout, were redeployed to Singapore on Sunday, December 7, leaving the colony with one 20-year-old destroyer, H.M.S.Thracian[6], the eight motor torpedo boats of the 2nd Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla and a number of small gunboats. The Hong Kong force defeat was now only a matter of time.

The hulk of the old Tamar had been towed out to deep water and, during the night of December 11/12, scuttled to prevent her use by the invaders. She didn't die willingly. Shore base artillery had to be engaged to finish her off. The old destroyer,  Thracian, was bombed and run ground, other small vessels destroyed or scuttled. The dockyards were disabled with scuttled ships and dockside equipment destroyed by Japanese bombing or defenders' demolition.

Bereft of ships, Tamar personnel fought with the overwhelmed army units. Thirty-five of the 250-strong ship's company of sailors and Royal Marines were killed in the 18-day 'Battle of Hong Kong'. The M.T.B. flotilla crews battled courageously against Japanese shipping and shore artillery, half the little ships being sunk or disabled before the surrender on December 25 ('Black Christmas').

On Christmas Night, after the ceasefire order, the remaining M.T.Bs rounded up 68 naval crew and a senior Chinese naval officer, Admiral Chan Chak, the Hong Kong naval liaison officer, and escaped out to sea in the darkness. The ships landed safely the following early morning on a Chinese mainland peninsular north of Hong Kong where they were scuttled. It was one bright spark in the whole dark, disastrous battle narrative.

The story of the M.T.B. fugitives' perilous sea-dash and their trek across thousands of miles of rugged China to Rangoon, Burma, and eventually home is told vividly on the website Escape from Hong Kong. It is a massive collection of memoirs from the escapers brought together by the son of one of them[7]. Unhappily, hundreds of other Hong Kong-based sailors, including Tamar's Commanding Officer, Commander Alfred C. Collinson, R.N. , were taken prisoner.

 

Japanese occupation

The terrors and atrocities of the next four years are chronicled elsewhere, but little can be discovered on-line about Tamar during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, but details of Imperial Japanese Navy activity there is available.

The occupying forces repair and salvage units initially did much work in the various Hong Kong shipyards to clear the ship-repair docks of damaged ships and structures. As a result, Victoria Harbour quickly became a Japanese base for ship repair and salvage operations.

Defences were built on Tamar, notably a pill-box on the harbour arm of the island dockyard. The Stonecutter Island radio facility was taken over for Japanese military operations and to extend the range of the Japan broadcasting authority. On Hong Kong Island, the invaders bored a net-work of storage and refuge tunnels in the Victoria Peak hillsides.

One of the first tasks was to restore the R.N. gunboat, H.M.S. Moth[9], scuttled in Hong Kong dockyard during the battle. She was refloated by the Imperial Japanese Navy (I.N.J.) 2nd Construction Department. On July 1, 1942 she was commissioned in the Japanese navy, renamed I.J.N. Suma and used delivering weaponry along the River Yangtze to occupying Japanese forces. She was sunk by a mine in the river at 32 00'N, 120 00'E on March 19,1945.
 

The I.J.N. SUMA, formerly H.M.S. MOTH. Click image for larger picture.

An R.N. minesweeper, H.M.S. Lyemun[10], had been under construction by the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock11] Company's shipyard since July 1941 and was still on the stocks at the fall of Hong Kong. She was restored by the Japanese as I.J.N. gunboat Nanyo but was later sunk by American aircraft in the Formosa Strait on December 23, 1943.  There were three other Bangor class minesweepers[10] captured on the stocks in the Hong Kong and Whampoa[11] and Taikoo[12] Dockyards: H.M.S. Lantan completed by the Japanese as mercantile Gyosei Maru in 1942, renamed Shima Maru in 1943.  H.M.S. Taitam completed by the Japanese as Imperial Japanese Navy minesweeper No.101 in 1944, sunk by American aircraft off Cape Padaran on 10 Mar 1945. H.M.S. Waglan completed by the Japanese as Imperial Japanese Navy minesweeper No.102 in 1944, damaged by American aircraft off Keelung on 3 Feb 1945. Returned to Royal Navy in 1947 H.M.S. Taitam completed by the Japanese as Imperial Japanese Navy minesweeper No.101 in 1944, sunk by American aircraft off Cape Padaran on 10 Mar 1945.

The beached destroyer H.M.S.Thracian[6] was also salvaged and refloated in 1942. She was repaired at the No. 2 Repair Facility in Hong Kong and was commissioned into the Japanese navy as a convoy escort vessel, Patrol Boat No. 101. She survived the war and was returned to Royal Navy muster in October 1945, two months after the peace. However, she was in very poor condition and was scrapped in Hong Kong the following year.

 

Imperial Japanese Navy forces

The Imperial Japanese Navy's Hong Kong Area Special Base Force was established[13] (assigned, March 10) in the Hong Kong Harbour Master's Office, a mile or so west of Tamar. On the same day, the 'Canton Guard Unit' was established.

The navy salvage and rescue vessel Haruta Maru, part of the First Southern. Expeditionary Fleet, was attached to the 11th Special Construction and Repair Section in Hong Kong. Formerly the Norwegian cargo ship S.S. Halldor, the vessel was captured in Hong Kong harbour. She was converted in Japan to a specially installed rescue ship. In 1944, at Shanghai, she assisted in salvage operations of the sunken Italian liner SS Conte Verde. On January 21, 1945, Haruta Maru was bombed by 14th Air Force B-24 '-Liberators and sunk in Hong Kong harbour.

The I.J.N. Kamoi, (17,200 tons) was another large vessel whose war damage was repaired several times in Hong Kong shipyards before she was sunk in the Victoria Harbour in April 1945. Her story, typical of many I.J.N. vessels who sought refuge in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation, is told in great detail on the U.S. military historian Jonathan Parshall's Imperial Japanese Navy website.

 

R.N. Base Hong Kong, H.M.S. Tamar 1878 Gate plague, now placed in Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence.  Source: Wikipedia Commons,. Click image for larger picture.

Kamoi was built as an oil tanker for the Japanese navy in Camden, New Jersey, U.S., in 1921 and fitted as a seaplane tender. In 1937, days before the start of the second Sino-Japanese war, she was briefly ordered to search for the missing aviator, Amelia Earhart. But then came the war with China and in 1937 and 1938, Kamoi seaplanes were involved in a number of largely abortive actions.

Her first major action in World War II was in January 1944. En route to the Indonesia island of Sulawesi, then called the Celebes Islands, she was detected by the US Submarine Bowfin (SS-284) and attacked with torpedoes, severely damaged and eventually beached to avoid sinking.

She was refloated, towed to Java then to Singapore for repairs before returning to tanker duties in September 1944. A month later, she was part of supply convoy attacked by US submarines and diverted to Hong Kong for war damage repairs. Kamoi was dry-docked, probably at the Kowloon docks, and underwent extensive work by the No. 2 Repair Unit. But, on November 5, 1944, she was further damaged in an air attack requiring additional repairs before departure for Japan in December.

Two months later she was back in Hong Kong harbour with a supply convoy detoured from a planned route to Penghu Island in the Taiwan Strait. On January 16, 1945, during an attack on Hong Kong's docks and shipping by U.S. Navy Task Force 38's aircraft, Kamoi was at anchor facing east roughly parallel to Kennedy Town, at the western end of Hong Kong Central. She took a direct hit in the engine room and was immobilized.

Later that day, USAAF 14th Air Force's P-51 "Mustang" fighters strafed the ship and set her alight. She stayed afloat but that was the end of the war for Kamoi.

Four months later, she was still afloat when U.S.A.A.F's Far East Air Force Consolidated B-24 "Liberator" heavy bombers attacked the harbour. Kamoi was further damaged by bombing and, three days later, was overwhelmed by flooding and finally sank in shallow water.  

 

The main gate of H.M.S. Tamar in 1949 . Click image for larger picture. Thanks to Jonny07 on the World Naval Ships Forums for this image.

 

Kamikaze motorboat squadrons

Jon Parshhall's I.J.N. website also records that in January and February of 1945, the I.J.N. deployed its 35th, 36th and 107th Special Attack Shinyo Squadrons (SASS), suicide motor boat groups, to Hong Kong. The 35th Shinyo Squadron had an authorized strength of 185 men and 52 Shinyo explosive motor boats (EMBs), 36th Shinyo Squadron had 188 men and 50 EMBs, including two Type 5 Shinyo, and 107th Shinyo Squadron had 186 men and 25 boats.

On Lamma Island, a small island just south west of Hong Kong island, 'Kamikaze Caves' were dug between the villages of Lo So Shing and So Kwu Wan, to house an unknown squadron of EMBs.

It is unclear how the British knew of the Japanese EMBs. On September 11, 1945 , the China Mail newspaper reported that during the round-up of Japanese forces, men were found on Stonecutters Island who had been organized into a suicide squad operating miniature torpedo boats. The newspaper reported that "a considerable number of craft were found at Stonecutters."

The Combined Fleet I.J.N. webpage says that it is not certain that there were EMB locations other than Lamma Island. The China Mail correspondent may have incorrectly given the location as Stonecutters Island rather than Lamma Island. Several Shinyo EMBs are found in the Hong Kong Dockyard, but they are home made and powered by engines from old British-built buses that ran in the Colony before the war.

Hostilities ended for Hong Kong a fortnight after Japan agreed to the surrender. Mine fields had to be swept before the British Pacific Fleet's Task Force 111.2, commanded by Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt, R.N. steamed into Victoria Harbour lead by flag ship H.M.S. Swiftsure, accompanied by the cruiser H.M.S. Euryalus and the R.C.N. cruiser, H.M.C.S. Prince Robert.

On arrival, the Admiral assumed the title of C. in C. Hong Kong. Naval Party 2501 were put ashore to reopen the naval base and help re-establish H.M.S. Tamar. The base was recommissioned on September 7, five days after the formal surrender was signed in Tokyo Bay, re-established in the old Wellington Barracks on Hong Kong Island. Naval Party 2501 was to remain active in the colony until it was withdrawn in January 1949. By then, the Nominal Depot Ship bearing the name Tamar was a small harbour launch.

Arriving on 14 September Rear Admiral Fisher, Rear Admiral Fleet Train, British Pacific Fleet (B.P.F.), moved most of his units to Hong Kong and set up a new organization to coordinate the movements of the fleet on the China Coast. He took the title Flag Officer Western. Area, B.P.F. All British ships operating out of Hong Kong were under his control at H.M.S. Tamar while the rest of the B.P.F. was under the command of the U.S. 7th Fleet.

 

Picking up the pieces

With the war over H.M.S. Tamar found itself administering the accounts of several former B.P.F. bases as the fleet was gradually reduced in size and scope, these included H.M.S. Woolloomooloo, the R.N. repair base in Sydney which closed in April 1946, and H.M.S. Nabcatcher, M.O.N.A.B. VIII (Mobile Operational Naval Air Base).

 

Map showing the locations of HM Ships TAMAR and NABCATCHER in the Hong Kong area post war,  Click image for larger picture.

The M.O.N.A.B. reopened Hong Kong's Kia Tak airport and commissioned it as Royal Naval Air Station Kai Tak on September 26. On August 26,1946, the M.O.N.A.B. was paid off an as independent command and was redesignated R.N. Air Section Kai Tak. It remained H.M.S. Nabcatcher but its accounts were held on the books of H.M.S. Tamar until April 1, 1947, when R.N. Air Section Kai Tak was renamed H.M.S. Flycatcher. It was paid off on December 31st 1947 and the R.N. Air Section facilities were closed.

On March 14, 1946, the River Class Frigate H.M.S. Aire arrived to take over the role of N.D.S. and was moored along side in the dockyard, acting as an accommodation ship for the base that was still being constructed.

When the new shore accommodations were opened in November 1946, Aire's role as a depot ship was over and, on November 20, she resumed service as H.M.S. Aire and was earmarked for disposal. She was ordered to proceed to Singapore to pay off. M.S.P.B. 44315 assumed the role of Tamar's nominal depot ship on November 21 and retained it until 1957 when she was replaced by M.S.P.B. 44313.

 

A plan showing the expansion post World War Two which resulted in H.M.S. TAMAR being established ashore in the former Army Barracks next door to the Dockyard.  Click image for larger picture.

There followed a decade of repair and expansion until 1957 when the navy declared it was closing its Hong Kong island dockyard. Two years later, the navy had drawn plans for a compact base around Tamar. Old buildings were demolished and the rubble used to re-fill the dry-dock. A squadron of six inshore minesweepers were deployed at Hong Kong, based at H.M.S. TAMAR.

The 'new' Tamar was complete by 1962. The 'Cold War' kept the navy presence in the Far East at high priority and more modernisation plans were drawn up in the mid 1970's for a major Tamar headquarters building. This was the Prince of Wales Building, the 'upside down decanter' as it became known from its top-heavy appearance. Prince Charles opened the building in March 1979.

 

The fight against illegal immigration: Naval Party 1009

From August 1979, H.M.S. Tamar was home to a detachment of hovercraft of the Royal Navy's Hovercraft Trials Unit (R.N.HTU) to assist the Hong Kong Police in the fight against illegal immigrants and people trafficking. The personnel were detached from the R.N.H.T.U. Headquarters at H.M.S. Daedalus, R.N.A.S. Lee-on-Solent, in the UK and were under the command of Commander Chris Stafford, R.N. Two SR.N6 Mk2 craft which had been operated by 200 Squadron, Royal Corps of Transport, based in Singapore, were transferred to R.N. charge and delivered to Stonecutters Island. After a repaint and some modification work the craft were in daily use. The detachment was withdrawn on April 1, 1982 due to defence cuts, the R.N.H.T.U. was itself disbanded in October that year.
 

An SR.N.6 hovercraft of the Naval Hovercraft Trials Unit coming ashore on Stoncutters Island. Click image for larger picture.

 

The wind-down decade

By the beginning of the 20th century's last decade, British Hong Kong and Tamar's days were numbered. The Cold War was over and Britain had agreed to hand the colony back to China.

One of the last big British military operations in Hong Kong was at H.M.S. Tamar on the night of June 30th 1997. In constant, drenching monsoon rain, a combined force of Royal Navy and British Army units were drawn up on the Tamar parade ground as the British Hong Kong flag and the Union Jack were lowered for the last times. The ceremony is shown vividly on YouTube.

That midnight, the Royal Navy shore base, H.M.S. Tamar, ceased to exist. The following day, Prince of Wales Building became the headquarters of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Forces Hong Kong Garrison. The 'Tamar site' was taken over by the Hong Kong Government and most of four-hectare site at 'Admiralty' was levelled. Re-building has continued slowly with the 'autonomous region' government plans for its Central Government offices, Legislative Council and Chief Executive's Office[14].

 

The Anchor of H.M.S. Tamar, now placed in Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence.  Source: Wikipedia Commons.  Click image for larger picture.

 


Notes and references:

1 H.M. Victualling Yard, see http://www.gunplot.net/chinafleetclub/chinafleetclub.html.
2 H.M.S. Tamar shore base, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H.M.S._Tamar_(shore_station).
3 H.M.S. Tamar ship, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H.M.S._Tamar_(1863).
4 Admiralty War Diaries of World War 2 Eastern. Theatre Operations, the Diaries of Adm Layton, C-in-C, China Station - November 1941 to March 1942,
http://www.naval-history.net/xDKWD-EF1941ChinaStation.htm
5 Far East Combined Bureau, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Far_East_Combined_Bureau.
6 H.M.S. Thracian, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H.M.S._Thracian_(1920).
7 The story of the R.N. M.T.B. fugitives' perilous escape is told vividly on the website Escape from Hong Kong
8 Commander Alfred C, Collinson, R.N., see www.hongkongwardiary.com.
9 H.M.S. Moth, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H.M.S._Moth_(1915).

10 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangor_class_minesweeper

11 See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_and_Whampoa_Dock

12 See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taikoo_Dockyard

13 See http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/CGSC/CARL/nafziger/942JANA.pdf
14 Tamar site, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamar_site

 

Harland, K., (1985) 'The Royal Navy in Hong Kong, 1841-1980' Liskeard, Maritime Books

Melson, P. (Ed) (1997) 'White Ensign - Red Dragon: History of the Royal Navy in Hong Kong, 1841-1997' Liskeard, Maritime Books

Warlow, B. (2000) 'Shore Establishments of the Royal Navy' (Second Edition) Liskeard, Maritime Books

 

Last modified:13 April 2014

 

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Copyright  2012 www.royalnavyresearcharchive.org.uk & Michael Steemson


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