"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.'
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.
Tamar was the
fourth warship to bear the name taken after the Cornish River Tamar,
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
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
the Admiralty War Diaries of World War 2 Eastern. Theatre
Operations, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, Commander-in-Chief,
China Fleet, from September 1940,
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
Unhappily, hundreds of other Hong Kong-based sailors, including
Tamar's Commanding Officer, Commander Alfred C. Collinson, R.N.
, were taken prisoner.
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
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.
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
The I.J.N. SUMA, formerly H.M.S.
Click image for larger picture.
R.N. minesweeper, H.M.S. Lyemun,
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
captured on the stocks in the Hong Kong and Whampoa
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
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
(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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Anchor of H.M.S. Tamar, now
placed in Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence. Source:
Wikipedia Commons. Click image for larger
Notes and references:
H.M. Victualling Yard, see
H.M.S. Tamar shore base, see
H.M.S. Tamar ship, see
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,
Far East Combined Bureau, see
H.M.S. Thracian, see
The story of the R.N. M.T.B. fugitives' perilous escape is
told vividly on the website
Escape from Hong Kong
Commander Alfred C, Collinson, R.N., see
H.M.S. Moth, see
Tamar site, see
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:18 June 2020