My battle to honour war heroes may be over

A VETERAN’S fight to honour the unsung heroes of one of the most famous episodes in British Naval history could almost be at an end.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 10th May 2012, 1:03 pm

William Leitch, 77, says a military cover-up meant the ship’s complement of HMS Concord has never got the recognition it deserved for its role in the Yangtse incident of 1949.

He has campaigned for six years to have the crew honoured, uncovered vital new evidence of its daring rescue mission and won support in the Scottish Parliament in the process.

He has now been invited to travel to Whitehall to contribute to a UK Government review into the rules surrounding the award of military campaign medals, raising hopes that the honours could finally be dished out.

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Mr Leitch, of Livingston, said: “They have published lies, deceit and deception. It is hurtful and demeaning to the men who were involved.

“What goes around comes around. I’ve got the full story and they’re going to be told about it.

“There’s hundreds of guys that did the patrol and never got medals.”

The Yangtse Incident, which took place during the Chinese Civil War, saw British frigate HMS Amethyst come under fire while travelling up the Yangtse River to relieve the warship protecting the British Embassy in Nanjing.

Several crew members were killed and the stricken ship grounded, initially within range of Chinese guns.

Three smaller British warships, HMS Consort, London and Black Swan, tried to rescue the Amethyst but were beaten back by shore-based Chinese artillery. In total, 45 naval personnel were killed and 111 seriously wounded.

Crews of those four warships were honoured with the Naval General Service Medal with the Yangtse 1949 clasp, but those on board the HMS Concord, which sailed up the Yangtse in a daring rescue mission ten weeks later, were ignored.

An acclaimed 1957 film – the Yangtse Incident – misrepresented the episode, according to Mr Leitch, by showing the ships meeting at the mouth of the Yangtse, rather than the Concord embarking on a perilous journey into Communist territory with its guns trained on enemy positions. He believes that there are at least 18 surviving members from the 1949 Commission, which had many Scots among its ranks, while families of deceased servicemen would also receive medals.

Mr Leitch, who served on the HMS Consort from 1953 until 1955, received backing from the Scottish Government’s Petitions Committee, which contacted the Ministry of Defence on his behalf and encouraged him to continue his campaign.

Former Lothians MSP Robin Harper said at a 2010 meeting of the committee: “It is clear from the details with the petition that the story that we were fed in the film after the war was far from being the whole story.

“There is no doubt that all the ships, including Concord, were engaged in an extremely dangerous operation and that everybody behaved extremely creditably and bravely. However, one ship and her complement were left entirely out of the honours.”

Livingston MP Graeme Morrice has also backed the campaign.

He said: “I have supported Mr Leitch in his fight for recognition for those who served on HMS Concord during the Yangtse campaign and was happy to submit his petition on the issue to the House of Commons last year.”

A Downing Street spokesperson said yesterday: “The Prime Minister announced that an independent review into the rules governing the award of military campaign medals would be conducted by Sir John Holmes.

“The review will provide for wide consultation with all interested parties and campaign groups to ensure a full and open dialogue.”