Orders, Decorations and Medals (8 December 1994)

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Date of Auction: 8th December 1994

Sold for £1,700

Estimate: £1,500 - £2,000

An important Shanghai D.S.C. awarded to Lieutenant-Commander S. Polkinghorne, Royal Naval Reserve, commanding H.M.S. Peterel when she was sunk by the Japanese cruiser Idzumo on the day after Pearl Harbour, and subsequently Senior British Officer at Shanghai P.O.W. Camp

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE CROSS, G.VI.R., officially dated '1945'; 1914-15 STAR (R/Ment. Chief Officer, SS Hang Sang); BRITISH WAR AND VICTORY MEDALS (R/M Ch. Offr., SS Hang Sang) these three official NEW ZEALAND Government replacements for the originals now resting in the Whangpo River, Shanghai; 1939-45 STAR; PACIFIC STAR; DEFENCE AND WAR MEDALS, good very fine (8)


The group is sold with a large quantity of original documentation including a lengthy 12 page personal account, telegrams, news cuttings, P.O.W. camp correspondence with Rolls of ship's company and other British personnel held in the camp, and a 64 page booklet on the recipient by Peter Oldham, V.R.D., published by the NEW ZEALAND Military Historical Society in 1984.

These are names to honour
Where British pride prevails:
Polkinghorn of the Peterel
Phillips of Prince of Wales
(E.L. Reed)

'Get off my bloody ship' roared Lieutenant Polkinghorn, the captain of the British Yangtze Flotilla's gunboat H.M.S. Peterel. It was 04:30 hours on 8 December 1941, allowing for the international time difference, the same day that the Japanese shocked the world with their infamous attack on the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbour. The Chief of Staff of the Japanese Naval Commander-in-Chief at Shanghai had just officially informed Polkinghorn that Japan was at war with the British Empire, and that he should surrender H.M.S. Peterel, lying at her mooring in Shanghai Reach, in order to keep the peace. At Polkinghorn's withering rebuff the Japanese boarding party retreated down the Peterel's gangway to their launch and when at a safe distance fired a red Verey Light. The response was instantaneous. Three Japanese warships opened fire on the British gunboat from point blank range. Denuded some days earlier of her three inch gun breech-blocks which had been sent to Hong Kong, Peterel defiantly replied with her sole armament, two machine guns. Under a murderous fire, Polkinghorn and the skeleton crew manning Peterel completed the work of destroying the main engines and other machinery so as to be of no further use to the enemy, and burnt all secret and confidential documents relating to the ship's service as the radio link between the British Consulate in Shanghai, until then a hotbed of espionage. An earsplitting explosion forward holed the Peterel beneath the waterline and an exploding shell from the cruiser Idzumo severed the bow mooring cable causing the gunboat to swing to the tide. Chief E.R.A. Allen and Stoker P.O. Hornsey were blown over the side. Wounded and with the Peterel sinking beneath his feet, Polkinghorn gave the order to abandon ship. With the White Ensign still flying, the Peterel slipped into the murky waters of the Whangpoo River.

Wearing his 'winter woollies', Polkinghorn leapt overboard and floundered amidst a spreading pool of flotsam and flickering fuel oil. He was carried away on the last of the flood tide to the stern buoy and tried to rouse a Leading Seaman lying on top. But before he could get a response he was caught in the glare of a searchlight and compelled by a hail of small arms fire to relinquish his grasp on the buoy. Bleeding profusely from his right hand and half frozen he was swept up stream. Half an hour later suffering from the intense cold of the Whangpoo he was picked up 'more dead than alive' by a Chinese sampan and landed on Roosevelt Wharf. A Chinese boatman carried him the short distance to the steamship Marizon, where the Norwegian Chief Officer did what he could for his wounds and supplied him with a warm blanket. Within minutes the Japanese arrived and storming aboard captured the ship

Dressed only in his blanket, Polkinghorn and the twelve survivors from H.M.S. Peterel's last stand were taken to Lungwah for examination and interrogation, though no medical treatment was forthcoming. A glimpse of the privations that lay ahead over the next four long years in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Later the same day they were moved to Long Wharf by tug and passing the Peterel's mooring proudly saluted the resting place of their ship. En route they also noted the Rising Sun flying at the masthead of the American gunboat U.S.S. Wake which had been surrendered without a fight. An Hongchew Naval Barracks, Polkinghorn at last received some rudimentary medical attention and underwent the amputation of the third finger of his right hand.

On 9 December the gallant ship's company commenced its incarceration at No 10 Kiang Wang Road Naval Prisoners Camp. In a rare display of chivalry, Polkinghorn became a respected figure in Japanese Naval circles, and it was generally agreed that by refusing to surrender his ship he had 'maintained the highest traditions of the Royal Navy'. Indeed the mention of Polkinghorn's name would on occasion bring a Japanese Naval officer to the salute.

From an historical point of view, Peterel's claim to fame rests in that she was probably the first British 'unit' to be engaged by the Japanese in the Second World War and undoubtedly the first British warship to be sunk by them. Perhaps the Japs' attitude to Polkinghorn was effected by the fact that he had a distinguished half-Italian half-German Naval officer as a son-in-law. Certainly Polkinghorn noticed a change in his captors' attitude towards him after the Italian surrender in 1943. His son-in-law, Lt Fritz Tamburini, was a noteworthy submariner who was decorated following an epic voyage of 10,000 miles. He had married Polkinghorn's daughter, Ella, before the war, and had taken her to live at La Spezia. In March 1942 Tamburini was lost in the Italian submarine Gugliemotti when she was torpedoed by H.M.S. Unbeaten off the coast of Calabria. Ella continued to live in La Spezia where her brother, a Major in the Gurkhas, eventually managed to contact her during the Italian Campaign.

At fifty-four years of age, Polkinghorn was by no means in the first flush of his youth on the night that he engaged the Japanese in Shanghai. Born in Lancashire in 1886 he had served his apprenticeship in the Merchant Service in the days of sail. He was a well-known figure along the China Coast, and had spent the greater part of his career tramping the China Seas and as a Tientsin River Pilot, making his home in Auckland, New Zealand. On the outbreak of the war he took up his commission in the Royal Naval Reserve and was appointed to the command of the Peterel in August 1941. After being taken prisoner it was sometime before the authorities in New Zealand were able to establish his fate and inform his wife in Auckland of his whereabouts. Throughout his captivity Polkinghorn was closely involved in ensuring that vital rations and medical supplies were procured through the good offices of the Red Cross representatives in Shanghai and continued to face down the Japanese whenever an opportune moment arose. Apart from a period in 1942, spent at a camp at Woosung, which was evacuated after a guard was shot dead by Chinese guerillas, he was imprisoned at Kiang Wang until the end of June 1945, when with Allied victory in sight, the prisoners were shipped to Japan. On 11 September 1945, nearly a month after the Japanese surrender, an American doctor and an Australian Army officer reached his isolated camp on Hokkaido Island. On his return to New Zealand the redoubtable Captain Polkinghorn learnt of his award of the D.S.C. which he received from the Governor General, Sir Bernard Freyberg, V.C., at an investiture at Government House, Auckland.