The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 is extremely well known, but far fewer people know that the Japanese also attacked British and US warships at Shanghai without declaring war. This took place on the same day, although it was 8 December in Shanghai because it was on the other side of the International Date Line.
Britain and the USA both then maintained small naval forces on the Yangtze River in order to protect their interests in China. These included the Shanghai International Settlement, an autonomous district of the city inhabited by Westerners. It was originally protected by British soldiers, US Marines and Royal Navy and United States Navy gunboats, but most of these had been withdrawn by December 1941.
Japan and China had been at war with each other since 1937, when China began to fully resist Japanese encroachments into her territory that had begun in 1931.
By 8 December 1941 the British and US military presence in Shanghai had been reduced to the gunboats HMS Peterel and the USS Wake, which both had skeleton crews as they were being used primarily as communications stations. Even at full strength they would have stood no chance against the Japanese forces present, which included the cruiser HIJMS Izumo;
The Wake displaced 350 tons, normally carried a crew of 59 and was armed with two 3″ guns and eight 0.3″ machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 14, most of them reservist radiomen. Her captain was Lt Cdr Columbus D. Smith, USNR.
Peterel displaced 310 tons, normally carried a crew of 55 and was armed with two 3″ AA guns and eight machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 21 British sailors, plus 19 Chinese locals. Her captain was Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn RNR, a 62 year old New Zealander. As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he would have been a merchant navy officer in peacetime.
Neither ship could use her 3″ guns because their crews were small and consisted mostly of radiomen rather than gunners. They could fire the machines guns, but lacked the specialist training needed to operate the bigger guns.
Izumo, sometimes called Idzumo, was an elderly ship that had fought at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. She displaced 9,750 tons and in December 1941 was armed with four 8″ guns, eight 6″ guns, four 3″ guns and one 3″ AA gun. The website linked at the start of this paragraph gives her armament when built.
The Japanese attacked Wake 2 hours after the start of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She had not been informed of events in Hawaii, so was taken by surprise and her crew captured.
Peterel was warned by the British Consulate of the attack on Pearl Harbor, so was at action stations. Polkinghorn had orders to scuttle her if the Japanese attempted to capture her, and she was rigged with demolition charges.
A launch full of Japanese Marines approached Peterel. Polkinghorn, trying to win time in order to scuttle his ship and destroy his code books, allowed their officers on board and invited them to discuss matters. They refused to talk, so he ordered them to ‘Get off my bloody ship!’
The Japanese officers returned to their launch, and Izumo, other Japanese warships and shore batteries opened fire. Peterel could return fire only with machine guns, but killed several Japanese, presumably in the launch. Her crew was ready to repel borders with pistols and cutlasses, in the style of Nelson’s navy.
Peterel was sunk, and her crew abandoned ship. Six were killed, some in the water, but 12 managed to get to a Norwegian officered and Panamanian flagged merchant ship, the SS Marizion. The Japanese took them off, and they became PoWs, along with two of the three crewmen who were ashore at the time. Two of the PoWs died in the appalling conditions of Japanese prison camps.
The third man, Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist James Cuming joined an American Chinese spy ring and remained at liberty for the rest of the war.
This account of the sinking of Peterel is based on an account on the website of the Children and Families of Far East Prisoners of War, a list of casualties and survivors given on the website of the Force Z Survivors Association and a newspaper obituary of Peterel’s last survivor, Able Seaman James Mariner, who died in 2009 at the age of 90. It describes him as being the first British serviceman to fire on the Japanese during WWII
Lt Polkinghorn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross when he returned from captivity after the war. Other members of the crew may also have deserved medals, but the RN is not generous with gallantry awards, and often decorates the captain of a ship as a tribute to the entire crew. Britain has no award equivalent to a US Presidential Unit Citation.