Warship Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018: The last of the Royal Navy’s peculiar may bugs
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018: The last of the Royal Navy’s peculiar may bugs
Here we see the Insect-class of “China” or “Tigris” river gunboat HMS Cockchafer (P95, P83, T72) of the Royal Navy. The hardy gunboat would give long service and be both the last of her class and the last of four RN warships over two centuries to carry the name.
The dozen vessels of the Insect class, some 237-feet long and 635-tons displacement, were flat-bottomed ships designed by Yarrow to operate in shallow, fast-flowing rivers, with a shallow draft of just four feet and enough muscle (2,000IHP plant on Yarrow boilers and twin VTE engines and three rudders) to make 14 knots, thus capable of going upstream against the flow as needed. While ordered as a class in February 1915 for emergency war service in Europe (e.g. to fight on the Danube against Austrian river monitors), the consensus is that they would, after the Great War had wrapped up, see China service on the Yangtze and similar large waterways to protect the Crown’s interests in the often lawless region.
They were well-armed for such endeavors, with a BL 6-inch Mk VII naval gun forward and another one in the rear (to poke holes in said Austrian river monitors), a group of six modern Maxim water-cooled .303 machine guns in a central battery, and a couple of smaller QF Mk I 12-pounders.
According to the excellent site on these ships, maintained by Taylor Family Collection:
Their steel plating was thin by warship standards – only five-sixteenths of an inch amidships tapering to about one-eighth of an inch at the ends. The decks were strengthened in the vicinity of the main armament mountings with steel doublers three-eighths of an inch thick and a three quarter-inch steel doubler was also fitted on the sheer strake over the mid-ships section as extra stiffening. Beyond this they carried no armour and had no double bottoms unlike most ships.
That their armour was so minimal is not surprising given that these were essentially “kitset” ships specially designed to be broken down and reassembled. Heavy armour plating or additional construction “stiffening” was counterproductive. Active service with the Tigris Flotilla however resulted in rearming – a 2 – pounder pom-pom added, four of the .303 – inch maxim guns removed and a 3 – inch anti-aircraft gun installed in their place. All were fitted for towing kite balloons (to carry artillery observers). Initially sandbags were built up around the battery deck for protection of personnel, but later a 5 – foot shield made of ¼ inch chrome steel plate was built all around this deck as can be seen in the photos.
All were named for insects (Mantis, Aphis, Scarab, Moth, Gnat, Bee, Cicala, Cricket, Tarantula, Glowworm and Ladybird) as befitting their role and, to speed up delivery, were ordered simultaneously from at least five different yards. The hero of our tale, Cockchafer, was one of four built at Barclay Curle, Glasgow, Scotland. The name, a common term for a particular may bug or doodlebug that was almost eradicated in the 20th Century has been around in the Royal Navy for a long time before these emergency gunboats.
The first HMS Cockchafer was a 5-gun schooner– previously the American schooner Spencer— captured during the War of 1812 and put to good service by the Brits.
Then came two other purpose-built gunboats of the Albacore-class and Banterer-class, respectively, that carried the Cockchafer name for the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
While most of the Insect-class were sent to the Med or to fight the Ottomans in Mesopotamia on the Euphrates when completed in 1916, Cicala, Cockchafer, Cricket and Glowworm instead were assigned to defensive duties in British Home waters, remaining there quietly through the Great War.
Cicala was based at Hull, Cockchafer at Brightlingsea, Cricket at Norfolk ports and Glowworm at Lowestoft. Their two 12-pdrs swapped out for QF 3-inch 20 cwt anti-aircraft guns, they were deployed in the air defense of Britain against German bombers and Zeppelin raids.
Then, in late 1918, the four gunboats, along with monitors M.23 & M.25, sailed to Russia as part of the North Russian Expeditionary Force in the Murmansk-Archangel area lead by White Russian Gen. EK Miller. As part of this expedition, they penetrated the Northern Dvina river, where both Glowworm and Cockchafer were severely damaged due to an ammunition barge explosion in May 1919.
This service soon over as the British withdrew from the region, in January 1920, Cricket, Cockchafer, Moth, Mantis, and Cicala (Glowworm was scrapped due to her Russian damage) all set out as a group for China.
Our subject was soon settling in on the Yangtze River where she became hotly involved in the so-called Wanhsien Incident in 1926 against local warlords.
Typically, these gunboats…carried two officers and sometimes a doctor; six or seven petty officers and leading seamen, plus 17 able seamen. The remainder of the 50-odd souls aboard were Chinese servants, cooks, seamen, and black gang. Obviously, British ability to mount a landing force fell well below the capabilities of the ‘new six’ US gunboats, with their 4 line officers, doctor, and about 50 US enlisted. However, the British POs enjoyed more responsibility and authority than the American, as all RN officers could be off the ship at the same time.
Still in Chinese waters in 1939, the Brits transferred Cockchafer (minus her local auxiliaries) to the East Indies Squadron where, in June 1941, she took part in operations in the Persian Gulf in support of landings at Basra.
Transferred to the Mediterranean in 1943 after the Persian Gulf was well in hand, Cockchafer took part in support of assault landings in Sicily (Operation Husky) and remained in the theatre until late 1944 when it was decided she head back to the Far East, sailing for Trincomalee and the Burma Theatre. Returning to Singapore after VJ Day, she was paid off and put in reserve until being sold locally for breaking up in 1949.
As such, Cockchafer had a better WWII experience than most of her class. Ladybird was sunk at Tobruk by German aircraft in 1941. Gnat was effectively knocked out of action by U79 at Bardia the same year. Cricket was lost off Cyprus in 1944. In the Pacific, Cicala was sunk by Japanese aircraft just before Christmas 1941 at Hong Kong only days after Moth was scuttled by own crew to avoid a similar fate. The Japanese later salvaged Moth, repaired her and, commissioned as Suma, was mined on the Yantzee in 1945. Besides Cockchafer, only sisters Aphis and Tarantula were still in active RN service on VJ Day, and they were soon disposed of.
The last of her class, Cockchafer is remembered in maritime art by Tony Bryan, being featured as she was in 1926 at Wanhsien on the cover of the 2011 Osprey book Yangtze River Gunboats 1900–49.
Displacement:625 long tons
Length: 237.5 ft
Beam: 36 ft
Draught: 4 ft
Propulsion:2 shaft VTE engines, 2 Yarrow type mixed firing boilers 2000 IHP, 35 tons coal + 54 tons oil
Speed: 14 knots
2 × BL 6-inch Mk VII guns
2 × QF 3-inch 20 cwt
6 × .303-cal Maxim machine guns
2 x QF 6 inch /40 naval gun,
2 x 1 – 76/45 Mk II
2 x 1 – 40/39 Mk VIII
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.
I’m a member, so should you be!