Irene Incident
Part of Piracy in Asia

A Chinese spear taken as prize from the pirates by the Royal Navy.
DateOctober 19-20, 1927
Result British victory, pirates captured.
 United Kingdom Chinese Pirates
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Frederick John Crosby Halahan unknown
2 submarines 1 steamer
Casualties and losses
none ~1 killed
17 captured
1 steamer sunk
Civilian Casualties: 14 killed

The Irene Incident of 1927 was a significant event during the British anti-piracy operations in China during the first half of the 20th century. In an attempt to suprise the pirates of Bias Bay, about sixty miles from Hong Kong, a Royal Navy submarine attacked the merchant ship SS Irene, of the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, which had been taken over by the pirates. The British were successful in thwarting the hijacking though they sank the Irene.[1][2]


Following the end of the Age of Sail the pirates of southern China were forced to change their tactics when it came to taking over merchant ships. New steam powered vessels, used both by the navies and the merchants, rendered fleets of heavily armed sailing junks useless. By 1927 the long history of piracy in China continued and the pirates themselves had perfected the tactic of boarding a merchant vessel as passengers and then taking it over while at sea. Some of the most successful group of pirates at the time were based out of Bias Bay, there the outlaws would hijack a vessel as close to the bay as possible before taking it in and anchoring it close to shore for the offloading of everything valuable, including hostages. On more than one occassion, when British warships were sent into the area, the pirates would been warned ahead and thus escaped arrest. So the Royal Navy created a plan to stealthly patrol the area with submarines. The British fleet at Hong Kong included twelve submarines so they assigned the L class boats HMS L4, under Lieutenant Frederick John Crosby Halahan, and HMS L5 to the operation in October of 1927. The two submarines left under everbody's assumption that routine exercises were to take place though they were actually sailing for the bay.[3]


Lieutenant Halahan knew that torpedos were not helpful in recapturing a pirate held ship but he did have a 4-inch deck gun. When the two submarines arrived they were off Mendoza Island at the entrance of the bay. The two then split up, L4 went to patrol around the entrance of the bay and Halahan ordered L5 to patrol within. Bias Bay is surrounded by rocks and that night there was a fleet of fishing junks sheltering inside for the night and constantly moving around the anchorage. Both the rocks and the junks made it difficult for the British to monitor the area without being detected though they succeeded and on the morning of October 20 they encountered the Irene steaming off Cake Island which was taken over by at least eighteen pirates armed with automatic pistols. It was still dark so the L4 was surface cruising with a crew at the 4-inch gun and another pair at the vessel's searchlight. Then the Irene was spotted so Halahan manuevered his submarine into position for firing and when the order was given, the search light was turned on and the gun crew fired a blank warning shot at the steamer. When the shot was ignored a second live round was fires and it blew a hole straight through the ship and killed a pirate who was standing on deck.[4]

The pirates still payed no attantion and continued on with their attempt to make it to shore so the 4-inch gun was opened up on them again. By this time the L5 had arrived in the area and her crew counted eight muzzle flashes from the L4's deck gun. Lieutenant Gilbert Hackforth Jones reported that they were too far away at that time to opene fire themselves but they could see the Irene burning after being struck by multiple rounds. At that point Lieutenant Halahan signaled the L5 that lifeboats were being lowered from the steamer and the he was manuevering in to rescue the survivors. The L5 followed suit and both submarines despatched a boat with one officer and one sailor each to go aboard the burning Irene. The pirates on board were counting on this and they were waiting for the British to move in close before responding and when it came they revealed themselves from their hiding places and opened fire. There shots were inaccurate though and went over the heads of the sailors in the boats which then turned around so the submarines could open fire again with their deck guns. After a few additional shots one hit struck something flammable on board the steamer and a large "blinding" explosion was observed. Following that the pirates offerred no more resistance and abandoned ship, some of them drowned in the cold water.[5][6]


The Irene was then burning well so additional ships were sent for. Most of the ships 258 passengers were saved though fourteen were never seen again. All the survivors were taken on board the submarines and later transferred to the destroyer HMS Stormcloud, the cruiser HMS Delhi and the minesweeper HMS Magnolia, which also assisted in putting out the fire on the SS Irene. The British put out the fire but because they had sprayed so much water into it she eventually capsized and sank the following day. Several men recieved decorations for their conduct in resuing survivors including lieutenant Halahan who recieved the Distinguished Service Cross. The Hong Kong police managed to filter out several of the pirates who tried to blend in with their hostages during the rescue and seven more were taken by the L5. Jones said that they found the pirates naked in a lifeboat and crying so they were taken aboard and given blankets. It a few days later when the crew of L5 were informed that the seven men they picked up were reponsible for the hijacking.[7]

In the end, seventeen Chinamen were were found guilty of piracy and hung for it in Hong Kong though some sources say only ten pirates were executed.[8] The owners of Irene later tried to sue Lieutenant Halahan but he won the case on the grounds that any naval commander has the authority to sink any ship controlled by pirates. The ship remained mostly underwater for some time, with her masts sticking out but she was later salvaged and returned to duty.[9]

See Also