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Chapter 4.5
Survey work since the Second World War
Contributor: Tam Kwong-lim

Since the Second World War, the British returned to East Asia. Since 1941, under pressure from Japanese naval expansion in Asia, the British China Station was re-organised, with the stipulation that in the event of war, the three main commands in the Far East, the East Indies Squadron, the China Squadron and the Australian Squadron, should all fall under one command called the Eastern Fleet based in Singapore. When the Allied forces gained the upper hand and Japanese expansion was checked, the British created the British Pacific fleet in 1944 - 1945, and the Eastern Fleet later became the Far East fleet which operated in all Far East areas, including parts of the Pacific Ocean.[24]

Similar to the arrangement of the “China Station”, the main bases remained in Singapore and Hong Kong, where the survey vessels were based.[25]

Partly because of reduced funding and perhaps due to post-war geopolitical realities, British naval survey ships’ work in Hong Kong waters was gradually curtailed. Survey vessels stationed in the Far East were often more focused on survey work in Malaysian waters. Often only one survey ship was assigned to the Far East Fleet, covering the survey work of Southeast Asia and occasionally Hong Kong.

In 1945, to urgently upgrade and update the pre-war Admiralty charts, a special Hong Kong Surveying Unit was set up and tasked with obtaining local sounding data. A survey ship, HMS Challenger (commissioned in 1932, of 1,140 long ton displacement and a shallow draft of 3.81 metres)[26], was sent to assist the Hong Kong Surveying Unit in surveying and producing two charts: “Hong Kong Water, East” and “Taikoo Docks and Aldrich Bay”. The dock area was heavily bombed during the War and therefore needed re-surveying.

To facilitate seaborne traffic between Guangzhou and Hong Kong as well as between Macao and Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Surveying Unit, as a matter of urgency, surveyed and produced three charts in 1946 named “Approaches to Macao”, “Kap Shui Mun to Boca Tigris, South Sheet, Canton River” and “Kap Shui Mun to Boca Tigris, North Sheet, Canton River”, in order to reopen intra-city water traffic.

A substantive correction of sounding data within the harbour of Hong Kong was released by the Hong Kong Marine Department in 1952, enabling mariners to make corrections to their charts for entering and taking anchorage in Hong Kong waters.

In 1949, when tension was high along the border following the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic of China, precipitating a flood of mainlanders into Hong Kong, the British naval presence was strengthened. Two naval survey ships, HMS Dampier and HMS Belfast, were then in Hong Kong waters at the same time, whereupon some survey work was undertaken mainly on both entrances to the harbour, probably for military considerations.

Part of HMS Dampier’s survey work was to cover the border area of Deep Bay. In view of the sensitivity of the work, a Royal Marine Commando unit was in attendance to provide armed protection.

HMS Belfast, on the other hand, was not a survey vessel but a light cruiser. She was dispatched to Hong Kong to join the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet in 1948. As flag ship of the 5th Cruiser Squadron, Belfast was the Far Eastern Station’s headquarters ship during the April 1949 Amethyst Incident, in which a British naval ship, HMS Amethyst, anchored near Nanjing in Changjiang, was attacked by the People’s Liberation Army who had taken control of the area and was making a determined effort to oust illegal foreign military presences in the heart of China’s waterways.

Commissioned in 1939, HMS Belfast has a displacement of 11,550 tons and a steam-turbine engine capable of generating 80,000 shp (60,000 kW) It is heavily armoured with 24 guns, 16 heavy 2-pounders, eight machine guns and six torpedo tubes.

The ship remained in Hong Kong in 1949 and helped survey the Fat Tau Mun (Tathong Channel), making it a good example of a military vessel engaging in triangulation survey work during peace-time.

It is worth mentioning that Belfast went on to participate in the Korean War of 1950-1952. The ship is now preserved and anchored on the River Thames in London as a jewel exhibit of the British Imperial War Museum.[27]

Meanwhile, HMS Dampier had been built in 1944 as Loch Eil, a frigate. She was soon renamed Herne Bay in 1945. As the War was over, the ship was again refitted and converted into a survey ship in 1947, and renamed HMS Dampier. The ship was then sent to the Eastern Fleet based in Singapore. From 1950 until 1965, HMS Dampier remained in Asia, carrying out dedicated survey work in and around South East Asia, including Hong Kong waters. The last survey in Hong Kong undertaken by this grand old lady was a triangulation survey of the Southern Approaches of Hong Kong under survey number K4714 for a chart index number of 1180.

One highlight of HMS Dampier’s work was the detailed survey of shoal soundings in the harbour in 1964, undertaken together with Hong Kong University’s Physics Department using prototype sideways-looking sonar developed by the University.

HMS Dampier also greatly assisted a number of significant civil engineering projects within the harbour by carrying out a series of survey works for the “Port Works and Development Plans in Vicinity of Hong Kong” from 1958 to1961, as well as making soundings near piers in six areas of Hong Kong Harbour in 1960.[28]

However one survey vessel alone could not satisfy all the civil engineering and development requirements in a rapidly expanding Hong Kong. For some important public projects where important data was a pre-requisite for development decisions, the Hong Kong Public Works Department sometimes had to throw their resources in the hydrographic survey work. This occurred in 1961 when Kwun Tong was first earmarked for development as one of the early “satellite towns”, involving some reclamation work. Similar survey work was also undertaken in preparation for the reclamation of HM Dockyard in 1961. Utilising the same survey equipment, the Public Works Department also surveyed and made soundings of Tung Chung Bay from 1959 to 1961.[29]

Hydrographic surveys were sometimes required in specific spheres by commercial enterprises. When an undersea cable was laid to connect Hong Kong with Southeast Asia and beyond, Cable and Wireless Ltd., a British company which had a monopoly to provide long-distance telephonic services in Hong Kong, had to engage its own contractors to carry out hydrographic survey work in Deep Water Bay, from where the submarine cable was laid across the South China Sea.[30] Additional survey work was also undertaken from Hong Kong to Sabah, along the route of the submarine cable in 1962.

For Hong Kong’s own development plan, Hong Kong Government’s Public Works Department did delegate some survey work to be carried out by HMS Dampier. One of these “joint undertakings” was the survey of Rambler Channel and Tsing Yi Bay in preparation for the construction of Hong Kong’s container terminals at Kwai Chung. Other local projects with similar arrangements were the surveys by HMS Dampier jointly conducted with the Public Works Department of the Kowloon Yard Basin as well as the taking of soundings off the Kwun Tong Public Pier, Stanley’s St. Stephen Pier, Sha Tau Kok Pier, and also the then proposed Kat-O Pier.[31]

Another major public work that employed its own private contractor to carry out a hydrographic survey was the gigantic Plover Cove Water Scheme in 1963. The British contractor of the scheme, which required several dams to be built to create a man-made fresh-water lake, had to engage private contractors to carry out hydrographic surveys of Tolo Harbour to secure sufficient data for the construction work to go ahead.[32]

After the withdrawal of HMS Dampier from Hong Kong waters in 1965, it took 6 years for the British Government to assign another naval survey vessel, HMS Hydra, to undertake projects in Hong Kong. Unlike HMS Dampier, Hydra was designed and built as a survey vessel. The ship was relatively small, of 2,800 tons, 235 feet in length and 49 feet in breadth, built and commissioned in 1965. As it turned out, HMS Hydra’s spell in Hong Kong was short. It had barely completed two approach charts of Soko Island to Shek Kwu Chau in 1971, and surveys of the Eastern and South Western Approaches to Hong Kong in 1972, before being withdrawn from duties in Hong Kong.[33] After this, no Royal Naval ship carried out any further surveys in Hong Kong waters. In 1995, the Government of Hong Kong set up its own Hydrographic Office.


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