Royal Navy Insect Class River Gunboat





1915 – 1938



‘A Lucky Little Ship’




HMS Scarab China Station c1920

Fantastic original postcard

(Click to enlarge)


HMS Scarab Insect-Class River Gunboat ordered from Wood Skinner of Newcastle on 29th February 1915 and launched on 7th October 1915 as the 1st Royal Navy ship to carry this name. Build was completed on 14th November 1915. During 1917 she was deployed in support of military operations on the Danube, based at Bucharest. She remained there until 1919 when she took passage to join the China Squadron for service in the Yangtze Flotilla to provide aid for British flagged shipping and British nationals in an unstable environment. Scarab was powered by Yarrow boilers providing 2000 horsepower and an official top speed of 14 knots but capable of 18. She carried a complement of between 35 and 50 and a very respectable armament. (Refer below)



B a t t l e   H o n o u r s


(Mesopotamia) 1917

H e r a l d i c   D a t a

Badge: On a Field Black, a scarab blue and gold


M o t t o

Vivo ut vinco:  'I live that I may conquer'


(click to enlarge)


Early in the First World War, when Turkey became Britain’s enemy, there was a requirement for well armed, shallow draught warships to give support to the army in Mesopotamia, the main supply line being the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The Admiralty gave Messrs Yarrow of Scotstoun, who knew more about shallow draught steamers than most, their requirements, and this firm designed the Insect class and supervised their building by a number of firms, as they themselves were busy turning out destroyers as fast as they were able.


At the end of the war in 1918 these river gunboats were transferred to the river Dvina in North Russia, the Danube, and other places, and gave very useful support in places inaccessible to ships of normal draught. When these tasks were completed all the river gunboats were sent to China, the majority working on the river Yangtze up to Hankow, other smaller boats being used as far as Chungking. These Yangtze gunboats normally refitted and rested at Shanghai, but were familiar sights at Nanking and other ports on the river. A few were based on Canton (Shameen) for use on the west river refitting at Hong Kong which was in easy reach and calm waters.


These Insect – class ships were specially designed so that they could be shipped out in pieces and erected easily by firms abroad. The mid-ships section was simply a rectangular box. To avoid propeller damage in very shallow water, the screws were in an interior tunnel of Yarrow design.


The armament of one six inch gun at either end was a powerful one for such a small ship. Super-firing over these were single twelve pounder guns, but these were later changed in some boats to modern guns such as three inch and two pounder pom-pom guns. In addition there were three mountings either sided for Maxim machine guns.


There were two Yarrow boilers, mounted side by side, each with its own uptake to the two side by side funnels. Coal bunkers were located outboard of the boilers either side.  Each screw was driven by a set of vertical triple expansion reciprocating engines. Both coal and oil could be burnt in all except Moth, which was all oil. The engines and boilers came much higher than the upper deck, but of course they were hidden in the superstructure. All accommodation was below the waterline. As the China gunboats spent much time in very hot weather, the whole boat was covered with canvas awnings to within a foot of the waterline. Even so it was often desirable for the crews to sleep on the upper deck camp beds.


The Insect class were in China for about twenty years between the wars and their replacement by more modern turbine driven boats had started just before the Second World War. A few were seized by the Japanese and a few scrapped, but a number gave wonderful service in the Mediterranean and other waters in weather conditions much worse than the designers had expected, and even when one was bombed and another was torpedoed they were still used as anti-aircraft platforms, an excellent feature of their design being the large number of water-tight compartments. The last of the Insects was scrapped in 1948 after a long and useful life.


The flagship of the Yangtze Flotilla (R.A.Y.) was Bee which was built up with a lot of top hamper to take the Admiral and his small staff with the necessary administrative offices. Bee looked not unlike a small Mississippi steamer of the Mark Twain era without the paddle-wheel.


The low ratio of length to beam and the rectangular mid-ship section suggest a good working model. Decks were all steel covered with brown corticene. In China all gunboats were painted white with primrose yellow funnels and brown mast. Some had two masts. In wartime these boats were camouflaged or painted in various shades of grey. A kedge anchor was carried on deck aft for helping boats to free themselves of the mud if necessary.


H.M.S Scarab steaming up the  Yangtze River

Nanking China December 12 1937

She returned fire at the Jap planes.

Bombing her from above

Original press photo

(Courtesy of Rupert K Clarke)



625 tons


230 feet (BP) 237 ½ feet overall.

Original Armament:

2 six inch guns, 2 twelve pounder guns and machine guns.

The twelve pounders were replaced by 3 inch anti-aircraft guns and pom-poms after World War 1


About 60 Officers and Men


Twin screw reciprocating engines 2000 horsepower for 14 knots max.


Two Yarrow boilers



(Click to enlarge)



Shanghai Harbour 1934

Photos courtesy Alan Gilby

(Click to enlarge)



Original embroidered badge

Yangtze River Gunboatman's Association





HMS Scarab Christmas Card 1928

 with original photo and Scarab crest


With Heartiest Greetings for Christmas

and Sincere Good Wishes

For your Heath & Happiness

In the new year

“From Herbert on the Yangtze Patrol

to Thirza with kisses”

(Click to enlarge)


HMS Scarab original postcard

Concert Party c1920

(Click to enlarge)



H.M.S. Scarab

China Station   1937


Scarab, Cockchafer and Mantis were involved in what became known as the Wanhsien Incident in August and September 1926.



Wanhsien  Expedition

 Naval Officers before the scrap

From HMS Scarab, Cockchafer, Mantis and  SS Kiawo



Wanhsien  Expedition

Surviving Naval Officers 

Surgeon Lieutenant Murray –HMS Mantis

Lieutenant Fogg-Elliot –HMS Mantis

Lieutenant Peterson –HMS Scarab


(For more details please go to Wanhsien Incident)


HMS Scarab

Yangtze 1937 – 1939 Photo courtesy of David Richardson

son of crew member Petty Officer Ernest Richardson,

HMS Ladybird 1937-1941


China Posting


Mr W. E. Breton from St Martins, Guernsey writes:


I was serving on HMS Caradoc at Hangkow on the Yangtze River in the early 1930s.The ‘Yangtze Cruiser’ as it was known

together with 13 gunboats looked after British interests on the river from Shanghai to Chungking.

Most docking and refitting was carried out at Shanghai and it was probably while Scarab was in dockyard hands

that this letter was posted. I took this picture of her alongside there before I came home in 1934.




HMS Scarab   Shanghai China 1934

During refit


Entire China Fleet at anchor, Liu-Kung-Tao Island 1934

The whole flotilla, including six submarines.

There will be H.M.S. Ajax, Achilles, Exeter, possibly Leander, Wishart, Keppel, Bruce, Electra, Cumberland, Escort,

and I’m unsure about King George V, it may be there



Shanghai Harbour, Yangtze River, China 1934

Royal Navy ships of the China Station.

Insect Class River Gunboat lower right.



H.M.S Scarab Bell



Via Siberia - The mail must get through!


Mr G. G. Wright from Mt. Maunganui, New Zealand writes:


Prior to 1936 all mail for the China Fleet was sent via Siberia taking up to three weeks if a ship was in

Northern waters and much longer if ships were further South. By sea mail it was never less than six weeks.

When Imperial Airways introduced the Short Empire Flying Boats they took over the mail run as far as Singapore

and from then on mail arrived in days instead of weeks, again depending where a ship happened to be.

It was a great improvement and appreciated by all.


(China Posting and Via Siberia courtesy of Len Mell)



HMS Scarab  Invitation

An old invitation to dine on H.M.S. Scarab to celebrate the 25th anniversary of King George V accession to the throne.

Yangtze River


6 May 1935




H.M.S. Scarab ships photos taken 1937-1939


Before restoration work





Click to enlarge


HMS Scarab ship’s complement


Taken in 1938 after free booze up at U.B. Breweries.

X marks me. Bloke in middle holding pint glass – The Buffer

(Click to enlarge)


Note: The identity of “X marks me” is unknown


Pay day under forward 6 inch gun.

The chap standing with arms behind back C.P.O. Bozier,

served in World War I


Chinese No 2 Boat Boy washing the jack


Scrub decks Tin Hats

As my brother, ex RAF type said,

“What a scruffy lot”

X marks me


HMS Scarab soccer team

The Odds and Sods

The tall chap in the middle “Jack Dusty” became a Lieutenant M.B.E.

(Notice the Scarab crests on their shirt pockets)

(Click to enlarge)


Closed up at 3 inch H.A. Gun

Sunday 12th December 1937


Closed up – day we got bombed

Notice Lewis Gun.

and the crewman (left)

holding the Scarab mascot Sparky



H.M.S. Scarab 

Floodlit for King George VI Coronation









H.M.S. Scarab WW2


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