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Chinese bandits captured the colourful Lieutenant Petro in 1931

Posted in Adventure, Cars, Historical articles, History on Monday, 30 September 2013

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This edited article about adventure originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 413 published on 13 December 1969.

Chinese bandits capture Petro, picture, image, illustration

Chinese bandits captured Petro by Ron Embleton

Petro had not been really worried when the clutch casing of his truck had been smashed on a rock. While the rest of his expedition headed westwards through Sin-Kiang, a remote Chinese province north of Tibet, he remained in the walled city of Hami to wait for a replacement. In a day or two a camel caravan was due, bringing up spares and supplies.

Unfortunately, Hami turned out to be anything but peaceful. A civil war had just broken out in the area and the day after the expedition drove away, rebel tribesmen surrounded the city. Hami was besieged.

At dawn, two days later, the rebels attacked. They unsportingly used slaves for the most dangerous job – placing ladders against the 28-foot-high walls – then they swarmed up the ladders with swords, while hidden riflemen gave them covering fire.

The garrison put up a terrific fight, using everything from rifles to rocks and bales of burning straw, but the outlook seemed grim until a machine gun opened up on the walls and the attackers fled. They did not flee far: the city remained under siege, and the prospects of Petro getting his replacement seemed remote.

Petro was an engineer at this time – 1931. Born in Russia, he had served as Lieutenant W. Petro in the Russian and French armies and was to serve in the British Army in the Second World War. As he also plays the violin and is an expert on Oriental antiques, his life has been a full one!

His 1931 expedition was a gigantic operation in two parts, organised by the French car firm, Citroen. The main party aimed at driving 18,000 miles from Beirut to Peking, but as the highest mountains in the world were in the way, it was arranged that they should leave their vehicles at a point in Kashmir, cross the Karakoram Range by pony, and link up with another party bringing vehicles from Peking. The vehicles were “half-tracks” – trucks with front wheels, but with caterpillar bands in place of rear wheels. Planning the Peking party had been Petro’s job.

Petro organised supplies of petrol, food and spare parts at various points between Peking and the arranged meeting place of the two parties. Having been in China for some years, he knew the difficulties involved – which included paying off local bandits who roamed the borders of China and the mysterious Gobi Desert. He was helped in this necessary blackmail by having a servant who was married to the daughter of a bandit chief! But things were made more difficult for him by the fact that the Chinese looked on the expedition as a wicked European plot! By April, 1931, however, dumps had been set up along the route and caravans carrying supplies and spares were on the march. Seven large half-tracks and two trucks set off from Peking.

They survived breakdowns, rows between the European and Chinese members of the expedition, some of the latter being Government spies, and various encounters with local officials. Then came Petro’s clutch trouble and the siege of Hami.

After the attack on the city had failed, Petro got permission to leave Hami and try and get news of his caravan. He rode out of the gates and, moments later, four ferocious-looking horsemen were brandishing sabres at him. It was no moment for heroics. He waved a white handkerchief and surrendered.

He was taken on horseback to the rebel camp, where the commander treated him civilly enough, but told him to return to Hami and tell the garrison to surrender, or else! “Or else” in that part of the world included beheading – or worse!

He was escorted back to the city’s outskirts, then rode on alone, waving his useful white handkerchief. Up went scores of rifles along the battlements and soldiers poured out of a forward trench in front of the walls and pulled him from his horse. Only the appearance of a colonel who knew him saved him from being killed on the spot.

He was taken to Hami’s commander, who laughed at the idea of surrender. Petro realised his only hope was to find someone who could make a new clutch casing and then he must try and escape. A blacksmith agreed to do his best to make one.

The siege continued. Rations were short, and rebel snipers made the battlements little better than death traps. The blacksmith had done a good job, however, and Petro went to the commander, General Chu, and promised to try and get a relief force sent if he could be given help in escaping. He needed to know first how the rebel forces were dispersed. Could the General, eighty years old but full of fight, organise a raid to catch some rebels? Petro offered a reward for whoever caught them.

The General laid on a commando-type raid which brought back two prisoners. The thought of losing their heads appalled them and they talked.

The break-out was planned for 2 a.m. on 18th October, 1931, the 117th day of the siege. The previous afternoon a breach was made in the north wall, leaving just a few stones in place to hide it. That night, two diversionary raids were launched from other gates and the rebels rushed to beat them off. Meanwhile, the hole in the north wall was opened and a ramp quickly made. The newly-mended truck, with Petro and a Chinese officer in it, inched its way forward through the darkness. In front of the truck was Petro’s interpreter, Gombo, searching for obstacles.

Moments later, the truck started sinking into soft sand. To the sound of distant guns they dug the wheels out and put down stones in front of them. Then they drove on.

Suddenly, a troupe of horsemen loomed out of the darkness ahead of them. Petro switched on his headlights and slammed his foot on the accelerator. The truck shot forward. The horsemen raised their rifles, but their horses panicked at the sight of the monster looming out of the night and fled. The truck sped on. The blacksmith had done his work well. They were free!

Hami was later relieved and, amazingly, Petro caught up with his expedition, which had been arrested by local politicians. After much difficulty, they were freed and went on to meet the party from Beirut, which finally reached Peking in 1932. As for Petro, he survived to have many more adventures.

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