THE last time a Conservative won in Hartlepool was 1959, and perhaps he secured his slender 182 vote victory through a little skulduggery on the cinema screen.

He was Lieutenant-Commander John Kerans, who had no connection with the town that is currently the scene of one of the most important by-elections in the country for decades.

But he was the “hero of the Amethyst”, perhaps Britain’s last great boy’s own naval hero, with his daring exploits being made into a popular action adventure movie.

However, early in his career, the Irishman was regarded by his superiors as too much of a brash maverick to really do a disciplined job for the Royal Navy and so, in the late 1940s, he was appointed assistant naval attaché in Nanking, in China, on the Yangtze river.

China was in the grip of a civil war: the Kumomintang nationalists on the north bank of the river were fighting Mao Tse-tung’s Communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the south. The British liked to sail warships 200 miles up the river from Shanghai to Nanking just to keep trade routes open.

At 9.30am on April 20, HMS Amethyst came under fire from the PLA. Twenty-two crew were killed, including the captain, and Amethyst was stuck on a mudflat. With 31 badly wounded sailors stranded on board – even the mascot, Able Seacat Simon was injured by shrapnel – the British sent three warships to the rescue. They, though, were driven off by Communist guns which killed 46 British men.

Finally, Kerans was sent to take charge of the Amethyst and see if he could negotiate a way out.

But the PLA surrounded the frigate so that for 102 days it was besieged in the fetid heat. They refused to free the ship until the British, Americans and the French agreed to stop meddling in Chinese affairs.

The Amethyst’s dead were thrown overboard and the rats were gnawing through the supplies, even though Seacat Simon had recovered to take on the role of rodent reduction officer.

By July 30, Kerans had become convinced that the only way out was a dangerously a mad dash in the dark down the treacherous river.

At midnight, a merchant ship, Kiang Ling Liberation, with all its lights blazing, began moving down the Yangtse. Kerans seized his moment: he swung the battered Amethyst round, the noise of its engines concealed by those of the Liberation, and, unlit, he shadowed the larger vessel. The Chinese opened fire at the only ship they could see – the Liberation, reducing it to a burning wreck.

Hidden by smoke, Amethyst broke for freedom. At full speed in the fast flowing river, Kerans amazingly found the only narrow channel through a boom of scuttled ships with just 18 inches to spare, and, slicing a junk in two, he sailed swiftly 104 miles down river to safety.

He immediately cabled London: “Have rejoined the fleet south of Woosung. No damage. No casualties. God Save the King.”

King George VI immediately cabled back his congratulations.

Kerans was a national hero, an all action superman (Simon the cat was lauded, too). In 1957, an adventure film, The Yangtze Incident, was made with Richard Todd in the starring role.

When Kerans tried to find a new life on dry land, he became a trainee manager at South Durham Steel and Iron Company at Greatham, near Hartlepool. The local Tories pressed him to be their boy’s own candidate – he had not previously considered entering politics – and somehow, in the weeks leading up to polling day, the cinemas in Hartlepool were offered the opportunity to rent the film The Yangtze Incident for a very cheap price.

No other cinemas in the North-East are understood to have received this generous offer, and several of the Hartlepool venues are said to have screened it – perhaps the film alone accounted for Kerans’ 182-vote victory over the sitting Labour MP, Dai Jones.

In Parliament, Kerans called for the cane to be used in schools, but the constant travelling to the Pools from his home in Surrey proved too much, and he didn’t contest the 1964 election. Labour regrouped and won the seat back with Ted Leadbitter becoming the MP. He held the seat until 1992 when he handed it over to Peter Mandelson.

So Labour has held Hartlepool since 1964 – will the party do so again on May 6, or will the Conservative candidate ride the Tory tsunami, which has swept through the Tees Valley and County Durham in recent years, like Cmdr Kerans sailed the Amethyst down the Yangtse River?