HMS Grafton sunk off Dunkirk

29th May 1940: The approaches to Dunkirk. A salvo of bombs dropped by 107 Squadron can be seen falling towards a German transport column. The vehicles can just be discerned on the road running down the middle of the image

The evacuation was now getting under way from Dunkirk. Troops had to endure long waits on the beaches before being embarked. Yet the hazards of being bombed or machined gunned continued even after they found their way onto a ship. Three destroyers loaded with troops were sunk off Dunkirk on the 29th May. There was only one survivor from over 600 troops who were below decks on board HMS Wakeful when she was hit by a torpedo, and only 25 of her crew survived. HMS Grafton went to pick up survivors when she too was torpedoed. Basil Bartlett was one of the Army officers on board HMS Grafton:

There was a terrific explosion as the torpedo hit the destroyer. I suppose the force of it must have knocked me unconscious. First thing I knew I was stumbling around in the dark trying to find the door of the cabin. The whole ship was trembling violently. the furniture appeared to be dancing about. There was a strong smell of petrol. I heard someone scuffling in a corner and just had the good sense to shout: ‘For God’s sake don’t light a match.’ With the greatest of difficulty I found the door and managed to get it open it.

I pushed my way out on deck. Someone said: ‘Keep down. They’re machine-gunnmg us.’ I huddled against a steel door and watched the fight. Two dark shapes in the middle distance turned out to be German M.T.B.’s. The destroyer and another British warship were giving them hell with shells and tracer-bullets. The M.T.B.’s were answering with machine-gun fire. But one by one they were hit. We saw them leap into the air and then settle down’ into the water and sink. Everyone sighed with relief….

The deck was a mass of twisted steel and mangled bodies. The Captain had been machine-gunned and killed on the bridge. The destroyer had stopped two torpedoes. She’d been hit while hanging about to pick up survivors from another ship, which had been sunk a few minutes before. She was a very gruesome sight….

Wounded men began to be brought up from the bowels of the ship. I learned that one of the torpedoes had gone right through the wardroom, killing all thirty-five of our officers who were sleeping there. It’s pure chance that I’m alive. If I’d gone on board a little earlier I should have been put in the wardroom. I only slept in the Captain’s cabin because there was no room for me anywhere else… There remained only one job to be done. We had to transfer our cargo. The men showed wonderful discipline. There was no ugly rush. They allowed themselves to be divided into groups and transferred from one ship to another with the same patience that they had shown on Bray-Dunes beach. It must have been a great temptation to get out of turn and take a flying leap for safety. But no one did …

See Basil Bartlett – My First War: An Army Officer’S Journal For May 1940 Through Belgium To Dunkirk.

HMS Wakeful sunk by torpedo off Dunkirk with over 600 troops on board on 29th May 1940. Only one man and 25 crew survived.

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