• Andy Robson

The Loss of HMS Grafton

HMS Grafton was one of the ships that helped to save an army but paid the ultimate price.

HMS GRAFTON was a G-class Destroyer - the vessels of a particular class all had names beginning with the class letter. She was built at John I. Thornycroft & Co., at Woolston, Hants and was completed in March,1936 at a cost of £248,485; excluding Government supplied equipment such as her guns. She largely spent the last years of peace in the Mediterranean, including patrolling off Spain to protect British interests during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

Soon after the outbreak of War, she was transferred back to Britain for escort work; Italy did not declare war on Britain until June,1940, and so there was no current threat in the Mediterranean. Following a brief period of repairs and refitting at Hull over 26 March to 14 April,1940, she was assigned to convoy escort work between Britain and Norway. Germany had invaded Norway in early April and so these convoys were carrying reinforcements and stores to the Allied forces fighting there.

After several months of relative inactivity, the so-called 'Phony War', the German army launched a massive offensive into France, Belgium and Holland on 10 May. Using long-practiced 'Blitzkrieg' (Lightning War) tactics, the German forces advanced at an astonishing rate, throwing the Allied forces in Northern Europe into total confusion. By the 21st the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), as well as substantial numbers of French and Belgian troops, had been cut-off and were surrounded by German forces in a narrow strip along the Northern French coast. Fortunately the German Army then concentrated its efforts against the French Army to the south leaving the surrounded forces to prepare for evacuation.

The evacuation from Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo, began on 26 May.

Although much has been made of the 'little ships', the fleet of private craft of all sizes that joined the evacuation, by far the greatest number of Allied troops were carried away by the Ships of the Royal Navy. The German Army eventually returned to the attack, but the main threat to the evacuation came from the Luftwaffe which attacked the beaches at Dunkirk and the ships operating off them relentlessly. A major problem was that any jetties or moles were quickly destroyed or damaged, meaning that there was no way for the Navy's ships to reach the troops on the beaches. For this reason the troops were ordered to wade-out into the sea to reach deeper water where it was possible for small craft, many of them the celebrated 'little ships', to pick them up and ferry them out to the Naval warships. The water was freezing and the men often had to stand with the water up their shoulders for prolonged periods.

HMS GRAFTON arrived off Dunkirk on the second day of the evacuation, 27 May, and rescued 1,600 troops from the beaches of La Panne and Bray, north-east of Dunkirk. The threat from the Luftwaffe continued well out to sea, but now there were also other dangers. In the early hours of 29 May, GRAFTON went the aid of the old W-Class Destroyer HMS WAKEFUL, which had been torpedoed by the German Schnell-boat (literally fast-boat) S-30 off Nieuwpoort, Belgium; confusingly, the British referred to S-boats as E-boats. These fast, highly manoeuverable and heavily armed vessels, operating almost entirely at night, took a fearful toll of Allied shipping during the early years of the War. WAKEFUL had been wracked by a huge internal explosion and had gone down in seconds with the loss of almost 700 lives.

It was while she was stopped, picking up survivors from WAKEFUL, that GRAFTON herself became an easy target. At 02:30, she was struck by a single torpedo from the German submarine U-62; 'U' for Unterseeboot' or, descriptively, Under Sea Boat.

Her captain, Commander C.E.C. Robinson, RN, 15 of her crew and 35 soldiers who were standing on her deck, were killed by the initial explosion. The Ship quickly caught fire and, in the confusion, near-by vessels fired at what they took to be her attacker; in the process sinking the Armed Trawler HMS COMFORT and damaging the Minesweeper HMS LYDD.

Fortunately the GRAFTON did not go down and there was time for those aboard her to be rescued. 130 of her crew and approximately 750 troops were taken off by the Passenger Ship MALINES. Once she was abandoned, GRAFTON was sunk by the Destroyer HMS IVANHOE to prevent her becoming a danger to other vessels after night-fall.

MALINES was built at Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. Ltd. at their High Walker Yard. She was launched in January,1921 and completed that July. On 9 March,1922, she was taken over by the Great Eastern Railway Company for its Harwich to Continental Ports service. As built, she had accommodation for 262 x 1st Class and 112 x other passengers, plus 90 x horses. At the time of the Dunkirk evacuation she was still a civilian vessel, but was pressed into service for the duration of the emergency.

In November,1940, MALINES was requisitioned by the Admiralty as the Transport HMS MALINES. After considerable wartime service she was torpedoed by Luftwaffe aircraft off Port Said, Egypt on 19 July,1942. The ship was beached to prevent her from sinking and was not salved until the following January. It was not considered worth fully repairing her and she was pressed into service as a Training Ship at Kabret for the remainder of the conflict.

She broke down while returning to Britain in June,1945, and had to be towed to the Tyne. Afterwards she was deemed to be a constructional total loss and was broken up in 1948.

GRAFTON's attacker, U-62, was a Type-IIC coastal boat commanded by Kapitanleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Hans-Bernhard Michalowski. She was on her 3rd war patrol when she sank GRAFTON, leaving Kiel on 18 May and putting-in at Wilhelmshaven on 3 June.

She made only 2 more patrols, over June-July,1940, during which she sank the British Steamer PEARLMOOR, owned by Walter Runciman & Co. Ltd. of Newcastle, on 19 July.

The shift of the U-boat war into the North Atlantic rendered these small, short-range coastal boats obsolete for the shipping-war and most were relegated to training vessels or harbour defence boats. U-62 survived the conflict but was scuttled at Wilhelmshaven just before the end of hostilities in May,1945.

Hans-Bernhard Michalowski remained in command of U-62 but died on 20 May,1941 at the Military Hospital at Bielefeld in unknown circumstances. Many of the boat's other crew, of course, went on to serve in larger, oceanic U-boats during the 'Battle of the Atlantic'. A staggering 70% of all U-boat crewmen died during the War, the highest proportionate losses suffered by any conventional service from any nation during the conflict.

Operation Dynamo was finally concluded on 4 June,1940. In just 9-days, an astonishing 338,226 Allied troops had been carried away to safety. Though much was made at the time of the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, however, it should not be forgotten that the campaign was actually a catastrophic defeat for Britain. The men were saved, but they left behind almost all their equipment, heavy weapons and stores. The list is staggering and includes over 400 tanks, almost 2,500 artillery guns and around 65,000 other vehicles. The 4th June was the day that Winston Churchill made his famous “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech. Leading one member of the House of Commons to quip, “Yes, Winston, but with what?” During the evacuation, the Royal Navy lost 6 Destroyers, including GRAFTON and WAKEFUL, and around 200 other vessels. Many more were damaged. The operation also cost the RAF 145 aircraft, including 42 priceless Spitfires.