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HMS Dragon : A 3 War Ship

HMS Dragon : A 3 War Ship

The light cruiser HMS Dragon had a very interesting career in the Royal Navy and Polish navy. From WW1 to the Russian Civil War to WW2

Dragon was a D- class cruiser built for the Royal Navy. She was launched in 1917 during WW1, and then famously scuttled in 1944 off the Normandy beaches as part of the Arromanches Breakwater.

She was commissioned on 10 August 1918 as HMS Dragon. Commanded by Capt. A. H. Allington, the light cruiser was commissioned late during World War I and she is credited with having her South African crewman Maurice Green firing the last shot of the war at sea when she was engaging German seaplanes off Heligoland Bight on the 9 November 1918. 

HMS Dragon and War Angler. 18th March 1918

After the war she carried the future King Edward VIII to Canada in August 1919 to begin a royal tour.

She then took part in the Russian Civil War as part of a task force aiding newly independent Latvia and Estonia against the Bolsheviks and German Freikorps forces in October and November 1919, as part of the British intervention in the Baltic. On 17 October 1919 Dragon was hit by three shells fired from a shore battery while taking part in operations against German forces attacking Riga, with nine killed and five wounded.

HMS Dragon in the 1920s

In 1920 she was made part of the First Light Cruiser Squadron in the Atlantic Fleet and then in 1924, she was attached to a large task force with HMS Hood, Repulse, Delhi, Danae and Dauntless for a variety of tours and tasks around the world. Dragon would go on to be stationed in Zanzibar, Ceylon, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, and Jamaica, and took part in official visits to the United States, Dutch Antilles, and Australia.

On 20 December 1928, she was withdrawn from service and underwent a major refit with many improvements and major changes. 

Crew members from Dragon pose for a photo at the bow of the ship during a harbour visit in the 1920s.

On 22 January 1930, the refit was completed and Dragon entered commission once more. She was commissioned a number of times during the 1930s. HMS Dragon then headed out into the Pacific as part of the China Station, but was re-attached to the America and West Indies station in 1935.

In 1934, she was involved in a collision with a ship in the harbor of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Which resulted in an Admiralty action against her captain at the time, Frederic Wake-Walker. The Canadian courts found him liable for the collision. That finding of liability was upheld on appeal by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Montreal Harbor around 1935, thank you Wayne State University

In late October 1936 HMS Dragon attempted several times to rescue and tow the large Spanish cruise liner Cristobal Colon. She had struck a reef north of Bermuda, sadly she was not successful, and the remains of Cristobal Colon still lie at the reef as a wreck today. 

She was recommissioned with a reserve crew on 16 July 1937 to serve as a tender to HMS Cardiff and in 1938-9 she formed part of the Reserve Fleet based at The Nore.

During World War II, the ship was initially attached to the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the Northern Patrol, operating in the Shetland area. In November 1939, she took part in the hunt for  the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee. In February 1940, HMS Dragon crossed the Mediterranean and returned to the Atlantic. 

‘On 16 September 1940 during France’s defeat she scored her first victory after capturing the French steamer Touareg. On the 23 September of the same year she reached the area of the port of Dakar, where she took part in Operation Menace against the French fleet stationed there. Together with HMS Inglefield and Foresight, she sank the Vichy France submarine Persée and took part in shelling the port. HMS Dragon then moved to Freetown, from where she operated against the German cruiser Admiral Scheer in December.

Port of Dakar

Until November 1941 Dragon escorted various Atlantic convoys, after which she was moved to Asia.

After war with Japan was declared in December 1941 she was put part of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command forces, escorting convoys to Singapore, with Dragon the last ship to leave that city before it surrendered.

On the 20 January 1942, she was attached to the Western task force operating in the Java Sea, which included HMAS Hobart, HMS Danae, HMS Tenedos and HMS Scout. After the fall of Java, she joined HMS Caledon and the Dutch cruiser HNLMS Jacob van Heemskerck, and operated from Ceylon. In May she was then moved to Madagascar. The following month, most of the crew of the ship were moved to other units, Dragon went back to Britain for refurbishment and repair. Since the tiny crew could not operate the ship independently, she had to be attached to various convoys back and it took 6 months before she finally reached Liverpool via Cape Town, Chatham and Durban.

On the 15th of January 1943 she was handed over to the Polish Navy, renamed ORP Dragon and manned by a Polish crew. 

THE POLISH NAVY IN BRITAIN, 1939-1947 () A quarter view of the Polish cruiser ORP Dragon (Dragoon) off Liverpool, 10 September 1943. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205151862

While the name of the ship remained the same it took on a new meaning. Dragon in Polish is smok, while “Dragon” in Polish means Dragoon. She was modernized in the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, she was refitted with a new electric plant, radar was fitted and her armament improved. The refurbishment was finished on the 23rd of August 1943 and the ship was moved to Scapa Flow. 

From there she operated as part of various convoy escorts.

On the 20th of February 1944 she was joined by HMS Berwick and Jamaica and escorted the JW.57 convoy to Murmansk. Upon her return she was attached to various larger ships for training of sea to land support operations for D-day and the Battle of Normandy. Finally on the 2nd of June she was attached to a flotilla with HMS Ramillies, Warspite, Mauritius, Frobisher, Arethusa, Danae and 24 smaller vessels in support and headed for Normandy and the D-day beaches.

The ship saw action at the initial Normandy landings as part of Operation Neptune, shelling German shore batteries at Colleville-sur-Orne and at Trouville on Sword Beach from a distance of four kilometers away. A near miss by a German 4 inch shore battery gun wounded three sailors. She withdrew under cover of the battleship HMS Ramillies and the monitor HMS Roberts, whose fire guns destroyed the battery. In the evening of D-Day she moved to the Juno Beach sector, to support the advancing Allied troops. 

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The following day the ship shelled German positions in and around the town of Caen. However, on 8 June a communication systems failure prevented the ship from bombardment support and it was not until late at night that she again opened fire against the German 21st Panzer Division near Varaville. 

She then took part in an artillery duel with a shore battery at Houlgate destroying the battery, and then she returned to Portsmouth for fuel and supplies. She returned to battle and between the 12 June and 17 June she again shelled German positions near Caen, Guerneville, Lébisey and Varaville. During that time, she also avoided an enemy torpedo attack by an unknown submarine. 

On 18 June she was bound for Portsmouth escorting HMS Nelson which had been struck by a mine.
Nelson firing her 16-inch guns during a practice shoot; their muzzle blast churns up water to starboard

On 7 July 1944 Dragon returned to the area off Caen, where she was to take part in the final artillery preparations for capturing the city after its month-long siege. At 5:40 am the following day, while waiting for the order to open fire HMS Dragon was hit by a German Neger manned torpedo and 26 men were killed on Dragon.

The Neger which attacked Dragon was piloted by Midshipman Potthast. On the 13 June, a week after the Normandy landings, 40 Neger human torpedoes and their crew travelled from Italy to Normandy. Allied fighter bomber activity made it difficult to travel during daylight and the flotilla leader, Lieutenant Johann-Otto Krieg, was seriously wounded in one attack. Potthast, as the next most experienced pilot, took command and they finally met with Captain Friedrich Böhme who had been sent ahead to the Bay of the Seine to build facilities for the K-flotilla’s arrival.

image of a ww2 ‘neger’ human torpedo

Neger set sail in the early hours of 7 July.  At 03:00 a line of small patrol vessels passed by Potthast, but he wanted to sink a warship. Around 04:00 he sighted a Hunt-class destroyer, but she turned away about 500 yards from him, forcing him to wait. In the moonlight he then saw several warships crossing his path and he steered to attack the rear ship, which seemed larger than the others. At a distance of 300 yards Potthast pulled the torpedo firing lever and he made a post-attack escape.

The explosion, so close by hurled his neger out of the water.  When the smoke cleared you could see that the warship’s stern had been blown away. Other vessels counterattacked, firing wildly as they could not see the Potthast, the Neger managed to evade them.

The explosion caused a fire in the 3rd magazine, which had to be flooded. And the 3rd engine was also badly hit. The ship started to sink on her port side and the angle of list reached 9°, but she was stabilized by the captain. Who ordered all the turrets to train their barrels to starboard.

Another 11 sailors died of wounds and the situation was stabilized and the ship was moved to shallow waters. Where she was to await the ebb tide. After the water was pumped out of the flooded engine room. It was discovered that the hull was pierced across two sections and the hole was approximately a very large 5 meters by 15 meters. Although still afloat and repairable, it was decided that the ship should be abandoned. 

On the 10 July the USS LST-494 aided Dragon by transporting 17 of her officers and 320 of her enlisted men from Normandy to England. Until 15 July the remaining skeleton crew dismantled the armament of the ship. An additional two bodies were found in the ship, and the dead were buried at sea.

In conclusion, on 16 July she was decommissioned and then towed to Mulberry “B”. Where on 20 July she was scuttled to form part of the artificial breakwater near Courseulles. On 4 October 1944, she was replaced in Polish service with the ORP Conrad, that was HMS Dragon’s sister ship HMS Danae.

HMS Dragon : A 3 War Ship Written by Harry Gillespie

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