Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationHMS WOOLSTON

HMS Woolston and Wanderer
On the China Station at Wuhan
with the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla 1926-8

Britain was the first of many foreign powers to take advantage of Chinese weakness to secure rights to trade and settle in treaty ports, concessions and enclaves along the coast of China and major rivers. The process began with the Treaty of Nanking at the end of the First Opium War (1841-2) and the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain and accelerated with the fall of the Quing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. Russia, France, Germany and Japan acquired treaty ports from the weak government. By 1920 there were 60,000 foreigners living in the International Settlement at Shanghai, China's largest city on the delta of the four thousand mile Yangtze River which flowed from west to east separating north from south China. All these powers had warships on the China coast and along the Yangzte to protect their ports and citizens.

Report in the Argus, Australia, on plight of women and children evacuated from Hankow, January 1927Hankow (Wuhan) at the junction of the River Han with the Yangtze was the highest point which could be reached by large ocean going merchant ships on China's longest river. Britain. France and Russia administered concessions in its commercial centre, the Bund, where the Yangtze Patrol was based to protect American interests. Its gun boats could travel upriver as far as  Chunking 1,340 miles from the sea. From 1927 HMS Ladybird, an Insect Class gunboat was based on the Upper Yangste. The American travel writer Harry A. Franck wrote in the 1920’s: "Hankow is a bustling city, wholly Western in its architecture and layout, even though completely surrounded by China, its buildings looming high into the air, with several theaters, even though they offered only American movies, with automobiles dashing their imperious way up and down the river-front Bund.”

Eugene ChenChiang Kai ShekWith the death of Sun Yat-sen, the leadership of the KMT (Kuomintang) Nationalist Party  fell on Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) on left. Chiang continued Sun's policy of allying the KMT with Soviet Russia and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). The situation became more volatile when
the KMT lost control in Peking and regional war lords seized control of much of the country. In 1926 the KMT's National Revolutionary Army (NRA) headed by General Chiang Kai-shek began the Northern Expedition to reunify China.  The tensions between the CCP and the KMT led to open warfare with Chiang Kai-shek losing control of Canton (Guangzhou) in the south to the CCP but taking control of Shanghai and Nanking on the Yangtze. Cantonese forces supported the left wing faction of the KMT and its CCP allies which took control of the deepwater port of Hankow 680 miles upriver in December. The Hankow government headed by a Chinese-Trinidadian lawyer, Eugene Chen (1878-1944) on right, became nominal ruler of most of China.

By agreement with the United States there had been no British destroyers on the China Station since 1922. Britain provided submarines and the USA destroyers to protect the treaty ports and concessions along the coast and major rivers. This agreement was now quietly shelved. In 1926 the Admiralty reinforced the China Station with the Third Destroyer Flotilla of modern V & W Class destroyers from the Mediterranean Fleet but canceled plans to send the 4th DF to the China Station in December. In January 1927 the Hankow government occupied the British Concession on the Bund and emotive articles in the London and Australian papers reported on the violent and abusive behavior of Chinese mobs to English women and children being evacuated to Shanghai. When the NRA captured the treaty port of Nanking (Nanjing) on the Yangtze in March 1927 there was large scale rioting against foreign interests, the "Nanking Incident". The British Navy sent the heavy cruiser HMS Vindictive, the light cruisers HMS Carlisle and Emerald and the 3rd DF of V & W destroyers to bombard the city and rescue foreign residents.  The Times reported that by the end of May there were 102 warships from seven nations on the Yangtze with half at Shanghai. They included HMS Keppel, the Flotilla Leader, and HMS Wishart at Shanghai and further up river HMS Verity (Chinkiang), HMS Wild Swan (Kiukiang) and HMS Woolston, Veteran, Wanderer and Witherington at Hankow (Wuhan).

The "Wuhan Debacle" was short lived. Eugene Chen was a moderating influence and negotiated the Chen-O’Malley Agreement with the British Legation in February for joint British-Chinese administration of the British Concession in Hankow. A Telegram from Stalin to Mikhail Borodin his representative in China on 1 June urging the raising of an army to crush the reactionary elements in the KMT was totally unrealistic and the breakdown of the economy compelled the Hankow government to adopt a more pragmatic approach which led to an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek and the moderates in Nanking and Shanghai.

Lt Cdr Donal Scott McGrath RN (1894 - 1978) succeeded Cdr Charles Gage Stuart RN as CO of HMS Woolston at Hankow on 10 September 1926 and remained in command until some time in mid 1927 when he took over as CO of HMS Wanderer. He was the son of wealthy Plantation owner in Jamaica and entered the Navy as a 13 year old in 1904. He was mentioned in dispatches when he carried out an attack on an enemy submarine in December 1917 “with great determination” whilst in command of HMS Foxhound, a torpedo-boat destroyer. He was promoted to Lt Cdr in December 1921 and joined HMS Venomous as her Commanding Officer in October 1923. His wife and son joined him at Malta and he distinguished himself on the Polo Field as well as at sea where his flamboyant ship handling almost ended in disaster. On leaving Venomous in December 1924 he was given command of HMS Whirlwind, Wanderer and Wild Swan which was sent with her sister ships in the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla to the China Station where he joined HMS Woolston on 10 September 1926 when she and  HMS Wanderer were based at Hankow with Veteran and Witherington.

All the photographs and documents which follow were sent to me as scans by Timothy McQuoid-Mason, the grandson of Lt Cdr Donal Scott McGrath, from family albums.
They clearly illustrate the primary objective of the destroyers, to protect the lives of British citizens and its commercial interests during this turbulent and confusing period at the start of the Chinese Civil War when there was widespread resentment of foreigners and the CCP was in the ascendancy.

Hankow was one of the three towns which formed modern-day Wuhan city, the capital of Hubei province and source of the Corona virus (Corvid-19) which spread round the world.
It stands north of the junction of the Han and Yangtze Rivers and is connected by bridges to its triplet sister towns of  Hanyang and Wuchang.


Alice in Wonderland and the death of the Governor of Malta

McGrath was appointed as CO of HMS Wild Swan on 5 August 1926 at the start of her new Commission before she left Britain with the Third Flotilla Division for the China Station where he arrived on 10 September and was given command of HMS Woolston based at Hankow.

His wife and their three children returned to Malta on the P&O passenger liner SS Mongolia where they enjoyed the pleasant social life of Valettta far removed from the dramatic events taking place on the Yangste. Once Christmas was over Mrs McGrath was swept up in preparation for the Carnival season. With other wives of serving officers she was a member of the Royal Oak Carnival Company which put on a performance of "Alice in Wonderland" aboard HMS Royal Oak, a Revenge Class Battleship based at Valletta, on 26 February. She took the part of the Lobster in the Lobster Quadrille one of the highlights of book and play.

Concert on HMS Woolston 26 February 1927 Royal Oak Carnival Company
The cast for the Royal Oak Carnival Company's performance of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" on 26 February 1927 included Mrs McGrath as  the Lobster
The performance aboard the Revenge Class Battleship took place in Malta two days before the death of the Governor, General Sir Walter Norris Congreve VC

We have no reviews of the performance which was rather overshadowed by the death two days later of General Sir Walter Congreve, the popular Governor of Malta since 1924. General Sir Walter Norris Congreve VC  served in the Second Boer War (where he won the VC at the Battle of Colenso) and the First World War where he lost an arm in 1917. The Maltese affectionately referred to him as “t'idu ganċ” (arm with a hook). A few hours before he died on 28 February, he asked to be buried at sea, off Filfla island which he loved. His burial took place on 4 March and since he died during the carnival festivities all celebrations were canceled. Lt Cdr Donal Scott McGrath's family photograph album contains many splendid photographs taken by a photographic studio in Valetta of the funeral which took place, as requested by the Governor, at sea. 

General Sir Walter Congreve's medals

General Sir Walter Congreve VC
The paddle steamer tug is salutes as it leaves with the body of General Congreve
General Sir Walter N. Congreve's medals and the last salute for the General as he goes on his last voyage aboard the paddle tug Ancient
click on the images to view full size on a separate linked page

Down the Hankow Rabbit Hole

Life for businessmen and their families in the British Concession on the bund at Hankow was about to be turned upside down. Until now a Chinese face had rarely been seen on the streets but that was to change abruptly and British residents in Hankow like Alice were to experience many strange adventures. Donal McGrath's long experience as a naval officer was of little use in solving these new problems but he photographed the rapidly changing events and the steps taken to try and control the situation.

McGrath left Malta in HMS Wild Swan with the 3DF on the 5 August 1926  and arrived at Hankow on 10 September 1926 where he was appointed CO of HMS Woolston while Wild Swan continued down the Yangtze to Kiukiang. Cantonese troops were stationed outside the concession and dead bodies were left lying where they had fallen.  The left wing of the KMT controlled Hankow with the backing of the CCP and the labour unions and with the threat of Cantonese troops of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) intervening if needed. The British trained Trinidadian-Chinese lawyer, Eugene Chen, who spoke excellent English but only basic Chinese was in charge. His first act was to merge the administrations of the three towns of Hankow, Hanyang and Wuchang and name the new city Wuhan.

Hankow from the Pontoon in December The Bund, Hankow
Hankow from the Negus Pontoon in Winter and the Bund from the Promenade
Copyright Reserved

What could the four small V & W Class destroyers berthed alongside the Nergus Pontoon near the British Concession on the bund and a few hundred sailors do to protect British interests and residents against the left wing government of the newly unified city of Wuhan which had the popular support of the labour unions and the Cantonese troops outside the city should they be needed?  McGrath photographed the sandbag barriers erected at the entrance to the British concession guarded by sailors armed with rifles from the destroyers berthed nearby and the reserves with small field guns guarding the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. These forces were entirely inadequate and their officers knew that any attempt to use force to repel demonstrators which led to bloodshed would inevitably lead to them being overwhelmed.

Cantonese troops outside Hankow 1926 Dead Chines troops outside Hankow September 1926
Cantonese troops outside Hankow in September 1926 (left) and dead Chinese troops lying where they fell in that months fighting
Canton (Guangzhou) is 80 miles north West of Hong Kong and was the main stronghold of ther Chinese Ciommunist Party (CCP)

Yjr barricade at the entrance to the British Concession on the Bund
Seamen at the barricade blocking the entrance to the Bund, the main commercial centre where the British, French and Japanese concessions were located
The British Concession was the largest and was occupied by CCP dominated faction in charge at Hankow in 1927

Honk Kong & Shanghai Bank where Reserves were quartered in times of trouble
"The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank where our Reserves were quartered in times of trouble"

Section 4 training on pontoon
"Some of No 4 Section" - sailors dressed as soldiers with steel helmets and rifles to guard British property on the Bund

Lt Cdr Donal Scott McGrath showed considerable ingenuity in devising a way of mounting one of HMS Woolston's 2-pound pom-pom guns on a carriage to that it could be used to reinforce the defence of British property on the bund but, wisely, it was never fired. It did, however, reach the attention of the Commander in Chief of British naval forces, Admiral Sir Edwyn Sinclair Alexander-Sinclair, who wrote a formal letter acknowledging his initiative.

Woolston's Field Gun on pontoon, 1926
Woolston's Field Gun on Pontoon at Hankow 1926
onal Scott McGrath took pride in having designed and built a field mounting for one of the ship's 2-lb pom-pom guns and received a letter of congratulations from CIC China
Courtesy of Donal Scott McGrath's Grandson, Timothy McQuoid-Mason

Field gun crew  drilling on pontoon
Field Gun crew drilling on Pontoon alongside HMS Woolston at Hankow in 1926

Donal McGraph's servant in HMS Woolston and two others
Donal Scott McGrath's servant (left) with "Hank" (HMS Woolston on cap band) and AB Garland at Hankow in 1926
Note the field gun on its mount on the pontoon
Courtesy of Donal Scott McGrath's Grandson, Timothy McQuoid-Mason

McGrath offering biscuit to ships dog
Donal S McGrath tempting the ship's dog with a biscuit while Hank and friends look on, 1926

Searching for poisonous literature Leaflet seeking the support of Britisj sailors for the Communidst cause Burninmgg propoganda papers

An officer searching for "poisonous  literature" (left) and a leaflet from the All China Labour Foundation dated 16 May 1927 calling on foreign sailors to support their cause
McGrath inserted a note in the margin about the"spitting incident" when a "coolie spat in a blue-jacket's face and was knocked to the ground by the butt-end of his rifle" while guarding the pontoon where HMS Wanderer was berthed
Click the leaflet to view full size in a separate window

The Occupation of the British Concession

Workers in the newly unified city of Wuhan organized themselves into trade unions which had 300,000 members by the end of the year and peasant uprisings spread throughout the countryside. With the backing of these emerging mass-movements the Kuomintang relocated from Guangzhou (Canton) in the south to Wuhan, and formed a new nationalist government in December 1926. The left and right wings of the KMT were united in their resentment of the foreigners in the concessions which were not subject to Chinese law and governed themselves. The press cuttings below were pasted by McGrath into the family photograph album and show how British attempts to resist the overwhelming force of a popular uprising which had the backing of the Wuhan government and the NRA came to nothing.

Cantonese troops entering Hankow
Cantonese troops entering Hankow in 1927
Courtesy of Donal Scott McGrath's Grandson, Timothy McQuoid-Mason

Labour union demonstrator Chinese Machine Gun unit
Holding back the protesters
"A thin line of British Marines and Bluejackets keeping back an insulting crowd of rioters"
Firemen with water hoses to repel the protesters
"Preparing to turn a hose on the mob of Chinese rioters in the British Concession in Hankow"
Marines on beach, Jan 1927
Mob running fronm fire cracker, Jan 1927
Baricade outside Maritime Customs Building Jan 1927
Sand bags orn down outside Maritime Customs Building

The occupation of the British Concession in the first week of January 1927 and the treatment of the wives and children of the British evacuated to Shanghai described in emotive terms by the Argus  and The Times was a national humiliation but the trade between the Britain and China benefited both countries. In February Eugene Chen, the Foreign Minister of the Wuhan Government,  negotiated the Chen – O’Malley Agreement with Owen St Claire O’Malley, the acting Councilor at the British Legation in China, which provided for the withdrawal of Chinese troops and a combined British-Chinese administration of the concession.

Report in Shanghai paper After this scare the CiC China requested reinforcements and in January six troop carriers took a Shanghai Defence Force of three Brigades (16,000 men) to defend the International Settlement in China's largest city. On 3 April riots in the Japanese Concession of Hankow at Wuhan led to the burning of Japanese property and the firing of machine guns at protestors which led to dozens of deaths. Eugene Chen accepted responsibility for the damage and the Japanese withdrew their troops but the Chinese troops joined in the looting. The Japanese evacuated three quarters of their residents including all the women and children.

McGrath’s command of Woolston ended in March 1927 when he took over Wanderer and handed over Woolston to Cdr. Charles Cage Stuart RN. The Navy had withdrawn the men guarding British property on the bund but McGrath set armed guards on the Negus Pontoon to prevent any attempt to board HMS Wanderer and this provoked the incident in the press report (on left) and the very different interpretation of it in the leaflet seeking the support of the foreign sailors published on 16 May

The 5th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in Wuhan between 27 April - 9 May and was attended by overseas observers including the British trade unionist Tom Mann and  Henry Sara of the CP of Great Britain and the future US Communist party leader Earl Browder. By now it was apparent that the strength of the labour unions combined with the influence of the CCP and the lack of discipline of the Cantonese NRA was creating chaos in Hankow and damaging the economy. The "May instructions", a secret telegram from Stalin to Mikhail Borodin, his representative in China, instructing the Wuhan Government to raise a force of 50,000 to crush the right wing reactionaries in the KMT led by Chiang Kai-Shek at Nanking was so obviously impossible of realisation that it led to the reconciliation of the Wuhan Government with the KMT and the final irretrievable split with the Communist Party of China. Chiang Kai-shek, firmly established in his new capital of Nanking, felt strong enough to turn on his erstwhile allies, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP was violently suppresed in Shanghai on 12 April and subsequently throughout the areas controlled by the KMT.  On  15 July the Wuhan Government purged Communists from its ranks  and on 21 September made an official statement that they would relocate to Nanjing, ending the short lived left leaning Wuhan government.

In May 1927 McGrath was recommended for special promotion by Captain (D), Third Destroyer Flotilla and Commander-in-Chief, China, on "having acquitted himself exceedingly well in difficult circumstances during recent operations on Yangtze" and on 30 June McGrath was reappointed in command of Wanderer on promotion to Commander. On 31 October McGrath and Lt Cdr Edward L. Berthon RN, CO of HMS Wivern,  visited Wuchang on the opposite bank of the Yangzte from Hankow and their report was forwarded by Rear Admiral to the CiC China. Despite the turbulent events taking place in Nanking and Hankow there was really nothing for the V & Ws to do other than lie low and make themselves as unobtrusive as possible while remaining on hand in case their assistance should be needed. Lt Eric W. Bush RN in HMS Veteran described the situation aptly:

"Life in a destroyer under these conditions was something no one had ever experienced before. Except to move down river occasionally to another treaty port, where the same routine prevailed, we did no steaming at all for months on end. In fact, except to land on the pontoon or, on one or two rare occasions, venture as far as the bund, we never stepped off the Veteran for eight months, which must be a record for modern times. The other destroyers in our flotilla had a similar story to tell".

Donal Scot McGrath in 1915
Cdr D.S. Donal McGrath RN in dress uniform
Certificate of Service in HMS Woolston and HMA Wanderer 1927-8 Donal Scott McGrath in 1924
Donal Scott McGrath in 1924
Evelyn C.O. Thomson, Captain (D) of the Third Destroyer Flotilla in HMS Keppelwrote this report on Lt Cdr D. S. McGrath RN on 19 February 1928
Thomson remained in the Far East as Captain-in-Charge at Singapore when the 3DF returned home

HMS Veteran at Hankow

John Lawton describes in The Proudest of her Line some incidents from the time HMS Veteran spent on the China Station with the 3DF:

"In January 1927 she departed Shanghai for Nanking carrying the Commander in Chief China Fleet, Sir Edwyn S.Alexander-Sinclair KCB, MVO, arriving in Nanking on the 13th where she transferred the C in C to the China River Gunboat HMS Gnat.

After a refit at Hong Veteran returned to Shanghail on 7 April. Lt Cdr C.V.S. Marsden became the CO on 22 May and on 8 June Veteran arrived at Hankow and moored at the Negus Pontoon opposite the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The Manager Mr F.H.Pentecross slept on board the ship due to the increase in Chinese Nationalism.  Chinese soldiers regularly drilled opposite the ship, pointing their rifles and pretending to shoot. AB Bert Speare was not surprised at this dislike of foreigners as he quite often saw an English businessman walking towards the Bund kicking any Chinese blocking his way out of his path. When  the ship left the pontoon on 13 July the crew had to use long poles to push dead Chinese bodies away from the side before they could be drawn into the screws and chewed up. The smell was horrendous."

Lt Eric W. Bush RN joined HMS Veteran at Hankow and gave his own first hand description in Bless our Ship (Allen and Unwin, 1958) quoted by Anthony Preston in his classic book V & W Class Destroyers 1917-1945 (Macdonald, 1971):

"The Veteran lay alongside the Negus pontoon, off the Hankow bund and opposite the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Secured to her port side and towering above her was Messrs Butterfield & Swire's river steamer Ngankin, and on the shore side of the pontoon Messrs. Jardine, Matheson & Co's Siangwo. We were completely hemmed in ...

Life in a destroyer under these conditions was something no one had ever experienced before. Except to move down river occasionally to another treaty port, where the same routine prevailed, we did no steaming at all for months on end. In fact, except to land on the pontoon or, on one or two rare occasions, venture as far as the bund, we never stepped off the Veteran for eight months, which must be a record for modern times. The other destroyers in our flotilla had a similar story to tell".

Anthony Preston continues his account of the life of the men aboard the destroyers:

"Landing parties were constantly required to protect property or to deal with parties of obstreperous Chinese soldiery trying to travel free on British river steamers. Things had not changed much since the days of 'Chinese' Gordon, when the soldiers lowly status in the Chinese social order was reflected in his vicious habits; many of the worst outrages inflicted on Chinese civilians were the work of the very soldiers employed to protect them. A further complication was the tendency for both factions in the civil war to blame the foreigner for China's woes (not an unfair view, when all is considered), and Communists and Nationalists found common ground in baiting the foreigner."

With trouble continuing in China the Bruce and eight S Class destroyers were brought forward from reserve and sent out to form a permanent China Station flotilla (the 8th) and to relieve the Mediterranean flotilla. On 15 May 1928 the 3rd Flotilla left for home with the band of the flagship playing 'Rolling Home' as each destroyer slipped past her out of Hong Kong. That tune was bitterly remembered as the flotilla battled against the south-west monsoon from Singapore to Colombo, and then on the 2,000 mile leg to Aden. Nine battered and weary destroyers limped into Aden with scarcely three days fuel left."

The journals kept by Cdr Louis Henry Keppel Hamilton, Commanding Officer
of HMS Wanderer in the Mediterranean and China Station 10 Feb-8 May 1927 and of Wild Swan at Hankow, May 1927-7 Jul 1928
are in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich

Further reading

To find out more about the political situation at Wuhan in this turbulent period at the beginning of the Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party read:

A review of the Wuhan debacle: the Kuomintang-Communist Split of 1927; by Tien-Wei Wu.
Journal of Asian Studies 1969 29 (1) p125-143

For a description of Hankow between the two world wars visit An American in China.

The Times report that HNMS VENOMOUS and the 4DF would go to China
The Times newspaper announced on 18 December 1926 that the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla would go to China to reinforce the 3rd DF
Venomous prepared for an immediate departure from Malta but the move was canceled

A new destroyer flotilla, the 8th DF, of  S Class destroyers led by HMS Bruce was established on the China Station in 1927.  Woolston returned to Britain with the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla via Port Said and Malta arriving at Devonport on the 1st September 1928. She remained with the 3rd DF in the Mediterranean until going into Maintenance Reserve at Chatham in April 1930.

Britain recognised the Nationalist Government of Chang Kai-Shek and negotiated a tariff treaty in 1928. In 1929 the British concession at Wuhan formally came to an end and from then on was administered by the Chinese authorities as the Third Special Area.  In 1932 the eight S Class destroyers in the 8th Destroyer Flotilla on the China Station were replaced by V & Ws: Verity, Veteran, Whitehall, Whitshed, Wild Swan, Wishart, Witch and Wren. They faced a very different set of problems from those facing the V & Ws in 1926. Their officers and crews remained on the China station until May 1939 but they exchanged their ships for more modern D Class destroyers of the First DF at Singapore in 1934.

In 1931 the Japanese invaded Manchuria from Korea and by 1934 Mao was leading the Communist Party on the Long March North to escape the Nationalist KMT. China was split into areas controled by the KMT led by General Shang Kai-Shek,  an area held by the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong and that occupied by the Japanese. Ten years later Britain had been expelled from Hong-Kong and Japan occupied the whole of South East Asia with the exception of Thailand.

China was finally united by Mao Zedong in 1949 and recognised as the legitimate Government of both mainland China and and Taiwan by Britain in 1950 but American recognition only came in 1979. The British mandate in Hong Kong expired in 1997 and it became part of China under the "two systems one country" principle.

Vuew from Hankow across Yangste to Wuchang
The view of Wuchang
from Hankow
From "Inside Wuhan: China's struggle to control the virus"
The Financial Times Weekend Magazine 23 April 2020

Until recently there were very few people outside China who had heard of Wuhan but that changed as a result of the corona virus pandemic.

Globalisation has consequences for our physical health as well as the environment and prosperity

Bill Forster, V & W Destroyer Association

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