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

HMS Woolston and Wanderer
On the China Station
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 Yangzte 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.

Hankow was situated where the Han River joined the Yangste and was the highest point on China's longest river navigable by large ocean going ships. Its commerical centre, the Bund, on the river front was where Britain. France and Russia administered concessions and where the Yangste Patrol was based to protect American interests. Its gun boats could travel upriver as far as  Chunking 1,340 miles from the sea. 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.”

With the death of Sun Yat-sen, the leadership of the KMT (Kuomintang) Nationalist Party  fell on Chiang Kai-shek. 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 loosing control of Canton in the south to the CCP but taking control of Shanghai and Nanking on the Yangste. Cantonese forces in the south supported the left wing faction of the KMT and its CCP allies  which was in control of the deepwater port of Hankow 680 miles upriver.

There had been no British destroyers on the China Station since 1922. By agreement with the United States Britain provided submarines and the USA destroyers to protect the tresty 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 from the Mediterranean Fleet of modern V & W Class destroyers but cancelled plans to send the 4th DF to the China Station in December. When the NRA captured the treaty port of Nanking (Nanjing) on the Yangzte 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 Yangzte 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).

In 1927 the left wing of the KMT in alliance with the CCP took control of Hankow and aided by Cantonese forces and with popular support became the nominal government for the whole of China. The British concession was occupied. The "Wuhan Debacle" was short lived. A Telegram from Stalin urging the raising of an army to crush the reactionary elements in the KMT was totally unrealistic and the breakdown of the economy compelled a more pragmatic approach which led to an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek and the moderates in Nanking and Shanghai. This was the confusing position at Hankow when HMS Woolston, Wanderer, Veteran and Witherington were sent there to protect British citizens and look after British interests in the Concessions.

Lt Cdr Donal Scott McGrath RN (1894 - 1978) succeeded Cdr Charles Gage Stuart RN as CO of HMS Woolston 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 before joining HMS Woolston on 10 September 1926 and was sent with her sister ships in the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla to the China Station where she and HMS Wanderer were based at Hankow.

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) spreading 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.


There is some doubt about the exact date the Third Destroyer Flotilla left the Mediterranean for the China Station but it may have been after the funeral of the Governor of Malta in March 1927 since Lt Cdr Donal Scott McGrath's family photograph album contains many splendid photographs taken at the funeral. 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 and was a popular Governor of Malta from 1924-1927. 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 cancelled.

Concert on HMS Woolston 26 February 1927
A carnival concert held aboard HMS Woolston on 26 February 1927 two days before the death of the Governor of Malta
Was this carnival dance aboard Woolston at Malta or, out of nostalgia, at Hankow?

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 1927
Courtesy of Donal Scott McGrath's Grandson, Timothy McQuoid-Mason

"Hank" and friends with Donal S McGrath holding dog biscuit
Donal S McGrath tempting the ship's dog with a biscuit while Hank and friends look on, 1927

Cantonese troops outside Hankow 1926Cantonese troops entering Hankow 1927
Cantonese troops outside Hankow in September 1926 (left) and entering the city in 1927

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

Field gun on pontoon alongside HMS Woolston t Hanchow
Field Gun on Pontoon at Hankow 1927
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 longside HMS Woolston at Hankow in 1927
Field Gun crew drilling on Pontoon alongside HMS Woolston at Hankow in 1927

Yjr barricade at the entrance to the British Concession on the Bund
Seamen at the barricade blocking the entrance to the Bund, the main comercial 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, sailors dressed as soldiers
"Some of No 4 Section" - sailors dressed as soldiers with steel helmets and rifles to guard British property on the Bund

Donal Scot McGrath in 1915
Donal Scott McGrath in 1915
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 descibes 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."

Hankow from the Pontoon in December The Bund, Hankow
Hankow from the Negus Pontoon (no date given) and the Bund from the Promenade
Copyright Reserved

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 Shaghai 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 obstreporous 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 potect them. A further complication was the tendency for both factions in the civil war to blame the forreigner 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."

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 Kuomitang and the Chinese Communist Party read:

A review of the Wuhan debacle: the Kuomitan-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.


HMS Woolston sailed in Chinese waters in 1926 as part of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla which was ‘on loan’ to the China Fleet.
A new destroyer flotilla, the 8th DF, was established on the China Station in 1927 and remained there until May 1939. Woolston was on the China Station until July 1928 when she  returned to Britain with the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla via Port Said and Malta arriving at Devonport on the 1st September. She rejoined the 3rd DF in the Mediterranean until going into Maintenance Reserve at Chatham in April 1930.

If you want to find out more about the wartime service of a member of your family who served on HMS Woolston you should first obtain a copy of their service record
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