Last Dunkirk Destroyer Survivors Reunited With Recovered Artefacts

By David Prudames | 07 July 2004
Shows a photograph of three men gathered around a table looking at a nameplate and crest, which have been laid out on a white tablecloth.

Photo: Jim Kane (centre) and Geoffrey Kester (right), survivors of the sinking of HMS Wakeful, were shown artefacts recovered from the wreck on board HMS Southampton and were joined by Dr Campbell McMurray, director of the Royal Naval Museum.

Two of the last known survivors of the sinking of HMS Wakeful in 1940 were reunited with the only remnants of the ship on dry land at Portsmouth Naval Base on July 6.

Jim Kane, 84, and Geoffrey Kester, 83, came to view Wakeful’s footplate and crest, which were recovered from the wreck of the ship off the Belgian coast last year and are now on display at the Royal Naval Museum.

The veterans were greeted on board one of the Royal Navy’s modern destroyers, HMS Southampton, by Naval Assistant Commodore Angus Menzies and Dr Campbell McMurray, museum director.

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, Richard Noyce, curator of artefacts explained how meeting the survivors brought home the human side of the tragedy.

"They were quite emotional and enjoyed touching the objects" said Richard. "They are their link back to the ship itself."

Shows a photograph of two elderly gentlemen on the top deck of HMS Southampton. A large gun can be seen to the right.

Photo: Jim Kane, 84, and Geoffrey Kester, 83, on board HMS Southampton.

"The personal accounts give the human side to the objects, so people can relate to them a lot more," he added. "We hold very little on Dunkirk anyway so to have these objects brought up from the ship is quite rare."

HMS Wakeful was sunk during the heroic mass evacuation of the Dunkirk beaches in the early hours of May 29 1940.

She was on her way back to Dover for a second time with around 640 rescued troops on board when she was hit by a German torpedo. Apart from an estimated 25 crew members and a handful of army evacuees, all on board died when the ship broke in two and sank in 15 seconds.

All the troops on board were resting below decks when the torpedo hit and Jim Kane, now 84, was one of the few who managed to escape.

Shows a black and white photograph of a young soldier, standing stiffly in full uniform, including a white belt, beret and very shiny boots.

Photo: Jim Kane was one of a small number that survived the sinking of HMS Wakeful and later spent three years in a Prisoner of War camp.

"It was while we were sleeping that we were hit by a torpedo," said Jim. "There was a terrible explosion, which lifted the ship up, put out the light and smashed everything around us. Then all I could hear were cries and shouts for help."

Mr Kane, who lives in East Yorkshire, was picked up by a whaler from HMS Grafton, before being transferred to a cross-channel ferry.

Geoffrey Kester, 83, from Southampton, was an ordinary seaman on HMS Wakeful at the time she was hit and was picked up by the trawler Comfort. But, as he explained, disaster struck again in under an hour when the vessel was shelled.

"We were all on the verge of sleep when there was a terrific crash," said Geoffrey, "the lights went out and water came pouring in on us."

"We were all thrown out of our bunks and landed in a heap on the deck, which was already under water. I think we felt there was no chance of getting up to the deck above, but one of Comfort’s crew smashed open a hatch in the deckhead and we quickly scrambled through to the upper deck; all of us naked."

Shows a black and white photograph of a sailor standing on the top deck of a ship, leaning against a rope. He is holding a cigarette and another Naval ship can be seen in the background.

Photo: Geoffrey Kester on board HMS Wakeful with HMS Hood behind him.

Back in the water, under fire and now injured, Mr Kester was picked up by HMS Grafton’s whaler.

But once on board HMS Grafton and after being treated by her medics, the Grafton was torpedoed and the decision was taken to transfer off the majority of personnel.

Mr Kester was taken on board the destroyer HMS Ivanhoe, which returned to Dunkirk for more troops before safely returning them to English shores.

HMS Wakeful has remained on the seabed 17 metres (57 feet) under the surface, 13 miles off the Belgian ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge ever since.

Shows the recovered crest (a bronzed shield with a crown) of HMS Wakeful.

Photo: the crest of HMS Wakeful was removed during work to safeguard shipping in the English Channel.

Her footplate and crest were recovered in November last year when work was carried out to make the wreck safe for passing ships and handed over to the Royal Naval Museum in January.

Although some elements of the ship’s superstructure, including her funnels and navigation equipment had to be removed, they were secured to her side and the wreck remains a military grave.

A wreath-laying ceremony over the site was carried out by HMS Ark Royal shortly after the work was completed as a mark of respect to those who lost their lives.

A third survivor, Stanley Crabb, 84, was an ordinary seaman and part of HMS Wakeful’s crew at the time of her sinking.

Although he was unable to attend the reunion, he was represented by his children.

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