The P.S. Medway Queen was called up for war service like many of the young men of Great Britain at the outbreak of World War Two.
Her first duty was to assist in the evacuation of children from her home county of Kent to East Anglia with them embarking at Gravesend.
Her first wartime captain was Sub-Lieutenant R.D.C.Cooke, R.N.V.R. He was a veteran of the first world war. Other wartime officers included Sub-Lieutenant J.D. Graves R.N.R and Lieutenant Jolly R.N. who was a peacetime yachtsman but now the navigator of HMS Medway Queen. Another officer included Lieutenant Keilly who, despite being of a pensionable age, managed to persuade the Captain to take him on as a Junior Officer because of his long deep sea experience. Other crew members included Petty Officer Crossley who was to become the Coxswain and also Petty Officer McAllister who became the designated Bo'sun of the upper deck. The remaining seamen onboard were formed from conscripted seamen.
In the autumn of 1939 the Medway Queen was in the shipyard of the General Steam Navigation Company (Deptford Creek) where she was transformed from her black, white and cream peacetime livery to battleship grey. The refit included some modification to her aft end where part of her aft was cut away to accommodate the mine sweeping gear. Additional items were fitted such as anti-aircraft machine guns and an enclosed bridge cabin. She went into the yard as a pleasure steamer but came out at HMS Medway Queen.
During the winter of 1939 parts of the Medway and Thames estuaries were frozen over but the 10th Paddle Minesweeping Flotilla continued their daily sweeps for mines with the assistance of tug to break any patches of ice that laid ahead of them. The harshness of the cold winters took their toll on the Medway Queen with faults appearing in the ship's structure. This lead to her being ordered into Chatham dockyard during December 1939 for repairs. When the work was finished in January 1940 the Medway Queen joined the 10th Paddle Minesweeping Flotilla with her pennant number was N48 which later became J48. The flotilla was commanded by Commander Greig R.N. of HMS Sandown (another paddle steamer, originally from the Isle of Wight).
HMS Medway Queen spent the early part of the 1940s patrolling the Straits of Dover acting as sub-divisional leader. quite often the paddle steamer would anchor in pre-arranged locations in order to act as lookout. It was when the Medway Queen was fulfilling this duty on 27th May 1940 that she received orders to head to beaches of Dunkirk to embark some troops that would be waiting there. Even then the crew of HMS Medway Queen had no idea od the enormous operation that became known as "Operation Dynamo".
From her anchorage the Medway Queen departed for Dunkirk along with the paddle steamers of Sandown, Thames Queen, Gracie Fields, Queen of Thanet, Princess Elizabeth, Laguna Belle and Brighton Belle. As they approached the beaches they could see the lines of soldiers in the water of which some were up to their neck. Using the lifeboats the crew of the Medway Queen ferried the soldiers from the beaches to the paddle steamer and all while this was happening the aircraft cruiser "Calcutta" gave covering fire. By 8am the Medway Queen was fully loaded and headed back to Dover unscathed. This was the first of seven crossings that the Medway Queen was to make throughout the entire operation.
As the Medway Queen approached Dover Harbour an air-raid developed and the little paddle steamer claimed her first kill in shooting down one of the enemy aircraft. But while all those onboard celebrated the near-by Brighton Belle tore out her bottom as she drifted over a submerged wreck. As she began to sink the Medway Queen went alongside and took off all her soldiers and crew resulting in no loss of life. the Medway Queen, so heavily overloaded, managed to return to Dover and moored alongside.
That evening the Medway Queen rejoined the flotilla and head back to the Dunkirk beaches. It was at this point that the Captain of Medway Queen decided to go to and fro from the beaches as much as they could now realizing that the entire British Expeditionary Force was to be evacuated.
During the second night the Straits of Dover were particularly calm and the double wake from the paddle steamers were easily spotted from enemy aircraft. Therefore to prevent detection the Medway Queen's crew devised a system of oily bags lowered over the side to break up the waves.
The Medway Queen and other ships managed to reach the actual harbour and use the strip of concrete reaching out from the heavily damaged harbour. the strip of concrete was known as the outer mole and allowed in excess of 200,000 soliders to be saved throughout the 9 days of the evacuation. The Medway Queen made several crossings to this location because soliders could be loaded directly onboard and much quicker too than at the beaches. She also changed from disembarking troops in dover to disembarking them in Ramsgate instead. Each trip included the loading of provisions and oil fuel before departing in darkness.
The crew of Medway Queen were kept occupied throughout with the Petty Officer's mess being used as sick bay. The galley was a hub of food production with a big pot of stew and never-ending line of soldiers with their mess tins. It was said that every man who boarded the Medway Queen was fed and given a cup of Navy cocoa or tea. For seven crossings Thomas Russell, Chief Cook and his assistant worked continuously with very little sleep.
The chief engineer, who was also one of the Medway Queens peacetime officers, had the enormous strain of having to control the vessels throughout this time. He had to quickly act to every command given mainly because of the high risk of collision with other vessels sailing closely together.
Drawing of HMS Medway Queen by K.C. Lockwood.
On the open decks of the Medway Queen her 12-pounder and lewis gun were in constant use defending the ship and those onboard with additional fire power being provided by the ever willing soliders and their rifles. Other soliders also helped load the ships bren guns which had been recovered from the beaches. So the Medway Queen had a good array of fire power which gave her a confirmed record of having shot down three enemy aircraft during the evacuation.
By Monday 3rd June the Germany army was finally closing in and Vice Admiral Ramsey gave orders that all ships were to leave Dunkirk by 2.30 the following morning. The Medway Queen was alongside the mole at midnight loading soldiers before her final return crossing back to England. heavy shelling in the area caused a destroyer astern of the Medway Queen to be hit and she subsequently moved forward against the Medway Queen's starboard paddle box causing extensive damage. The captain had a difficult time maneuvering her clear of the berth but he managed it and the Medway Queen slowly returned to England. Despite being one of the first vessels to reach the beaches she was one of the last to leave on June 4th 1940. She limped into dover Harbour and Vice Admiral Ramsey signaled "Well Done Medway Queen" accompanied by the sound of the sirens from all the ships in Dover Harbour.
Overall the Medway Queen rescued over 7,000 men with several of her crew being decorated for bravery.
The Medway Queen returned to minesweeping duties after "Operation Dynamo" before eventually being replaced by a purpose built vessel. She then spent the remainder of the war as a training ship.
This account is dedicated to all the Veterans of the Dunkirk Evacuation, and to the "Little Ships" and their crews without whom so many lives would not have been saved.
It is also dedicated to the members of the Medway Queen Preservation Society without whose determination and hard work this brave old lady would no longer exist.
We acknowledge with grateful thanks all contributions to this account from various individuals, past and present, some of whose identities are not known to us.