One of the fastest-built ships of the time, Dragon (pennant number D46) was laid down on 24 January 1917 in Glasgow. She was launched on 29 December that year. However, it was not until 10 August 1918 she was finally commissioned at Harwich Dockyard by the Royal Navy as HMS Dragon, commanded by Capt. A. H. Allington. Armed with six 6-inch guns, the light cruiser was commissioned too late to enter service during the World War I. She carried the Prince of Wales (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 independent Latvia and Estonia against the Bolsheviks and German 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, suffering nine killed and five wounded.
From 1920, she was part of the First Light Cruiser Squadron in the Atlantic Fleet.
She recommissioned 8 May 1923 and 2 February 1926 at Chatham.
In the interbellum, in 1924, she was part of the First Cruiser Squadron, Atlantic. During 1924, she was attached to a task force with HMS Hood, Repulse, Delhi, Danae (which would later replace Dragon in the Polish Navy) and Dauntless for a variety of tasks around the world. Dragon was stationed in Zanzibar, Ceylon, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, and Jamaica, and took part in visits to the United States, Dutch Antilles, and Australia.
On 20 December 1928, she was withdrawn from service and underwent a major refurbishment in Great Britain. Among other changes, the hangar for her seaplane was dismantled. 15 November 1929, she was given to Commander P. W. Nelles, RCN.
On 22 January 1930, the refit was completed and Dragon entered commission once more, and after undergoing trials at Chatham acted as tender to Pembroke. She was commissioned a number of times during the 1930s, and in 1935 was attached to the America and West Indies station. In 1934, she was involved in a collision with a ship in the harbour 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, at that time the court of last resort for the British Empire and Commonwealth. She recommissioned with a reserve crew 16 July 1937, serving 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 against German U-boats in the Shetland area. In November 1939, she took part in pursuit of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. In February 1940, HMS Dragon crossed the Mediterranean and returned to the Atlantic. On 16 September 1940 she scored her first victory after capturing the French steamer Touareg. On 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 French submarine Persée and took part in shelling the port. After this action she was moved to Freetown, from where she operated against the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in December.
Until November 1941 Dragon served as an escort ship of various convoys in the Atlantic, after which she was moved to Asia. Following commencement of hostilities with Japan in December, she served with the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command forces, escorting convoys to Singapore. On 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 Heemskerk, and operated from Ceylon. In May she was moved to Madagascar. The following month, most of the crew of the ship was landed and moved to other units, while the Dragon started her voyage back to Britain for refurbishment. Since the rump crew could not operate the ship independently, she had to be attached to various convoys and it took almost half a year before she finally reached Liverpool via Cape Town, Chatham and Durban.
Transferred to the Polish Navy
On 15 January 1943 she was handed over to the Polish Navy, renamed ORP Dragon and manned by a Polish crew. 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 (a mounted infantry soldier) although the latter still comes in a roundabout way from dragon. Modernized in the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, she was refitted with new electric plant and installation, radar and armament. The refurbishment was finished on 23 August 1943 and the ship was moved to Scapa Flow. From there she operated as part of various convoy escorts. On 20 February 1944 she was joined by Berwick and Jamaica and escorted the JW.57 convoy part way to Murmansk. Upon her return she was attached to various larger ships for training of sea to land operations before the Battle of Normandy. Finally on 2 June she was attached to a flotilla composed of HMS Ramillies, Warspite, Mauritius, Frobisher, Arethusa, Danae and 24 smaller vessels and headed for Normandy.
The ship saw action at the Normandy Landings as part of Operation Neptune, shelling German shore batteries at Colleville-sur-Orne and at Trouville (Sword Beach) from a distance of four kilometres. A near miss by a German 105 mm (4 in) shore battery gun wounded three sailors. She withdrew under cover of Ramillies and Roberts, whose fire destroyed the battery. In the evening of D-Day she moved to Juno Beach sector, to support the advancing Allied troops. 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 further bombardment and it was not until late at night that she again opened fire against the German 21st Panzer Division near Varaville. The following day she took part in an artillery duel with a shore battery at Houlgate, after which she returned to Portsmouth for refuelling and supplies. Between 12 June and 17 June she again shelled German positions near Caen, Gouneville, Lébisey and Varaville. During that time she also evaded a torpedo attack by an unknown submarine. On 18 June she was bound for Portsmouth escorting Nelson which had been struck by a mine.
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 a month-long siege. At 5:40 am the following day, while waiting for the order to open fire at 49°22′N 0°21′W, the Dragon was hit by a German Neger manned torpedo piloted by Walther Gerhold, and 26 men were lost.
A book published in London by William Kimber in 1955 provides a different pilot responsible for the attack. According to "K-Men: The Story of the German Frogmen and Midget Submarines" (author C.D. Bekker, with a preface by Hellmuth Heye, formerly Admiral of the K-Force), the pilot was Midshipman Potthast. Potthast's first person account of the attack on Dragon is described. On 13 June, a week after the Normandy landings, 40 Negers and their personnel, many new recruits, began a journey from Italy to Normandy. They travelled to Paris by train and then road to Normandy. Allied fighter bomber activity made it difficult to travel during daylight hours 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, a former destroyer commander, who had been sent ahead to the Bay of the Seine to make facilities for the K-flotilla's arrival.
According to Potthast's report, 20 negers set sail in the early hours of 7 July. (Potthast had aborted a mission two nights previously due to mechanical problems.) At 03:00 a line of small patrol vessels passed by Potthast but "I had no intention of wasting my torpedo on them." Some 45 minutes later he let merchant ships pass as "I was determined to bag a warship". Around 04:00 he sighted a Hunt-class destroyer, but she turned away when some 500 yards from him so he was forced to wait. In the moonlight he then saw several warships in quarter-line formation 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 actioned a post-attack escape. The explosion, so close by, almost "hurled" his neger out of the water. "A sheet of flame shot upwards from the stricken ship. Almost at once I was enveloped in thick smoke and I lost all sense of direction. When the smoke cleared I saw that the warship's stern had been blown away." Other vessels counterattacked, firing wildly as they could not see Potthast, but he managed to evade them. Later, two frigates passed close by Potthast but they did not spot him. After more than six hours in a cramped cockpit Potthast was severely fatigued. He eventually dozed and in the morning light a corvette attacked with gunfire from around 100 yards off. Potthast managed to get out of the neger as the gunfire disabled the craft. With blood pouring from an arm wound he collapsed, but the corvette crew rescued him with a boathook and rope looped under his arms. He was taken to the sick-bay and given tea and biscuits. Later flown to an English hospital, Potthast was interrogated by military intelligence and although confronted with maps and details of K-flotilla deployments he refused to confirm or deny anything. "After six weeks they gave up, then suddenly told him that he had himself been responsible for the sinking of the 5,000-ton cruiser Dragon. ...All this cheered up the prisoner, who felt that his arduous training had not been wasted after all," wrote Bekker.
The explosion caused a fire in the 3rd magazine, which had to be filled with water, and the 3rd engine was also hit. The ship started to sink on her port side and the angle of list reached 9°, but the situation was stabilized by the captain, who ordered all the turrets to train their barrels to starboard. Although an additional 11 sailors died of wounds, the situation was stabilized and the ship was moved to shallows, 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 5 metres (16 ft) by 15 metres (49 ft).
Although still afloat and repairable, it was decided that the ship be abandoned. On 10 July, 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 rump crew dismantled the armament. An additional two bodies were found in the ship, and the dead were buried at sea. 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 ORP Conrad, formerly HMS Dragon' sister ship HMS Danae.