To mark last Friday’s release of Dunkirk the movie, I’m re-publishing a blog I wrote in May 2010 on the RNLI’s role in the rescue. It’s an eye-opener and I hope you enjoy it.
Last week, I featured the Royal Escape Race, and on Friday went to Brighton seafront to watch the start. It was surprisingly exciting to see the flotilla glide from Brighton Marina, assemble, turn towards the sea as one, then BANG, race off to the west.
The Escape Race commemorates the flight of Charles 11 from England to France. Today, I’m featuring another flight, but this time going the other way; the flight of the British Expeditionary Force, (BEF) from Dunkirk to Dover.
When war broke out on 3 September 1939, the newly created British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was sent to take up a defensive position along the Franco-Belgian border. Its Commander-in-Chief was John Gort, and by early May 1940 he had 394,165 troops, and 200 tanks in place.
It didn’t last long. On 14th May, one German army group attacked the BEF, pushing them back to the French frontier, whilst another invaded France through the Ardennes. It left the BEF surrounded on three sides and after Gort’s unsuccessful counter-attack at Arras, the order was given to withdraw to Dunkirk for evacuation to Britain.
It was a massive undertaking. On 26th May, Operation Dynamo was launched. An order was issued on BBC radio to all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30-100 feet in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty. Their role was to assist the Navy and RAF in the evacuation of the BEF and allied troops. Up to 900 vessels were involved including 39 Destroyers, 36 Minesweepers, 77 Trawlers, 26 Yachts, one of which was skippered by C.H Lightoller, a former officer on the Titanic, and some smaller craft. Between them they took 338,226 troops off the beaches at Dunkirk, including 40,000 from the French Army and 220,000 allied troops from Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Brest and Saint-Nazaire.
Dunkirk was repeatedly described as hell by those who were there. They were constantly attacked from the land and air as they waited helplessly on the flat sandy beaches. The sea was strewn with shipwrecks and bodies. The air stank of burning oil and buzzed with the sound of Stukas. Over 5,000 soldiers were killed, 235 vessels were destroyed, 106 aircraft were lost. Over 100,000 men were left behind and the tanks and large guns were abandoned. Despite the selfless courage that was shown throughout those 10 days, on 4th June 1940 Winston Churchill described what happened in France and Belgian as ‘a colossal military disaster.’
Inevitably, the lifeboats were amongst the smaller craft involved in the evacuation. They had 145 motor lifeboats in their fleet and at 1.15 p.m on 30th May, received a phone call from the Ministry of Shipping asking them ‘to send as many lifeboats as possible as quickly as possible to Dover.’ 1
The Ramsgate lifeboat, the Prudential, and the Lord Southborough from Margate, sailed direct to France. Another 17 lifeboats, including the Rosa Woodd and Phyllis Lunn from Shoreham, assembled at Dover.
As today, in 1940, the lifeboats were manned by skilled and experienced volunteers who knew the limitations and capabilities of their specially designed boats. Thus when the coxswain of the Hythe lifeboat, the Viscountess Wakefield, was told that he should run his 15 tonne lifeboat on to the Beaches, load up with troops and bring them back to England, he told them it was impossible. He also pressed for written assurances that their families would get pensions, should any of them be killed during the evacuation. The coxswains from Walmer and Dungeness supported him and they were in good company. This was one of Sir William Hillary’s concerns when he originally founded the Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, (which became the RNLI), in 1824; that the bereaved families of the lifeboatmen should not be left destitute.
This apparent awkwardness was just too much to bear, ‘the harassed and overburdened Naval officers were organising..a complicated and perilous operation. They wanted boats. They wanted men. They wanted no more argument.’ 2 They sent the coxswains packing and appropriated their boats. Fearing further arguments from the other coxswains, all the lifeboats answering the call were commandeered and sent to Dunkirk with Royal Naval and RNVR crews.
Eighteen lifeboats worked the beaches at Dunkirk. The nineteenth lifeboat worked in the English Channel rescuing men from ships and boats sunk en route by German aircraft.
James Hill Staff Captain, The Royal Fusiliers, recalls, “a great big lifeboat came in, a lovely one…they all got on, and looked over the top and then, of course, the thing stuck on the sand with the weight of them… the Brigadier.. and half a dozen other good chaps got out, and they pushed and shoved, and gradually the lifeboat went off.” The Thomas Kirk Wright from Poole, fared better as it was a surf lifeboat with a draft of only 76cm, still, one of her motors was put out of action by a crew unused to her propulsion system.
Turning to the two lifeboats that were manned by the RNLI, the Ramsgate lifeboat rescued 2,800 men and the Margate lifeboat crew were described as ‘an inspiration to us all as long as we live’ by the commander of Icarus, a destroyer with which she worked on 30/31st May.
Apart from the Viscountess Wakefield, the lifeboats returned safely but damaged from Dunkirk. The Viscountess Wakefield did run around on the sands of La Panne and was the only lifeboat to be sunk during the operation.
Regarding the contribution made by the RNLI to the evacuation, ‘two facts are beyond dispute. The lifeboats did magnificent work at Dunkirk. But if they had been manned by RNLI crews they would have achieved even more.’ 3
So, what happened when the men finally left the hell of Dunkirk? I’ll let James Bradley, Gunner, The Royal Artillery, tell you;
“I fell asleep, and I don’t know how long it took to get across the Channel, because I slept all the way. And the next thing I knew was a sailor standing over me shouting, “Wake-up!, wake-up! are you going ashore or aren’t you going ashore?” …Where are we?” I said, “where are we?’, he said, “Dover, you bloody fool!” And I thought, “well, I don’t even mind him swearing at me, it’s Dover.” So I pulled myself up and went off, went down the gangplank.
And I knew I was back in England..they’d got tables there with loads of tea and buns, and so forth, and I was ravenous. I think I ate six buns, which was greedy really. But I, my stomach was so empty! And then the military police where there too, and they were saying, “Keep moving, Keep moving! And they had the train in the station.
And I said, “Where’s the train going?” Nobody knew, but anyway, “Get on the train, you must get out of here, must get out of here!” – because there were masses of troops coming off, although we were now very much the tail end. And then we drove across England and stopped at side stations, and people were all waving…the WVS.. and I thought, “Oh, this is England, you’re worth fighting for!”
Ta-ra for now.
1 Riders of the Storm by Ian Cameron Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2002
2 Storm on the Waters by Charles Vince Hodder and Stoughton 1946
3 Riders. ibid