Little ships of Dunkirk
The little ships of Dunkirk were 700 private boats that sailed from Ramsgate in England to Dunkirk in France between 26 May and 4 June 1940 as part of Operation Dynamo, the rescue of more than 338,000 British and French soldiers, who were trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk during the Second World War.
The situation of the troops, who had been cut off from their advance into France by a pincer movement from the German army, was regarded by the British prime minister Winston Churchill as the greatest military defeat for centuries; it appeared likely to cost Britain the war, leaving the country vulnerable to invasion by Germany. Because of the shallow waters, British destroyers were unable to approach the beaches, and soldiers were having to wade out to the warships, many of them waiting hours shoulder deep in water.
On 27 May, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping telephoned boat builders around the coast, asking them to collect all boats with "shallow draft" that could navigate the shallow waters. Attention was directed to the pleasure boats, private yachts and launches moored on the River Thames and along the south and east coasts. Some of them were taken with the owners' permission – and with the owners insisting they would sail them – while others were requisitioned by the government with no time for the owners to be contacted. The boats were checked to make sure they were seaworthy, fueled, and taken to Ramsgate to set sail for Dunkirk. They were manned by Naval Officers, Ratings and experienced volunteers. Very few owners manned their own vessels, apart from fishermen and one or two others.
When they reached France, some of the boats acted as shuttles between the beaches and the destroyers, ferrying soldiers to the warships. Others carried hundreds of soldiers each back to Ramsgate, protected by the Royal Air Force from the attacks of the Luftwaffe.
- Royal Daffodil: the River Mersey ferry evacuated 7,461 service personnel from Dunkirk in five trips between 28 May and 2 June, among them the French historian Marc Bloch, who served as a captain in the campaign. This was the largest number evacuated by a single passenger vessel in the operation. On 2 June, she was attacked by six German aircraft. A bomb dropped by one of them penetrated two of her decks and blew a hole below the water line, but she managed to limp back to port.
- Medway Queen: the paddle steamer made the most round trips – seven – rescuing 7,000 men and earning herself the nickname "Heroine of Dunkirk". Funds are currently being raised for her restoration
- Sundowner: owned by Charles Lightoller, former second officer of the Titanic, was requisitioned by the Admiralty on 30 May. Lightoller insisted that, if anyone was going to take her to Dunkirk, it would be him and his eldest son, Roger, together with Sea Scout Gerald Ashcroft. The men transported 130 soldiers back to Ramsgate, reportedly packed together like sardines, almost capsizing when they reached the shore.
- Bluebird of Chelsea: the yacht made two round trips to Kent, carrying hundreds of men.
- Tamzine: a fishing boat less than 15 feet (4.6 m) in length; the smallest boat to take part in the evacuation and now preserved by the Imperial War Museum.
At the outbreak of war, 10 of the 16 vessels in the fleet of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company were requisitioned. Four were lost.
Eight of the company's ships took part in the Dunkirk evacuation. Mona’s Isle was the first to leave Dover, and the first vessel to complete a round trip. By the end of operations, the fleet had rescued a total of 24,699, 1 in 14 of those evacuated from Dunkirk.
Whilst the evacuation is widely regarded as the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's "finest hour", it also saw its blackest day. Three of its ships were lost in one day, 29 May 1940.
- Mona's Queen, mined off Dunkirk on 29 May;
- Fenella, sunk by air attack whilst berthed alongside the East Pier on 29 May;
- King Orry, sustained heavy damage following several air attacks on 29 May, and consequently sank off the beaches in the early hours of 30 May.
Thirty-nine Dutch coasters had escaped the occupation of the Netherlands by the Germans on 10 May 1940 and were asked by the Dutch shipping bureau in London or by the Royal Navy to assist. In total, the Dutch coasters, able to approach the beaches very closely due to their flat bottoms, rescued 22,698 men.
The record is held by the MV Rian, a 35 metres (115 ft) ship measuring 300 ton dwt and built in 1934 in the province of Groningen, under captain D. Buining. The vessel had already saved the crew of the British coaster SS Highwave on 30 January 1940. Between 28 and 31 May 1940, the Rian saved 2,542 persons. Other Dutch coasters that saved more than 1,000 men each:
- MV Hondsrug: 1,455
- MV Patria: 1,400
- MV Hilda: 1,200
- MV Doggersbank: 1,200
- MV Horst: 1,150
- MV Twente: 1,139
- MV Friso: 1,002
Of these ships, seven were lost at Dunkirk or during the evacuation nearer the British coast.
In nine days, 192,226 British and 139,000 French soldiers – 331,226 in all – were rescued by the 700 little ships and around 220 warships. The rescue operation turned a military disaster into a story of heroism which served to raise the morale of the British.
It was in describing the success of the operation to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940 that Churchill made one of his most famous speeches:
|“||We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ...||”|
The phrase "Dunkirk spirit" is still used to describe courage and solidarity in adversity.
- Birkett, Peter. Once more unto the beach for ships that saved an army", The Independent, 3 June 2000.
- "History", The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, Retrieved 1 April 2008.
- Safire, William. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 146.
- Fink, Carole (1991). Marc Bloch: a life in history. Cambridge University Press. p. 229. ISBN 0-521-40671-4.
- "Sundowner." The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. Retrieved 1 April 2008.
- Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (2009-2010). "Tamzine". adls.org.uk. Retrieved 18 March 2012.
- "About Us". Steam Packet. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- "Operation Dynamo". wivonet.nl. Retrieved 27 May 2010. (Dutch)
- Churchill, Winston. "We shall fight on the beaches", House of Commons, June 4, 1940.
- Knowles, David J. "The 'miracle' of Dunkirk", BBC News, 30 May 2000.
- The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.
- Paddle steamer "Medway Queen", nicknamed "Heroine of Dunkirk".
- 52' Express Cruiser "Breda", previously named "Dab II".
- Knowles, David J. Escape From Catastrophe, 1940 Dunkirk. Knowles Publishing, 2000.
- Dunkirk Revisited, John Richards.
- Partial list of ships compiled by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships
- Video of Churchill's Speech