|The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk took place between 27th May and 4th June 1940 - 75 years ago. It is often described as a miracle - at the outside they were hopeful of bringing 45,000 troops back. In the end, more than 338,000 British, French and Belgian troops had been brought back, though with little of their equipment. The Royal Navy named it 'Operation Dynamo' - because the command of it was from a room deep underground in Dover that once held a dynamo.
On May 10th 1940, Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, pushing the BEF, French and Belgian troops back to the port of Dunkirk. A huge rescue plan was put in place by the Royal Navy, to get the troops back to England. Large ships could only get alongside the Dunkirk East Mole [breakwater] and many troops would have to be rescued off the beaches. A call went out for 'little ships' that were able to get into the beach, and take troops out to the larger ships.
Many local ships answered the call from the Royal Navy - wherever possible they sailed with a Naval crew, but the peacetime skippers went on a number of them.
WHITE HEATHER is well known at West Mersea under the name RIIS 1. Built in 1920 as a support boat for the racing yacht WHITE HEATHER. She made 3 trips to Dunkirk, returning with 70 men a time. Boats of the size of WHITE HEATHER would anchor off the beaches and smaller boats would load her. She would then go out to the waiting larger craft. Eventually she was run up on the beach to load and came directly back to England. A little later in June she went to St Valery-en-Caux in the attempt to evacuate the 51st Highland Division. [ See Sources below ]
WHITE HEATHER was requisitioned by the Navy, as HMS MANATEE, used as a spy ship. She carried secret radio equipment and had 14 scuttling cocks in the hull so she could be sunk and not captured. In 1947 she was returned to her original owner. A subsequent owner renamed her RIIS I and then in 1959 she was found by Dr Ted Fellows, who brought her to Mersea. Dr. Fellows has carefully kept her close to her original condition and she has become part of the local scene, acting as Start Boat at the Regatta for many years. The hospitality on board was well known.
Smacks at Tollesbury before WW2. EXPRESS CK231 on the left
EXPRESS was a Tollesbury smack, often working from Brightlingsea. 30 May 1940 she received a message addressed to "Commanding Officer, EXPRESS" instructing him to take a full supply of fuel and two days provisions and proceed to Ramsgate. Albert Potter, the owner of EXPRESS, took her to Ramsgate, but she did not go any further. Other smacks were called up and got as far as Ramsgate or Dover, but it is not known of any that went to Dunkirk. They were too deep draughted to work off the beach.
Although she escaped this time, EXPRESS was mined and sunk in 1941. Albert Potter was on board with a daughter, and survived. He bought another smack, LITTLE EXPRESS. This was mined in 1942 and all three on board lost their lives - Albert, his son Gordon, and Bernard Mussett.
RNLB GUIDE OF DUNKIRK
GUIDE was being built at Rowhedge Ironworks for the RNLI in 1940. She had been paid for by the Girl Guides Association and was to be stationed at Clacton. On 1 June she was called to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation, manned by a crew from Frinton and Walton under Naval command. At Dunkirk, she was badly damaged by machinegun fire and got a rope round her propeller, having to be towed back to England. She made a second trip across the Channel, but was damaged by shell fire and had to return to her builders. She then served the RNLI at Cadgwith Cover Cornwall - renamed GUIDE OF DUNKIRK to commemorate her trips to Dunkirk.
The RNLI did not want its lifeboats to go to Dunkirk, but some of the crews thought otherwise. Nineteen lifeboats went to Dunkirk and played an important part in the rescue. The most seriously damaged was JANE HOLLAND, the Eastbourne Lifeboat, which was hit fore and aft by other boats and strafed by enemy aircraft. Abandoned, a French destroyer tried to sink her but failed. She was found drifting, and towed to Rowhedge for repair.
CALETA at Rowhedge
CALETA was a large motor yacht built in Dartmouth in 1930 for Sir William Burton. She had strong Rowhedge connections - her skipper was Jim Barnard from Rowhedge, with many local men as crew. She came to Rowhedge to lay up each winter. When War came, she was fitted out at Rowhedge as a Naval Harbour Defence Patrol Craft examination vessel - and was called across to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. After WW2 she returned to private ownership, became ATLANTIDE, has been lovingly restored and is still sailing.
H.M. Yacht GRIVE was a large motor yacht, built as the NARCISSUS in 1905 and converted from steam. HMS GRIVE made her first trip as part of the Dunkirk Evacuation 30 May 1944. In three trips she rescued over 1,100 troops, but on 1 June 1940 while leaving Dunkirk Harbour she struck a magnetic mine and sank.
There were two Tollesbury men on HMY GRIVE - Frederick Frost was Chief Cook and was among the23 killed when she was mined. Jack Walsh was on deck, and survived.
HMS MALAHNE was another large motor yacht requisitioned by the Navy during WW2. She was built in 1937 and Tollesbury men crewed on her before the War. One of the early wartime crew was CPO John Bowles and he helped recruit more Tollesbury men for the vessel - by September 1943 twelve Tollesbury men had been in her crew. HMS MALAHNE was on patrol in the Channel at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation.
GONDOLIER QUEEN was a broad beam shallow draught trip boat, built by Husk and Sons Ltd at Wivenhoe in 1929. She was requisitioned by the Navy to go to Dunkirk, and then remained in the Navy for a number of years. As MY QUEEN she is still operating as an excursion vessel, based at Starcross in Devon.
Sixteen sailing barges crossed the Channel to Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo. At Dover, the Navy gave the barge crews the option of leaving their craft, but they all volunteered to go. The Navy wanted the barges - being constructed of wood and with shallow draft, they could be run up the beach without fear of magnetic mines and could then act as a boarding point for deeper drafted vessels. Most had no engine, and were towed across the Channel, many with cargoes of supplies for the Army. TOLLESBURY and ETHEL EVERARD were towed across by a tug. TOLLESBURY was run onto the beach, 273 men boarded her, and with many difficulties, made it back to England. ETHEL EVERARD, along with AIDIE and BARBARA JEAN, big barges from R.& W. Paul of Ipswich, had to be abandoned. ENA and H.A.C. also had to be abandoned by their crew - but on the night of 2nd June, two groups of soldiers on the beach, looking desperately for rescue, saw the barges at anchor as their only hope. They managed to get out to the barges. They discharged the dangerous cargo of petrol still on board the ENA and raised the anchor. Fortunately there were enough yachtsmen amongst the soldiers to sail each barge back to the English coast, where they could get a tow into harbour.
A tug was towing DORIS, LADY ROSEBERRY and PUDGE away from Dunkirk when it exploded a magnetic mine and sank. DORIS was fatally damaged, LADY ROSEBERRY capsized, but PUDGE survived - and can still be seen sailing in the Blackwater.
Sailing barges WOLSEY, BARBAR JEAN and ENA at Ipswich
BARBARA JEAN was abandoned at Dunkirk, but ENA was sailed back by a group of soldiers
Many local men were rescued from Dunkirk. They often returned to their homes shattered and having lost their equipment, and it took some time before they could be built back up into an effective fighting force. Sadly, some then lost their lives later in the War in other battles.
Jack Hoy was one of several boys from West Mersea to be rescued from Dunkirk. But his colleague Gordon D'Wit was a bit further behind and was captured - to spend the duration in a Prisoner of War camp.
Major G.E. Tatchell from Tollesbury was in charge of 'D' Company Lincolnshire Regiment. He was killed 31 May 1940 during the withdrawal to Dunkirk.
Brothers Arthur and Peter Rogers from Langenhoe were rescued from Dunkirk. Peter had been wounded in the shoulder. He recovered and for 1941 was part of the Defence Force in Southern England. He moved on to North Africa and then to Italy, where he was killed in action 6 October 1943.
Ernest John Mole from Peldon was a regular soldier in the Royal Tank Regiment and was evacuated from Dunkirk. He says "On the way to Folkestone, on an old Isle of Man steamer, I was wounded with 2 bullets from aircraft. I was caught in the buttock and hip, and also the corner of my trench coat was ripped away by bullets. Thirty four soldiers and comrades were killed around me. I went to hospital in Leatherhead...". Ernest went on to the Middle East, to France in August 1944, and was in Germany when the armistice was signed 8 May 1945.
Frederick Frost H.M. Yacht GRIVE
Ernest John Mole Memories
Major G.E. Tatchell from Tollesbury
Lions Talking Magazine 210 interview with Dr Ted Fellows.
[ This interview conflicts with the 51st Highland Division rescue mentioned above. Dr Fellows says in the interview "St Valery on Somme and the evacuation of the 35th Highland Division" ]
"A Cross in the Topsail" by Roger Finch. The shipping interests of R. & W. Paul of Ipswich