Evacuation of men of the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army from Dunkirk*

 The work of the Life-boats of Ramsgate and Margate.
This report first appeared in the book
"Supplement to the Annual Reports of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, 1939-1946."
and is reproduced by kind permission of the RNLI.
At 1.15 in the afternoon of Thursday, the 30th of May, 1940, the Ministry of Shipping called up the Institution on the telephone and asked it to send at once to Dover as many of its life-boats as possible. The Ministry was told that they would be sent.
 
That was all; no other information was sought or given; but it was easy to guess for what those life-boats were wanted. Three weeks before, on the 10th of May, the German armies had invaded Holland and Belgium, and the French and British armies had moved forward into Belgium to meet them. Events had followed one another with terrible and increasing speed. By the fifteenth the Germans had broken through the French line and had turned towards the English Channel. By the twenty-third they had reached it at the mouth of the Somme. So doing they had divided the British army from the French and had left the British no way of retreat but by the sea. It had three ports Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. The Germans took Boulogne on the twenty-third, and Calais three days later. They were pressing hard on the British army’s right, flank. On the twenty-seventh they forced the surrender of the Belgian army on its left flank, They were now attacking it in front and on both flanks. Behind it was the sea and only one port was left to it - Dunkirk. Already the Germans had announced that the iron ring had closed round it, and the Prime Minister had warned the House of Commons to be prepared for hard and heavy tidings. Such was the state of the war in France and Flanders when, on the 30th of May, the Ministry of Shipping asked for life-boats to be sent to Dover. Certainly it was not difficult to guess why they were to go.
 
Four days earlier - though this was not known at the time - the Navy had started to bring off troops from Dunkirk, but town and port were now almost destroyed. German bombers had descended on them in hundreds and set them ablaze. There remained nothing alongside which ships could berth except, a wooden breakwater. It was only five feet wide and had never been intended for such a purpose, but it was all now left in the port to embark an army. Besides that breakwater were the beaches, sixteen miles of flat sand and sand-dunes stretching eastwards from Dunkirk to Nieuport. They were as difficult as beaches could be for such a task. Even at high water ships could not get within half a mile of them. But if the army were to be embarked those beaches must be used. It was to carry the men from them to the waiting ships that the Ministry of Shipping had asked all the ports of England, from Hull to Southampton, to send every boat that could reach Dover within twenty-four hours.
 
As soon as the Institution received that call it telephoned to its eighteen stations from Gorleston in Norfolk, 110 miles north of Dover, to Shoreham Harbour, in Sussex, 80 miles to the west. Each station was asked to send its life-boat to Dover at once for special duty under the Admiralty. She was to take a full crew, full fuel-tanks, and a grass warp for towing.
 

The Crew of the Prudential

Photo East Kent Maritime Trust

Back Row, Left to Right - Edward Cooper, Ernest Attwood (Mechanic), Alfred Liddle, John Hawkes, Thomas Goldfinch.

Front Row, Left to Right - Charles Knight, Alfred Moody (Ass. Coxswain), Howard Knight (Coxswain), Thomas Read (Ass. Mechanic).

 
While this urgent message was being sent to the life-boats along those 190 miles of coast, two of them were already on their way to Dunkirk. That morning the naval officers - in - charge at Ramsgate and Margate had asked their life-boats if they would go, and both crews had said at once that they would, The Prudential, of Ramsgate, was the first away. She left at 2.20 in the afternoon. Coxswain Howard Primrose Knight was in command of her, and he had a crew of eight men. They had been given gas masks and steel helmets, and the life-boat was loaded with four coils of grass warp and cans of fresh water for the troops. She took in tow eight boats, most of them wherries, manned by eighteen naval men, and when she reached Dunkirk her part was to tow the wherries between the beaches and the waiting ships.
 
The Margate life-boat, The Lord Southborough (Civil Service No. 1) was under the command of Coxswain Edward Drake Parker. He took ten men with him, two more than his usual crew. They were given steel helmets, food and cigarettes, and they left, so the naval officer at Margate said, in the best of spirits at 5.30 in the afternoon. The life-boat went in company of a Dutch barge, commanded by a naval officer, and the barge towed her.
 
The two life-boats had a journey of about fifty miles by a way which had been hurriedly swept through the mine-fields when the direct way from Dover to Dunkirk along the French coast came under the fire of German guns at Calais. Those who made that journey were amazed and uplifted by the sight of the crowded waters, with their double stream of traffic, ships and boats of every kind hurrying out to the dangers of the beaches, and those others on their way back to England, their decks loaded with troops.
 
They are at all times difficult waters with their shallows and strong tides. Now the narrow channels of deeper water through which ships could pass were unlighted; German submarines and fast motor boats were moving in them; German aeroplanes were sowing them with mines; already they were studded with wrecks. The air above was even more dangerous. Every five minutes German bombers came over to attack Dunkirk or the beaches or the waters beyond, and by night if a motor-boat showed no more than a glimmer of light on her instrument-panel it was enough to bring on her a salvo of bombs.
  
There were other perils. Three days before men in England had anxiously watched the reports of a storm which was coming in from the Atlantic and had wondered which way it would move. Mercifully it had turned northwards up the west coast of Ireland, and no more than the fringe of it had touched the Straits of Dover, but this had been enough to raise a sea at Dunkirk which had made the beaches dangerous. Now a light variable wind was blowing from the west and the surf had gone down.
 
THE RAMSGATE LIFE-BOAT.
 
The Ramsgate life-boat reached Dunkirk at eight in the evening. There the heavy black smoke from the burning oil-tanks hung low above the beaches and the sea. She went on another two miles to Malo les Bains and lay alongside a Dutch coaster until it was night. The coxswain then sent off three of his wherries, each with one life-boatman on board. The men rowed ashore, called into the darkness until they were answered, and filled their boats with men. The coxswain now sent off three more of his wherries, with twelve of the naval men on board, some to man them, others to be landed and to help in pushing the boats off the beach. They were to follow the three life-boatmen, now pulling to the shore for the second time, but they must have missed them in the darkness and gone ashore elsewhere, for they never returned. The coxswain then manned a seventh wherry with three more naval men, and the four wherries plied between beach and life-boat, gathering men, putting them aboard the life-boat, returning for more.
 
Once, as they came ashore, a voice called to them, "I cannot see who you are. Are you a naval party?" He was answered, "No, sir, we are men of the crew of the Ramsgate life-boat." The voice called back, "Thank you, and thank God for such men as you have this night proved yourselves to be. There is a party of fifty Highlanders coming next."
 
It was slow and hard work, even to life-boatmen well used to managing small boats on a beach. They would take the wherries in stern first, and hold them in the surf until the soldiers came. There was no rush nor scramble. The soldiers moved into the sea to their officers’ orders, wading out waist-deep. One man only could climb over the stern at a time. Eight were a full load.
  
The life-boat herself could take on board, in a calm sea, 160 men close-packed. As the wherries filled her, she in turn put off to a motor ship that lay further out So all night the work went on, and before day broke the life-boat and her wherries had brought off some 800 men. By this time the motor ship herself was filled, and she made for England, but, her engines had only two cylinders working and her master was doubtful if she would arrive. Two of the life-boat’s crew had been helping on board, and they went with her. As soon as it was light the coxswain took the life-boat inshore to look for his three missing wherries. He found only one, lying empty on the beach, one of many boats washed up and abandoned.
 
With the coming of day the shelling and bombing increased. Now, too, the wind had freshened. It had veered to north-west and was blowing right onshore. A swell was making and boats were capsizing in the surf. But over the sand-dunes the troops came in unbroken flow and the life-boatmen baled out their wherries and got to work again. The sea, like the beach, was littered with wreckage and was thick with oil from bombed and broken motor-boats. With the rising wind and surf, with the wreckage, with the oil that clogged their oars, the men found it impossible any longer to row the wherries. Instead the life-boat, lying eighty yards off shore, dropped them down to it on ropes, each wherry with two men on board, and hauled them out again. They came loaded, shipping water, the soldiers baling with their steel helmets to keep them afloat.
 

The Prudential

Photo East Kent Maritime Trust
The life-boat found time also to give tows to other boats that had broken down or that could not get through the surf. Once the coxswain saw soldiers on the beach tying to launch a whaler, and two boys helping them. They launched her, but they could do no more. They had only three broken oars and the surf began to fill her. The life-boat ran down to them, threw a rope and towed them out to a Dutch schuyt. She was part of the Dunkirk fleet, with an English officer in command and the white ensign flying. She took the soldiers on board, and her commander gave the two French boys food and drink. They looked not more than fourteen years old. Sailors baled out their whaler and the boys went back. The last the life-boatmen saw of them they were landing on the beach alone.
 
So the morning passed. In the afternoon a destroyer asked the life-boat to go to La Panne, six miles to the eastward. She had now only three of her wherries left. The others, broken and leaking, had one by one been left on the beach. And of the twenty-seven men who had sailed from Ramsgate twenty-four hours before only ten - seven life-boatmen and three naval men - were still with her.
 
At La Panne she found destroyers and a monitor anchored as close as possible to the shore. Bombers continually attacked them and the ships answered with their guns. Bombs were falling on the beaches and in the sea, and from the beaches small boats were struggling out, through the surf. Some came through, half-full of water. Others were thrown back. The life-boat went to their help and towed many of them to the monitor and destroyers. This work continued through that Friday afternoon, through the evening and into the night. During the night the last of the wherries was broken by a piece of shell.
 
It was now the third day since the life-boat had left Ramsgate, and she had helped to bring off some 2,800 men. Her crew were exhausted, her wherries gone; and at 1.30 on the Saturday morning she sailed for Ramsgate. When she came home she had been away for over forty hours. For thirty of those hours she had worked on the beaches; for nearly all that time she had been under fire; for two nights her crew had been without sleep.
 
THE MARGATE LIFE-BOAT
 
The Margate life-boat reached the beaches some hours later than the Ramsgate boat, for the barge that had her in tow went on along the coast from Dunkirk fifteen miles eastward to Nieuport. As they went the crews could smell Dunkirk burning. It was midnight, when they reached Nieuport, and they knew at once the difficulties awaiting them, for the barge ran aground on a sand-bank. The life-boat was bumping on the sand, but was still afloat, She tried to tow off the barge. This failed, and all that she could do was to run out an anchor for her and leave her to haul herself off by it when the tide should flow. Then, with an anchor of her own out astern, her engine running dead slow, and the barge’s commander wishing her good luck, she felt her way through the darkness and the shallows towards the shore. Her crew heard a voice calling and as they got near they could dimly see a dark mass above the white edge of the surf. It was the waiting men.
  
They were eighty Frenchmen, and by the time the life-boatmen had dragged them all aboard the coxswain was glad that he had brought those two extra men with him. The life-boat drew over four feet of water, and the soldiers had to wade out until they were up to their arm-pits in the sea. As they stood beside the boat her rail was four feet above their heads. To haul them up those four feet - weary men, heavy with water - was work to exhaust the strongest.
 
The life-boat took the eighty out to the stranded barge and went in to the beaches again. More men were waiting. This time they were from the Border Regiment. She loaded up with them, and their weight sank her until she was hard on the sands. It was now low water and she waited until the tide flowed and she floated again. Then she took the men to the barge, and for the third time returned to the beaches. A British officer swam out to her and asked that he might guide her some way along the shore to his own men; but here the beaches were still thick with troops waiting, and the coxswain would not go elsewhere.
 
Out through the surf and darkness they crowded, not knowing how deep they would have to go before they reached the boat. Some had taken off their boots and trousers, but there was hardly a man who had not his rifle with him. One small soldier waded out holding high his rifle - and a banjo. As he stood beside the boat, with little more than his head above water, the coxswain told him to drop them and come aboard. He dropped the rifle. He held the banjo. Two minutes later he had squatted on the deck and was strumming and humming to himself.
 
Day was now breaking and the life-boat was told to take her men not to the barge but to the destroyer Icarus, which lay some distance farther out. This she did, and went backwards and forwards between the destroyer and the still crowded beaches until her coxswain had lost count of her journeys. Once, as she lay alongside, the officer on the bridge shouted to her to cast off. She obeyed, and at the same moment a flight of German aeroplanes came out of the clouds. For a few seconds the life-boatmen were conscious only of bursting bombs and machine-guns firing. Then the noise was over and they found themselves still unhurt. When next they went alongside the destroyer it was not bombs that descended on them, but a large pot of stew. They could not pause for a meal, but from time to time as they worked they dipped their fingers in the pot and ate a mouthful.
 
Of their work the commander of the Icarus wrote later, "The, magnificent behaviour of the crew of the Margate life-boat who, with no thought of rest, brought off load after load of soldiers from Dunkirk, under continuous shelling, bombing and aerial machine-gunfire, will be an inspiration to us as long as we live,"
 
Here at Nieuport as farther west at Malo les Bains, the freshening wind had raised a swell, and by seven o’clock in the morning the surf was so heavy that the life-boat could no longer go near the shore. Instead, on the orders of the destroyer, she went up and down outside the surf searching for men who had put off on rafts or wreckage. She rescued many in this way. All the time shells and bombs were bursting on the sands, and aeroplanes were diving to machine-gun the boats and the patient troops.
 
The life-boatmen saw a whaler and a motor boat turn over and sink. Boats lay wrecked all along the line of surf. Others were half buried in the sand and soldiers were labouring to dig and drag them out. At the water’s edge cattle wandered. But so far as the life-boatmen could see not a boat except their own was afloat. She was alone, and men were wading out to her. Some of them were knocked over by the surf; struggled, and failed to rise. Others stepped suddenly from the shallow water covering the many sand-banks into the deeper channels between them and disappeared. The life-boat saw men drowning close to her, and could not reach them. To remain near the beach was to tempt them to their death. She drew farther off and made westwards to Dunkirk. As she passed Malo les Bains her crew saw, high on the beach, the charred and twisted remains of their own familiar pleasure steamer, Crested Eagle, that used to ply between Margate and Tower Bridge. On her way she rescued two officers and fifteen sailors all that were left of a naval party of 150 who had been working on the beaches for four days. They had found a whaler lying in the sand, full of water, and had emptied her. She had no oars and no rowlocks, but they had collected oars scattered about the beach and had lashed them to the gunwhales with pieces of rope. When the life-boat met them it was nearly nine in the morning, and since daybreak they had been trying desperately to row out to one of the distant ships. In that wind and surf the life-boat could do no more, and she made for Margate, taking with her those last seventeen, that she had rescued. She arrived at three in the afternoon on Friday, the 31st of May. She had then been away for nearly twenty-four hours, and brought off the beaches Some six hundred men.
 
AWARD OF DISTINGUISHED SERVICE MEDALS.
 
Such was the share of the Ramsgate and Margate life-boats in the glory of the Dunkirk fleet which snatched over 300,000 men out of the hand of the enemy as it was closing triumphantly on them. Both the coxswains, Howard Knight and Edward Parker, were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for their "gallantry and determination," and the house-flag of the Institution which had flown at the mast-head of the Ramsgate life-boat through those forty hours now hangs in the Ramsgate parish church of St. George.
 
The Flag of the Prudential
Photo Ralph Hoult
 
THE INSTITUTION‘S REWARDS.
 
To the Ramsgate and Margate life-boat stations the Committee of Management sent letters conveying their "warm appreciation of the magnificent work done by the crews on this occasion, which for ever will remain an outstanding example of the courage of the life-boatmen of these islands." The Institution also made the following awards:
 
TO RAMSGATE:
 
To the coxswain and each member of the crew the thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum: HOWARD P. C. KNIGHT, coxswain, ALFRED H. MOODY, acting second-coxswain, ERNEST C. W. ATTWOOD, motor-mechanic, THOMAS H. READ, assistant motor-mechanic, ALFRED D. LIDDLE, CHARLES E. KNIGHT, EDWARD C. COOPER, JOHN T. HAWKES, THOMAS H. GOLDSMITH, life-boatmen.
 
To the coxswain and each member of his crew a reward of £8 3s., being double the scale reward of £4 1s. 6d.; standard rewards to crew £32 12s.; additional rewards to crew £40 15s.; total rewards £73 7s.
 
An inscribed metal plaque was presented to the coxswain and each member of the crew by the Prudential Assurance Company, donors of the life-boat.
 
TO MARGATE:
 
To the coxswain and each member of the Crew the thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum: EDWARD D. PARKER, coxswain, THOMAS D. HARMAN, second-coxswain, HENRY PARKER, bowman, EDWARD J. JORDAN, motor-mechanic, WILLIAM B. MACKIE, assistant motor-mechanic, DENNIS PRICE, signalman, JOHN LETLEY, ALFRED MORRIS, ARTHUR LADD, EDWARD E. PARKER and WILLIAM HOPPER, life-boatmen.
 
To the coxswain and each member of his crew a reward of £4 8s., being double the scale reward of £2 4s.; standard rewards to crew and helpers, £26 4s.; additional rewards to crew £26 8s.; total rewards £52 12s.
  
 
* From the account in Storm on the Waters.
The Story of the Life-boat Service in the War of l939-1945. by Charles Vince. 
My thanks go to the RNLI, for allowing me to use this material.

 

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