BBC World War II

1939-1940 Naval Operations and Operations Cycle and Aerial (Scroll to June 1940)

 In May 1940, British and Allied troops were retreating before the weight of the opposing German army until they reached the North East Corner of France at Dunkirk. In the nine days between 26th May and 5th June 1940 the quiet Flanders port of Dunkirk lent its name to a legend which will rank in fame with Agincourt and Waterloo. Operation Dynamo, the dramatic evacuation of the British Army and allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk was little more than a miracle and could not have been undertaken without the intervention of the "Dunkirk Little Ships".

A strange, unlikely collection of heroic small craft, not built for war, which came from rivers and coastal waters of England and some who first crossed the sea to England as refugees - 49 sturdy schuyts from the Netherlands. There were river launches, old sailing and rowing lifeboats, yachts, pleasure steamers, fishing boats, working sailing barges; fireboats without so much as a compass, many of which had not been to sea before. Some were formally chartered in the name of the King. Some were commandeered without notice and given a hand written slip for a receipt by the Naval crews who took them to their assembly point at Ramsgate under orders from Admiral Ramsay, who masterminded Operation Dynamo from his command post deep in the cliffs by Dover Castle.

Tugs accompanied some of the Little Ships across the Channel like mother ducks, but many made three or more journeys on their own amid dive bombing and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Unlit and unable to comprehend, or respond to naval signals by night, they risked being sunk by their own side. They were desperately needed to negotiate the shallow waters off La Panne on the French-Belgian border, where no deep draught ships could approach and pluck the exhausted waiting troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, where they were tending their wounded and vainly trying to shelter from air attack among the dunes.

Of the seven hundred brave little craft almost a hundred perished but 385,000 troops, more than 100,000 of them French, were ferried to the waiting ships or taken direct to England to fight again another day. Ships can live longer than men and some two hundred of these veterans have survived their wartime owners and most of the soldiers they saved. Some have been lovingly restored in keeping with their past; some like forgotten war veterans with no further practical function, have been left to decay and many have simply disappeared.

(Modified from the Introduction to "The Little Ships of Dunkirk" by Christian Brann - ISBN 0946604 02 9 £24.50)


Sponsored by: Classic Projects of Kingsbridge, Devon.