Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk is an Inspiring Maritime History Story
The Crested Eagle, part of the Dunkirk armada
Never give up, never, never give up." - Winston Churchill
Between May 27 and June 4, 1940, over 338,226 Allied soldiers trapped on the French beaches of Dunkirk were rescued from the advancing Nazi forces in a heroic effort called Operation Dynamo. For nine days, a hastily assembled armada of scows, life boats, row boats, destroyers, yachts, fishing boats, barges, almost anything that could float transported soldiers from France to England. The “little ships” made multiple trips under withering German fire.
The Germans Backed The Allied Army Against the English Channel
The Germans had a devised a master plan that included invading Belgium for strategic advantage for the second time in a quarter of a century. German airborne infantry seized bridges and transportation points and then Panzers attacked through the Ardennes Forest, crossed the Meuse River and other water avenues and overwhelmed the British Expeditionary Force and segments of the French and Belgian Army in northern France. Belgium surrendered to Hitler on May 28, 1940. The British and French armies were pinned with their backs to the English Channel, and the surrounding Germans planned to slowly and systematically decimate them.
Thousands of Crossings to Dunkirk and Back
The Royal Navy quickly came up with a plan to remove the trapped armies from the beach at Dunkirk, France, and transport them across the English Channel to Dover, England. The Navy called for ships, anything in England that could float, seaworthy or none seaworthy. The civilian population worked beside the Navy to move over 900 ships across the Channel to the rescue. The ships included America’s Cup racing yachts as well as fishing boats. Merchant ships, sloops, tugs, pleasure boats, fishing boats, ferries, barks, and boats that could not be readily classified gathered for the trip.
The people who manned the boats ranged from experienced sailors to raw volunteers. They didn’t need to navigate by the stars or instruments because they could follow the fires and smoke of the battle for Dunkirk on the coast and steer by sight. They did need courage. Boats collided with each other in black outs and inept steering. German planes and submarines attacked. There were unmarked mines. The amateur and professional sailors of the Dunkirk armada often didn’t sleep, eat, or rest for days.
Dutch and Belgian Coasters Provided Rescue Ships as Well
A coaster is a shallow-hulled ship that is used for trade between places on same island or continent and all European countries included them in their maritime fleets. Thirty nine Dutch coasters had escaped the Germans when they occupied the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. The Dutch shipping bureau in London and the Royal Navy asked the coasters to join the rescue flotilla. The Dutch coasters saved 22,698 men, primarily because they could get very close to the beach since most of them were flat bellied.
Belgian Canal Boats including the Sambre, and Escaut in tow of the minesweeper Skipjack participated in the Dunkirk evacuation.
The Soldiers on the Beach
Over 1,300 nurses cared for the wounded in the open air on Dunkirk beach. Long lines of weary, ragged soldiers waited in the water, often chest and neck deep, to be pulled aboard the next available boat. Often the bloody, dirty and starved soldiers fell asleep as soon as they felt the solid deck underneath them.
The overloaded boats ferried to the soldiers to the English shore to food, shelter, and care. The boats headed across the English Channel for a return trip and then another, a cycle that continued around the clock for nine days. Only people were evacuated. Equipment and supplies were left behind to allow more men to be rescued.
The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force Checked the Germans
The Germans maintained a withering artillery barrage, dive bombers incessantly attacked, and infantry machine guns took their toll. The Royal Navy held the Germans back with a barrage of antiaircraft fire and antisubmarine measures. On the beach, the Royal Air Force, the Navy shell fire and a defensive perimeter kept the German Army at bay while over 338,000 men, including 140,000 French and Belgian soldiers were loaded aboard the “Little Ships” and transported to England.
The Germans entered the city of Dunkirk on June 4, 1940, and captured the French soldiers left at the docks. About 5,000 French, British, and Belgian troops were either killed or captured at Dunkirk. The Germans marched the captured soldiers to the east to POW camps where they would remain for the rest of the war.
Dunkirk - a Brilliant Improvisation Inspired by Desperate Times
Some arm chair and afterward historians called the evacuation at Dunkirk a “desperate improvisation”, others called it a defeat and others called it a miracle. Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself termed Dunkirk a “miracle of deliverance”, but he added a few weeks later that “wars are not won by evacuations.” Most of the soldiers rescued from the beach that day continued to fight and played a vital part in winning the war for freedom from Nazi tyranny and world domination.
The Fate of Just Two of Dunkirk’s ‘Little Ships’
In the early 1920s, the General Steam Navigation Company contracted with J. Samuel White & Company at Cowes to build the Crested Eagle as one of the its steamers carrying passengers down the Thames estuary and beyond. Launched on March 25, 1925, the Crested Eagle was registered at 1,110 tons gross, measured 299 ½ feet long with a 34 ½ foot beam and she could reach over 18 knots. The Crested Eagle was the first Thames pleasure steamer and the first steamer in Europe to burn oil fuel.
Her builder designed her with an especially long and commodious promenade deck and a telescopic funnel and hinged mast so that she could pass under London Bridge to take on passengers at the Old Swan Pier.
In March 1940, the British Navy requisitioned the Crested Eagle as an auxiliary anti-aircraft coastal ship and armed her. During the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces from the beaches at Dunkirk, the Germans dive bombed the Crested Eagle on May 19, 1940. Her fuel caught fire and she ran ashore on the beach. Many of the soldiers aboard the Crested Eagle were badly burned, but survived. The Crested Eagle herself burned to the water line.
A Scottish ‘Little Ship’ Sold on EBay
The Scottish ‘little ship’ Skylark IX made many trips back and forth from the beach at Dunkirk, carrying 150 soldiers at a time and helping to save about 600 of them from the Nazi forces. She also served out of Poole Harbor as a shallow water mine sweeper.
After World War II ended, the Skylark IX’s owners put her to work cruising Loch Lomond for thirty years. Since 2010, Skylark IX has been underwater in the River Leven in Balloch, Dunbartonshire, near Loch Lomond and her owners decided to offer her for sale on EBay for the sum of one pound.
The Skylark IX has a new owner, but the new owner will have to spend many more pounds than one to raise her from the River Leven and make her seaworthy again.
Mariner on a ‘Little Ship’
Commander Charles H. Lightoller sailed his 58 foot ’little ship’ Sundowner, to help rescue troops from Dunkirk beaches. On June 1, 1940, Charles Lightoller, his oldest son, and a young man from the Sea Scouts sped in the Sundowner across the English Channel ahead of the other ‘little ships’. Despite the efforts of German bombers to sink him, Charles Lightoller and his crew rescued 130 men and brought them safely back to England.
Charles Lightoller had also served as Second Officer on the Titanic, the largest ship afloat, until April 15, 1912.
Gardner, W.J.R., The Evacuation from Dunkirk: Operation Dynamo, 26 May, 19 June, 1940, (Naval Staff History) Routledge, 2000
Harman, Nicholas, Dunkirk: The Patriotic Myth, Simon & Schuster, 1982.
Lord, Walter, The Miracle of Dunkirk, Combined Publishing, 1998
Sebag-Montefiore, Hugh , Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man, Harvard University Press, 2008.
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.