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Defining Dunkirk: RNLI reporting from the war years

Six extracts from the Life-boat journal, giving the RNLI perspective on Dunkirk at the time.

Extract from the Life-boat 1940

Photo: RNLI

The RNLI’s view of Dunkirk, from the Life-boat journal, War Years

1. An unusual call for help

‘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.’

The Margate lifeboat Lord Southborough at her dedication service

Next story: Watch a quick video that sums up the Dunkirk story and introduces some of our rescuers from Ramsgate and Margate.

Boats leaving Ramsgate on anniversary of Dunkirk

Photo: Shutterstock

Little ships leaving Ramsgate on the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk

2.The swift response

‘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. 

‘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.’

What the crews faced at Dunkirk

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Little ships leaving Ramsgate on the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk

3. The terrifying conditions

‘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.’

Troops amassing at Dunkirk

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Thousands of troops amassing at Dunkirk

4. First contact

‘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.”’

Stamps dedicated to the men of Dunkirk

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Commemorative stamps dedicated to the men of Dunkirk

5. Dunkirk spirit

‘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.’

1940 war damage on Eastbourne lifeboat Jane Holland

Photo: RNLI

Eastbourne’s lifeboat Jane Holland, one of 19 lifeboats damaged at Dunkirk

6. Fragments of tales

‘Nineteen life-boats took part in the Dunkirk evacuation and brought off thousands of men … The full story of what they did there, how they did it, how many men they brought off, and what lives were lost aboard them, will never be known, but from time to time, during the next five days, they returned bringing with them fragments of the tales of their adventures and scars more speaking than any tale.’