Ramsgate’s resilient crew
It’s May 1940. Wartime lifeboat crews from Ramsgate and Margate prepare to go directly to France to help British and Allied soldiers escape from Hitler. With many of the younger lifeboat crew on military service, the older generation volunteer, in true RNLI spirit.
Howard Knight, Coxswain of the Ramsgate lifeboat Prudential, recalled the moment he informed his crew of their mission: ‘“We are going over the other side to fetch our boys off”, I told them. Not one of them hesitated.’
This was no ordinary rescue; the crew were given tin helmets and gas masks.
Alf Moody was acting second coxswain on the mission. Alf’s the great great uncle of the current Ramsgate Coxswain Ian Cannon. Ian’s been over to France with the little ships to commemorate Dunkirk. He imagines what it was like for his uncle:
‘We went over on the station boat, and we escorted the Prudential across. To be honest, she looked like a log. We go over the waves and they go through it. The crew would have been soaked. There was nowhere to hide … absolutely horrendous.
‘It was a completely different ball game in the 1940s. Open boats, sailing boats, rowing boats. They were proper men, proper sailors, rowing in all weathers. Nowadays we come down we start the engines up, we shut the door, we put the heaters on. They were never able to do that. They knew no different.’
Summary: With many young crew members from Ramsgate and Margate on military service, the older generation courageously volunteered to help soldiers escape from France.
Ramsgate Lifeboat Press Officer and history buff John Ray says the crew at Dunkirk ‘took it in their stride’. The crew had carried out many wartime rescues – including pulling pilots and sailors from the sea – so this type of rescue wasn’t new to them.
Coxswain Knight recalled: ‘The bombs were dropping all the time [and] guns hammering all along the shore. Yet those who were on the shore, those who were taking them off and those on the crafts which were taking them onboard, were not perturbed by what was falling around them from the air and the danger. They still carried on … like true Britishers without flinching.’
After 40 hours at sea, and utterly exhausted, the heroic lifeboat crew had done all they could and they turned for home.
Back at Ramsgate, they found that despite all the trials, Prudential had very little damage. Within 24 hours of their return the irrepressible crew were called out again. The shout took them to the notorious Goodwin Sands, where Ramsgate RNLI still saves lives to this day.