Then and now: Oceans apart?

In the decades between 1940 and now, technology has rocked the world, but you can still depend on our lifesavers.
Ramsgate’s current Trent class lifeboat Esme Anderson

Photo: Lt Cdr R Clark RN

Ramsgate’s current Trent class lifeboat Esme Anderson

Let us take you back to the RNLI of 1940 when single-engine motor sailing lifeboats were a familiar sight around our coasts and horses had just stopped helping with lifeboat launches. 

Some lifeboats had cabins and went 8–9 knots. Crew members were all men, either seafarers or fishermen, and they sometimes wore knitted gloves and scarves when afloat. 

1940 was before radar on lifeboats, before inshore lifeboats, and long before SIMS (a sophisticated engine management system that helps keep our crew safe).

In May 1940 more than 10% of the RNLI’s motor lifeboat fleet arrived in Dover at the request of the Admiralty to help with Operation Dynamo. Nineteen lifeboats went to Dunkirk to help rescue troops from the beaches. 

Lifeboats then and now

Coxswain Ian Cannon’s great great uncle was on the Ramsgate lifeboat that braved the Dunkirk mission. Ian highlights the vast difference between the current Ramsgate Trent class lifeboat and the Ramsgate class lifeboat of 1940: ‘The Trent – you’ve got such confidence in that craft. We can take more risks to be honest now because we’ve got power there to get ourselves out of danger. They had a wooden boat, single engine, not very powerful, with no seats and no real shelter.’

Although the lifeboats were oceans apart, the crews of then and now have much in common – they’re all willing to face very real danger to save others. Nowadays 9 out of 10 of our crew members aren’t from a professional seafaring background. So the RNLI developed training to ensure we can all still depend on the crew and to make sure they come home safely too.

Courtmacsherry crew members with local GAA players

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Community at the heart of the RNLI - Courtmacsherry lifeboat crew

The spread of RNLI community spirit

At Dunkirk, lifeboat crews volunteered for their country, and also to protect their own community, family and friends. And community spirit is still at the heart of every lifeboat station today. John Ray, volunteer Press Officer and Historian at Ramsgate lifeboat reflects: ‘The desire to help and rescue and camaraderie was there then and it’s there now – you’re all there to support one another.’ 

In 2017 the RNLI teamed up with another organisation that relies on the commitment and dedication of community volunteers – the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association). The sporting organisation’s got behind the Respect the Water campaign. The RNLI is using our knowledge and the partnership to help promote safety by the water and prevent accidents before they happen.

RNLI international rescue

In 1940, lifeboat communities came together for Operation Dynamo. In this century, our definition of community has widened further. With communication and technology advances, we’re able to unite with other lifesavers worldwide. With our Future Leaders in Lifesaving, we’ve trained over 100 delegates from 30 countries. There’s even a Facebook group to help save lives at sea on a global level. 

It isn’t a new thing for the RNLI to help others outside of the UK and Ireland. The RNLI will always rescue anybody, regardless of where they’re from. During the Second World War some volunteer lifeboat crews went to the aid of enemy airmen shot down over our waters. 

You can always trust the crew to be down to earth about their lifesaving role. So let’s give the last word to Tommy Cocking, ex-Coxswain at St Ives, from an interview in 2008. His ancestors were volunteering on the lifeboats even before Dunkirk: ‘I am the fifth generation of lifeboatmen in my family … Some people say it is a wonderful tradition, but I think it is a lack of imagination.’

Extract from the Life-boat 1940

Next story: 6 extracts from the Life-boat journal, giving the RNLI perspective on Dunkirk at the time.