1940: Dunkirk little ships

On 30 May 1940, two RNLI crews joined an armada of little ships for one of the Second World War’s greatest rescues: Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk.

The port of Dunkirk shattered, its beaches the only escape route for almost 340,000 British, French and Belgian troops facing obliteration by advancing German forces. 

Only the smallest of vessels could now reach the imperilled soldiers in a maritime rescue that would later be heralded by Winston Churchill as a ‘miracle of deliverance’. 

A stroke of genius

By the end of May 1940, an advancing German army had encircled the British Expeditionary Force, leaving the port of Dunkirk in tatters and its beaches the only possible way out for a rapidly retreating army. 

The destruction of the port combined with shallow surrounding waters meant that big ships couldn’t get near enough to the shore for a mass evacuation. Something different had to be done.

In a stroke of genius or desperation, Britain’s Ministry of Shipping put out an urgent request for all boats ‘with a shallow draft’ – from pleasure craft to private yachts – from Hull to Southampton to report to Dover, and within 24 hours an armada of some 700 little ships had formed. Their mission was daunting. 

Simultaneously, the crews of two RNLI lifeboats were setting out for France on rescue missions of their own at the request of their naval-officers-in-charge.

This is the remarkable story of how the crews of Ramsgate and Margate RNLI took part in Operation Dynamo, arguably the greatest wartime rescue of all time, and in doing so saved the lives of 3,400 people.

First on the scene

Ramsgate Coxwain Howrd Knight who, along with his volunteer crew, helped evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk in May 1940.
Ramsgate Coxswain Howard Knight who, along with his volunteer crew, helped evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk in May 1940

The lifeboat Prudential negotiated the 50-mile passage from Ramsgate to Dunkirk with eight small Thames work boats, known as wherries, in tow. These tiny, river- and canal-going vessels would be used to ferry troops from the beach at Dunkirk to to the lifeboat.

Battling strong tides and dodging wreckage and enemy fire made this the most challenging of rescues. Even so, Coxswain Howard Knight’s crew and the naval personnel managed to get 800 men off the beaches during the first night. Three of the wherries were lost but the remaining four worked on tirelessly, battered by the waves and incessant shelling.

With increasingly heavy seas and oars weighed down with spilled oil, the sailors found rowing the wherries increasingly difficult. It was time for a different approach. Secured by ropes, the crew of the Prudential allowed the wherries to drift inshore on the waves, before hauling them back towards the lifeboat fully laden.

The crew kept going for 30 hours, saving hundreds more troops until the last of the wherries was too badly damaged to continue. Even then, the work of the lifeboat crew didn’t stop. A day after returning to Ramsgate the lifeboat was in action again, bringing injured troops ashore from vessels anchored offshore.

The Lord Southborough – in tow to a Dutch barge to conserve fuel, and containing Coxswain Edward Parker and his crew of ten – set off for Dunkirk with a flotilla of other craft on the afternoon of Thursday 30 May 1940, a few hours after the Prudential.

‘With shells bursting and fires raging it was like hell’

Margate Coxwain Edward Parker with his sons James (left)  and Edward (right).  All three took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940.

Photo: A C Robinson

Margate Coxswain Edward Parker with his sons James (left) and Edward. All three took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940

The calm and mayhem the Margate crew witnessed on each side of the Channel couldn’t have been in starker contrast. Coxswain Parker said: ‘Margate was a pretty dead town then, more than half the residents had evacuated. But when we got to Dunkirk it was a bit different. With shells bursting and fires raging it was like hell.’

As they approached the shore the crew found themselves in the middle of a war zone. German submarines slipped silently by in the shadows, occasionally illuminated by flames on the shore.

The sound of shell fire and the smell of burning was everywhere. In the darkness and the chaos, the crew had to feel their way towards the shore. Once there they quickly got to work, moving people from the shore to the larger ships anchored in deeper water.

Coxswains Howard Knight and Edward Parker were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for their gallantry and determination. And all crew members received the RNLI’s Thanks on Vellum for their ‘Dunkirk spirit’.

RNLI lifeboats at Dunkirk

A total of 19 RNLI lifeboats were among the armada of little ships that travelled to Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo.

Only the Ramsgate and Margate lifeboats were crewed by RNLI lifeboat crew. The other 17 lifeboats were used by the Navy but played an important part in this remarkable rescue mission.

Here’s a list of all 19 RNLI lifeboats:

Lifeboat station Lifeboat name & official number (ON) Year built
Ramsgate ON 697 Prudential 1925
Margate ON688 Lord Southborough
(Civil Service No.1*)
1924
Gorleston ON820 Louise Stephens 1939
Lowestoft ON838 Michael Stephens 1939
Southwold ON691 Mary Scott 1925
Aldeburgh ON751 Abdy Beauclerk 1931
Aldeburgh ON832 Lucy Lavers 1939
Clacton ON707 Edward Z. Dresden 1929
Walton ON705 E.M.E.D 1928
Southend ON704 The Greater London
(Civil Service No.3*)
1928
Walmer ON762 Charles Dibden
(Civil Service No.2*)
1933
Hythe ON783 The Viscountess Wakefield 1936
Dungeness ON761 Charles Cooper Henderson 1933
Hastings ON740 Cyril and Lilian Bishop 1931
Eastbourne ON673 Jane Holland 1922
Newhaven ON730 Cecil and Lilian Philpott 1930
Shoreham ON758 Rosa Wood & Phyllis Lunn 1933
Poole ON811 Thomas Kirk Wright 1939
Cadgwith ON826 Guide of Dunkirk** 1940

* The Lord Southborough was the first lifeboat funded by the Civil Service charity, Civil Service, Post Office and British Telecom Lifeboat Fund (CISPOTEL). She was named after the charity’s Chairman and Honorary Treasurer Francis Hopwood, Lord Southborough. This was the beginning of a long tradition of lifeboats funded by the charity, which is known today as The Lifeboat Fund.

** The Guide of Dunkirk had just been built at Rowhedge Ironworks when she was called upon to go to Dunkirk. After the rescue mission, she returned to the building yard for repairs and was then stationed at Cadgwith, where she was given the name the Guide of Dunkirk.

Remembering the little ships

Regularly since 1940, Operation Dynamo has been commemorated by a little ships flotilla crossing to Dunkirk and a service of remembrance.

In addition, The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships commemorates the spirit of this monumental rescue and organises several meetings on the water each year where the surviving little ships can be seen.