Donate now

Marking the courage of our crews at Dunkirk

Tuesday 30 May marked the 77th anniversary of when two RNLI crews joined an armada of little ships in one of the Second World War’s greatest rescues: Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk. Did you know that two volunteer crews and 19 of our lifeboats were involved?

Eastbourne Jane Holland showing the damage she sustained during the Dunkirk evacuation in May/June 1940


Setting the scene

Six months into World War Two, the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force in northern France found themselves hemmed in on all sides at the French port of Dunkirk. They only had one escape route – the beaches to the east. But large ships couldn’t get close enough for a mass evacuation and hundreds of thousands of troops feared for their lives.

Across the English Channel, an improbable rescue fleet was quickly assembled for a secret mission – Operation Dynamo. In response to an urgent request from the Admiralty, hundreds of pleasureboats, working barges, motorlaunches and fishing boats came together at Sheerness Dockyard.

Just twenty miles up the Kent coast, the crews of Ramsgate and Margate lifeboats were also preparing to launch.

How our crews and lifeboats got involved at Dunkirk

On Thursday 30 May 1940, the Ramsgate and Margate lifeboat crews set sail for France in a courageous mission to bring the soldiers off the beaches at Dunkirk and into the safety of the rescue ships waiting offshore.

Ramsgate Coxswain and his crew on the lifeboat Prudential negotiated the 50-mile passage with eight small Thames work boats in tow – these small vessels would be used to ferry troops from the beach at Dunkirk to the lifeboat. Margate’s crew were towed across the channel aboard The Lord Southborough in order to conserve fuel and arrived a few hours after the Ramsgate lifeboat.

In spite of the strong tides, wreckage in the water and enemy fire, the crews and naval personnel managed to get 800 men off the beaches during the first night. They continued for 30 hours, saving hundreds more troops until the last of the small Thames boats was too badly damaged to continue.

A total of 19 RNLI lifeboats were among the armada of little ships that travelled to Dunkirk 77 years ago – although 17 of these were not managed by RNLI lifeboat crew, they all played an important part in this remarkable rescue mission.

The aftermath

Over 338,000 men were rescued between 26 May and 4 June, over one third of these men were evacuated by Dunkirk’s ‘little ships’. RNLI Coxswains Howard Knight (Ramsgate) and Edward Parker (Margate) were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for their gallantry and determination, and all crew members received the RNLI’s Thanks on Vellum.

In the next few months we’ll be sharing more stories about the RNLI’s involvement in the rescue at Dunkirk in the build-up to ‘Dunkirk’ the film being released in cinemas, so stay tuned to the Volunteer Zone to find out how the determination and courage of our crews changed lives.

Here’s a short video that tells the story of Dunkirk and how the RNLI got involved: (if the video doesn’t play, please click here)