DISASTER or deliverance, triumph or humiliation, the actual
achievement of the Dunkirk evacuation has no parallel in the annals of
war. More than 330,000 British and French troops were plucked from under
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fire from the shattered harbour of Dunkirk and its beaches by naval
vessels and an armada of little ships -- that is history.
So reads the preface of a new book, The Ships that Saved an Army,
written by enthusiast Russell Plummer, a marine journalist from
Peterborough, who also edits Paddle Wheels, the official journal of the
Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, and contributes regularly to
publications such as Ships Monthly.
The timing of his book could hardly be more appropriate. This weekend,
a fleet of more than 60 of the original Little Ships is back at Dunkirk
to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the evacuation. Veterans from
Scotland are joining colleagues from all over the country in a moving
act of remembrance for those who did not survive.
Tomorrow a wreath will be dropped by helicopter into a circle of ships
off the Dunkirk evacuation beaches. A Spitfire and a Hurricane of the
Battle of Britain flight will fly past. HMS Alacrity, HMS Puncher and
HMS Trumpeter are due to be present along with yachts representing each
of the three services.
The Clyde will have its own flagship in the form of the Waverley, the
world's last sea-going paddle steamer, which has been given permission
to carry 150 passengers from Dover across the English Channel to within
a mile of the Dunkirk beaches. Her passengers are paying #75 a head for
the privilege under a charter arrangement with Major and Mrs Holt's
Battlefield Tours. Lt. Col. David Storrie, who recently retired from the
Royal Marines, will be on board to give a commentary and a band will be
entertaining with the ''hits of the 40s''.
Russell Plummer's research furnishes a unique record of the individual
ships and their contribution to the Dunkirk evacuation, codenamed
Operation Dynamo. Passenger ferries, cargo vessels, paddle steamers,
excursion ships, Dutch skoots, tugs, fishing boats, barges, small
pleasure cruisers and yachts all participated. Up to 1300 vessels set
sail in the early summer of 1940 and more than 100 are still afloat
He writes: ''Fifty years on, Dunkirk still symbolises one of the
darkest, yet most glorious phases in Britain's military and maritime
history. So many families throughout the land had someone, or knew
someone, who was at Dunkirk, whether a member of the British
Expeditionary Force plucked from the beaches, or aboard one of the huge
fleet of ships, both naval and civilian, which crossed the English
Channel in the attempt to save an army.
''Just as organisations such as the Dunkirk Veterans' Association have
kept alive the bond of comradeship that existed between the men, the
ships themselves have not been forgotten, and the Association of Dunkirk
Little Ships is well established. It works to foster the spirit of those
who manned the vessels in the early summer of 1940.''
The signal officially starting Operation Dynamo was made by the
Admiralty at 6.57am on Sunday, May 26, 1940, following a sequence of
events triggered by the start of Germany's advance on the Low Countries.
The operation ended on Monday, June 3, when the old and battered
destroyer Shikari left Dunkirk's East Mole at 3.40am. By then, the
remarkable total of 338,226 men had been returned safely to British
shores but, of course, there were many casualties.
The loss of His Majesty's destroyers Grafton, Grenade and Wakeful was
announced on May 30. HM destroyers Basilisk, Keith and Havant were also
sunk by enemy action. Of more than 170 minor war vessels of the British
fleet engaged in the operation, 24 were lost. They included the paddle
minesweeper Waverley, predecessor of the present paddler which is paying
homage at Dunkirk tomorrow.
A total of 23 paddle steamers were officially recorded as taking part
in Operation Dynamo and most were Clyde-built. Russell Plummer's
research indicates that all but one of them appear to have crossed to
the French coast at least once and there is a strong probability that a
further four side-wheelers played at least some part in the evacuation.
A majority of the steamers had been requisitioned in the early days of
the war and commissioned by the Royal Navy as paddle minesweepers,
several hoisting the white ensign before the end of September, 1939.
Others followed in the remaining months of the year and at the beginning
of 1940. More than a dozen of them, including the old Waverley, had
served in a similar capacity during the 1914-1918 war.
The paddle minesweepers, representing all the major British peacetime
excursion fleets, were initially formed into five flotillas. Four of
them -- the 7th based at Granton on the Forth, 8th at North Shields,
11th at Greenock and 12th at Harwich -- each consisted of five steamers
and the 10th flotilla, based at Dover, of eight. Most were manned by RNR
and RNVR officers, among them one or two former excursion steamer
masters and, in other cases, peacetime skippers who went to war with
The old Waverley, built in 1899 at the former A. and J. Inglis
shipyard at Pointhouse on the Clyde (same birthplace as the present
paddler) had a spell on the English Channel before being based at
Harwich as leader of the 12th Flotilla and with responsibilities for
sweeping the east coast shipping lanes from Harwich as far north as
Great Yarmouth. Waverley and her flotilla were on a sweep when
instructed to put into Yarmouth and take provisions before sailing south
to rendezvous with a motor torpedo boat in the Thames estuary to collect
secret orders. These directed the flotilla to the beaches east of
Sadly missing from this weekend's commemorations is Captain John
Cameron, holder of the Distinguished Service Cross, who died at his home
in Glasgow in May, 1988, at the age of 81. He was on the bridge of the
old Waverley when she went down and spent several hours in the sea
before being rescued. A quiet, thoughtful man, he frequently reminisced
on the remarkable occasion and recalled that eventually the steamer had
between 800 and 900 men on board including many wounded.
In an earlier interview, he told me: ''Our shock orders at Yarmouth
were to proceed to the beaches of La Panne, outside Dunkirk, embark as
many troops as possible, and return to the nearest English port. We had
been getting snippets of news from time to time, but I am sure that the
civilian population of Britain had no idea of how near to a catastrophe
our country really was.''
Sailing under cover of darkness and without lights, the Waverley
dropped anchor offshore and it was only in the cold light of dawn of May
29 that the amazing scene unfolded of thousands of troops peppering the
beaches after many days of hard fighting and forced marches.
''When the troops saw us, a great cheer went up and one lad shouted,
'haw wullie, we're oan the auld Waverley gaun' tae Rothesay; we're
awright noo'. We sent our lifeboats ashore and things were going very
well when the first attack of enemy bombers began.''
Like most of the other paddlers, the Waverley was protected only by an
ancient 12-pounder gun mounted forward along with various lighter
weapons. For an estimated 150 men on the Waverley there was to be no
homecoming, ironically because of the difficulties of another Clyde
paddler, Eagle III, sailing in wartime as HMS Oriole. She had gone
ashore on the beach and Waverley spent about two hours trying to pull
her off with ropes and wires.
Back in the channel and left behind by the convoy, the old Waverley
suffered the full brunt of enemy wrath. A dozen Heinkels attacked the
ship and all the time the steamer kept up sustained fire with her
12-pounder, machine guns and even the rifles of rescued troops. It is
claimed that she shot down two enemy aircraft.
Eventually, three bombs struck in succession, the last jamming the
Waverley's rudder and putting her steering gear out of action. She went
down with her guns firing to the last and the White Ensign flying at the
gaff. The lives of many troops and crew were saved by peacetime buoyant
seats that floated free as the ship sank. These had been retained at the
insistence of Captain Cameron when Waverley was at the yard of her
Glasgow builders, Inglis, for fitting out the previous autumn.
The Eagle III was built in 1910 by Napier and Miller, of Dumbarton. On
reaching La Panne early on May 29, her skipper Lieutenant Edwin Davies
saw the problems being encountered by small boats working off the beach
and ran his vessel aground in 10ft of water. Although she was high and
dry for much of the day, when the tide turned an estimated 2000 men were
able to wade out to the steamer and cross her decks to board other
vessels and be ferried to larger ships.
Lieutenant Davies saw fit to advise the Admiralty of his actions and
sent his now famous signal: ''Deliberately grounded HMS Oriole Belgian
coast dawn on May 29 on own initiative, objective speedy evacuation of
troops. Refloated dusk same day, no apparent damage.'' The officially
recorded figure of men transported by the steamer was put at 2587, but a
rough tally kept by Davies produced numbers closer to 5000. She survived
the war only to be scrapped at Port Glasgow in 1946.
The Duchess of Fife, another renowned Clyde paddler, arrived off La
Panne at midnight and loaded troops from small boats before taking them
to Margate. The ship completed two further return trips without
suffering serious damage and landed a total of 1500 men. She later
returned to the Clyde and resumed service on the Cumbrae run. Displaced
by new tonnage during June, 1953, she was broken up at Port Glasgow and
her bell was presented to Millport, a community she served faithfully,
winter and summer, for so many years.
A 1924 product of the Inglis yard at Glasgow, the Marmion, sailed
direct from her Essex base to Dunkirk with Waverley, Duchess of Fife and
Oriole. She transported 713 men back to England. After Dunkirk, the
steamer returned to Harwich but was bombed during an air raid on the
port on April 9, 1941, sinking in shallow water. The wreck was raised,
but she was not worth repairing and was scrapped.
Another heroine of Dunkirk was undoubtedly the King George V,
officially classified as a personnel vessel. She was built in 1926 at
the renowned Denny yard at Dumbarton and was the first passenger steamer
to be fitted with high-pressure turbine machinery. While most excursion
services ceased immediately after the war started, the steamer continued
at Oban until September 14, 1939, and was then requisitioned as a
transport and based at Southampton.
From the spring of 1940, she took part in evacuations from Rotterdam,
Ostend, Boulogne and Calais, before becoming one of the earliest
visitors to Dunkirk. She made six crossings to and from the harbour,
loading around 700 troops each time and landing a total of 4300 men in
Both King George V's skipper, Captain R. McLean, and Chief Engineer W.
McGregor were awarded the DSO and the bosun, D. McKinnon, received the
DSM. The steamer was subsequently overhauled by Dennys and resumed
MacBrayne cruises on the Clyde in 1946, going back to Oban in 1947 and
continuing there each summer until withdrawn after the 1974 season.
On a smaller scale, the Dunkirk veteran Skylark IX can now be found
berthed in the tranquil waters of Loch Lomond, where she is made
available every year by her owner, Mr John Sweeney, of Balloch, to the
Glasgow and West of Scotland Dunkirk Veterans' Association for a
remembrance service. The vessel was originally built in 1934 by J.
Bolson and Son, Poole, and operated in the Bournemouth area with a
certificate to carry 115 passengers.
Last week, the Glasgow and West of Scotland veterans held their own
parade at Balloch. This weekend, most will be at Dunkirk along with
countless others for the 50th anniversary. Thousands more will remember
silently at home. Winston Churchill warned the British people: ''Wars
are not won by evacuations.'' Russell Plummer says in his excellent
book: ''Without the little ships of Dunkirk, it is difficult to imagine
how the Second World War would not have been lost.''
The Ships that Saved an Army, by Russell Plummer, is published in
hardback by Patrick Stephens Ltd., Thorsons Publishing Group, Denington
Estate, Wellinborough, Northants. Price #17.99. Permission to use
extracts is acknowledged with thanks.