WWII: Dunkirk Evacuation | How the 'little ships' helped rescue the Allied troops
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The 'Curlew' at Dunkirk
The 'Curlew' was one of a vast fleet of small craft that evacuated the troops from Dunkirk. Here a yachtsman tells of the amazing adventures of his Thames launch, the Curlew,' during the voyage from Maidenhead to Dunkirk, and from Dunkirk to Ramsgate.
It was a brilliant idea to use a vast fleet of small boats, yachts, fishing craft, and pleasure launches for the evacuation of Dunkirk. Of course, the reason for doing it that way was to cheat the enemy of any chance of bombing or shelling big targets. Also, because the troops had to be brought out from a beach which had to be approached by a long channel, parallel with the beach and leading from the west to the east, between sandbanks on one side and the beach on the other. The fleet of small boats was hastily assembled by a marvellous feat of organisation on the part of the Admiralty. It was collected from a score of different South-Coast and East-Coast ports.
So far as I was concerned, the affair started about midnight on Wednesday, May 29, when I received a telephone message asking me to get out the motor yacht Curlew. She had been laid up in a shed all winter on the upper Thames at Maidenhead. She's thirty-seven feet long and fitted with two engines of thirty horse-power each. You may picture her as a smart, white-painted boat with two small cabins, one forward and one aft, with quite a spacious central bridge-deck between. She is a comfortable craft with four or six people aboard; there were twenty-four souls aboard her when I brought her back across the Channel from Dunkirk.
You must forgive me if this account sounds as if Curlew played a major part in the operation. She didn't. She played a very small part. But hundreds of other craft like her played similar small parts, and the happy result of the aggregate effort was that the troops were safely brought home.
The Journey There
We got Curlew in the water on Thursday morning and by lunch-time the engines were coupled up, the ballast was aboard and the petrol tanks filled to the brim. We left Maidenhead at six in the evening and ran down river till it was dark. We were up before dawn again and got under way, but, of course, the lock-keepers were still in bed and we had to work the locks ourselves. We called in at Gravesend for more fuel and provisions, and we managed to reach Southend at 4.15 the next evening, so we were now ninety odd miles from our home base.
At Southend I was instructed to take her to Ramsgate, and we left Southend Pier just as dawn was breaking on Saturday morning. We arrived at Ramsgate at 10 a.m. and stayed there just long enough to fill up with enough fuel for a further 130 miles' cruising and to mount a Bren gun on the little foredeck. Within an hour we set off for Dunkirk.
My crew consisted of a friend of mine as engineer and two young Naval seamen lent to me as deckhands and to work the Bren gun, but soon after sailing I learned that neither of these two young seamen had had much sea experience, neither had either of them ever fired a Bren gun! My engineer, however, was a magnificent help.
We sailed in company with another fine little motor yacht, the Cairngorm, which was in the charge of a Lieut.-Commander R.N.R. The Cairngorm was a bit faster than the Curlew and she drew ahead of us. When we were nine or ten miles off the English coast we were hailed by a fast naval launch. There was a Rear-Admiral aboard her, and he ordered us, through a megaphone, not to spare the engines, but to drive on all the way at full throttle. So we did, and fairly made the boat tremble.
In another hour we had almost caught up with the Cairngorm. Half an hour later we sighted a blaze, some two or three miles on our starboard bow. I altered course slightly to see what it was all about. It was a blazing ship's lifeboat, burning so furiously that it was impossible that there could be anybody alive aboard. So we resumed our course. Meanwhile I told one of the Naval seamen to put in a bit of practice with the Bren gun, and he soon found out how to load it and fire it.
He soon had a chance to use it when a German bomber swooped over us from astern. None of us saw him coming and the first we knew about it was the bursting of a bomb about a hundred feet ahead of us. Actually this bomb fell about midway between the Cairngorm and ourselves. The Cairngorm got a few splinters aboard, but the only effect on the Curlew was to rock the boat violently. The plane was well out of range, of course, before we could bring our Bren gun to bear, but the Cairngorm's gunner got in a burst.
The bomber swept away out of sight, but came diving towards us again, this time from right ahead. She machine-gunned us, and the bullets sent up sprays of water alongside but did not hit us. We replied with our Bren guns and she made off. Altogether there were five raids before we eventually got clear of Dunkirk.
As we made our way up the channel leading to the port we could see the flashes from the artillery holding the coast and a vast pall of smoke hung over the town itself. One of our destroyers, apparently damaged, was tied up to the mole and firing furiously, but our orders were not to stop at the harbour but to push on past it to a beach about two miles to the east. The whole place was littered with wrecks, and the only vessels under way were Cairngorm and ourselves. Cairngorm sounded her way carefully towards the beach, and we were able to follow in her wake at full speed. So we drew up to her and both of us went alongside a pair of Thames barges, the Glenway and the Lark, which were aground and apparently deserted. But they made good landing-stages for us, though we could not tie up because of the danger of grounding on the ebbing tide. Had we touched bottom we probably could not have got off again.
We were at the beach from 4.40 until 6.25 and this was the most uncomfortable hour and three-quarters that I have ever spent, because until we had got our troops aboard it was a question of putting our engines astern and ahead, astern and ahead, so as to hold the boat just clear of the sand. Meanwhile, we were bombed at intervals, and so were the troops waiting on the beach.
It had been our plan, had there been any destroyers or other large vessels near by, to put our troops aboard them and go ashore for more, but the only other vessel was the destroyer that was firing shells from her berth at the mole. A small steamer anchored off-shore was bombed just as we were trying to make up our minds whether there was anybody aboard her.
The Journey Back
So we had no option but to make off for Ramsgate with our load of troops, and just as we passed the mole we saw a German bomber brought down by the destroyer's A.A. guns.
Once we got clear of the entrance channel, we encountered several large convoys making for Dunkirk, and we knew that the troops we had left on the beach would find plenty of room aboard them. Indeed, we spent most of that night dodging ships and fast launches on the way out - and a very anxious time we had, because, of course, everybody was steaming without lights and the night was very dark and cloudy.
We put our troops ashore at 4 o'clock in the morning. Poor chaps, they were tired out and their clothes were soaked after wading off the beach to the dinghy. Also many of them had been seasick. But they were all cheerful, and all they asked for was a short rest and a change of clothes before wanting to go back to France and get on with the fighting.
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Document Type | Journal
13 June 1940
In this article from 'London Calling', the BBC's overseas journal, a yachtsman describes how he and a small crew (consisting of an engineer and two naval men) took the Curlew, a motor yacht, to Dunkirk. There they witnessed the scene and narrowly escaped being hit by a German bomber.
Winston Churchill makes his first prime ministerial broadcast.
An appeal for Dunkirk recruits on behalf of the government.
Bernard Stubbs reports on the returning troops.
Rt Hon Anthony Eden recounts the events of the 'battle for the ports'.
Ed Murrow reports on his visit to a fighter airfield.
Four members of the BEF describe their retreat to Calais and Dunkirk.
Reporter Ed Murrow hears Churchill's speech in the Commons.
JB Priestley pays homage to the small boats of Dunkirk.
The shipping minister recounts the past few days at Dunkirk.
A Pathe news cameraman describes Dunkirk.
The role of Margate's lifeboats in the Dunkirk evacuation.
A Thames tugboat master describes how he helped with the Dunkirk operation.
The captain of the Royal Daffodil recounts being bombed.
Commander Lightoller is interviewed by Charles Gardner.
Memories of Dunkirk by those who were there.
A member of the crew aboard HMS Malcolm recounts the evacuation at Dunkirk.
A senior officer's account of Dunkirk.
A former sergeant speaks about his dramatic escape from Dunkirk.
Recollections of those who took part at Dunkirk on shore, in the air and at sea.
Former French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud is interviewed about Dunkirk.
One man relives the darker moments of Dunkirk.
Dunkirk veterans from north-east England remember the evacuation.
Survivors share their memories of the Wormhoudt massacre.
Richard Holmes tells the story of Dunkirk as he walks its beaches and breakwaters.
...Hitler had not halted the Panzers?
A memo from the Assistant Senior News Editor about the Ministry of Information.
The BBC informs the Ministry of Information about its preliminary Dunkirk news reports.
Memo from the BBC to the War Office.
The BBC is held to account by Military Intelligence.
A summary of a telephone conversation between the BBC and MI7.
All broadcasts from officers and men in the army are to be stopped.
Recognition for the part played by the French.
The Ministry of Information sends an urgent message forbidding interviews with servicemen.
The Ministry of Information stops further broadcasts by a general.
The War Office warning about recent news reports.
The Ministry of Information refutes Nazi claims.
A BBC memo highlights censorship communication problems.
Worries about France and instructions from Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office.
The unprecedented demands of broadcasting in wartime continue to cause problems.
The War Office reconfirm their policy on broadcasts by serving officers and men.
A yachtsman tells of his voyage to Dunkirk.
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