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Kite Flying at Dunkirk

by Graeme Sorley

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Commander JS Dove, OBE, RN
Location of story: 
Dunkirk
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2211526
Contributed on: 
18 January 2004

Kite Flying at Dunkirk

My father was killed when HMS Barham was torpedoed in the Mediterranean and sank after a cataclysmic explosion in November 1941. Four years later, my mother married another naval officer, Commander J.S.Dove, RN, OBE who became a wonderful stepfather to my sister and me. He was reluctant to talk much about the war, but he volunteered some of his memories which I have since backed up with research. His story is unusual and interesting in many ways. Unusual in that as a naval officer he was on the beach at the evacuation of Dunkirk and he landed on the shore in France on the morning of the D-Day invasion.

Having been awarded a Military OBE when a mere 26 years old for design work he had done on naval gunnery in the years after Jutland, John Dove left the Navy in the early 1930’s and took up flying. He was back in the Navy two months before the outbreak of WW2 for 14 days training in the Operations Division of the Admiralty. He had been “informed of liability to recall in time of war or emergency and that he should not participate in any defence activities which would render him unavailable for service if required.” His service record then states “Reporting qualifications in regard to flying and the aircraft industry. Informed noted, but no opportunity of using his considerable experience can be foreseen at present”. From August 1939 on, he was at the Miscellaneous Weapons and Development Department of the Admiralty — the “Wheezers and Dodgers”, working on kites and “magic” balloons, radar, fast aerial mines, bombs to blow holes in the Atlantic Wall, radio controlled motor torpedo boats and other exotic inventions.

He started by designing a kite with aluminium foil woven into the cloth that could be picked up by radar to be flown by pilots who had bailed out over the sea. After the war my mother had some lampshades made from this material. He was ordered to Dunkirk with a small naval party to fly these in an attempt to deter the “Stuka” dive-bombers from strafing the soldiers on the beach.

Once there, he put his mind to other matters. A few years after WW2 he opened an account for me at a London Branch of the Westminster Bank. This involved a meeting with the elderly Manager who took me into his office and told me a story about my stepfather. He said: “Shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk had started, he had come into the bank to withdraw £1,000 - an unusually large amount at a time when almost everything was rationed. I asked what he wanted it for and he told me that he was going over to Dunkirk and needed the funds to buy loudspeakers”.

Recognising the chaotic situation on the beaches John Dove had foreseen the urgent need for public address systems for an orderly evacuation of troops onto the ships. This was the first I had heard of this exploit and I questioned my stepfather directly. He told me that having set up his marshalling stations, he found that the gradual slope of the beach made it difficult to board the boats. Noticing that there were a large number of abandoned trucks on the beach he organized the positioning of these side by side at low tide, thus providing a form of makeshift piers when the tide came in.

Several years ago, I watched “The Dunkirk Dilemma”, a part of the “Sea Tales” series on television. It commented on the use of vehicles as an aid to boarding; and showed a naval officer who could well have been my stepfather from the characteristic way he is standing, using a public address system. He also told me that he had to threaten some would-be boarders with a rifle to get them to wait their turn.

The experience of Dunkirk disturbed him greatly. It may have resulted in his determination after the war to work for peace through a United Nations type organisation. However, he was soon back with the “Wheezers and Dodgers”, working on radar at Bawdsey, Suffolk, kites and later in the preparations for D-Day. Together with his friend, Commander Norway, (pen name Nevil Shute) RN he continued working on all sorts of weird devices. One such device was what they called the "Fast Aerial Mine" a sort of bomb on a parachute. During a trial they dropped one which went through the roof of a cottage and spattered the walls with a pink dye. He was involved in the design of the "bombs" which were run up the Normandy beaches and meant to blow holes in the Atlantic Wall. The bomb was held between two steel wheels rather like a garden hose holder driven by small rockets. A prototype was tested in front of a number of very senior military representatives on a beach in Devonshire with almost disastrous results. It started running up the beach in a straight line until one wheel got stuck in soft sand. It then veered around and started heading towards the dignitaries who scattered in panic. Others included a radio-controlled unmanned motor torpedo boat, and “magic balloons” as part of the deception plans for the Normandy landings in which he took part.

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