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Dunkirk - first hand account of one of the small boats

by Johnosborne

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People in story: 
Henry John Osborne
Location of story: 
London, Channel, Dunkirk
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22 May 2004

My personal recollections, 64 years on, of my involvement
As a civilian, in the evacuation from Dunkirk
At the end of May, 1940


John Osborne
May 2004

My name is John Osborne I live in Cheadle Hulme, just south of Manchester and as this is written I am 86 years old.

One of my grandsons asked me, as part of a school project, to record my recollections, 64 years on, of my involvement, as a civilian, in the evacuation from Dunkirk at the end of May, 1940. After such a long passage of time since the actual event, my recollections are now, inevitably, embellished by what I have read over the years and also, probably, by a few imaginative inventions of my own. These, nevertheless, are my recollections as of today.

I was born in 1918 at North Cray, Kent, near to Sidcup where I lived until 1957, when my work took me to the Manchester area.

On leaving school in 1934 I went to work with John Knight Ltd the then famous soap manufacturers with such brands as Family health and Knights Castille toilet soaps, Royal Primrose and Hustler washing soaps and Shavallo shaving products. This company has long since been absorbed into the Unilever Empire. John Knight’s works and offices, the Royal Primrose Soap Works were in East London at Silvertown, E16 which is on the North bank of the Thames, roughly opposite to Blackheath, between Woolwich, the site of the Royal Military Academy, and Greenwich with the Royal Naval College.

To get to work at Silvertown from Sidcup I had to cross the Thames, either under or over. In those days there was a pedestrian tunnel under the river at Woolwich and a road route thro8ugh the Blackwall tunnel. However I often used the Woolwich Free Ferry, which transported pedestrians and vehicles over to North Woolwich in a few minutes. Whenever I made this short journey across the river I was always interested to watch all sorts of craft plying to and fro. I particularly remember the sun class of tugs, which were always busy on that stretch of the tideway.

In the years before the war I, with my cousins and some of our friends, usually spent our summer holidays sailing and boating so we all gained a basic experience of simple seamanship and boat handling.

I well remember Sunday 3rd September 1939, the day war was officially declared. We were all in church listening, on my portable radio, to the Prime Minister, Neville chamberlain making his statement to the nation. There was a large congregation and, as soon as the Prime Minister finished speaking, our minister closed the service and we set off to walk home. On the way the air-raid sirens sounded off for the first time and everyone expected bombs to start raining down!
It was of course a false alarm but a good foretaste of what was to follow in the times ahead. But that again is another story.

The next day, Monday 4th September, a friend and I drove to Chatham on his motorbike, a 350cc Rudge, to offer our services as volunteers in the Royal Navy. We were surprised, and a little disappointed, to find that the only volunteers who were being accepted immediately would be enlisted as cooks. That was not our idea of fighting a war although we were both to discover, in very different active service circumstances, to what extent cooks and stewards could improve or mar life afloat. So we returned home to await our ‘call-up’ papers which we did not think would be long delayed.

I was then told that those in possession of a Yacht Master’s (Coastal) Certificate would be considered for direct entry into the Royal Navy as R.N.V.R. Officers — Sub-Lieutenants or Midshipmen, according to age. Early in 1940, therefore I commenced studying for this Board of Trade Certificate at Captain O. M. Watts’ Navigation School in Albermarle Street, London W.1.

Most of those studying with me had sailing boat experience and were hoping to enter the Royal Navy soon as R.N.V.R. Officers. We were therefore not surprised to be told, when we arrived for lectures on Thursday 30th May 1940, that the Admiralty wanted to see us all and that we were to report to the Port of London Authority Building near the Tower of London at 18.30 that evening. It did not occur to us that it was rather strange to have to report to the P.L.A. Building and not to the Admiralty, but after all there was a war on.

Our lectures were suspended and, as I was expecting to be interviewed with a view to being granted an R.N.V.R. Commission in the Royal Navy, I went home, smartened myself up, put on my best suit and collected together my latest school reports, examination certificates and references.

When we reported to the P.L.A. Building later in the day, as instructed, there was no evidence of selection interviews being conducted. Instead a large crowd of us was ushered into a hall and told to ‘pay attention!’ An announcement was being made by a Naval Officer that a secret and probably dangerous operation was being mounted which called for the short-term services of anyone, of any age, with some basic knowledge of small boats and their handling. It was not possible at that stage for any more details to be given, we were told, but anyone who did not wish to participate was free to withdraw. I do not recall that anyone did so. We were, however, permitted to contact our families to tell, them that we might be away for a few days ‘on a dangerous mission’.

Of course, as soon as the news of the evacuation from Dunkirk was made public everyone knew that we were to be involved in some capacity or other. We told in general terms that a large fleet of small boats was being assembled to go across the Channel to lift soldiers from the beeches to the east of Dunkirk harbour.

We were then taken by coach to Tilbury, all still civilians in our ‘interview’ suits.
We arrived at Tilbury later that day, were ‘signed on’ as Merchant Service Deck-hands and issued with regulation steel helmets. I still have my ‘tin hat’ as a memento. We still, however, did not know what our role in the operation was to be.

I was in a party who were then taken to the quayside where, alongside, were several ships’ lifeboats of the traditional type carried by all ocean going passenger liners pre-war, each at least 30 feet long. We were detailed to man these lifeboats in crews of about seven hands in each.
(A hand is a seagoing term from the days of sail for a sailor who was reckoned to use one hand for himself and one to do his work.)

The lifeboats with their crews aboard were then formed into trots (lines of small boats secured one behind the other ready for towing) of four or five boats and taken in tow by a tug. Ours was a Sun tug IV, which I used to see from the Woolwich ferry on my way to work. The tug towed tow trots alongside each other so the helmsmen had to steer in order to keep clear of the boats alongside and avoid collision when under way.

By this time it was quite late in the evening and dark when we set off, so we were told, for Southend pier to take on board provisions. We arrived there, without incident, at around 01.30 Friday morning and were issued with basic provisions of bread and tinned meat. We then set off for Ramsgate where we received our final orders and set sail again, this time for a midnight rendezvous off the Dunkirk beaches. During the crossing the tug crew regularly sent buckets, literally, of tea down the line to the boats in tow. We were the end boat in our line so by the time the bucket reached us them little tea that was left was cold and diluted with sea water!

The precise timetable of events over the next 24 hours is, after all these years, no longer totally reliable but the events described all happened.

Our route to Dunkirk was by no means direct as had to keep to swept channels free of mines. In any case there were so many craft of all shapes and sizes making for the same destination that we needed only to follow the fleet. My vivid and lasting impression of this stage of the operation is of a calm, flat, sea covered with an armada of assorted ships and boats. This is well described by Norman Gelb in his book “Dunkirk — The Incredible escape” which was published in 1990 and is based on detailed research of allied and German records.

He writes and I quote:
“An extraordinary explosion of activity was taking place on the beaches as well. A vast flotilla of small ships and boats, far more than had been there before, appeared off the coast. The methodical work of the Admiralty’s Small Vessels Pool and the requisitioning teams Ramsey (Vice admiral R.N.) had sent out was proving its worth. It was an extraordinary sight. All manner of small and medium craft appeared — barges, train ferries, car ferries, passenger ferries, RAF launches, fishing smacks, tugs, motor powered lifeboats, oar propelled lifeboats, wherries, eel-boats, picket boats, seaplane tenders. There were yachts and pleasure vessels of all kinds, some very expensive craft, some modest DIY conversions of ship’s lifeboats. There were Thames River excursion launches with rows of slatted seats and even a Thames river fire float.

They cane from Portsmouth, Newhaven, Sheerness, Tilbury, Gravesend, Ramsgate, from all along England’s Southern and South-Eastern coasts, from ports big and small, from shipping towns and yachting harbours.
Some, from up river, had never been in the open sea before. They were manned by volunteers; men who, without being given the details, had been told that they and their vessels were urgently needed to bring soldiers home from France. Most were experienced sailors — professional or otherwise — but many were fledglings who knew nothing about maritime hazards. Had the weather been bad, some would not have risked going; neither their experience nor their craft would have been up to it. Some mariners would fore ever be convinced that the extraordinary, uncharacteristic, calm which ruled the sea during most of the ten days of Dunkirk permitting the evacuation to proceed — ‘the water was like a mill pond’ — was literally sent because ‘God had work for the British nation to do’.”

At some time after dark we arrived off the beaches at East of Dunkirk. Only small vessels, with relatively shallow draught could approach nearer than 12 miles from the shore. Our tug was able to get quite close before we were cast off and left to our own devices to row to the beach and pick up some soldiers who were patiently waiting in their thousands, continually under bomb and shell fire. Six of the crew rowed, an oar each, and one steered.

The troops were very well disciplined, just waiting in long columns, hoping to be taken off. They were all dead beat, having had a terrible time fighting their way to the beaches. We were able to get right to the sandy beach and took on board about 30 British soldiers. They were travelling ‘light’ having discarded most of their equipment. We rowed away from the shore and took our ‘passengers’ to the nearest craft lying off shore that we could find, a tug, a drifter, a trawler, anything that could risk coming in so close.

We returned to the beach; probably a different section because as soon as we approached a crowd of French soldiers, with all their equipment, rushed out into the water and climbed on board before we had a chance to turn the boat around headed out to sea. As the tide was falling we became stuck on the sand. With great difficulty we persuaded the Frenchman to get out of the boat and we were then able to turn it round and prevent it broaching (getting broadside onto the sea). At one time I was almost up to my neck in the water holding the bow of the boat pointed pout to seawards — still in my ‘interview’ suit! We transferred that load eventually to one of the waiting craft and made one or two more trips before deciding dawn was approaching and it was our turn to make the return journey and get on the way before daylight.

Through all this time we were so occupied with what we were doping that we were hardly aware of all the other activity going on all around us. It is always like this ‘in action’. There were aircraft overhead, friend and foe, all the time; continual bombardment of the town, harbour and of the beaches by the Germans. Ships were being sunk and survivors rescued. All around the town and harbour of Dunkirk fires were blazing, a heavy pall of smoke hanging over it all. From much further off shore the British ships were bombarding the German positions.

We eventually left the beaches just before dawn on Saturday, 1st June. I spent most of the return journey in the engine room of our craft trying to get warm and dry. When we reached England again we had to lie off shore before being taken to Ramsgate by tenders. Everything was very well organised and, seemingly, under control. Administrative formalities were completed and we were ‘signed off’.
I received £5 as compensation for the damage to my suit. I managed, somehow, to get a lift back to Tower Bridge pier in a launch and, having unsuccessfully tried to sell my story to the Daily Express, I eventually arrived back home in Sidcup ay around 05.30 on Sunday morning with the help of a lift on a newspaper van.

A further quote from Norman Gelb:
‘At 14.23 that afternoon (Wednesday, 5th June) the Admiralty in London officially announced ‘Operation Dynamo now completed’. The official War office communiqué said that The outstanding success of this operation, which must rank as one of the most difficult operations of war ever undertaken, ahs been due to the magnificent fighting qualities of the Allied troop; their calmness and discipline in the worst conditions; to the devotion of the Allied navies; and to the gallantry of the RAF. Although our losses have been considerable, they are small in comparison with those which a few days ago seemed inevitable’. On the last day of Dynamo 26,175 troops, almost all French, had been ferried to England from Dunkirk. The final total evacuated, including those lifted off in the days just before Operation Dynamo was launched, was 364,628, including 224,868 British. Within days many of the French troops would return to France to try, in vain, to help stem the total conquest of their nation by Hitler’s armies. But to the immense relief of Churchill, the high command in London, and the people of Britain the British army, so nearly lost, was home.’

It was reported that 887 craft took part in the evacuation which certainly was something of a miracle.

As a postscript may I add that, by the time I had successfully gained my Yachtmasters’ (Coastal) certificate, the regulations had been changed and I was required, after all, to serve as an Ordinary seaman RN before being considered for a commission. After basic training as an Ordinary seaman, I was drafted to a cruiser, HMS Southampton (a sister ship to HMS Belfast which is now berthed on the Thames near Tower Bridge). We went to the Mediterranean where we were in action with the Italian fleet, then made an interesting journey through the Suez Canal to east Africa and back to the Mediterranean to support relief convoys to Malta. There we were sunk as a result of German Stuka dive bombing on 11th January 1941.

I survived and took a passage back to the UK in a Dutch trooper MV Christaan Huytgens. Eventually I was commissioned as a Ty. Sub. Lieut. RNVR in august 1941 and was appointed to HMS Loosestrife, a Flower Class Corvette as Anti-submarine Control officer. I was promoted to Lieut. on 1st January 1943 and appointed to HMS Trent, a River Class Frigate In both ships we carried out convoy escort duty duties the North Atlantic and , in HMS Trent, in the Indian Ocean, operating between Aden, Bombay and Columbo. We also formed part of the escort of the invasion convoy to Sicily in July 1943. I was demobilised and returned to civilian employment in March 1946, having received £101.10s as war Gratuity and Post War Credit of Wages!

I can think of no better finale to this record than to offer you the treat of listening to a supreme exponent of the English language, the great war-time Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who kept so many of us carrying on hopefully at home and overseas during the early dark days of the war, through the statements he made to the House of Commons on June 4th and June 18th, 1940.

Typed May 2004 from original recording transcript in March 1994.

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Message 1 - Dunkirk - first hand account of one of the small boats

Posted on: 22 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear John

I very much enjoyed reading your excellent contribution. The story of Dunkirk is well know, but you have brought fresh insights to it together with some fascinating detail.

Kind regards,


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