30′ Leigh-on-Sea cockle boat, ‘Letitia’ fishing no. LO220, later MN19, was built 1938 and retired from fishing in 1996. Like many other ‘little boats’, she was requisitioned for the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. Whilst close inshore at Dunkirk her rudder was damaged and she took a tow from the drifter ‘Ben and Lucy’. ‘Renown’ also made fast to her tow, having lost her engine. Tragedy struck as ‘Renown’ hit a mine. The ‘Renown’ was lost with skipper Noakes and crew; cousins Frank and Leslie Osborne and Harry Noakes along with Harold Porter, a naval rating from Birmingham. Skipper of ‘Letitia’, AJ Dench, said: “In the pitch dark we could see nothing and could do nothing – except pull in the tow rope, which was just as we had passed it to ‘Renown’ three quarters of an hour before.”
As a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) decided to postpone the Return to Dunkirk planned for May, 2020 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of ‘Operation Dynamo’ when over 300,000 troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Skipper of ‘Letitia’ in May 2000, Michael Feather, reflects on taking part in the ADLS Return to Dunkirk 60 years later.
We rescued and rebuilt ‘Letitia’ in time for the Return to Dunkirk, 2000. It was the last official return for many veterans, and so was an important one. We were lucky to meet up with the Dench family, who originally built and sailed the boat, and named her after Letitia Dench, a beautiful lady who was the one time carnival and ‘cockle queen’ of Leigh-on Sea.
The Dench family asked us to lay a wreath at Dunkirk for all the Leigh-on-Sea sailors who went over in 1940. We were very happy to do so during the memorial ceremony in the waters off Dunkirk, accompanied on board by two petty officers of the the naval escort vessel ‘HMS Somerset’.
We also met a veteran, Ben Kear, a stretcher bearer who was picked up off the Dunkirk beach in 1940 by a cockle boat, after he had carried to safety many of the wounded. Ben spent some time on board with us telling his story of the chaotic retreat to the beaches. I later sent Ben a photo of the wreath laying and he replied that it meant so much to him to be able to put to rest many sad memories of those tragic days.
There was a lot more that happened: an eventful crossing, dodging bad weather and the Channel shipping. It was quite tricky for our naval escort to organise and shepherd a flotilla which stretched out for easily a quarter of a mile. There was an enormous welcome at Dunkirk, with cheering crowds all along the docks and ships’ sirens hooting; several mega-parties and rather too much booze. We were boarded by a mass of bagpipe-players and we mingled with crowds of sightseers and celebrities in Dunkirk docks. It was also strange to see the very many French and English historical re-enactors dressed for the occasion, meeting, talking with and honouring the real veterans.
The Dunkirk people regard the ‘Little Ships’ as their little ships and asked us to return again and again. It was a trip we will never forget.
Find out more about ‘Letitia’ on the ADLS website.