After a brief introduction to the ‘Dunkirk Little Ships’ Keith Mosley shares his experiences of the 2015 Return to Dunkirk aboard ‘Papillon’. As a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) decided to postpone the Return planned for May, 2020 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of ‘Operation Dynamo’ when over 300,000 troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. ‘Papillon’ took part in filming ‘Dunkirk’, 2016.
Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, the Royal Navy valiantly supported by the ‘Dunkirk Little Ships’, had evacuated British and French troops from the beaches and the Mole at Dunkirk. The ‘Little Ships’ were a rag-tag group of all sorts of craft, mainly river cruisers, fishing boats, Thames barges, trip boats and lifeboats, but all with one significant characteristic; a shallow draught. They had been hastily gathered from the Thames and ports surrounding the Thames Estuary, generally without their owners’ knowledge or permission. Apart from some of the fishing boats, they were manned by the Royal Navy and towed across to Dunkirk, where they were used to ferry the troops off the shallow beaches onto the destroyers and larger vessels waiting out in deeper water. It was in his speech to Parliament describing the ‘success’ of Operation Dynamo in recovering more than 338,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk that Winston Churchill gave his famous ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech.
The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) was formed by Raymond Baxter, Commander Charles Lamb and John Knight after the first formal return to Dunkirk held in 1965. The object of the Association is simple: to keep afloat for as long as possible as many as possible of the original Little Ships; to secure for them the honour to which they are entitled; and thereby to preserve ‘The Spirit of Dunkirk’. Since 1965, the ADLS has made the ‘Return To Dunkirk’ every five years.
2015 marked the 75th anniversary of the evacuation. It is unfortunate that there are now very few veterans of the evacuation who are still able to make the return, but those that do are given very special treatment by all involved.
Ian Gilbert, Commodore of the ADLS in 2015 and owner of 34’ river cruiser ‘Papillon’, asked me to help him on the crossing, leading the fleet between Ramsgate and Dunkirk. ‘Operation Dynamo’ was run by Admiral Ramsey from the Dynamo Room of Dover Castle, hence the name, but the boats and the returning soldiers were landed at both Dover and Ramsgate, as well as many other ports around the Kent and Sussex coasts. Ramsgate has become the departure point for the Dunkirk Returns largely because Dover is such a busy port, but also because Ramsgate provides a truly memorable occasion. On Thursday morning the ADLS fleet and accompanying craft formed up in ‘finger four’ formation (a homage to Raymond Baxter’s experience as a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain) just outside the harbour entrance to the sounds of brass bands and the cheers of thousands of spectators. As we left along the Ramsgate Approach Channel we were buzzed by the Spitfire and Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Flight.
The fleet was escorted by two Royal Navy Patrol Boats, ‘HMS Trumpeter’, ‘HMS Ranger’ and the Ramsgate Lifeboat. His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent, Honorary Admiral of the ADLS, was on board ‘HMS Trumpeter’. Four support and safety vessels accompanied the fleet in case of any breakdowns. The fleet is relatively slow by today’s standards, the maximum speed is a mere 8 knots, so it takes a relatively long time to cross the main shipping channel. RN Patrol Boats use their radar to help cross the shipping channels by keeping an eye on the traffic and ‘requesting politely’ those boats that might be affected by the crossing to slow down or make minor alterations to their course well in advance of their arrival amongst the fleet. On a previous crossing one of the naval officers likened escorting the ADLS fleet to ‘escorting a flock of ducks across a motorway’.
Once again the weather gods smiled and we had a very easy and comfortable crossing to Dunkirk. The course is not straightforward with the Goodwin Sands and the sandbanks outside Dunkirk requiring a couple of doglegs in the course. We only made one minor mistake; being a former dinghy racer, I am used to getting quite close to the buoys, but that’s not a good idea when you have 40 odd boats astern of you and the strong tide setting you onto the buoy. But the buoy wasn’t significant, only marking the division between the two separation channels rather than any obstruction, so no great harm was caused. The skippers did have an exciting few minutes while trying to follow us around the buoy though!
There was one minor problem for ‘L’Orage’, which had been Raymond Baxter’s boat, when the fuel tank came adrift and prevented fuel from getting in to the engine. Unfortunately this was then compounded when the support boat which took her in tow hit a lobster pot and fouled her prop, but it was all resolved stoically and the fleet was able to enter Dunkirk as planned. As always the welcome is wondrous both from the French and the various Brits who join us in Dunkirk. The French lined the dockside clapping and cheering as we made our way to the Basin du Commerce in the centre of Dunkirk. Dunkirk itself puts on a maritime festival at the same time and various Brit re-enactment groups and military vehicle clubs join us in Dunkirk. There are also the remaining Dunkirk Veterans who lined the entrance to the dock and gave us a hero’s welcome.
All too soon the weekend was over and we were due to return to Ramsgate. After one aborted attempt on the Monday when the smaller boats had to turn back because of the lumpy seas; we made our way homeward on the Tuesday morning in what turned out to be almost perfect weather. We got the navigation and the timings just right, arriving at the Richmond Tide Lock just as they opened the gates. We finally reached ‘Papillion’s mooring at Shepperton at about 0100 on the Thursday morning, very tired but very happy following a successful Return.
Find more about ‘Papillon’ on the ADLS website