Taken from the RNLI Records of Service 1939-1946
THE WORK OF SEVENTEEN OTHER LIFE-BOATS AT DUNKIRK AND OF MEMBERS OF THE INSTITUTION’S STAFF AT DOVER.
The life-boats called out by telephone from London in the afternoon of Thursday the 30th of May got quickly away.
They were : the Louise Stephens; of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston ; the Michael Stephens, of Lowestoft ; the Mary Scott, of Southwold ; the Abdy Beauclerk and the Lucy Lavers, of Aldeburgh ; the E.M.E.D., of Walton and Frinton ; the Edward Z. Dresden, of Clacton-on-Sea ; the Greater London (Civil Service No. 3), of Southend - on - Sea ; the Charles Dibdin (Civil Service No. 2), of Walmer ; The Viscountess Wakefield, of Hythe ; the Charles Cooper Henderson, of Dungeness ; the Cyril and Lilian Bishop, of Hastings ; the Jane Holland, of Eastbourne ; the Cecil and Lilian Philpott, of Newhaven; and the Rosa Woodd and Phyllis Lunn,of Shoreham Harbour. The Thomas Kirk Wright, of Poole and Bournemouth, was sent to Dover by the naval officer - in - charge at Poole, and the Rowhedge Ironworks, Essex, sent to Sheerness, manned by life-boatmen from Walton-on-the-Naze, a new, unnamed life-boat which they had just completed. After Dunkirk she was stationed at Cadgwith. A gift of £5,000 from the Girl Guides of the Empire was used to pay for her, and at the request of the Girl GuidesAssociation she was named Guide of Dunkirk.
Of these seventeen life-boats fifteen went to Dunkirk from Dover, and two, the Clacton-on-Sea boat and the boat from the Rowhedge Ironworks, went from Ramsgate. The coxswain and crew of the life-boat at Dover were ready to go, but the admiral commanding kept them and their life-boat for work at Dover.
The first of these boats to leave their stations were the two from Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. Walmer, from Kent, sailed shortly afterwards, then Southend, from the Thames, and Hastings and Newhaven from Sussex. Three life-boats arrived at Dover that evening, and by 7.30 next morning, when Ramsgate and Margate were busy on the beaches forty miles away, another seven, which had travelled through the night, were waiting outside the harbour. Others came in during the day. All but one arrived within twenty-nine hours of the summons.
The three life-boats that reached Dover on the Thursday evening were from Hythe, Walmer and Dungeness, and the Hythe coxswain was the first to be told what was wanted of him. He understood it to be that he was to run his life-boat on the beach at Dunkirk, load her with troops and bring them out to ships. She was a boat weighing over fourteen tons, and he said that it could not be done. He could never get her off without the help of winches, and he would not attempt at Dunkirk what he knew that he could not do at Hythe. The Walmer and Dungeness coxswains agreed with him. Their boats were of the same type as his, but rather heavier. Then the Hythe coxswain - he had served in the navy in the 1914-18 war - asked other questions. He asked, in particular, what pensions would be given to their families should they be killed. When he was told he asked to have it in writing. That was refused him, and he refused to go, His crew, and the Walmer and Dungeness coxswains and crews, also refused. The Navy took the lifeboats, sent to Sheerness for naval men to man them, and gave the life-boatmen railway vouchers for their journey home.
Three weeks later the Institution held an inquiry at Hythe. It found that the Hythe coxswain had induced not only his own crew but the crews of Walmer and Dungeness to refuse to take their life-boats to Dunkirk, and he and the Hythe motor-mechanic were dismissed from the service., The coxswain had held his position for over twenty years, and had won the Institution’s thanks on vellum and its silver medal for gallantry. When told the decision he said, “ I have a fishing boat and will not see a man drown if I can get her off.” Two months later he made good that promise by rescuing two British airmen from a crashed bomber. The motor-mechanic said, i‘ If the order had come from the Institution to proceed to Dunkirk and do the best you can, there would have been no holding back.”
When the next seven life-boats arrived off Dover in the morning a naval launch went out to them, told their crews for what they were wanted, gave them their course to Dunkirk and sent them into the harbour to refuel. As soon as they went in their boats were taken from them by naval men. Not knowing of the refusal of the first three crews, they were surprised and very indignant. Some, if not all, had guessed ; why they had come to Dover. Some had made special preparations One crew had bought itself steel helmets. Another had taken
on board extra emergency-rations and first-aid stores. They protested, but it was useless. They were allowed no choice. The Navy had decided. It had brought over its own men. Then it said it would take the motor mechanics. The life-boatmen’s reply was curt : “ All or none.”
Those harassed and overburdened naval officers at Dover were organizing, not in advance but in the heat and pressure of events, a complicated and perilous operation. They wanted boats. They wanted men. They wanted no more argument. Yet these men, ready to go, whom they now rejected, knew their boats and engines as no one else knew them. They would have handled them in the difficult shallows and currents of the Dunkirk coast as no one else could handle them. Instead, they saw them manned by sailors who had never been aboard them before, and their engines put in charge of stokers, who had first to be taught how to start and stop them. Fortunately men arrived at Dover that evening who were able to give the stokers a hurried lesson before they sailed
On the morning of that day, the 31st of May, Commander John Upton, R.D., R.N.R., the inspector of lifeboats for the east coast, was at Brightlingsea, in Essex, a hundred miles away. He heard of the trouble at Dover, went there at once by road, and arrived at 7.30 in the evening, just as the last three of the rejected and disappointed crews were being given their railway vouchers. It was too late to attempt to put right what had gone wrong, but he found at Dover two of the Institution’s reserve mechanics ready to go anywhere and do anything. The three at once volunteered to go to Dunkirk in charge of two of the life-boats, but they were told that there was more urgent work for them at Dover. Besides the fifteen life-boats the Navy now had in the submarine dock a large fleet of motor-boats of all kinds. It had officers in plenty from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve coming to take command of them, but it had no mechanics to carry out repairs, and as the boats returned from Dunkirk there would be unending work to make them ready for fresh journeys.
So it was arranged. Commander Upton and his mechanics became a repairing party for all motor-boats sailing out of Dover for Dunkirk. They began their duties that evening by teaching the naval stokers how to handle the engines of the life-boats. It was of necessity a very brief course, three-quarters of an hour of instruction by the mechanics, followed by a quarter of an hour’s run round the harbour under Commander Upton, with the stoker himself at the controls. Then he was passed as a trained engineer. This work went on until it was stopped by the darkness. It began again early next morning, and one by one the life-boats left for Dunkirk.
The full story of what they did there, how they did it, how many men they brought off, and what lives were lost aboard them, will never be known, but from time to time, during the next five days, they returned bringing with them fragments of the tales of their adventures and scars more speaking than any tale. Newhaven, Poole and Bournemouth, Walton and Frinton, Lowestoft and Clacton all worked in Dunkirk harbour itself, carrying men through the crowded darkness to the ships outside. Newhaven was there for two nights, was herself stranded on the beach for over two hours, and brought off over 600 men. Poole and Bournemouth, loaded with French soldiers, came under fire from German troops on the shore at less than forty yards, but no one was hurt. Walton and Frinton went over in a little company of boats in tow of a tug. Off Gravelines German aeroplanes attacked them three times. The blast broke the tow-rope and threw men into the sea. One boat was sunk, others turned back, but Walton and Frinton went on. The officer in command of her was killed by a shell, and she returned to Dover with a rope round her propeller. A diver went down and cut it away. Then she sailed again for Dunkirk. Lowestoft, was twice rammed by motor torpedo-boats, but she continued her work and returned to Dover under her own power, Clacton took out her last load about daybreak on the final day just before the last of the boats left the harbour and it was closed with block-ships. On her way home an aeroplane attacked her with machine-guns. Of the two Aldeburgh boats no more is known than that one of them worked in Dunkirk harbour, of Dungeness that she arrived off Margate with four sailors on board, one of them wounded, and two of her stanchions torn away, of Hastings that one of her end-boxes was damaged, of Walmer that she came home with holes in both sides.
One of the inspectors of the Lifeboat Service, now in the Navy, Sub-Lieutenant Stephen Dickinson, found himself in command of the Southwold life-boat. He had already made two trips to Dunkirk, and on Saturday, the 1st of June, he went over for the third time on board a paddle-steamer, the Emperor of India. She had the lifeboat and two other boats in tow. At eleven that night she anchored off Dunkirk, and Mr. Dickinson was sent ashore in the life-boat towing two of the ship’s boats. High explosive shells and shrapnel were bursting all along the beach, and it was empty of troops. They were sheltering in the town. The first lieutenant of the Emperor of India landed and went in search of them, while the three boats waited in the surf under fire. They waited for two hours. It was one in the morning when the men arrived and in two journeys the life-boat, and the two ship’s boats in tow of her, brought off 160 men. Shortly before dawn the commander of the Emperor of India decided to return to Dover, but Mr. Dickinson remained with the Southwold life-boat, went ashore for the third time, and took on board his third load of fifty men. It was now dangerously near dawn. He tried to push the life-boat off the beach, but she was fast. He tried again ; still she would not move. Then a soldier in her bows called out, “ Hoi, mister, you’re pushing against a lorry.” It must have been run out into the sea to make a pier until it was almost submerged, and the life-boat had passed it unseen in the darkness. She worked clear of it, unloaded her fifty men on to a ship and returned for the fourth time, but her engine stopped and could not be restarted. It was nowday and she was helpless on the beach, but the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston life-boat, making for England with troops on board, came within hail and took off her crew. That afternoon the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston boat arrived at Dover, and there Mr. Dickinson had some sleep, the first for several days. Next morning - it was now Monday the 3rd of June - he volunteered for another trip, and got from Commander Upton the Shoreham Harbour life-boat. He led a marauding party round the dockyard, found a large sheet of steel, which he fastened behind the steering-wheel, built a screen of fenders on either side, and with his helmsman so protected, and a white ensign almost as large as the boat herself at his masthead, was about to sail on his fourth journey when he was stopped. The shelling was now reported to be so steady on the beaches that boats were forbidden to go across.
Another member of the Life-boat Service, also in the Navy, Lieutenant (E.) R. H. Wallace, an assistant surveyor of machinery, returned from Dunkirk and went over for a second time in the new life-boat which had come straight from the building yard. He joined her by jumping aboard just as she sailed. She was towed across and arrived at dusk, but before she could cast off the tow-rope it parted and was carried round her propeller. All night she drifted off Dunkirk, her crew watching the fires in the town and listening to the explosions of oil-tanks
and ammunition-dumps. Next morning the surveyor stripped and went overboard with a knife, but the rope, drawn tight round the propeller’s shaft, was hard as iron. He could not cut it and climbed aboard again covered with oil. The crew then made sail, using the life-boat’s own mizzen and blankets sewn together with string. which they hoisted on two boat-hooks. These sails gave her only two knots, but her crew now had some control over her. Later, by working the engine, they were able to loosen the rope a little and started on their journey back to England, moving slowly stern first. In the end they were found fast asleep on a light-vessel in the mouth of the Thames, and the life-boat was taken to Sheerness.
The naval officers had soon discovered what manner of boats the life-boats were and one of them wrote afterwards, “ I took the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston life-boat across to Dunkirk on two nights. Her performance was a revelation and a delight.” Such was the competition to get command of one of them that a wise commander, returning to Dover, took, no risks. When he handed his life-boat over to the repairing party he would leave one of his own crew on board as watchman. The watchman would at once fall asleep, but his sleeping presence was enough to keep possession. On the Sunday morning a naval officer unshaven and red-eyed, went to Commander Upton. For the past week, he said, he had been bringing men off the beaches. He had used every kind, of boat, and every boat had sunk under him. Could he be given a boat that would not sink ? He was given the Eastbourne life-boat, and set off once more for Dunkirk. Next day he was back again and told his tale. A French motor torpedoboat had rammed her. A German aeroplane had sprayed her with machine- gun bullets. Outside Dunkirk her engine had stopped and she had again come under fire. He was forced to abandon her, but when he last saw her she was still afloat. Two days later she was found drifting in the English Channel and was brought into Dover. Her fore-end box was stove in. She had over 500 bullet-holes in her. She was full of water. But she had kept the word given for her that she would not sink. She was repaired, but it was not until the beginning of April 1941, ten months later, that she was ready to go back to her station
At one time it seemed certain that several of the nineteen life-boats would never leave Dunkirk. The honorary secretary of the Margate station, who went over in a destroyer on the Sunday morning, saw three of them ashore. But in the end, by devious and mysterious ways, all except one returned. She was the Hythe boat, the coxswain of which had refused to run her on the beaches, saying that he could never get her off. Nothing was heard of her for three weeks. Then the Admiralty sent word that she had been damaged and abandoned. The Ramsgate coxswain reported later that on the Friday evening, the 31st of May, he had seen her approaching La Panne : “She was put aground. The soldiers waded out to her, and with the men on board she was knocking up on the shore, and there she stopped.”
The work of the rescuing fleet came to an end on Tuesday the 4th of June. All ships were ordered to leave Dunkirk by 2.30 that morning. But boats were still adrift between England and France, and French soldiers were still in Dunkirk. In those last hours a life-boat saved a destroyer. At 1.30 on that Tuesday morning the destroyer H.M.S. Kellet tried to embark 200 French soldiers from the mole, but some obstruction under water prevented her from coming alongside. The harbour was then being cleared of what remained in it, and the block ships were to be sunk at its entrance. If she were not to be trapped the destroyer must leave at once. Her bows were touching the beach and her commander tried to put her astern, but again something under water was in the way. One of her screws caught on it, and try as he would he could not move her. There seemed no one left to help him when he saw a life-boat pass full of soldiers. He hailed her and she hauled the destroyer off the beach. By that timely pluck at the last moment this life-boat saved the destroyer and her crew from capture. She was the Greater London (Civil Service No. 3), of Southend-on-Sea.
Other life-boatmen besides those who took their life-boats to Dover answered the summons in their own boats. On the evening of Thursday, the 30th of May, a message came to Wells, in Norfolk, asking that all the fishing boats should go to Lowestoft; and all went. Seventeen men were aboard them and all but one were lifeboatmen. The life-boat herself was away at a shipyard being overhauled. They went to Lowestoft, then to Harwich and then to Ramsgate. At Ramsgate there was a call for volunteers to sail on a secret mission across the Channel.. Among those who volunteered was the coxswain of the Wells life-boat. He was a Dane by birth, and his birthplace had become a base for German seaplanes. He was ready for any adventure. Four of the boats were chosen for the mission, but they were small to go overseas, open boats not more than 25 feet long. Each had a small motor and a dipping lugsail. They were sent first to Dover, and the coxswain, who had set out from Wells a simple fisherman, arrived there still wearing his life-boat coxswain’s cap, but now armed with rifle and revolver and declaring that he was going to fight those Germans. The boat was in charge of an ex-captain of the Indian Army. Two naval gunners had been added to her crew. She carried a twin Lewis gun, a bucket of hand grenades and a gallon of rum.
A naval ship towed her and the three other fishing boats from Dover along the coast to Dungeness, and from there, by night, across the Channel. Near the French coast she gave them their orders. They were to wait off shore for a signal. They were to wait one hour. If the signal were made they must sail in and pick up whoever was there. Should they run aground there when close to the shore and not be able to get off, they were to land, taking their guns with them, and hide in the sand-dunes. Then the destroyer left them and they waited in great expectation, but the hour passed with no signal made, and they returned across the Channel (one of the boats capsizing on the way), their mission, through no fault of their own, unaccomplished, wondering who the mysterious stranger could have been. It was rumoured that he was Sir Lancelot Oliphant, British Ambassador to Belgium, who was made prisoner when trying to get from Bruges to Le Havre.
While these things were happening across the sea Commander Upton at Dover had summoned to him others of the Institution’s mechanics until he had seven. They were : Mr. J. A. Black, district engineer for the east -coast ; Mr. J. Hepper, district engineer for the south coast; Mr. P. James, - travelling mechanic for the east coast ; Mr. C. P. Cavell, motor-mechanic of the - Walmer life-boat ; Mr. C. R. T. Stock, motor-mechanic of the Dover life-boat, ; Mr, H. Lister, reserve motor-mechanic of the Dover life-boat ; and Mr. C. C. Foster, reserve motor-mechanic. Commander Upton could call also on shipwrights and divers from the naval dock yard as he needed them. Yet more helpers came unexpectedly, for on the Saturday morning the Brixham fishing fleet arrived after a journey of 230 miles up Channel. It arrived only to find that its boats drew too much water and - would be useless on the beaches, but among the crews were several men of the Torbay life-boat and they were added to the repairing party.
As the shelling and bombing at Dunkirk increased the beaches had become more and more hazardous by day, and about seven in the morning the small boats that had been working on them all night began to arrive at Dover for food, fuel, repair and rest. They were towed by the trawlers and drifters bringing their loads of troops. At once they were taken over by the repairing party, and their crews went for to sleep. They slept in the sheds. They slept on the open quays. They even dropped asleep in the boats, and they continued to sleep, undisturbed by the work which went on round and over them. It took on an average one hour to test and repair the engines of each boat. The most frequent cause of their failure was ropes and the clothing and web equipment of soldiers wrapped round their propeller Until it could be arranged for divers to go down or for the boats to be lifted out of the water, the repairing party cut the ropes and clothing away with a sheath-knife fastener. to a broom-handle.
So the work went on from the first arrivals at seven in the morning until ten at night. The repairing party did not leave the dock, and the Navy brought them bread and butter and tinned beef, which they ate in relays at the dockside, so that all day the work never stopped. By dusk all the boats which had come in that day were ready to sail again, but had it been necessary the work would have gone on all night, One of the mechanics, when he arrived, had asked if he should look for lodgings or if he would be working night and day. The party had started their work on the Friday evening By the Tuesday it was finished ; the last ship had left Dunkirk Three days later the admiral commanding at Dover wrote to Commander Upton of his deep gratitude to him and his men for their invaluable advice and help ; and on the Tuesday morning the second in command of the small boats had said goodbye to them in an exquisitely English phrase. “ I hope,” he said, “ to have you with me at my next evacuation.”
The Committee of Management expressed their high appreciation of the able manner in which Captain E. S. Carver, R.D., R.N.R., chief inspector of life-boats, acted in this emergency.
OTHER SERVICES BY THE DOVER, RAMSGATE, MARGATE and DUNGENESS LIFEBOATS
Three times during the evacuation, the reserve life-boat Agnes Cross -which was on temporary duty at Dover while the Dover life-boat was being overhauled - went to the help of troops coming across from Dunkirk, and for these three services a special letter of appreciation was sent to the crew of the Dover life-boat and to Dr. J. R. W. Richardson, the honorary secretary of the station.
At seven in the morning of the 31st of May, a message was received from the naval authorities that two drifters, which were loaded with troops, had grounded on the North Goodwins. A light westerly breeze was blowing, with a slight sea. At 7.40 the life-boat was launched. She found the drifters under way with a tug in attendance. On her way back she was hailed by a French destroyer and brought ashore from her three seriously wounded men. She returned to her station at 2.30 that afternoon. - Rewards, £4 7s. 6d.
At six in the evening of the 2nd of June, a message was received from the Leathercoat Point coastguard that the Swedish steamer Emma had been in collision with a French steamer two miles east-north-east of Leathercoat, and was listing heavily. An easterly breeze was blowing, with a slight sea. At 6.30 the life-boat was launched, and found the Emma sinking. She rescued six members of the crew of the steamer Andebec, who had been put on board to fix a wire, as the Emma sank. The crew of the Emma, 17 in number, had already been rescued by the steamer Hebi and they were transferred to the life-boat. She then saw a disabled motor boat drifting towards the Goodwin Sands. She went alongside and found fifteen British soldiers on board. They were exhausted. She brought them to Dover. The life-boat returned to her station at midnight. - Rewards, £7 17s. 6d.
At 1.15 in the morning of the 5th of June, a message was received from the Ramsgate coastguard that the hospital ship St. Andrew had reported an open boat loaded with French soldiers in distress two miles east - north - east of St. Margaret’s Bay. A gentle easterly breeze was blowing, with a slight sea. At 2.30 the life-boat was launched, and found the boat, four miles north-east of Leathercoat Point, with fifteen French soldiers on board, They had been rowing from Dunkirk since the previous day and all were exhausted. The life-boat took them on board and returned to her station at six that morning. - Partly permanent paid crew ; Rewards, £5.
RAMSGATE AND MARGATE
Both lifeboats, after returning from Dunkirk, carried out services.
At six in the morning of the 2nd of June, a message was received from the naval base at Ramsgate that an aeroplane had come down on the Goodwin Sands south-east of Manston. A light southerly breeze was blowing the sea was smooth. The Ramsgate motor life-boat Prudential was launched, but when she was outside the harbour she was recalled, as news had come that an R.A.F. speed boat was going to the help of the aeroplane. The life-boat then helped to bring seriously wounded men ashore from vessels lying in the roads. She returned to her station at nine o’clock - Rewards, £4 10s. 6d.
At 11.15 on the night of the 4th of June, a message was received from the Ramsgate coastguard that a vessel was aground at South Calliper. A light north-east breeze was blowing, with a moderate sea. At 11.45 the Ramsgate life-boat Prudential was launched and found a Clan liner at anchor, waiting for a pilot. The steamer had seen flares nearby, and the life-boat searched until daybreak, when she found two small boats. One was a motor boat, the other a ship’s boat, which she was towing They were barely making headway. Both were loaded with French soldiers, and had left Dunkirk at six o’clock the previous morning. There were sixty eight of them, and they had been without food or water for about twenty-two hours. None of them knew anything of the sea, but they had managed to get the engines of the motor boat running. The life-boat took them on board, cast the ship’s boat adrift, and, with the motor boat in tow, returned to Ramsgate. She was back at her station
at 6.20 next morning. - Rewards, £9 16s. 6d.
At 6.14 in the morning of the 4th of June, a message was received from the Margate coastguard that a vessel had been mined five miles east-north-east of Foreness. A light north-east breeze was blowing, and the sea was smooth, but there was dense fog, At 6.25 the Margate motor life-boat The Lord Southborough (Civil Service No. 1) was launched, and found that boats from destroyers and other vessels had just picked up the last of the survivors of a French warship. She towed several of these boats to their ships. Four of them, belonging to the steamer King George V, she towed at the request of and their crews to Margate. The fog was now very dense, and as she approached Margate, a torpedo boat, loaded with troops, loomed into sight. She was heading straight for some rocks. The life-boat was able to warn her just in time. After she had taken the King George V’s boats to Margate pier, she took their crews out to their steamer. Her captain then asked the life-boat to bring out a doctor, morphia, stretchers and splints. This done, the life-boat went to H.M.S. Leda, which was filled with troops, took off sixty-five French sailors, who had been rescued from the mined warship, and landed them. The life-boat then returned to her station at 11.35. At 12.30, at the request of the naval authorities, she again went to sea, with a naval officer on board, and visited vessels anchored off the harbour to leave instructions for them. She then returned to her station at two that afternoon. - Rewards, £6 4s. ; £3 2s. 6d.
This life-boat performed the final service to the men of Dunkirk. At 6.10 in the evening of the 10th of June, a message was received from the Royal Naval Shore Signal Station that three British soldiers had just rowed in a small boat to the lightship, and wished to be landed. A light, southwest breeze was blowing and the sea was smooth. It was foggy. At 6.19 the motor life-boat Charles Cooper Henderson was launched, went to the lightship, and took the men on board. They were soldiers who had escaped from France. They were only partly clothed and were very tired. The police were waiting with a taxi for them when the life-boat returned to
her station at 8.20. - Rewards, £16 5s. 6d.