Part One: Dunkirk

When discussing the role of shipping in WW2, images of battleships and U-boats spring readily to mind. But it’s worth remembering that for a port like London, with its busy commercial river, all the vessels on the Thames – boats, barges, coasters, trawlers, merchantmen – had a key role to play, in just the same way that London’s Blitzed civilian population suddenly found themselves in the front line.


Northfleet, Kent in 1898

As part of the Thames Discovery Programme’s current research, we’d like to look at the many major contributions that civilian craft made to the War Effort. This particular review focuses on the Thames sailing barge, that famous beamy craft with its readily identifiable sprit-sail rig, the great work horse of Thames-Medway and neighbouring waterways.

Operation Dynamo

In May 1940, the German army invaded France, and the Allied forces were all too rapidly overwhelmed. The British Expeditionary Force found itself trapped on the exposed coast near Dunkirk, with the German Army pressing in on them from the land and the Luftwaffe attacking them from the air. An emergency evacuation was hurriedly planned, in which privately-owned ships, boats and barges from the coasts and rivers of southern England were requisitioned or volunteered for service to work alongside the Royal Navy, in the seemingly impossible task of rescuing the British Army at the eleventh hour. The story of what happened next is well-known, a tale of near tragedy turned into a triumph through the extraordinary courage of the crews that manned those ‘Little Ships’.

The Thames Sailing Barge at Dunkirk

The Thames sailing barge has a broad flat bottom, and is thus well suited to working off wide shallow beaches, such as those at Dunkirk, where deep-draught shipping could simply not operate. The plan was that the armada of shallow-draft vessels, including the TSBs, would take the troops directly off the beach and ferry them to the larger ships, anchored off shore. But the entire operation had to be conducted under ferocious fire from the Luftwaffe, who made no distinction between soldiers or civilians, between Naval vessels or fishing boats. Somehow, from 27th May to the 4th June 1940, a staggering total of 338,266 soldiers were rescued, in twos and threes, or a dozen here, two dozen there, by ad-hoc civilian crews pulled together from London and the southern ports.


Appleby’s Wharf, Cubitt Town in 1884

Active Service

It is recorded that sixteen Thames Sailing Barges set out to do their bit in the summer of 1940 and of these, nine were lost on active service, a heavy price. The names of these humble but heroic river craft should not be forgotten, but deserve to be remembered alongside those of mighty battleships: the lost barges were the Aidie, Barbara Jean, Duchess, Doris, Ethel Everard, Lady Roseberry, Lark, Valonia and Royalty.

Where Are They Now?

But what of those that did make it home? The exploits of the craft and their crews have been recorded in, for example, Frank Carr’s ‘Sailing Barges’ (1989: pp 357-374), a report which makes sobering reading. One of the most bizarre return journeys was made by Ena; she had been abandoned in France, and her crew rescued, and it was believed that the barge actually managed to drift her way back to Blighty all on her own, ending up on the beach off Sandwich. However, recent research by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships has uncovered the true story:

No less than six of the sixteen barges which sailed to Dunkirk were owned by R & W Paul. The Ena survived the one-hundred mile outward journey across the English Channel which was strewn with mines. During their crossing they endured constant air attacks. Finally, Alfred Page, her skipper was ordered to beach her close to the smaller sand barge H.A.C. As the Germans closed in, the crews of both barges were ordered to abandon their ships and escape on a minesweeper to England.
There are two eye-witness accounts of what happened next. Alex Smith recalls how he, with 30 men of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment commanded by Captain David Strangeways their Adjutant, arrived on La Panne beach. They could not believe their luck when they saw two barges in seaworthy condition anchored and almost afloat. They took possession of the barge H.A.C. while Colonel McKay with his men of the 19th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery boarded the Ena which was beached not far away. Captain Atley of the East Yorks Regiment, also remembers the event. He was at the mole at Dunkirk and together with one of his men, made a raft. Using shovels, they rowed out to the Ena. They helped 36 other men on board including three wounded and by 0800 they were under sail.
Then, according to Alex Smith, the two ships got involved in one of the most remarkable barge races of all time. Under constant enemy bombardment and machine-gun fire, they crossed the Channel. Captain Atley recalls that by midnight they took a back-bearing on Dunkirk and found they had gone too far South-West. His only sailing experience had been on the Broads and he had forgotten to put the leeboards down. So they altered course to North-Northwest and finally sighted the North Goodwin buoy. They then had to tack again towards the South Goodwin lightship. Eventually, the Ena was picked up by a tug or fleet auxiliary and taken into Margate. Since the harbour was full, the empty barge was then towed out and left anchored off Deal. The shipping manager of R & W Paul, who had presumed the Ena lost on the beaches of Dunkirk, was amazed when he was told and asked what he proposed to do about it. Alfred Page, her skipper, by then back in Ipswich, was sent to recover her. He found the Ena seaworthy but stripped of all her gear. “They had taken the sweeps, mooring lines, fenders and even my false teeth which I had left behind in a glass of water by my bunk!” he said, “you can’t trust these men of Kent!” So he sailed her back to Ipswich.

We are grateful to Julian Wilson for drawing our attention to this.

As for the others, David and Elizabeth Woods recorded the location of the seven survivors nearly fifty years later in 1987, in their catalogue, ‘Last Berth of the Sailor Man’, the term often used for those barges. We have had a recent update on the vessel Greta from someone who read this post as well!

The late 20th-century-listing is reproduced here:

Ena last seen at Ipswich
Beatrice Maud last seen at Morwellam Quay
H.A.C. broken up at Ramsgate
Glenway last seen at Dolphin Yard, Colliers Creek
Pudge last seen at Maldon Hythe
Thyra last seen at Poole
Tollesbury last seen at Pin Mill

And we know that Greta is active, and can be found berthed at Standard Quay, Faversham Creek, Faversham in Kent.

So, over twenty years ago, a number still survived – but where are they now? Only three, Greta, Ena and Pudge, are still ‘active’, while Glenway was sold in 2007 prior to a complete rebuild. Tollesbury sank at its moorings in 2005, but was raised, and may now be laid up in Barking Creek. The fates of Beatrice Maud and Thrya are at present uncertain. Any information you have on these vessels would be appreciated: it would be most appropriate to update the records for these and all the other ‘Little Ships’, in time for the 70th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, in June 2010.

Where to find out more

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships

Please get in touch with me with any information!!

70th Anniversary Commemorative Return to Dunkirk

Every 5 years the Association organises a cross-channel return to Dunkirk. 2010 is the 70th anniversary of Operation Dynamo and it is anticipated that up to 50 Little Ships will make the crossing from Ramsgate to Dunkirk. Subject to other operational commitments, the Royal Navy is planning to provide a Type 23 Duke Class Frigate to act as escort ship for this anniversary crossing and ceremonies in Dunkirk.

Provisional schedule of events is as follows:

May 23rd to May 26th – Little Ships arrive Ramsgate

May 27th – Little Ships depart Ramsgate at approx 0630 GMT; arrive Dunkirk from 1500 local time. Fly pasts by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire and Hurricane, and separately by the RN Historic Flight (aircraft type to be confirmed)
have been confirmed. Times and positions for the fly pasts will be published nearer the event.

May 28th – Alternative departure date if bad weather prevents departure on the previous day

May 29th – Commemorative Ceremony at the Beach Memorial, 1600 local time. Little Ships will circle off the beach during the Ceremony. The Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will fly over the fleet during the Ceremony.

May 30th – Members Supper (members and invited guests only)

May 31st – Depart Dunkirk for return to Ramsgate

Little Ships expected to attend are indicated below (list is not definitive and will be updated as further Little Ships indicate their intentions):

27. May 2010 (All day) – 31. May 2010 (All day)