Painted by Charles Ernest Cundall, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 305)
Evacuation of men of the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army from Dunkirk
The work of the Life-boats of Ramsgate and Margate.
This report first appeared in the book "Supplement to the Annual Reports of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, 1939-1946." and is reproduced by kind permission of the RNLI.
At 1.15 in the afternoon of Thursday, the 30th of May, 1940, the Ministry of Shipping called up the Institution on the telephone and asked it to send at once to Dover as many of its life-boats as possible. The Ministry was told that they would be sent.
That was all; no other information was sought or given; but it was easy to guess for what those life-boats were wanted. Three weeks before, on the 10th of May, the German armies had invaded Holland and Belgium, and the French and British armies had moved forward into Belgium to meet them. Events had followed one another with terrible and increasing speed. By the fifteenth the Germans had broken through the French line and had turned towards the English Channel. By the twenty-third they had reached it at the mouth of the Somme. So doing they had divided the British army from the French and had left the British no way of retreat but by the sea. It had three ports Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. The Germans took Boulogne on the twenty-third, and Calais three days later. They were pressing hard on the British army’s right, flank. On the twenty-seventh they forced the surrender of the Belgian army on its left flank, They were now attacking it in front and on both flanks. Behind it was the sea and only one port was left to it - Dunkirk. Already the Germans had announced that the iron ring had closed round it, and the Prime Minister had warned the House of Commons to be prepared for hard and heavy tidings. Such was the state of the war in France and Flanders when, on the 30th of May, the Ministry of Shipping asked for life-boats to be sent to Dover. Certainly it was not difficult to guess why they were to go.
Four days earlier - though this was not known at the time - the Navy had started to bring off troops from Dunkirk, but town and port were now almost destroyed. German bombers had descended on them in hundreds and set them ablaze. There remained nothing alongside which ships could berth except, a wooden breakwater. It was only five feet wide and had never been intended for such a purpose, but it was all now left in the port to embark an army. Besides that breakwater were the beaches, sixteen miles of flat sand and sand-dunes stretching eastwards from Dunkirk to Nieuport. They were as difficult as beaches could be for such a task. Even at high water ships could not get within half a mile of them. But if the army were to be embarked those beaches must be used. It was to carry the men from them to the waiting ships that the Ministry of Shipping had asked all the ports of England, from Hull to Southampton, to send every boat that could reach Dover within twenty-four hours.
As soon as the Institution received that call it telephoned to its eighteen stations from Gorleston in Norfolk, 110 miles north of Dover, to Shoreham Harbour, in Sussex, 80 miles to the west. Each station was asked to send its life-boat to Dover at once for special duty under the Admiralty. She was to take a full crew, full fuel-tanks, and a grass warp for towing.
The Crew of the Prudential
Photo East Kent Maritime Trust
Back Row, Left to Right - Edward Cooper, Ernest Attwood (Mechanic), Alfred Liddle, John Hawkes, Thomas Goldfinch.
Front Row, Left to Right - Charles Knight, Alfred Moody (Ass. Coxswain), Howard Knight (Coxswain), Thomas Read (Ass. Mechanic).
While this urgent message was being sent to the life-boats along those 190 miles of coast, two of them were already on their way to Dunkirk. That morning the naval officers - in - charge at Ramsgate and Margate had asked their life-boats if they would go, and both crews had said at once that they would, The Prudential, of Ramsgate, was the first away. She left at 2.20 in the afternoon. Coxswain Howard Primrose Knight was in command of her, and he had a crew of eight men. They had been given gas masks and steel helmets, and the life-boat was loaded with four coils of grass warp and cans of fresh water for the troops. She took in tow eight boats, most of them wherries, manned by eighteen naval men, and when she reached Dunkirk her part was to tow the wherries between the beaches and the waiting ships.
The Margate life-boat, The Lord Southborough (Civil Service No. 1) was under the command of Coxswain Edward Drake Parker. He took ten men with him, two more than his usual crew. They were given steel helmets, food and cigarettes, and they left, so the naval officer at Margate said, in the best of spirits at 5.30 in the afternoon. The life-boat went in company of a Dutch barge, commanded by a naval officer, and the barge towed her.
The two life-boats had a journey of about fifty miles by a way which had been hurriedly swept through the mine-fields when the direct way from Dover to Dunkirk along the French coast came under the fire of German guns at Calais. Those who made that journey were amazed and uplifted by the sight of the crowded waters, with their double stream of traffic, ships and boats of every kind hurrying out to the dangers of the beaches, and those others on their way back to England, their decks loaded with troops.
They are at all times difficult waters with their shallows and strong tides. Now the narrow channels of deeper water through which ships could pass were unlighted; German submarines and fast motor boats were moving in them; German aeroplanes were sowing them with mines; already they were studded with wrecks. The air above was even more dangerous. Every five minutes German bombers came over to attack Dunkirk or the beaches or the waters beyond, and by night if a motor-boat showed no more than a glimmer of light on her instrument-panel it was enough to bring on her a salvo of bombs.
There were other perils. Three days before men in England had anxiously watched the reports of a storm which was coming in from the Atlantic and had wondered which way it would move. Mercifully it had turned northwards up the west coast of Ireland, and no more than the fringe of it had touched the Straits of Dover, but this had been enough to raise a sea at Dunkirk which had made the beaches dangerous. Now a light variable wind was blowing from the west and the surf had gone down.