Dunkirk on the Northern French coast line is well known to travellers crossing the English Channel, but its name is honoured within British history for a very different reason. In May 1940 the British and Allied Forces (BEF) found themselves on the back foot marooned within the Port of Dunkirk. As the surrounding allied defences collapsed and key targets resembling Paris and the channel ports including Boulogne and Calais were captured by the advancing German Army, the BEF held onto the port of Dunkirk with the up most strength of mind. Churchill having learnt this information had to come up with an evacuation plan. A room below the Dover Castle had been provided for British Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay to plan and deliver his brief to the Prime Minister. This room contained the dynamo which provided the power to the castle, giving the operation its name.
The preparations began immediately. Initially naval ships were only to be utilised but the request expanded to civilian agencies to see if they could provide vessels capable of carrying around a thousand men. Ramsay needed to go even further; so, on the 14th May the BBC announced that the Admiralty had issued an order to the general public requesting owners of self-propelled pleasure craft, to submit particulars to the Admiralty within fourteen days for requisition. By this time the naval fleet which consisted of destroyers, corvettes, minesweepers and naval trawlers were being prepared to provide escort to the smaller vessels on departure if needed. Preparations continued and, on the 24th May Churchill, had learnt that the advancing panzer divisions of the German Army had stopped some five kilometres away from Dunkirk. Some reports say that advancing German force needed to be reconsolidated before the final push on Dunkirk. Other reports declared that the force needed to re supply before moving off southward to crush the remaining French forces, leaving the annihilation of the BEF in the hands of the German Luftwaffe. Other reports state that the ground within Dunkirk was unsuitable for armour, even though Boulogne was captured the following day. It could have been one or a mixture of these things, the truth is, no one really knows, but this was the perfect break that the BEF needed.
On the same day that Boulogne fell the commander of the BEF, General Lord Gort gave the order for all remaining ground troops to evacuate and withdraw to Dunkirk having learnt of the evacuation plan. By the 26th May Calais became encapsulated and finally fell on the same day, but still Dunkirk remained relatively unscathed. Mean while, across the channel on the same day fifteen passenger ferries were assembled and in place at Dover and a further twenty ferries were ready and waiting in Southampton. In addition, a number of Belgian barges and around forty Dutch self-propelled barges were offered up to the British Government. The following day, the Small Craft Section (SCS) of the Ministry of shipping began contacting various boat builders and agents around the coast. They were requesting that these agents were to collect all suitable small craft with shallow drafts for use in the operation. These vessels were vital to the operation because the larger ships could not possibly penetrate the beaches to evacuate the men. Particular attention was made to pleasure boats, private yachts and launches on the Thames and along the South and East coasts. Some of the vessels used through out the operation came as far as the Isle of Man and the West Country. In many cases the boat owners could not be reached so the boats were taken anyway. In one instance over a hundred small vessels were assembled and taken to the Ferry Road Yard of Tough Bros. These vessels were then stripped and belonging stored. The boats were then checked over by Toughs and towed down the river to Sheerness. At this point they were refuelled and taken to Ramsgate where Royal Navy Officers and experienced volunteers were boarded and directed to Dunkirk. These hundred small vessels would eventually be part of seven-hundred strong “Little ship” force. Stories of pleasure craft owners jumping into their boats and rushing off to Dunkirk at a drop of a hat are a myth; the whole “Little ship” operation was carefully planned and well executed with most vessels including other larger ships being recorded before being sent off to negotiate the English Channel.
By the 27th May the operation commenced and now the Panzer Divisions advanced on Dunkirk. Now the entire British Naval fleet made up fishing boats, fire ships, paddle steamers, private yachts, Belgium/Dutch barges and every available Royal Navy ship had to move swiftly, time was against them. On the same day the RAF were despatched in heavy numbers to defend the shores of Dunkirk against the Luftwaffe and to provide escort to the allied vessels below. On this first day over 7,600 men were picked up from the coastal shores of Dunkirk, not as many as most had expected but the following day proved to be more successful with an extra ten destroyers joining the operation. The landings at first proved to be difficult as shallow waters prevented the larger craft getting within one mile of the shore. The port was clearly impossible to use as it was completely ablaze so the fleet had to move further east as smaller craft ferried to and from the beaches with the evacuees. Other havens did present themselves as loading platforms and loading speeds differed. From certain limited platforms it took only thirty-five minutes to load five hundred men onto destroyers but in other circumstances two hours to load a hundred troops from the beach. By now the British fleet with help from the “Little ships” had taken more than 25,000 men back to Blighty. The 29th May over saw the despatch of additional small craft from Ramsgate and by the end of that day a further 47,500 men were successfully evacuated.
Over the next three days a further 186,000 troops were safely back on British soil. Between the 2nd and the 4th of June an additional thirteen passenger ships, fourteen Minesweepers and eleven Destroyers had joined the evacuation fleet to boost evacuee figures. The operation ground to a halt two days after, with Dunkirk finally falling into the hands of the German Army. In summary: thirty-nine destroyers; thirty-six minesweepers; seventy-seven trawlers; twenty-six yachts and around seven-hundred small craft brought back 339,000 European troops back to the UK. Forty-two destroyers and other larger civilian vessels succeeded in removing eighty per cent of the force from Dunkirk with the assistance from the “Little ships”. With out the miracle of these smaller vessels ferrying troops from the beaches to the larger vessels, the operation would not have been as successful.