The ‘little ships’ approach Dunkirk

A German view of Calais 3.30pm, 31st May 1940 with the Oil storage depot apparently set on fire by the British

The British were readily able to mobilise a large number of commercial ships, including ferries and paddle steamers, to convey men back to England. These were used in addition to their own destroyers. However a major difficulty was getting the men off the beaches on to these ships. There were very limited facilities for such ships in the harbour of Dunkirk itself – so the call went out for ‘little ships’ – motor launches and the like, which could take the men directly from the beaches to the larger ships offshore. The use of such craft became a central in the propaganda that was later to surround the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’. Nicholas drew was on one of these craft:

‘An hour later we were nearing the French coast. Subtly the feeling in the boat changed. There was a nervous tension amongst us; we no longer talked, but stared ahead as if looking [out] for a reef. We were moving up the coast with a stranger miscellany of craft than was ever seen in the most hybrid amateur regatta: destroyers, sloops, trawlers, motorboats, fishing boats, tugs and Dutch schuits. Under the splendid sun they looked like craft of peace journeying upon a gay occasion, but suddenly we knew we were there. Someone said, ‘There they are, the bastards!’ My eyes followed the line of the pointing arm, but I could see nothing; but not for long this blindness.

There were over fifty German planes, I counted them swiftly, surprised to find how easy it was to count them…I imagined that they were bombers with fighter escorts… They were like slow flying gnats in the vast sky, seeming to move deliberately and with a simple purpose towards us, flying very high.

‘I got a heavy sick feeling right down in the stomach. The bombs dropped out of the cloudless sky. We watched them fall as the planes directed their principal attack upon two destroyers. The destroyers seemed to sit back on their buttocks and spit flames; the harsh cracks of their ack-ack guns were heartening. Then we got the kick from the bombs as their ricochet came up through the sea. Our little boat rocked and lifted high out of the water. One, two, three, four….We waited, counting them and held tight to the gunwale.

‘The bombers seemed to be dispersing. Our own fighters suddenly appeared. It was quite true, I thought, all that I had read in the newspapers: our pilots really did put the other chaps to flight. Far above us the German formation broke. Some came down in steep dives. From 15,000 or 20,000 feet we computed they were down to 2,000 or 3,000.

‘One came low, machine-gunning a tug and its towed lifeboats. Then came another. We knew it was coming our way… The rat-a-tat of the bullets sprayed around the stern boats of our little fleet.’

See Nicholas Drew: Amateur Sailor

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