10 November 2016

Dunkirk: How the RNLI took part in one of the biggest rescues of World War Two

76 years ago the British Navy attempted an audacious wartime operation. It would change the course of the Second World War - and challenge our lifeboats to tackle a very different kind of rescue.

It's barely 6 months into the Second World War and the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force in northern France are hemmed in on all sides at the French port of Dunkirk. The soldiers have only one escape route - the beaches to the east. But big ships can't get close enough for a mass evacuation. Hundreds of thousands of troops fear for their lives.

Across the Channel, an improbable rescue fleet is rapidly assembling for a secret mission. Under the codename Operation Dynamo, hundreds of pleasureboats, working barges, motorlaunches, schooners, fishing boats and other craft are converging on Sheerness Dockyard in response to an urgent request from the Admiralty.

Twenty miles up the Kent coast, there's another type of vessel preparing to launch. RNLI Coxswains Howard Knight and Edward Parker and the crews of the Ramsgate and Margate lifeboats are about to face their sternest test.

On the afternoon of Thursday 30 May 1940, the Ramsgate and Margate lifeboat crews - at the behest of their naval-officers-in-charge - set sail for France. They packed some unfamiliar equipment onboard: steel helmets, gas masks, grass towing warp, and extra supplies of fuel and fresh drinking water. Their orders? To bring the soldiers off the beaches and into the safety of the rescue ships waiting offshore.

Hear Margate Coxswain Edward Parker’s account of events that day, recorded on 4 May 1950:

The sky was black and visibility zero

Towing a row of small Thames workboats, known as wherries (ideal for getting close in to the shore), Ramsgate's Prudential arrived at Malo-les-Bains, 2 miles east of Dunkirk. The conditions were dire. 'It was black as Hades and visibility was nil,' recalled Coxswain Knight.

Ramsgate's lifeboat, Prudential
Ramsgate's lifeboat, Prudential
‘They were in an open wooden boat, being shot at. You can't comprehend it really. It's remarkable what they did.’
Ian Cannon
Coxswain, Ramsgate RNLI

Battling strong tides and dodging enemy fire, boats and wreckage, Ramsgate's lifeboatmen helped row the wherries to the beach to collect soldiers, while Knight and the rest of his crew held the lifeboat steady. The crews faced a tough row through the surf to get the soldiers out to the lifeboat, which was used to ferry them to the motor vessel Rhian further out to sea.

By daybreak the visibility improved - but the sea conditions worsened. With the wind now coming in off the sea and oars weighed down with oil, it became impossible to row the wherries through the surf. So, instead of fighting the elements, the crew used them to their advantage. They allowed the wherries to drift inshore, propelled by the onshore wind, then hauled them back to the lifeboat using ropes.

They kept going for 30 hours until the last of the wherries, battered by the surf, was too damaged to continue. Even then, the work of the lifeboat didn't stop. After a long trek back cross the channel to Ramsgate, the crew were in action again, bringing injured troops ashore from other vessels.

Ian Cannon (pictured left), Coxswain, Ramsgate Lifeboat Station. Ian's great great uncle Alf Moody (pictured with Coxswain Howard Knight, right) was a member of the Ramsgate crew who took part in the Dunkirk rescue.Photo: (on left) RNLI/Steve Burton
Ian Cannon (pictured left), Coxswain, Ramsgate Lifeboat Station. Ian's great great uncle Alf Moody (pictured with Coxswain Howard Knight, right) was a member of the Ramsgate crew who took part in the Dunkirk rescue.

Shells burst and fires raged

Margate's lifeboat volunteers were towed across the channel aboard The Lord Southborough (Civil Service No.1) by a dutch barge to conserve fuel. They reached Nieuport - a Belgian town 15 miles east of Dunkirk - a few hours after the Ramsgate lifeboat. Coxswain Parker recounted the horror of the scenes on the coastline: 'With shells bursting and fires raging it was like hell.'

Margate's lifeboat The Lord Southborough (Civil Service No.1)
Margate's lifeboat The Lord Southborough (Civil Service No.1)

In the darkness and the chaos, the crew got to work quickly, carrying troops from the shore to the Dutch barge. When that was full, the crew brought the soldiers to the naval destroyer HMS Icarus. Then Parker and his crew took wounded soldiers onboard from the nearby La Panne Hospital after it came under fire. 'Some were floated out to us on rafts and others carried by soldiers, who waded through the water holding them over their heads,' recalled Parker.

As sea conditions freshened the following morning, and enemy planes attacked from above, the Coxswain was forced to abandon the rescue. 'To carry on would have cost more lives than we could save,' said Parker.

Lieutenant Commander Roper of HMS Icarus praised Parker's crew, stating that they, with no thought of rest, '... brought off load after load of soldiers from Dunkirk, under continuous shelling, bombing and aerial machinegun fire ... an inspiration to us as long as we live.'

The aftermath

In total, over 338,000 men were rescued between 26 May and 4 June, of which over one third (98,000) were evacuated by Dunkirk's 'little ships'. The original target for Operation Dynamo had been to evacuate 45,000.

Coxswains Howard Knight and Edward Parker were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for their gallantry and determination, and all crew members received the RNLI's Thanks on Vellum.

The 'spirit of Dunkirk' has been commemorated regularly since 1940 by flotillas of little ships crossing to Dunkirk for services of remembrance.

The RNLI's role in the Dunkirk evacuation remains one of the most remarkable rescue missions in RNLI history. Find out more about our lifesaving heritage and how we keep our stories of courage alive.