Remembering the “Little Ships”

Seventy-five years ago this week, Operation Dynamo got under way – the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in France.  Its survival meant that Britain could continue the war against Nazi Germany, standing alone until the USA entered the war in December 1941.

Evacuation was initially thought so difficult as to be practically impossible, because there were no major ports along the coast at or near Dunkirk.  Ships could not get close enough to load the troops directly.  However, a massive appeal was launched to all boat-owners along the English coast for any suitable craft to be brought to Dover.  Some, whose owners could not be traced in time, were simply commandeered.  Several hundred of the so-called “Little Ships” eventually made the crossing to Dunkirk.  There they ferried soldiers from the beaches and makeshift jetties (some formed by driving Army trucks into the waves until they stalled, then pushing them further out by means of other trucks shoving from behind, until a line of trucks half a mile long extended into the sea).  Some of the small craft even tackled the relatively long voyage back to England under their own power, because there weren’t enough larger rescue ships to take aboard their ‘cargo’ of rescued soldiers.

In total, about 220 warships and large vessels and about 700 of the “little ships” were involved in the evacuation.  Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with another nine larger vessels plus about 200 of the small boats;  many more were damaged.  However, their sacrifice helped to achieve the rescue of 192,226 British and 139,000 French soldiers – a total of 331,226 in all.  The British troops were re-equipped to form the core of Britain’s army.  Some French soldiers chose to be repatriated to France after the Armistice, but many others stayed on in England to form the core of the Free French forces.

Last week about 50 small craft sailed from Ramsgate in England to Dunkirk to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the evacuation.  Among them were a number of the original “Little Ships” that have been preserved to this day.

The last surviving veterans of the evacuation are telling their stories for possibly the last time, as the next commemoration will only be held in five years time.  It’s doubtful whether many of them – or any of them – will be either alive, or healthy enough to attend again.

I can remember my mother describing the emotion in England as the tens of thousands of rescued soldiers were ferried to their bases aboard trains and buses.  She told me of how she wept to see them so bedraggled and exhausted, and joined other young women in providing sandwiches and cups of tea to sustain them on their long journey.  She and others listened to Winston Churchill’s address to the House of Commons and the nation at the conclusion of the evacuation, and took fresh heart from it.  (She met my father shortly thereafter, and married him in early 1942.)

Dark days indeed . . . but the darkness turned to dawn, and five years later the full light of victory brought freedom for Europe.  Let’s not forget what our parents and grandparents went through to bring that about, this Memorial Day weekend.



  1. Then, exactly one year later (28-31 May 1941), the Royal Navy was conducting yet another evacuation, this time from Crete.

  2. Amen to that! An amazing set of acts by 'civilians'!!! Had that not been done, England would have probably lost.

  3. I read that after Churchill delivered his
    last "we shall fight them" line and the
    mike was off he said,

    "But I don't know what we shall fight
    them with."

    American civilians supplied some of their private arms to help out. The British
    government was supposed to have promised
    to return the arms to those who
    donated them at the end of the war.
    Instead, I read, most were dumped into the sea.

    A few came back and one was the
    subject of an article in The American
    Rifleman several years ago.

  4. My father was on one of those ships, a ferry boat from north Wales which was sunk on the next trip.

  5. The ship that took my father off Dunkirk was the Scotia, a ferry which operated from Holyhead to Dublin. My father had volunteered in 1939 and was sent to France with the B.E.P. He was from South Yorkshire and had never been out of the county, or shire, before. Later on, commissioned and part of the 14th Army in India, he met my mother, who was born in Holyhead.

    They are both buried in the Catholic cemetery in Holyhead.

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