During World War II it was necessary to evacuate the British Expeditionary force
(created in 1908) and other allied forces from Dunkirk (Dunkerque) who were cut off
by the German forces. An armada of civilian and naval boats, RAF fighter cover and
poor judgment of Hitler halting his forces advance - saved 198,000 British and 140,000
French and Belgium troops. The Leigh cockle men formed part of this brave armada
of mercy - this is their story.
"The conduct of the crews of the cockle boars was exemplary, probably none had been
under gun-fire before and certainly none had been under navel discipline. In spite
of this fact all orders were carried out with great diligence even under shell-fire
and air-craft attack." (Vice-Admiral, Dover)
Admiral Ramsay - Official Report for Operation Dynamo.
The Navy was commandeering small boats to undertake one of the greatest rescue attempts
of all times, thirty miles across the North Sea at Dunkirk. They requisitioned far
more than a few boats as on the 31st May 1940 - the labourers of the sands, as they
were called, set sail with their boats to Dunkirk, on a brave mission of mercy. Six
boats set sail on the 31st May: -
Not only were they later to demonstrate immense courage under fire, they showed courage
as fishermen - most had never left the estuary to enter the unpredictable waters
of the channel for the 30 mile journey to Dunkirk (Dunkerque).
For the best part of 8 hours these fishermen in their 6 boats fetched 100's of men
from the beaches and harbours of Dunkirk. Only when they could do no more did they
start their fated return journey home. On the journey back the Renown broke down
with what is believed to be engine problems. The Leticia helped the crippled boat
and eventually a trawler took on the troops, and started to tow both boats. The Renown
and its crew bravely fought the sea elements and the earlier German onslaught, however
the fated ship hit a mine and all hands were lost to the sea. Leigh lost four brave
men, Frank Osborne, Leslie Osborne, Harry Noakes and Navel Rating Harold Graham
Authur Dench’s Account
During the penultimate ferrying trip from the small fishing boats to the larger ships
out at sea: a shell burst between the last boat and us. We turned back to go out,
but the signaler that we had on board, and who had only been “out” for about six
weeks and never been under fire, said “We’ve got to go in again” (to rescue more
soldiers) So we went in. Soon we saw another boat coming up behind us. It was the
Renown, and, yelling that they had engine trouble, they made fast to our stern. .
. We towed them (the trawler towing Letitia, which in turn towed Renown), 3-5 fathoms
(5.5m to 9m) of rope being the distance between us. That was 1.15 am [1 June]. .
. Tired out, the engineer, seaman and signaler went to turn in, when, at about 1.50
am, a terrible explosion took place, and hail of wood splinters came down on our
deck. In the pitch dark, you could see nothing, and we could do nothing... except
pull the tow rope which was just as we passed it to the Renown about three quarters
of an hour before. (Ref. Dunkirk, Fight to the Last Man by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore)
Leigh's War Memorial - Leigh Church
Quoting Arthur Dench's son John, from the 2004 BBC Dunkirk series - "Any of them
boy's who went to Dunkirk - who answered the call - they weren't in the army or navy,
they just answered the call - all of 'em were hero's"
In nine days - starting on the 26th May 1940 at 6:57pm, 338,226 French and British
soldiers were taken off the beach by a ragtag fleet of over nine hundred vessels.
Despite the success of this operation, over forty thousand French troops were abandoned
and taken into captivity after a valiant rearguard action.
1,000 Dunkirk citizens died during air raids on 27 May
The British Expeditionary force left behind approximately: - 416,900 tons of stores
/ 76,000 tons of ammunition / 20,500 motorcycles / 63,800 vehicles / 2,500 guns.
The British lost 235 ships of various types - 61 ships were disabled.
The last ship to leave Dunkirk was The Shikari, an old destroyer in the Royal Navy.
The Little Boat: The Resolute
The Bawleys were broad-beamed, flat-bottomed gaff cutters, typically of some 36ft
length, designed to be beached at high tide on the sandbanks, while the fishermen
got out to gather cockles and shrimps for the London market. They were therefore
ideal for the shallow waters off Dunkirk. At sea they could drop their lifting centreboards
for better sailing and their powerful Kelvin petrol/paraffin engines made them less
dependent on sail when it suited them. The Resolute was built for Cecil Osborne by
Hayward's at Southend in 1927 for £375. She was gaff-rigged, with a main, jib and
foresail and had a 16ft bowsprit. Her gaff was held to the mast by large wooden hoops
and her sails were made of the traditional red cotton. She would go cockling from
Easter to October and shrimping in the winter. Reference: The Association of Dunkirk
Little Ships - http://www.adls.org.uk/ .
Churchill was prime minister for only 14 days when the evacuation took place.
Churchill called the evacuation of Dunkirk a “miracle of deliverance,” and the “Dunkirk
He also wrote about Operation Dynamo in his book The Second World War, that was published
in 1949: -
Ever since May 20, the gathering of shipping and small craft had been proceeding
under the control of Admiral Ramsay, who commanded at Dover. After the loss of Boulogne
and Calais only the remains of the port of Dunkirk and the open beaches next to the
Belgian Frontier were in our hands. On the evening of the 26th an Admiralty signal
put Operation Dynamo into play, and the first troops were brought home that night.
Early the next morning, May 27, emergency measures were taken to find additional
small craft. The various boatyards, from Teddington to Brightlingsea, were searched
by Admiralty officers, and yielded upwards of forty serviceable motor-boats or launches,
which were assembled at Sheerness on the following day. At the same time lifeboats
from liners in the London docks, tugs from the Thames, yachts, fishing-craft, lighters,
barges and pleasure-boats - anything that could be the use along the beaches - were
called into service.