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Brief History of Dunkirk

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: -


Renown - Harry Noakes Crew  

Reliant - Tony Meddle Crew

Endeavour - Robinson Crew

Leticia - Authur Dench Crew

Resolute - Harry Osborn Crew

Defender - Harvey Crew (with sub-lieutenant RMVR Soloman)  


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 Porter.


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"


Data Bank


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 - .


Winston Churchill

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 spirit”.

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.


Endeavour Article - Evening Echo (Times Group)

Dunkirk Article - Evening Echo (Times Group

70th Anniversary of Operation Dynamo - Web Extracts

The Dunkirk Spirit