29th May 1940 – Nightmare

Lucky Weather text by Frances Bingham, paperwork by Liz Mathews

29th May was a nightmare for the Royal and Merchant Navies, as ship after ship was sunk or put out of action… Lt Commander Rodolph Haig, in charge of the minesweeper HMS Lydd, one of four ships most involved in the tragic events near Kwinte Whistle Buoy reported: ‘Flares were sighted, and shouting heard close at hand. The light from an Aldis lamp revealed the bow and stern portions of HMS Wakeful appearing above water with men clinging to them. I immediately lowered a whaler and two carley floats. Shortly after this, HMS Gossamer, which was close by, ordered us to put my light out and drop a depth charge. I could not at once comply with the latter order as I was too close to the wreck, and would have killed the men in the water… I kept the ship moving while the whaler and carley floats were picking up survivors, and had just got 20 alongside when HMS Grafton appeared. I asked her if she would pick up the rest, and she asked us to circle round her in case of enemy submarines.’ Shortly afterwards, the Grafton was hit by a torpedo and then another explosion on her bridge killed her Commander Cecil Robinson. In the confusion, Comfort, a British drifter coming to the rescue was also hit; all of Comfort‘s crew and the survivors she had rescued from Wakeful were killed, though most of Grafton‘s crew and the troops on board were saved.

(Story from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

We were fortunate – so fortunate. We have said thank you to England a thousand times for sending the little boats to take us to the big boats – the destroyers – to take us back to England. I was on the beach for two days, and it was so horrible. We seemed to be walking on dead bodies, not on sand. It is very hard to describe, just walking on bodies. But at ten o’clock in the evening, we reached a little boat, which should usually take about six people, but there must have been twenty people already on it. But we were very fortunate that the boat took us. It took us to an English destroyer. I shall never forget the captain, who was one of the nicest gentlemen you could wish to meet. He said, ‘Come on, Frogs, sit down and have something to eat.’ It was a good joke at that moment! He told us, ‘Eat whatever you want,’ and we sat down to eat – and it was such that it was better than any meal at the Savoy today – bacon, cheese, everything. It was a joy for us.

(Leon Wilson, French soldier retreating from Belgium into France, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

The famous London fire-boat, the Massey Shaw, went with a fire service crew, brought off sixty men and carried them to England. Later with a naval crew, she tendered-off some hundreds, then carried home forty-six and returned to the beach for more.

(John Masefield, The Nine Days Wonder.)

From about a mile away, still no aeroplanes, no bombs, no menace, …though I could see a wrecked small craft, and then a bigger craft. Gradually we could see dark shapes against the sand – and then we saw that there were hundreds – thousands – of people on this sand, and stretching up to the line of houses which stood, presumably, on the road that ran along the coast… Mainly we noticed that they were columns of men stretching down into the sea. We didn’t really understand what this was at first – and then it suddenly occurred to us that these were columns of men waiting to be picked up. The first man in the sea was the next man to be picked up. One of our auxiliaries, Shiner Wright, was a good swimmer, and he went from the Massey Shaw to a wrecked boat which was right inshore and tied [a rope] to the wreck so that we had a fixed line into the shallow water… they got a rowing boat that would hold very few people, and worked it along the line, pulling hand over hand. When we got organised this worked very well. In that way I think we took aboard 36 soldiers out of the water that night.

(Francis Codd, Auxiliary Fire Service in London, aboard the Massey Shaw, a shallow-draft fire-fighting ship based on the Thames, approaching the beach at Bray Dunes, a few miles east of Dunkirk. Francis Codd’s moving account can be heard in full in the Imperial War Museum.)

Dunkirk phossil by Charlie Bonallack. Hand-painted porcelain panel 14 x 10cm.

Dunkirk Phossil 69 by Charlie Bonallack. Image interpreted from source from IWM archive, hand-painted with pigment on porcelain. For more, see Dunkirk Phossils by Charlie Bonallack.

Six Leigh cockle boats that had never been further than Ramsgate – Defender, Letitia, Renown, Endeavour, Reliance and Resolute –  brought home a total of 1000 soldiers – but they didn’t all come back;  His Majesty’s yacht Gay Venture went flying the white ensign; the Elvin, an Estuary cruiser was refused for ‘civilian crew, ship too slow’, and went anyway, flying the red ensign. You can still take a trip on the Princess Freda, a Thames passenger vessel that still operates from Westminster Pier to Kew; and the Waverley, an 1899 paddle-steamer was lost on 29th May when returning with troops from Dunkirk – her replacement, built in 1946 is now the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer, and bears a brass plaque honouring her original. The Medway Queen, another paddle steamer requisitioned for service as a minesweeper, achieved the record of seven trips and rescued an extraordinary 7000 men; stories from the Medway Queen are running throughout the nine days, and she’s the first in our new series focusing on the heroic ships of Dunkirk.

(Ships’ stories from several sources including the website of the Association of Little Ships of Dunkirk. More little ships’ stories throughout the nine days)

1st June

My husband, who was in the Guards, was in the retreat, and he was picked up by a yacht with a lot of other Welsh guardsmen and brought back to England. They left every single thing they possessed except their guns – even their sleeping bags, their clothes, their equipment. They just got on board any ship that was able to take them back to England. At the time, knowing the French had given up the fight, and that the Germans were all along the coast of France, we really did think that any day they would be invading.

(Lady Anne Chichester, civilian worker in Hampshire, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

Captain Strother Smith and his men had finally reached the vast queue on the beach: ‘The sea was almost as horrible a sight as the town. On we trudged in single file until we were on the boat.’ They were taken on board a converted passenger boat, had a bath and slept in a bed in a cabin – they were on the boat for about 12 hours from 4pm on Tuesday 28th. At 5.30am on Wednesday 29th, ‘we were landed and the nightmare was over.’ Captain Strother Smith was taken to a hospital at Aldershot suffering from complete exhaustion.

(From Captain NC Strother Smith’s account in the Imperial War Museum archive)

On the night of 29th/30th May we left Flêtre and then started our forty-mile trek to Dunkirk. We walked and ran throughout that night, and indeed, all the next day. One was continually making diversions to miss the enemy. I remember, there was a Captain Whitty, who had been shot through the chest – an amazingly brave man. He was leading quite a sizeable group of infantry, and for a while we tagged on. It was a case of every man for himself. It was chaotic. The Germans were very close, and people were being killed. At 21 years old, one hadn’t experienced death and people being killed. So it was a bit frightening.

(Sergeant Leonard Howard, 210 Field Company, Royal Engineers, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices. More from Leonard Howard tomorrow, May 30th)

Squadron Leader Al Deere, having been shot down on the sandflats north of Dunkirk and been patched up by an unnamed woman, ‘headed for Dunkirk, where I knew the BEF was intending to evacuate. We had been reading in the newspapers that the British Army was ‘retreating according to plan’. Somewhere en route to Dunkirk, I went into a small cafe where I saw two tommies. I asked, ‘Am I heading for the Army at Dunkirk?’ They looked at me and said something to the effect of, ‘What British Army? There’s no retreat, chum. There’s bloody chaos.’ Dunkirk was a complete shambles – burning buildings, abandoned vehicles and falling masonry.’

(Squadron Leader Al Deere, 54 Squadron RAF, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

On the 29th May,… again for Dunkirk, proceeded to the pier and took off 750 troops. There was intensive bombing all the time… and on our return we were shelled heavily by the battery.

(Captain G Johnson aboard the Royal Daffodil, from his account in the IWM archive. More from the Royal Daffodil every day until 2nd June)

The Luftwaffe’s most impressive series of attacks targeted ten British ships which during the afternoon of 29 May were tied up alongside Dunkirk’s mole. Between 3.30pm and 6pm, three air raids put seven of these ships out of action, including HMS Grenade, which sank blocking the harbour entrance.

(Story from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

The first day there [at a temporary hospital in Leatherhead, set up to cope with the rush of wounded from Dunkirk] was the most terrible experience. The retreat from Dunkirk was in full swing and all sorts of patients were arriving who needed operations. Because the place had never been used as a hospital before… the confusion was immense. People were saying: ‘Nurse, take this man to operating theatre number five on the trolley,’ ‘Quick, get a blanket for this chap!’ and one had no idea where the blankets were kept or where the theatres were… [Because of the black out] one had to nurse at night holding a tiny torch – which meant that you had to go and check with your torch to see if anyone had died… there were so many serious cases.

(Ann Darlington, from Anne de Courcy’s Debs at War)

The wind had changed on the 29th. There was still through most of the day a surf running on the beaches, but now the smoke was coming off the town and from the burning oil tanks, and it was at times impossible to see the roadstead from the harbour. Finding the harbour entrance was a matter of great difficulty at various periods throughout the day, and over the beaches there hung a choking cloud.

None the less 38,000 men were lifted during the twenty-four hours. It was an incredible achievement – the fruit of courage, of endurance and of sheer brutal toil that is almost without parallel in history… The nightmares of the night seemed somehow to have extended themselves into the daylight hours.

(from Dunkirk by AD Divine, who witnessed the nightmare from the deck of White Wing. More from him throughout, including his view of Captain G Johnson’s Royal Daffodil on 2nd June – Tatter’d colours)

We sailed to Dunkirk six times [altogether on the hospital ship St Julien] but were only able to load stretcher cases twice as it was often impossible to get near either ‘mole’. We all felt helpless and desperately depressed on the empty trips back.

(Nurse Jo Kenny, from the BBC archive of WW2 People’s War Stories, on:


Another flock of bombers now appeared on their way to hammer the ruins of Dunkirk to a still greater degree of devastation. It was seven o’clock. The great pall of smoke spread wide a hundred feet over the town like Death’s hovering wing…. It was a very forbidding spectacle. Looked at as a refuge, a sanctuary, a gate of escape, it was anything but inviting.  We seemed to be heading straight for a holocaust; far worse than anything we had witnessed so far… the last ordeal…  It was a picture that reduced one to silence.

(Gun Buster, from Retreat via Dunkirk. More about Y Battery’s rearguard action tomorrow, 30th May)


from  Survivors

With the ship burning in their eyes

The white faces float like refuse

In the darkness – the water screwing

Oily circles where the hot steel lies.


They clutch with fingers frozen into claws

The lifebelts thrown from a destroyer,

And see, between the future’s doors,

the gasping entrance of the sea.


Taken on board as many as lived, who

Had a mind left for living and the ocean,

They open eyes running with surf,

Heavy with with grey ghosts of explosion.


Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning

With cracked images, they won’t forget

The confusion and the oily dead,

Nor yet the casual knack of living.


(Alan Ross, from The Hundred Years’ War ed. Neil Astley, Bloodaxe 2014)

Tomorrow, 30th May 1940 – The view from the air

11 Responses to “29th May 1940 – Nightmare”

  1. Reading all these stories – so various and so moving – it’s impossible not to be struck by the power of memory, and its influence on the future, when people will commemorate events they themselves haven’t experienced. The two ravens who accompany Odin are Thought and Memory, but in Greek mythology Memory (I seem to recall) is the mother of the Muses. This is a powerful image of the close relationship between memory and art; art doesn’t just preserve or enshrine memory, but also – through thought – interprets it and communicates it.

    • Liz Mathews Says:

      Anne Linton’s evocative line drawings (illustrating the edition of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose that I was given by my sister in 1973 for my twelfth birthday) I now realise are closely based on the photos of the beaches at Dunkirk and Bray Dunes in the Photo Archive at the Imperial War Museum. It’s really interesting to see how much art has come out of this archive – of course, all the films (Michael Balcon’s Dunkirk, Noel Coward’s In which we serve, etc) reference these images, as well as Richard Eurich’s great painting Dunkirk in the National Maritime Museum collection, Norman Wilkinson’s The Little Ships at Dunkirk June 1940 and much other ‘war’ art – and they now almost seem familiar, as though we who weren’t there, also have that view unforgettably in our mind’s eye.

    • Words in Company discusses this idea further in True Remembering:
      The article’s title draws on Jeremy Hooker’s comment to The Dunkirk Project:
      ‘True remembering is essential to our humanity.’
      Perhaps art is the only way to express that which otherwise can only (in Gun Buster’s words) reduce one to silence.

  2. Liz Mathews Says:

    More on little ships: on Saturday 22nd May 2010 we went on a hard-hat tour of the Massey Shaw, to view the latest developments in her restoration, scheduled to be completed by 2012. It’s an awesome task, but utterly worthwhile, and this wonderful ship is a proud memorial to the spirit of Dunkirk, and its continuing relevance today. The Massey Shaw Preservation Society has leapt a great hurdle already by successfully achieving lottery funding towards the restoration, but welcomes financial, skill/expertise and other contributions (up-to-date details about the progress of the restoration and how to participate can be found on their website or Facebook page). We had a fantastic afternoon, despite a touch of vertigo. Dave Rogers, who led the tour, introduced us to his dad Peter, who has been on many commemorative returns to Dunkirk on the Massey Shaw, and seems chiefly to remember the engine racket and the ship’s rolling gait, as well as the weather to be expected on these runs – not all romance, then.

    • And more ships’ stories: yesterday 28th May we met the Dinard‘s stewardess Amy Goodrich on board the hospital ship Dinard. Like the St Julien on today’s page the Dinard made several trips back and forth to Dunkirk and succeeded in bringing back many wounded men in spite of the worst possible conditions. On 29th May the Dinard managed to pick up 271 stretcher cases and 13 RAMC personnel with the ‘usual difficulties’; Captain J Ailwyn-Jones, her master, writes with rather poetic brevity:
      At about 1am on the 29th we were attacked by torpedoes… The water being very luminous that night it was easy to see and avoid the attack… We had several narrow escapes from collisions as we were meeting dozens of ships coming along without lights, and the weather misty. One destroyer actually touched on the starboard side, going very fast. We arrived back at the Downs at 4.30am, and on to Newhaven, berthing at 8.35am.
      (from AD Divine’s Dunkirk again)

  3. Andrew Bird Says:

    Currently writing a book entitled ‘Coastal Dawn’ which is about the RAF Bristol Blenheim fighters of 235, 236, 248 and 254 Squadrons.

    On 29th May 1940 three Blenheim fighters of 235 Squadron are engaged by enemy fighters just after mid-day. One Blenheim crew manages to ditch. Upon reaching their dinghy they paddle away a ‘Paddle Steamer’ stops and picks them up.

    Sadly unable to locate which craft it was? A diary left by one of the crew only refers to ‘Paddle Steamer’ stopped and picked the three of us up and transported us to Ramsgate. Upon arrival had to pretend to be injured and be put onto stretcher to go up the gang plank then into a waiting ‘blood wagon’.

    Any help would be most grateful.
    Andrew Bird

  4. Thinking of the Royal Daffodil‘s Captain G Johnson and his restrained reportage of the perils faced by his ship and crew throughout their repeated journeys to and from Dunkirk, and continuing the story of the Mona’s Queen (the ship we met on 26th May in Roy Martin’s comment about the first Dynamo crossings), AD Divine remarks (in his Dunkirk) on ‘the curious reticence, that understatement, […which is] one of the traditions of our sea services,’ and quotes the Mona’s Queen‘s new master Captain A Holkam:

    ‘I joined the Mona’s Queen on May 28th. On the evening of that date I received orders to leave Dover in the early morning of the 29th to carry fresh water to Dunkirk and return with troops. Everything was uneventful until we reached to within about half a mile off Dunkirk, when the ship was mined and sank within two minutes, the survivors being rescued by the destroyer Vanquisher.’

    David Divine concludes this short sad story by saying that its ‘succinct brevity… defies comment’.

  5. […] cruiser the Elvin – were “refused [by the Navy] . . . and went anyway” (‘29th May 1940 – Nightmare‘, from The Dunkirk Project: An interactive installment by Liz […]

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