31st May 1940 – Lovely on the water

TtoD p23 detail

I saw for the first time that strange procession of craft of all kinds that has become famous. Tugs towing dinghies, lifeboats and all manner of pulling boats, small motor yachts, motor launches, drifters, Dutch schoots, Thames barges, fishing boats [and] pleasure steamers.

(Rear-Admiral William Wake-Walker, in charge of shipping off Dunkirk, 31 May 1940, from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

Able-Seaman S. Palmer, in the thirty-foot motor yacht Maid Errant… [was] putting [her] into the beach in the surf [when] she was rushed and swamped by French soldiers. She was then washed ashore. He re-floated her. He had no crew, save one stoker, but he gathered a British NCO and eight soldiers and with these put off for England. The engine was not working well and at last broke down. He then broke up the wood fittings of the yacht into paddles, and induced the eight soldiers to paddle. He reached Dover safely and set forth again the next day for another trip, but was stopped, as it was felt that that Maid Errant was too slow for the work.

(from John Masefield’s Nine Days Wonder)

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, 3.5 fathoms of rope being the distance between us. That was at 1.15am… Tired out, the engineer, seaman and signaller went to turn in, as our work seemed nearly done. We were congratulating ourselves, when, at about 1.50am, a terrible explosion took place and a hail of wood splinters came down on our deck. In the pitch dark, you could see nothing, and we could do nothing… except pull in the tow rope which was just as we passed it to the Renown about three-quarters of an hour before.

(Jimmy Dench, skipper of the cockle-boat Letitia, one of the six from Leigh-on-Sea, from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

During the afternoon, HMS Skipjack, when filled with troops and towing a motor boat, was attacked by dive-bombers. She shot down three aircraft, but five bombs from one plane sank her. The survivors were picked up by a neighbouring destroyer and reached Dover. One man writing of this day says: ‘ Ammunition was going up like fireworks. I waded out to my armpits and scrambled aboard a boat. Two others jumped out of the boat and completely swamped her. We spent about two hours trying to refloat her, but the seas were too strong. I decided to look for a change of clothes and searched the beach, where I soon picked up some short pants and socks. On returning, I found my party gone. I picked up some biscuits on the beach, and presently, when I boarded the destroyer, I had an enormous feast of bread, bully-beef and tea.’

(from John Masefield’s Nine Days Wonder)

We reached the East Jetty about 11pm. On one place there had been a direct hit on the Mole. The gap had been patched with boards. A final halt was made 200 yards from the end, which was altogether about a mile long. Most of the men laid down on the jetty and went to sleep in spite of the cold. A German bomber flew over us at one o’clock, dropping bombs. The battalion just behind us was heavily shelled and machine-gunned and suffered severe casualties. Two ships had already been sunk at the end of the jetty. It was apparently impossible to embark until the sun rose. At five o’clock a destroyer drew alongside. It was daylight, but luckily there was a mist. We were conducted below and all were very soon asleep.

(Eye-witness account quoted in John Masefield’s Nine Days Wonder)

The comedian Tommy Trinder’s boat Chalmondesleigh, named after his ‘chum’ went; Falcon II, a sailing clipper of 1898 which had spent its working life bringing port from Portugal to England brought back 450 men, and the Ethel Maud, an 1889 wooden sailing barge from the Tilbury docks (one of the ‘stackies’ that took hay and straw from farms in Essex, Kent and Suffolk to feed the horses of London) went, being a ‘fast sailer’, and brought home many men.

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

I was coming down a ladder leading from the sickbay to the mess deck when a bomb went down the ship’s forward funnel and exploded. I was thrown up in the air and hit the deckhead. Then I fell back in the blast given off by the bomb. As it hit me, I put my hands up to my face to protect it. It felt as if I had been hit six times on the face with a whip. I was in such pain that I prayed to God to take me. But someone picked me up, and pushed me outside, and I ended up on the upper deck… Then I heard someone shout ‘Abandon ship!’

(Bob Bloom, 19, sick-bay attendant on HMS Grenade, from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

Bloom somehow jumped over the side into the water, and climbed on to the mole. From there he staggered on to Crested Eagle, a paddle-steamer moored to the other side of the mole. Shortly afterwards, having also taken on board wounded men from Fenella, another vessel that had been bombed, Crested Eagle got under way, only to be hit by four bombs dropped during yet another air raid…. Bloom jumped into the sea for the second time that day… ‘My life was saved by two soldiers who were hanging on to what looked like a barn door with a ring fixed to it. They hung on to it and kicked with their legs, while I sat on it holding the ring.’ Hours later they were rescued by another ship which took him to Ramsgate. He was already in England when he woke up… A nurse lifted him on to a stretcher so that he could be taken to hospital. ‘You’ll be safe soon,’ she told him. Bloom’s last words to her before he lost consciousness again were ‘Will you please tell my parents I’m OK.’

(Bob Bloom’s story from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

There seemed to be thousands and thousands of people in the water, and unfortunately, with this ship having had the attack earlier on, the fuel tanks were damaged… Men were stuck in this oil fuel, clinging to various bits of wreckage. After about an hour, the attackers came over again, and they strafed us with machine-gun fire. Then various ships came in to pick up troops. I’d been in the water approximately five hours. But in the meantime, I’d come across an old broken ladder… and I was clinging to that, which I was very pleased about, because although the life-jacket keeps your head above water, it’s very nice to get hold of something. I was picked up by a French tug, whose crew just threw a hook out and dragged us in.

(Ordinary Seaman Frank Brogden, Crewman aboard troopship Lancastria, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices. More from the Lancastria over the next few days.)

The Crested Eagle – the old London pleasure ship which used to go between Tower Bridge down to Clacton – was a hospital ship, painted up with red crosses. She’d been bombed and settled in the water. But the German aircraft were still machine-gunning her. That wasn’t cricket. There was no real hatred about the Germans, really, except that they just weren’t playing the game. That wasn’t the right way to win a war – to have a go at wounded people…. The other thing was seeing all the soldiers coming back without their equipment. We began to think it was sort of the end of our way of life. We didn’t know how long we’d be able to hold Jerry off in England. We knew we had the Navy, and that we would fight – but we didn’t know what the soldiers would be able to do if Jerry had landed – because they had nothing.

(Ordinary Seaman Stanley Allen, aboard HMS Windsor, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

It was dark when we reached the sandhills and we were very tired. The day before, or it might have been the day before that, orders [were issued] to blow up the guns. Since then the purpose of our existence had changed. We were no longer a fighting force but simply a unit moving back towards the coast… We lay down where we stood and we slept where we lay down… An hour later the order came for us to move down the beach, and we made our way over the sand hills; … as we came over the edge of the dunes we saw the beach spread out before us, stretching away on either side. As far as we could see it was black with men… in groups, in broken lines and circles, sitting, lying and standing – all of them waiting… We sat in the sand and waited. Offshore were ships and boats of various shapes and sizes… By this time the sun had risen and revealed the clear blue sky of an early summer morning, and with the sun came the Stukas. They approached from behind us, spread out according to their fancy and proceeded to bomb what they liked. Some chose the ships, others the beaches and a few the sea.

(Captain NDG James, 68th Field Battery RA, from Robert Jackson’s Dunkirk)

On the morning of 31 May, 3 Brigade’s Brigadier Wilson heard that his men would not be evacuated for one or even two days… 1 Division was to remain in position as the rearguard. Nevertheless it was decided that 3 Brigade’s headquarters should go the the beach at Bray-Dunes that night so as to be ready when the evacuation order was given. The war diarist has described what he witnessed during the move: ‘The scenery provided a picture of the abomination of desolation. Ruined and burnt out houses… vehicles abandoned, many of them charred relics of twisted metal on the roadside and overturned in the ditches. Light tanks and guns poking up out of the [floods]. Horses dead. Here and there civilian or French Army corpses lying in the open. An unforgettable spectacle.’

(Story from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk. More of the rearguard finally arrive at Dunkirk in Gun Buster’s story, continuing below, and throughout the final days of the evacuation June 1st to 3rd – and then on 4th June, what happened afterwards.)

Next day 31st at 4pm we left again. We returned to Dover with 2,500 French troops.

(Captain G Johnson still on board the Royal Daffodil, from his daily account in the Imperial War Museum archive. More from Captain Johnson every day until June 2nd)

We were now in the region of the dunes, which rose like humps of a deeper darkness. And these in their turn were dotted with the still blacker shapes of abandoned vehicles, half-sunk in the sand, fantastic twisted… burned-out skeletons, and crazy-looking wreckage that had been heaped up in extraordinary piles by the explosions of bombs…

Slowly we picked our way between the wreckage, sinking ankle-deep in the loose sand, until we reached the gaunt skeletons of what had once been the houses of the promenade. The whole front was one long continuous line of blazing buildings, a high wall of fire, roaring and darting in tongues of flame, with the smoke pouring upwards and disappearing in the blackness of the sky above the rooftops. Out seawards the darkness was as thick and smooth as black velvet, except for now and again when the shape of a sunken destroyer or paddle-steamer made a slight thickening of its impenetrable surface. Facing us, the great black wall of the Mole… had an astounding terrifying background of giant flames leaping a hundred feet into the air from blazing oil tanks.

Along the promenade, in parties of fifty, the remnants of practically all the last regiments were wearily trudging along. There was no singing and very little talk. Everyone was far too exhausted…  It was none too easy to keep contact with one’s friends in the darkness, and amid so many little masses of moving men, all looking very much alike…

The tide was out. Over the wide stretch of sand could be dimly discerned little oblong masses of soldiers, moving in platoons and orderly groups down towards the edge of the sea…

From the margin of the sea, at fairly wide intervals, three long thin black lines protruded into the water… These were lines of men, standing in pairs behind one another far out into the water, waiting in queues till boats arrived to transport them, a score or so at a time, to the steamers and warships that were filling up with the last survivors. The queues stood there, fixed and almost as regular as if ruled… Much more orderly… than a waiting theatre queue…

We set our faces in the direction of the sea.

(from Gun Buster’s Return via Dunkirk; Y Battery’s ordeal continues on 2nd June)

A detail from 'Embarkation from Dunkirk' by EC Turner, the book jacket image for Gun Buster's 'Return via Dunkirk'

A detail from ‘Embarkation from Dunkirk’ by EC Turner, the book-jacket image for Gun Buster’s ‘Return via Dunkirk’ (Hodder and Stoughton 1940)

from To the Seaman

I tell you this, that in the future time

When landsmen mention sailors, such, or such,

Someone will say “Those fellows were sublime

Who brought the Armies from the Germans’ clutch.”

Through the long time the story will be told;

Long centuries of praise on English lips,

Of courage godlike and of hearts of gold

Off Dunquerque beaches in the little ships.

And ships will dip their colours in salute

To you, henceforth, when passing Zuydecoote.

(John Masefield)


Tomorrow, 1st June 1940 – Homeward

9 Responses to “31st May 1940 – Lovely on the water”

  1. Helen Addis Says:

    More from Arthur Addis:

    I was two or three days on the beaches, but at last, having assisted in destroying our own equipment – including, sadly, six bottles of White Horse whisky! – in the late evening of 31st May I walked with my unit along the improvised jetty the Royal Engineers had constructed at Bray Dunes, put my foot gingerly down into a boat – a yell of rage showed I’d trodden on someone’s head! When the boat was full it pushed off, then we were told to get out and wade as the propeller was fouled. The Adjutant and I found an empty rowing boat and started to row out to the ships; it soon sank as it was stove in. We were picked up by a motor boat, already over full; then a shell or something landed near us and tipped the boat over – I was then up to my neck! and it was nearly dark. Luckily the sea was calm as a mill pond. At last, after probably a couple of hours in the water we clambered onto a small fishing boat, piloted by its owner, who had responded to Admiral Ramsay’s call – what a man!

    (Helen Addis emailed The Dunkirk Project with her father Arthur Addis’ story, which also appears among 227 extraordinary Dunkirk stories on the BBC WWII archive here.
    More from Arthur Addis tomorrow 1st June 1940 – Homeward, and in a later comment on this page)

    • James Killen Says:

      My Grandfather Thomas (Tammy) Thorburn was the ships boiler man in the Skipjack Engine room when the ship was struck and was missing presumed dead for nearly 4 months, my Grand Mother & my Mother Minny her three sisters & little Brother were at home one day late September 1940 when a knock came on the door in the night at there home in Fisher row Musselburgh they were all very afraid my mum told me her mum told her to stay away from the door not knowing who might be on the other side them being all little women my mum just 13 at the time she being the Tomboy of the family ventured forward on the door much to the annoyance of my grandmother who thought it might be the Hun she was terrified! as was everyone else but on my mum went who is it she cried the voice replied Its Yur Da Minny!…..Ma Das Deed go away she replied…..the voice came back no Hen it’s me and put his left hand which was covered in bandage through the letter box. Pull back the bandage on my fingers he said this she did and cried out to her mum it’s Dads wedding ring Ma they opened the door Tammy Thorburn Wis Back burnt from head too toe but there Large as life itself Gid old Tam he lived till he was 83

  2. The folk song ‘Lovely on the water’ is so appropriate as a title, to link the Dunkirk story with all the earlier naval adventures like Trafalgar, that are remembered in folk-history, often from the perspective of women. (My Johnny was a shoemaker/ but now he’s gone to sea.) I often think of it on the Thames by the Tower, the scene of farewell and departure into danger:

    ‘For our Queen she do want seamen,
    So I will not stay ashore
    For it’s lovely on the water
    Where the thundering cannon roar

    Now Tower Hill is crowded
    With women weeping sore
    For lovers gone for sailors
    Where the thundering cannon roar…’

    • More about Arthur Addis and the little boat that rescued him:

      The owner, we found, had brought it from England to help with the evacuation, an unarmed little boat, sailing over ninety miles of the English channel into the jaws of the most heavily armed and merciless enemy the world had ever known. We were soldiers, we were under orders, but this man was a civilian; he need not have come but he had responded to his country’s call. Unfortunately we were too done in to remember his name; but one can be excused a little pride in one’s country if it can produce a man like that.

      Our little boat took us out to a Thames tug on the deck of which we were packed like sardines. A vessel next to us, similarly crammed to capacity, received a direct hit, the bomb went straight down the funnel – and the survivors were brought on board our tug; somehow we got them in. Towards dawn, when the tide was high enough to lift us beyond magnetic mines, we set off for England, towing the ‘Pudge’ a sailing barge crammed tight with assorted BEF. This uncomfortable journey to England took about 12 hours. So we parted from the scene of the greatest defeat the British army has ever experienced.

      (Helen Addis emailed more details from her father’s account of Dunkirk 1940; his story continues tomorrow, 1st June 1940 – Homeward)

  3. On the BBC archive of verbal accounts from Dunkirk, Bernard Stubbs was recorded on 31st May 1940 describing the scene as the ships return from Dunkirk and the troops disembark, bloodied but unbowed. He observes that ‘all the bombs in Germany will never crush’ their spirit.
    This vivid and moving account can be heard on http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/dunkirk/14311.shtml
    with many others. More stories from this archive throughout the nine days.

  4. We left John Dibblee with his troop on the beach last night, having ‘booked their passage’. His story continues:

    At first light I surveyed my Troop noticing with some dismay that we now tripled in size to around 200 men, our shouts of “B Troop” having attracted waifs and strays from other units.

    I separated out our legitimate Troop and led them to the beach. We managed to get the boat afloat and were picked up by a minesweeper, HMS Skipjack. My men were ordered to the hold and I wanted to join them but was told that naval etiquette demanded that officers remain on deck in the ward room. In the ward room, there were officers from the DCLI (Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry), and I also found a good friend of mine, Ronald Temple who was in my regiment. My own regulation boots having disintegrated some time ago with so much marching, I had acquired some excellent rubber boots when retreating to France which opened at the side, very serviceable in field conditions but I sweated so much in the ward room that they were half full of water, so I took them off. Ronald kept his boots on, which was correct but his undoing.

    We soon came under fire in a concerted aerial attack which was described in John Masefield’s book “The Nine Days Wonder”. [Masefield’s account of the attack on HMS Skipjack is quoted above on this page] In the ward room we could see little of what was going on, until a bomb from a Junckers 88 dropped through the wardroom roof between us straight through the floor and detonating in the hold, killing all the men of my Troop and blowing a hole in the bottom. The Skipjack turned turtle, with Ronald and I managing to escape through the hole in the roof (caused by the bomb) but without life jackets. We were hours in the water and a rough sea had got up. With unshod feet, I managed to keep afloat, but Ronald with his boots on, could not. One minute I saw him above the waves and the next minute he was gone. I was eventually picked up by a commercial vessel, in an exhausted state. The first person I saw as on the deck was my batman, Private Nash. “Your baccy and pipe, sir”. I had given him all my personal kit the previous day for his own use, an investment which paid dividends. We kept in touch.

    (For the story of the remainder of John Dibblee’s war, see 4th June 1940 Beyond Dunkirk.)

  5. Clive@yahoo.co.uk Says:

    Robert (Bob) Wiley.
    Dad went to France on the 2nd of April 1940 with the 1/5 Queens Royal West Surreys.
    After marching 30 miles a day to Dunkirk and after standing in the sea Dad thought it was pointless and went back to the beach and on the 31st May 1940 Dad got off the mole onto HMS Malcolm. HMS MALCOLM sustained damage to her bow when she collided with the pier at Dunkirk.
    (HMS Malcolm was one of the ships that Granddad was on in the 1920s.)
    Dad was put on a train to anywhere, but it stopped at Woking station, he said he thought he could have got off and walked home, never to be seen again, but he stayed on and ended up in Salisbury.

    • Thanks so much for sharing Bob’s story, Clive – a glimpse of what must have been a real ordeal for your dad – and what an odd coincidence for it to be HMS Malcolm that picked him up, when his own father had worked on her in the 1920s – yet another example of truth being so much odder than fiction.

  6. […] 31st May 1940 – Lovely on the water […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s