The Dunkirk evacuation

Direct comparisons with Dunkirk might be over-dramatic but, in view of possible plans for the RN to evacuate stranded Brits from continental ports owing to the current cessation of airline flights, I thought this might be of interest. I like it because it concerns my old Alma Mater. So, who fancies commandeering a trawler for a trip across the Channel? Grab your bag meal, water bottle and revolver and off we'll go.

From ‘HMS Vernon 1930-1955’ published by the Wardroom Mess Committee (pp.32-33):

HMS Vernon 1930-1955 said:
The evacuation of Dunkirk produced intense but controlled activity in Vernon, and every possible boat was manned for the job. The newly-installed loudspeakers in the Wardroom block, now regarded by some as a mixed blessing, were then a great asset. The Commander oscillated between the east ante-room and the hall and called out officers as the boats were reported ready from the pier-head or as requests were received for officers from the Commander-in-Chief. The mess caterer, John Canty, and his storekeeper kitted them up with haversacks of bully beef and biscuits, pusser's dirk [seaman's clasp knife], cigarettes and matches, and with water-bottles and revolvers. Some who accepted a pusser's dirk unwillingly said afterwards that it was the most useful thing out of everything they took. In the hall porter's office was a young Leading Seaman, too young to have even his first badge. He was qualifying for L.T.O. and swotting at his manual, quite unmoved. As the Commander threw messages at him - 'I want to speak to So-and-so' - he put down his manual, looked up the officer's card in the index, dialled his home number, gave the message, and went on reading. At intervals he interrupted his studies to broadcast. A message that would have taken some sorting out without the broadcaster was a signal from the Commander-in-Chief calling for an R.N.R. with an Extra Master's ticket. This was broadcast, and within about two minutes there were six in the hall. The revolving light-tight door at the Wardroom entrance paid for itself that night, as things could be controlled in a calm, fully-lit hall instead of in a windy blackness. Meanwhile, the Chief Routine Officer was collecting crews in Warrior Block in much the same manner.

The establishment was almost cleared. Some manned Vernon's boats and tenders and set off for Dover via Newhaven, some joined the port organisation for manning Dutch skoots at Poole, the Long [Torpedo Officers] Course were rushed to the beaches. At the time they were learning Fire Control at Whale Island. They returned to Vernon by boat in the dinner hour and were issued at the pier-head with sandwiches for twenty-four hours and a revolver. Then off to Lee and thence by Albacores to Hawkinge. That evening they were briefed at Dover as beach-masters to take charge of embarkation from the beaches east of Dunkirk. They sailed after dark in destroyers and landed by motorboat soon after midnight, to start a very hectic and strenuous few days. There were some consolations - one or two got a new uniform suit out of the affair and all avoided the Low Power exam.


HMS Vernon Picket Boats in WW II
(Manned by Vernon Auxiliary Company under
the First Lieutenant (Lt Cdr J Hext Lewes RN))

Vernon's ratings from Bincleaves manned a Dutch skoot and the mobile torpedo discharge vessel Bloodhound also set out from Bincleaves [Weymouth]. It is difficult to say exactly which of Vernon's power boats got as far as Dunkirk, as the official accounts differ; it seems that at least two did. The longest list gives two diesel torpedo recovery boats, one steam picket boat and two petrol power boats.

Very soon afterwards Vernon, and notably the Long Course again, was involved in the attempt to evacuate the 51st Division from St Valery. A number of demolition parties were instructed and kitted up in Vernon, for despatch to Continental ports. One of the last of these was led by Commander C. D. Howard-Johnston, an A/S specialist who was later to cement the connection by becoming Captain of the Vernon T.A.S. School. His party embarked in the Wild Swan and set off for St Malo with eight tons of explosive. They were invited to find their own way back and were provided with £300 in notes for the journey across (occupied) France. They eventually returned via a very distracted Channel Island.

The collapse of France and the threat of invasion brought the war closer to Vernon's doorstep. At Portsmouth, Vernon was made responsible for a section of the port defences from the Dockyard Main Gate to Clarence Pier. Sentries were re-disposed with a special eye to parachutists. `Pencil' plans were made for destroying the cranes and jetties at Vernon Creek but no charges were ever laid, as the risk from fools meddling and from air raids always remained greater than that of invasion. Vernon's demolition parties toured the south coast laying charges in many piers and jetties. Some of these were at once removed by the military, owing to a temporary misunderstanding.

From ‘The Torpedomen – HMS Vernon’s Story 1872-1986’ by Rear Admiral Nicho Poland (pp.166-170):

The Torpedomen – HMS Vernon’s Story 1872-1986 said:
At Ramsgate were the drifters Lord Cavan, Silver Dawn, Fisher Boy, Jacketa and Formidable, under the command of Lieutenant Commander A J Cubison, waiting for orders to recover German ground mines by trawling. They were commanded by Royal Naval Reserve skippers, all fishermen from the Hull and Grimsby deep sea fishing fleets. Each ship had a crew of ten; a mate, a chief engineer, cook, signalman, four deckhands and two stokers. The name Formidable had been reserved for the new aircraft carrier under construction and the name of the drifter was changed to Fidget, much to the annoyance of the skipper.

With the situation at Dunkirk deteriorating rapidly, Cubison was instructed to stand by to assist in the evacuation. Armitage, the second-in-command, was under orders to return to Vernon but he contrived to remain with the flotilla, particularly as it seemed unlikely that the little ships would be able to make more than one visit to the beaches. They had been given the job of acting as ferries between Dunkirk harbour and the larger ships lying in the approaches. At 1630 on the afternoon of 28 May the flotilla, led by the Lord Cavan, sailed from Ramsgate and proceeded at full speed towards Dunkirk where it arrived at 2200. As they approached the flames of burning buildings and ammunition dumps illuminated the night sky. Inside the harbour all was quiet, although wreckage littered the entrance.

As soon as each drifter had embarked one hundred and fifty men from the East Mole, they tried to transfer the troops onto larger ships in the roadstead. In the dark and confusion it only proved possible to transfer a few loads. Cubison decided that it would be best to take the soldiers direct to Ramsgate. The drifters left Dunkirk at 0230 and arrived at Ramsgate without further incident. There the ships were cleaned and refuelled and, with the exception of Lord Cavan which had remained at Dunkirk, the four drifters were ready to sail again at 0500, accompanied by the 80 foot echo-sounding yacht Bystander. They were back at Dunkirk by 1030, by which time many more fires were blazing and the air was thick with smoke from burning oil.

Armitage, in charge of the four drifters and the yacht, was surprised to find no sign of other shipping and, with the sound of small arms fire from the harbour, concluded that the Germans must be in possession of the port. Alongside the East Mole was a troopship which Armstrong approached in the Fidget to get news of the situation. The troopship's electric bells were ringing, there was no sign of life and she was sinking. In the absence of other ships, Armitage decided to lead his little force into the harbour. Securing alongside the jetty, he stepped ashore to find the mole littered with equipment and suitcases but the whole place was deserted, except for the armed boarding vessel King Orry whose crew informed him that there had been a severe bombing attack; the destroyer Grenade had been hit, she was burning fiercely and the sound of small arms fire was caused by her ammunition exploding.

The Captain of King Orry, which had been badly damaged, was anxious to escape but no sooner had she cleared the harbour in the strong running tide than she rolled over and sank. Bystander picked up thirty-two of her crew and with fifty soldiers already embarked, made her way back to Ramsgate. By now the drifters were waiting at the inner end of the mole anxious to embark as many soldiers as possible before the ebbing tide grounded them. There was no sign of life, so Armitage decided to land and find the Army. Before long he found an officer and asked for a thousand men as quickly as possible, but they only drifted down the mole in small parties. The whole business seemed interminably slow. Armitage remarked: “At a time like this knowledge of the Taoist philosophy of indifference is an advantage, nothing more can be done so you are free to sit on the sandbag and stare at the scenery.â€

After what seemed a lifetime, the loading was completed. Surprisingly, there were no accidents, although it had been necessary for soldiers with full kit to climb down ladders from the top of the mole to the wheelhouse of each drifter. The soldiers, weakened by lack of sleep, could hardly make the descent but the sailors rallied round and the tired men were half rolled and half lifted from the wheelhouse roof to the deck. From time to time bombing caused delays, but the drifters suffered no damage and by 0230 on Thursday 30 May the last ships were away, each carrying 180 soldiers. If it had not been for the unintentional but sustained efforts of a friendly destroyer to sink Fidget, the return journey to Ramsgate would have been without incident. When scarcely a mile out of Dunkirk in the narrow western channel, a fast moving destroyer was sighted dead ahead at no great distance. Since Fidget fully loaded could not make more than six knots little could be done to get out of the way. Armitage ordered a turn to starboard in accordance with the rule of the road, sounded his siren and flashed a light but it was to no avail; the destroyer ploughed down upon her. At the last moment, fearing that Fidget was going to be cut in half, Armitage rang down full speed astern. The destroyer struck a glancing blow with the side of her bow, causing the drifter to bounce down her side. The soldiers remained remarkably calm, except for two who jumped overboard and were later recovered by the destroyer. To Armitage's surprise Fidget suffered little damage but it might have been much worse.

The drifters reached Ramsgate at 0900, where they disembarked their passengers. There was now no time to consider a plan of campaign; each ship began to act independently and by 1800 they had sailed again for Dunkirk where they arrived at 2330. On that last evening of the evacuation Armitage found that the harbour was full of large ships and as it seemed that the drifters might cause confusion, he ordered them to proceed to the beaches. In the darkness and without lights, taking soundings until they were as close inshore as possible, they steamed slowly east as far as La Panne. There was still no sign of life till they were halfway on their return leg when they heard shouting coming from the shore. Fidget anchored and lowered her boat, but having been badly maintained, it filled and sank, but they found and secured an empty skiff. Armitage and one member of the crew rowed ashore where they found a solitary soldier who said there were about forty others nearby. Only seven at a time could be embarked in the skiff and it was a difficult task to relaunch it each time. It was made harder by occasional shells which dropped too close for comfort. The long row back with a strong cross tide running proved too hazardous and Armitage decided to abandon the skiff and to find some more practical way of embarking the waiting soldiers. Fidget was, however, not the only ship of the evacuation force which was in trouble. Armitage soon came upon the Eastbourne beach excursion boat Enchantress which, having no charts on board, had found its way from Dover by following a tug. Her captain kept close to Fidget but Armitage lost sight of her and she was later sunk.

On finding no more soldiers for evacuation during the night, Armitage concluded that the operation was over, but with daylight he met a large motor barge which he asked to stand by and help him load Fidget with troops from the beaches. By 0600, large numbers of men were sighted standing patiently in the water. The German shelling was comparatively ineffective in the area but enemy aircraft made occasional bombing runs. Most of the noise was caused by the pom-pom fire from the destroyers. Armitage kept Fidget in just sufficient depth of water in the ebb tide, sending the barge in on the end of a grass line attached to Fidget's winch. As soon as the barge was full it was hauled off, secured and the men disembarked. The instructions from the Naval Officer In Charge (NOIC) at Ramsgate had been that the drifters should limit their loads to about one hundred men, but by this time Armitage knew that they could carry twice as many and on this occasion he took on the whole barge load which was a little over three hundred. This was undoubtedly the limit and reluctantly he had to send back a number of men who had swum out whilst loading was taking place. Armitage remarked that: “They were amazingly philosophical about it and went back with cheerful comments on the wetness of the water.â€

Fidget made her way slowly back to Ramsgate, arriving there at 1400 on the afternoon of Friday the 31st. Armitage took pity upon a Colonel of the Highland Light Infantry whom he had found sitting drying out his trousers. He took him to the wheelhouse and gave him a tot of whisky. A year later Armitage ran into him again, by which time he was a Brigadier. He told Armitage that the wife of a brother officer who had been on board had had a daughter shortly after returning and had insisted on her being christened Fidget. It was as well that the drifter's name had been changed from Formidable!

Fisher Boy, Jacketa and Fidget were ready again for another trip to the beaches, and at nine o'clock next morning they were away again. Silver Dawn had dropped out with a smashed propeller, having lost a blade on some wreckage in Dunkirk harbour, but the skipper had managed to get her back with over three hundred men on board. In addition to the three drifters, Armitage had collected three large motor boats commanded by Royal Naval Reserve officers. By now the drifters had perfected their method of embarkation using grass lines; and the new officers, who had not been to the beaches before in their boats, were instructed in their use. Things turned out differently. Ten miles short of Dunkirk, the drifters came upon a large troopship, Scotia, lying on her side and burning after five direct bomb hits. A destroyer which had gone alongside signalled the drifters to close in, but as they approached the wreck the German aircraft returned to machine gun the troops in the water, most of whom were French. The drifters set about picking them up, the ships' companies jumping onto the upturned boats and wreck­age to pass lines around those of the wounded who were unable to help themselves. When the last survivor had been recovered the drifters returned to Ramsgate in company with the homeward bound evacuation force. The journey was punctuated by attacks by enemy bombers, but their bombs fell harmlessly into the sea.

The heroic action of the Vernon drifters was now at an end. The official figure of troops brought off by the four vessels was four thousand and eighty-five. The record for a single trip was held by Silver Dawn with three hundred and twelve. Lord Cavan, which had stayed in Dunkirk was sunk by shell fire, but Cubison and his crew returned safely. The crews had acquitted themselves tirelessly and gallantly under trying conditions, even though towards the end they had found difficulty in keeping awake. There had been no time for relaxation as, despite the calm weather, there had been a great deal of sickness amongst the soldiers so that when in harbour the time had been spent in cleaning ship, refuelling and carrying out repairs. Throughout the whole operation the crews remained keen for another trip, none more so than the cooks who succeeded in producing tea and food for the majority of the soldiers. This meant victualling over one hundred men from a galley equipped for twelve. Vernon could be rightly proud of its drifters and their crews. Cubison, Armitage and the skippers had shown that their skills were not confined to the business of mine recovery, and the seamen had shown a great deal of ingenuity in adapting the meagre resources available to the task of evacuating soldiers from the harbour and the beaches at Dunkirk.

The fall of Dunkirk was followed by an attempt to evacuate the 51st (Highland) Division from St Valery. Craft from Vernon were involved in this operation on 11 and 12 June 1940 but fog intervened and, before the ships could make the harbour, the Germans had reached the cliffs to the south and the beach was under direct fire. Now all that was left was for Vernon demolition parties to visit the remaining continental ports to destroy stores and dock installations. A party under Commander C D Howard-Johnston, a future Captain of Vernon, embarked in the sloop Wild Swan for St. Malo with eight tons of explosive. After completing their demolition tasks they escaped via the Channel Islands just ahead of the advancing Germans.


War Hero
Having recently narrowly survived a trip to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in an MFV, I respectfully invite you to stick your intended excursion across the channel, "Somewhere dark". 8O :D
If however you find that you could stretch to the QE2 type of vessel, I'm your man. (room service expected) :wink:
Rumrat said:
Having recently narrowly survived a trip to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in an MFV, I respectfully invite you to stick your intended excursion across the channel, "Somewhere dark". 8O :D
If however you find that you could stretch to the QE2 type of vessel, I'm your man. (room service expected) :wink:

Ouch! Some people have no sense of adventure. Don't you remember 'Lootenant Dan' up the mast in 'Forrest Gump'? :)

Anyway, it looks as though we'll both miss out on the current show. It's big ships only (

P.S. The 70th anniversary of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and thousands of French soldiers from Dunkirk (Operation DYNAMO) occurs between 26 May and 4 June this year.


War Hero
My grandfathers were both lucky to be successfully evactuated from Dunkirk to go on and fight another day. Our family have always been thankful!

Must be time to watch John Mills in the film Dunkirk now :D
The real Dunkirk was organised by one of the greay unsung heros of the RN Admiral Ramsay, who also was the Naval Commander for Overlord, so he took them of then put them back with interest.

Regretably he died in a plane crash before the war ended

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