In May 1940 the British and Allied Forces were desperately fighting to stop the German advance through Europe. But by mid May Hitler's Armies had swept West from Germany through Holland, Belgium and France forcing the British & French to retreat. Ten days later and the German spearhead had reached the sea cutting off the Allied Forces in the North from the main Army in France and cornering them into a small area around Dunkirk.
On the 14th day of May, 1940, the BBC made the following announcement: "The Admiralty have made an Order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30' and 100' in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned".
Although this may have sounded something like a request, it was, in fact, an Order. These ships were required for harbour services and national defense and thus the idea of using private yachts as naval auxiliaries was quite well established by the time the emergency of Dunkirk broke upon the Nation.
On the 26th May 1940, a secret cipher telegram was sent by the War Office to the Admiralty stating that the emergency evacuation of troops from the French coast was required immediately. A contingency plan, long prepared under the code name 'Operation Dynamo' - the name being derived from the control centre at Dover, which was an existing generating station overlooking the harbour - was to be executed. In overall command was the Vice-Admiral Commanding Dover - Bertram Ramsay. On the following day, May 27th, the Small Craft section of the Ministry of Shipping was telephoning various boat builders and agents around the coast requesting them to collect all small craft suitable for work in taking troops off the beaches where the larger ships could not penetrate. What was needed were boats with shallow draught and this directed attention in particular to the pleasure boats, private yachts and launches on the Thames and also in muddy estuaries and creeks in deserted moorings along the South and East coasts which would be suitable for such an Operation.
In many cases the owners could not be contacted and boats were taken without their knowledge - such was the speed and urgency of the Operation. Mr. Douglas Tough of Tough Brothers, Teddington, who, with Ron Lenthall, collected many of the boats on the upper reaches of the Thames, reported that the owner of one of the boats which was being commandeered could not be contacted but, hearing that his boat was being taken away, informed the Police that it was being stolen and pursued it to Teddington Lock. More than l00 craft from the Upper Thames were assembled at the Ferry Road Yard of Tough Bros.
Here everything unnecessary was taken off and stored. Bob Tough, son of Douglas & a past Commodore of the Association, has lists of china, cutlery, pots and pans etc. all taken off and stored and returned to the owners in due course. The boats were then checked over and towed by Toughs and other tugs down river to Sheerness. Here they were fuelled and taken to Ramsgate where Naval Officers, Ratings and experienced volunteers were put aboard and directed to Dunkirk.
The Mrs. Miniver story of owners jumping into their Little Ships and rushing off to Dunkirk is a myth. Very few owners took their own vessels, apart from fishermen and one or two others. The whole Operation was very carefully co-ordinated and records exist of most of the Little Ships and other larger vessels that went to Dunkirk.
As a result of the Operation of the Little Ships and the considerable fleet of Naval and Merchant Marine vessels which operated off the Dunkirk beaches and the harbour between the 28th May and the 4th June 1940, no less than 338,000 British and French troops were evacuated. Approximately one third of these were taken off the beaches and, within this number, approximately 100,000 Frenchmen returned from England to fight again.
In Spring 1964 Raymond Baxter purchased one of the Little Ships and that Summer was flying to France by British Air Ferries for a family holiday. The plane flew over Dunkirk and he pointed the Beaches out to his son, Graham, who was then 13 years old. Graham asked his father if he realised that the next year (1965) it would be 25 years since 'L'ORAGE' had been "doing her thing down there so why don't we take her back?"
To cut a long story short Raymond approached the Sunday Times (whose then Editor, Dennis Hamilton, was rescued from the Beaches). A letter from Raymond was published in the Sunday Times in October 1964 saying that he planned to take his Little Ship back the following June, and if any other owners wished to join him would they please write to the newspaper. The Sunday Times had agreed to help with the organisation if they got 12 replies. 43 boats made the crossing from Ramsgate with Royal Naval assistance and support from the RNLI. The BBC provided Radio and Television coverage.
At a cocktail party given by the Sunday Times in December 1965 to show off their Press coverage, both Commander Charles Lamb and John Knight (who had participated in the Return) separately suggested to Raymond Baxter (who already had similar thoughts) that an Association should be formed.
In 1966 Charles Lamb gathered together a flotilla of Little Ships to take part in the Evening News River Pageant. Following this, invitations were sent to the owners of all known Little Ships which had participated in Operation Dynamo to attend the Foundation Meeting at the Little Ship Club on 28th November 1966. The first Annual General Meeting was held on 13th December 1967.
Qualification for full membership is to be the current owner of a proven Dunkirk Little Ship. The object of the Association is equally simple: to keep afloat for as long as possible as many as possible of the original Little Ships; to secure for them the honour to which they are entitled; and thereby to preserve "The Spirit of Dunkirk".
The term Little Ship applies to all craft that were originally privately owned and includes commercial vessels such as barges, British, French, Belgian and Dutch fishing vessels and pleasure steamers. The Association does include some ex-Service vessels, which are now privately owned, and ex-Lifeboats.
The smallest known ship to have participated in "Operation Dynamo" is the 15' open fishing boat TAMZINE, which is now in the Imperial War Museum. The smallest vessels which make our Returns to Dunkirk are 26' . The largest over l00'.
It was then decided that we should have a House Flag. Permission was given by the Admiralty, the College of Heralds and the City of Dunkirk for the Cross of St.George (the flag of Admiralty) to be defaced with the Arms of Dunkirk for use as the Association's House Flag. This can be worn by Member Ships at any time when the owner is aboard. In addition, when in company, we fly the undefaced Cross of St.George at the bow. Again this is by Admiralty Warrant. To avoid any possible confusion with barges wearing an Admiral's flag, the Dunkirk Little Ships must wear the Red Ensign when flying the undefaced Flag of St. George at the bows.
More than 150 of these Little Ships have now been traced and are members of the Association. John Knight, who was the Association's Archivist until his death in March 1995, assembled extensive computerised records of all vessels which took part in 'Operation Dynamo' and these contain approximately 1,200 names. Of these, approximately 700 are Little Ships. It is thought that between 400 and 500 could still be in existence. Member ships are spread thoughout the world - on Lake Ontario, in Chile, France, Holland, Malta, Cyprus and other parts of the Mediterranean. The Association has, in addition to Owner members, members of their crews as Associates. These include some people who took part in the original Evacuation.
The 1965 "Return to Dunkirk" was repeated in 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015. Bad weather caused last-minute cancellation in 1970.
In addition the Association has met afloat every year for its "Annual Commemorative Cruise and Wreath Laying Ceremony" at various locations. It meets ashore at least three times a year for the Annual General Meeting and Fitting Out and Laying Up Suppers. The Association also participates in many other events, such as local Regattas, the Queen's Jubilee Celebrations, D-Day Commemorations at Portsmouth; VJ Day 50th Anniversary River Procession on the Thames; Festivals of the Sea at Bristol and Portsmouth; Admiral of the Medway annual Cruises, and Traditional Boat Rallies here and in France and Holland.
In May 1995, to mark the 55th Anniversary of Operation Dynamo, 45 of the original Little Ships sailed in close company from Dover to Dunkirk, with Royal Navy and RNLI escort, and returned to Ramsgate.
On the 2nd June 2000, to mark the 60th Anniverary, 57 Little Ships sailed from Dover to Dunkirk and returned to Ramsgate on Monday 5th June - five other Little Ships joined on the way to, or in, Dunkirk. The Little ships were escorted by HMS Somerset, a Duke Class Frigate and HMS Puncher & HMS Dasher. MVS Appleby and a reserve lifeboat from the RNLI at Poole in Dorset.
Little Ships also made the trip to Dunkirk from Ramsgate on 26th May 2005. Escorted by HMS Severn.
In late May 2010 more than 45 Little Ships made the crossing to Dunkirk escorted by HMS MONMOUTH.