Massey Shaw outside Parliament on the River Thames during the Lord Mayors Show 2016. www.masseyshaw.org
London Fire Cadets on board at Ramsgate for Dunkrik Anniversary 2015
When the London Fireboat Massey Shaw first left her river mooring for Dunkirk, she had only been to sea once before, on her delivery trip to the Thames in 1935 from John Samuel White's boatyard on the Isle of Wight. She was not intended to be a sea-going vessel but, until the time of Dunkirk, had been moored at Blackfriars Bridge in London. Her two, massive 8-cylinder 160 hp Gleniffer diesels had more than enough power to propel her through the water at 12 knots, but were principally intended to operate her 3,000 gallon-per-minute centrifugal pumps to put out fires along London's river. She was named after Sir Eyre Massey Shaw (1861-1891) who, at the age of thirty, founded the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
On 29th and 30th May 1940, from her mooring at Blackfriars, the Massey Shaw's crew had seen tugs coming down the river towing strings of small boats, yachts, lifeboats and even dinghies. Then they heard that the destination was Dunkirk, and Massey Shaw was to follow them. A volunteer crew of 13 was chosen. This was more than her normal complement because they expected to spend several days fighting fires off the French coast, without relief. A pilot took them to Greenwich and another to Ramsgate. Her sparkling brasswork and fittings were covered with grey paint on the way. A young Sub-Lieut. RN came aboard to take command, carrying nothing more than a steel helmet and a chart to show him how to navigate through the minefields across the channel from North Goodwin Light-ship to Bray Dunes, the beach where they were to pick up Allied troops.
The Massey Shaw did not even possess a compass, but they had bought one hastily from a chandler's in Blackfriars. There was no time to swing and correct it, which made it rather unreliable since the large steel hull of the fireboat caused a massive deviation. As a result, despite the excellent landmark of smoke from Dunkirk's burning oil tanks, they were well outside the swept channel when they got to the French coast. But their shallow draft enabled them to cross the hazardous sandbanks without grounding.
The fires ashore were what the Massey Shaw's crew were used to, but the bursts of shells, bombs and anti--aircraft fire were a new experience. As they steamed parallel to the beach, they saw columns of men wading out in the shallows, waiting to be picked up by a host of small boats. Late that afternoon, they anchored off Bray Dunes.
They used a light skiff, picked up at Ramsgate Harbour, to go ashore and collect the first of the men. Most of the soldiers were non-swimmers and at first, too many of them tried to get aboard so that they swamped and sank the skiff. There were many other small boats operating from the beach, but each of them already had its own ship to fill. After many attempts to find a suitable way of ferrying soldiers to the Massey Shaw, a line was made fast to a derelict lorry and a small boat was used to ferry altogether 40 of a company of Royal Engineers aboard the fire float. The young Naval officer who had spent most of the day in the water between the fire float and the beach, then safely navigated her back to Ramsgate where they arrived next morning. They escaped major damage, despite an attack by a German bomber which had spotted the Massey Shaw's phosphorescent wake, but whose bombs missed by a boat length.
The crew of the Massey Shaw re-fuelled hastily, got some food and left for another trip. Some of the exhausted firemen were replaced by Naval ratings and they brought a Lewis gun on board as a defence against air attack, but this was never used. Another RNVR Lieutenant came aboard to command the ship and they brought two stokers to take care of the engines and a beach party commanded by a second young naval officer to handle the embarkation on the other side. They also took a 30ft. ship's lifeboat in tow as a tender. At 2300 they arrived and anchored off Bray Dunes in l0ft. of water with their head towards the shore. The fires of Dunkirk gave them enough light to work by and the thick blanket of smoke provided some cover from air attack. But the shelling from German guns was relentless. The two Naval officers set a splendid example of calm and the beach party rowed ashore, fixing a line to maintain contact with the fire-float. After four or five journeys, the Massey Shaw was full once more with troops pressed together in the cabin and standing shoulder-to-shoulder on deck. Her load of nearly l00 men was transferred to a troopship at anchor in the channel and she returned to be re-loaded.
After some engine trouble that the naval stokers who were unused to the Massey Shaw's machinery, eventually managed to overcome, stretcher cases began to arrive and these were hard to handle and transfer to the troopship. They made about five journeys from the beach to a paddle steamer and it was estimated that they embarked 500 men in this way. As dawn broke, the troopship was full and left for England. Massey Shaw returned to the beach and started loading again. At this point, on a falling tide, they began to bump on the sands and were in danger of damaging their propellers but, with their engines throbbing at full power, they just managed to get back into deep water. At 0330 they were the last boat to leave that part of the beach. Halfway across the channel, the Naval skipper began to have doubts about the compass, but then, to his relief, came across a drifter towing two small boats packed with troops. They followed them into Ramsgate where they arrived at 0800 on Sunday 2nd June, landing 30 or 40 more soldiers.
The Massey Shaw returned to Dunkirk again the next evening with a Fire Service crew. This time they went to the jetty of Dunkirk harbour. It was difficult for soldiers to board her from the towering jetty and she came away empty. After returning to Ramsgate, she was ordered back to London. Off Margate, the Emile Deschamps, a French ship which had sailed to England from Dunkirk laden with troops the previous night, was passing her at a distance of 200 yards when it struck a mine and sank almost immediately. The Massey Shaw picked up 40 men, all severely injured and took them back to Ramsgate. Early on Wednesday 5th, she finally returned to London and as she came up the river she was cheered as she passed each fire station. Finally the wives and mothers of all on board were fetched from their homes and gave the crew a splendid reception. Sub-Officer A.J. May was awarded the Navy's Distinguished Service Medal, a rare honour for a civilian. Two of her firemen, Henry Ray and Edmond Wright, were Mentioned in Despatches.
On resuming her normal duties, Massey Shaw was the first fire appliance to be fitted with radio communication. She played a major role durling the Blitz, pumping water ashore for the land appliances hampered by huge demands on the water supply, or when bombing had destroyed the water mains. In 1947 her original open canvas dodger and screen were replaced with a purpose-built enclosed timber wheelhouse. Another claim to fame came in this year when a secret meeting in the Thames Estuary between Herbert Morrison (Member of Parliament and Chairman of the London County Council) and Aneurin Bevin, MP eventually resulted in the formation of the National Health Service.
Massey Shaw was retired from service in 1971. Her last major ?shouts? were to a huge fire at Tate and Lyle?s factory at Silvertown, close to the site of the present London City Airport, and to the steamship Jumna, ablaze in the Royal Albert Dock.
On retirement Massey Shaw was moored up to a pier at Woolwich and abandoned. Later she was towed to St Katherines Dock by Tower Bridge to be used as a walkway during the rebuilding works. As owners of the vessel the Greater London Council proposed that she ?should be put on a stick? in the middle of an ornamental lake at their showpiece new housing at Thamesmead in South London.
In 1980 Philip Wray, an ex London Fire Brigade member, was so appalled by her condition that he formed a Charitable Preservation Society. He negotiated a lease of the vessel from the GLC and successfully set about restoring her for long term working preservation. 65 years after her launch her two massive 8-cylinder Gleniffer Diesel engines and pumping equipment by Merryweather of Greenwich are all in working order. Massey Shaw is often seen on both the upper and lower reaches of the River Thames. She was present at the opening of the Thames Flood Barrier. More recently she had the honour to escort H.M. The Queen in a Thames River pageant to celebrate V-J Day and to escort HMY Britannia on her last visit to the Pool of London.
The last surviving member of the crew of Dunkirk volunteers, R.W.J. ?Dick? Helyer B.E.M. is the President of the Massey Shaw and Marine Vessels Preservation Society Ltd., a registered charity that is entirely dependent upon the support of it?s members, sponsors and public donations in ensuring the long-term preservation of the unique and historic vessel.
Length - 78ft, beam - 13ft 6ins, draft - 3ft 9ins, air draft - 15ft, gross tonnage - 50.54 tons. Engines - 2x Gleniffer 8-cyl 165hp Diesels, max. speed - 12kts. Pumps - twin Merryweather 4-stage 8inch, centrifugals - 1500 gallons per minute each. Monitor - 1x 3inch, delivery?s - 8 Surelock couplings, Salvage heads - 2 twin 5inch. Foam - 40x 5 gallon pails, 1x Pyrene mechanical foam generator and knapsack tank. Auxiliary power - Russel Newbury D2 2-cyl Diesel driving 110v generator / 12v dynamo / 2-cyl air compressor for radial main engine air starters. Bunkers - 500 gallons diesel fuel.
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