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 defence 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 and 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.
Because 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.
It is important to note that there were a further two, lesser known ‘Operations’, Cycle and Aerial that had also been ordered.
Operation Cycle is the name of the evacuation of Allied troops from Le Havre, in the Pays de Caux of Upper Normandy from 10th to 13th June 1940, towards the end of the Battle of France, during the Second World War. The operation was preceded by the better known rescue of 338,226 British and French soldiers from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo (26th May to 4th June). On 20th May, the Germans had captured Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme and cut off the main Allied armies in the north. South of the river, the Allies improvised defences and made local counter-attacks, to dislodge the Germans from bridgeheads on the south bank and re-capture river crossings for an advance northwards to regain contact with the armies in northern France and Flanders.
The 1st Armoured Division arrived in France from 15th May, without artillery and short of units that had been diverted to Calais. The division joined the large number of lines-of-communication troops south of the Somme, many of whom were hurriedly organised into the Beauman Division and other improvised units, despite a lack of training and weapons. French troops were sent into the area, as Général d'armée Maxime Weygand attempted to build up a defence in depth on the south bank of the Somme and make bigger attacks to eliminate the German bridgeheads.
From 27th May to 4th June, about half of the German bridgehead south of Abbeville was recaptured by Franco-British troops; the Allies were reinforced by infantry divisions and the 4e Division cuirassée (4e DCr, Colonel Charles De Gaulle) but lost many of their tanks and the Germans much of their infantry, some units running back over the river Somme.
When Fall Rot (Case Red), the final German offensive, began on 5th June, the IX Corps of the French Tenth Army (including the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division (Major-General Victor Fortune) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) after it arrived from the Saar on 28th May), was pushed back to the Bresle River. On 9th June, German tanks entered Rouen on the Seine, cutting off the IX Corps from the X Corps to the east and from the Seine to the south. The French and British commanders in the pocket decided to make for Le Havre and Fortune detached Arkforce, the equivalent of two brigades, to guard the routes back to the port. During the night of 9th/10th June, the remainder of the Highland Division and the French divisions of IX Corps, prepared to continue the retreat but found that the 7th Panzer Division (Generalmajor Erwin Rommel) had advanced from Rouen through Yvetot to Cany and Veulettes-sur-Mer on the Durdent river.
With an Allied withdrawal to Le Havre cut off, the Highlanders and the French retreated to St Valery-en-Caux, where from 10th/11th June, 2,137 British and 1,184 French soldiers were rescued by the Navy. The remainder, including over 6,000 Highlanders, were taken prisoner on 12th June. At Le Havre, from 10th to 13th June, 11,059 British troops from Arkforce, other British units in the port and Allied forces were evacuated; attempts by the Franco-British to prepare a national redoubt in Brittany came to nothing. Operation Cycle was followed by Operation Ariel from 14th to 25th June, in which another 191,870 soldiers were embarked from Cherbourg, St. Malo and other Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, until the Armistice of 22nd June 1940.
Operation Aerial (also Operation Ariel) was the name given to the Second World War evacuation of Allied forces and civilians, from ports in western France, from 15th to 25th June 1940. The evacuation followed the military collapse in the Battle of France against Nazi Germany, after Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk and Operation Cycle, an embarkation from Le Havre, which finished on 13th June. British and Allied ships were covered from French bases by five Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter squadrons and assisted by aircraft based in England, to lift British, Polish and Czech troops, civilians and equipment from Atlantic ports, particularly from St Nazaire and Nantes.
The Luftwaffe attacked the evacuation ships and on 17th June, evaded RAF fighter patrols and sank the Cunard liner and troopship HMT Lancastria in the Loire estuary. The ship sank quickly and vessels in the area were still under attack during rescue operations, which saved about 2,477 passengers and crew. The liner had thousands of troops, RAF personnel and civilians on board and the number of the passengers who died in the sinking is unknown, because in the haste to embark as many people as possible, keeping count broke down. The loss of at least 3,500 people made the disaster the greatest loss of life in a British ship, which the British government tried to keep secret on the orders of Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister.
Some equipment was embarked on the evacuation ships but lack of reliable information about the progress of the German Army towards the coast, rumours and alarmist reports, led some operations to be terminated early and much equipment was destroyed or left behind. The official evacuation ended on 25th June, in conformity with the terms of the Armistice of 22nd June 1940 agreed by the French and German authorities but informal departures continued from French Mediterranean ports until 14th August.
From the end of Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk, Operation Cycle from Le Havre, elsewhere along the Channel coast and the termination of Operation Aerial, another 191,870 troops were rescued, bringing the total of military and civilian personnel returned to Britain during the Battle of France to 558,032, including 368,491 British troops.
Little Ships from all three Operations are included within the Association and are collectively known as ‘Dunkirk Little Ships’.