Dunkirk- The Rescue Fleet and Numbers Rescued.



The 'romantic' image of Dunkirk surrounds the armada of 'Little Ships' and the lifting of troops from the beaches. The reality was that the key to the evacuation was the Eastern Mole (pier) at Dunkirk harbour, the destroyers of the Royal Navy and the large troop transport ships and ferries. It is estimated that two-thirds of those rescued were evacuated by these means. Six Royal Navy destroyers were sunk in these operations and a number of the transports and ferries were also lost. Not only did the vessels have to run the gauntlet of round-the-clock air attacks during daylight hours, but inshore, they were also within the range of German artillery. Offshore, the ever-present threat of German mines and U-Boats and E-Boats of the German Kriegsmarine also made attacks on Allied shipping and sunk two British destroyers.


However, we should not underplay the role of the civilian craft involved. Time did not allow the evacuation of all of the troops via the Eastern Mole and hence, evacuation from the beaches was a necessity. With the beaches at Dunkirk shelving so gently, it was vital that small craft were available to rescue men either directly, or to ferry them to larger vessels waiting offshore. This heroic collection of small vessels, not built for war, was sourced from the rivers and coastal waters of south-east England. Among their ranks were river launches, old sailing and rowing RNLI lifeboats, yachts, pleasure steamers, fishing boats, commercial sailing barges and Thames fire boats. Many of these craft had never even been to sea before.


Some of the 'Little Ships' were formally chartered and some, where owners could not be contacted, were simply commandeered by naval crews. A number were sailed by serving Royal Navy personnel, but many others had civilian crew members or were entirely civilian crewed. Other boats with their civilian crews simply responded to the growing crisis and their contribution was never officially recorded. While tugs towed some across, many made the journey under their own steam with little protection from the marauding Luftwaffe. Unlit and unable to comprehend or respond to naval signals, they were arguably just as vulnerable to becoming victims of 'friendly fire' in the dangerous waters off the French and Belgian coastlines. Of the 700-odd officially recorded 'Little Ships', over 100 never made it home and were part of the 220 vessels lost during the evacuation. However, notwithstanding these losses, their contribution to the rescue of 338, 000 Allied servicemen from Dunkirk had been invaluable and their achievements have gone into national folklore.


Another popular misconception was that the troops evacuated from Dunkirk were all transported to the port of Dover. While Dover was the major centre for Royal Navy and transport ships, other coastal ports and harbours in Kent were also extensively used. Folkestone was used to berth many of the returning passenger ferries. Ramsgate was the main hub for the 'Little Ships' and estimates are that almost 43,000 troops were landed there. Margate, with its harbour and pier, received many of the passenger ships and paddle steamers and estimates are that around 38,000 servicemen were moved by special trains from Margate station. Deal and Sheerness also received much smaller numbers of troops and finally, Newhaven in East Sussex continued to be used as a base for a number of hospital ships.


As far as French ships participating in Operation Dynamo were concerned, many were ordered not to England but to disembark troops further down the French coast at ports such as Le Havre and Cherbourg. Many of the French troops evacuated were rapidly transported to ports in the south-west of England. From there they were shipped to the western coast of France to carry on the fight. Given the effort which had gone into rescuing these troops, the fact that the vast bulk would be lost in the following 3-4 weeks was little short of tragic.


In this section we have tried to cover a small but representative sample of the vessels involved in the evacuation. Predominantly, these are vessels from which we have relics or photographs to support their stories.




In terms of the breakdown of the numbers of troops rescued during Operation Dynamo, there are several conflicting records in existence. The following table provides a reasonably reliable guide and is extracted from Admiralty records. The reduction in numbers seen over the final three days of the operation was due to the evacuation of troops in daylight hours being suspended.




 
To read about the part the PS Medway Queen played in the evacuation, click here.

To read about the Auxillary Ketch Cygnet, click here.

To read about HMS Grafton, click here.

To read about HMS Wakeful, click here.

To read about HMS Malcolm, click here.

To read about HMS Sabre, click here.

To read about HMS Keith, click here.

To read about HMS Shikari, click here.

To read about the Hospital Ship Paris, click here.

To read about the French Destroyer Bourrasque, click here.

To read about the French Destroyer L' Adroit, click here.

To read about the French Destroyer Jaguar, click here.

To read about the French Destroyer Mistral, click here.

To read about the French Destroyer Cyclone, click here.

To read about the Troop Transport Scotia, click here.

To read about the Mona Queen, click here.

To read about the PS Crested Eagle, click here.

To read about the part the RNLI Lifeboats played, click here.

To read about the French Destroyer Foudroyant, click here.

To read about the MV Anne, click here.

To read about the SS Maid of Orleans, please click here.

To read about the British ports used in the evacuation, please click here.

To read about HMT Netsukis, please click here.

To read about the  Tamzine, please click here.

To read about the Sundowner, please click here.

To read about the role played by the British railways during the evacuation, please click here.

To read the tragic story of John Edward Atkins, click here.



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