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Author Topic: Dunkirk  (Read 1230 times)
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« on: September 15, 2015, 08:36:01 PM »

The original 10th May, 1940, request for all owners of small craft from 30ft - 100ft throughout the UK to register their craft within 14 days for possible Charter to the nascent Naval Patrol Service [ as had been done in 1914] was generated by R/Admiral Sir Lionel; Preston, Director Small Vessels Pool [DSVP], through the Ministry of Shipping. His staff had identified a shortfall in small craft for naval auxiliary-, coastal-, & harbour patrol duties."Ships taken Up From Trade" from those registrations would have been subjected to a Seaworthiness Inspection, & formally Chartered from their owners "for the Duration"at agreed rates, or purchased for Government Service at an agreed valuation.
The Ministry of Shipping request went out in the "Motor Boat" magazine & by the BBC on May 14th - & would certainly have included all suitable small craft in the Harwich Area.
At that date, there was no thought by anyone in Government that the Front would collapse, requiring the BEF evacuation.
The collapse of the Belgian and Ardennes Fronts, happened very quickly thereafter, & by May 20th Lord Gort was already evacuating "useless mouths" [i.e. non-combatant personnel] in expectation of having to withdraw to the coast & hold a perimeter including Ports through which the BEF could be supplied. The expectation in London was that reinforcements could then be funnelled into that perimeter & a breakout could be made in conjunction with a French attack from the East, which would split the German armoured spearheads before their infantry could catch-up with their armour, & dig in.
However, by May 20th, certain Flag Officers in the Admiralty were already looking at the possibility that the BEF might need total evacuation. The Ministry of Shipping [MoS] Small Craft Section headed by Mr Riggs was called to a meeting at the Admiralty, where the possibility of such an evacuation was discussed, & the continuing Registration of suitable small craft was given a higher priority "in case of need for other duties" [i.e. not for the planned expansion of the Naval Patrol. Publicly, mention of evacuation the BEF was kept secret for morale reasons] I would stress that even around May 20th, 21st, the RN's expectation was that the Army would hold proper Port facilities capable of taking the larger personnel ships; & that the RAF would be able to give air cover to protect those Naval assets, including Hospital Ships. The way things fell out – that the only port available would be Dunkirk, & that troop rescue would also have to be from the beaches -was one of Admiral Ramsay's worst-case scenarios.
On May 26th, the Admiralty sent out a Signal that Operation Dynamo should commence. Dover & Ramsgate were identified as the Ports where rescued Troops were to be landed. Personnel ships were sent to Dunkirk.
At 2028hrs, 26th May, the Admiralty sent out the 1st signal mentioning small craft to all the S. & E. Coast Naval bases “investigate & report how many cutters & whalers can be made available for immediate service under V/Admiral Dover”.
The Harwich area RN facilities would have responded to that Signal, & sent off their small craft as requested.
By the early hours of May 27th, DSVP, - realizing the RN would not have enough small motor boats in Nore & Dover Command, had contacted Mr Riggs, MoS, with an emergency order to requisition suitable vessels from the registered civilian small craft intended for Charter by the Naval Patrol Service.
I'm certain that STUFT Operation must have included civilian craft from the Rivers Stour, Orwell & Deben. There was the RHSHolbrook, the Fleet Air Arm Base at Sholtey, HMNB Harwich, & HMNS Felixstowe that I recall – & I've almost certainly missed some.
So, Boats from Harwich would have been sent to Ramsgate where Captain Wharton, NOiC Ramsgate would have had them fuelled, provisioned, manned, & sent to Dunkirk.

In short, suitable RN vessels and small craft would have been sent from Harwich Command to Ramsgate and Dover as V/Admiral Ramsay demanded them; and civilian small craft collected from the area at HMNB Harwich for towing down to Ramsgate. But AFAIK, no rescued soldiers were landed at Harwich; Ramsgate & Dover were the closest British Ports, to enable the larger ships to do quick unload, refuel, re-provision, and return to Dunkirk. Harwich was too far away to be directly helpful.. All three routes through the minefields to and from Dunkirk started at the N. Goodwin Buoy, 6 miles off Ramsgate.

 It was a very complex and fast-developing situation in which the sequence of events is often misunderstood. from Harwich to Dunkirk direct would have taken 6hrs at 14knots, but was prevented by the minefields. Very few people understand that the Admiralty envisaged any evacuation as involving Port facilities being held by the Allies inside a perimeter, where large personnel ships and supply ships could come alongside, protected overhead by continuous RAF CAP, and by land having the perimeter defences sufficiently far from the ports as to prevent artillery bombardment by the Enemy. Alongside a Port Quay, they would then conduct an orderly embarkation using gangways, just as in peacetime! The collapse of the Belgian Army to the North of the BEF, and the failure of the French Army to the south to prevent a German breakthrough, thus isolating Calais, left Lord Gort with only one Port to which to withdraw, Dunkerque. The RN and the Army had not conducted an evacuation from open beaches since Gallipoli in the Gt. War - and even that hardly counts, because at Gallipoli there were already piers and pontoons in place from the Landings and post-Landings supply build-up, for small craft to come alongside and for the departing troops to use. To find a similar situation for British forces plucked from open beaches, we have to go further back - to Corunna during the Napoleonic Wars in Spain, where Sir John Moore's army was evacuated by small boats from open beaches - of course, without any threat of air attack or long range artillery to complicate the situation for the RN's relieving ships. I'm a sailor, with a lot of experience of working small craft off open beaches - and so I understand completely the difficulties of embarking desperate men into small boats from a beach where there are no piers or floating pontoons in place to assist embarkation. Think about a single small craft - an RN Destroyer's 28ft motor boat for example, which draws about 2ft of water, and can pack in about 24 personnel apart from the coxswain, bowman, and motorman. Waves are breaking on the beach. Whether the Coxswain comes-in bows first or stern first, he must keep his boat afloat in order to leave, but his boat is being lifted and dropped by the waves of a 3ft surf, and he needs 2 ft of water in which to float, in the troughs of the waves. Add to that the freeboard of his boat - around 2ft. For any soldier to get aboard, that man will have to wade out shoulder deep and be pulled over the gunwales by the motorman and bowman while the coxswain keeps the boat afloat by juggling his engine, stopping her broaching-to, and being driven ashore broadside-on! Of course, the first troops aboard can help to pull others aboard, - so long as they understand they must balance the boat as they do this - otherwise she'll capsize! Repeat that situation for more than 90,000 exhausted and panicking soldiers amongst whom the command structure has broken down during the retreat. And you'll have some idea of the situation the Navy faced as ships were sunk in Dunkirk's Port basins, driving the embarkation to also use the beaches; - and the Dunkirk Harbour Moles - which were never designed for such a purpose! The rise and fall of the tide during the Dynamo period was mid-range - about 14ft. So you bring your Destroyer alongside the Mole at low tide - the soldiers are there alright on the narrow walkway - 14ft above your decks; – no one told you to draw clambering nets; - and there are no ladders!! How do they get aboard? I know from experience, talking to people about the marine aspect of the Dynamo evacuation, - that these are details they never think -of, unless they are mariners themselves.

"see you out there"
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