Dunkirk 2015 - Chris Burls

It was back in March that members of the Thames Sailing Barge Trust were invited to bid for places on Pudge, on the Operation Dynamo memorial voyage to Dunkirk and I put my name forward. As a new member, it came as no surprise to be told that the actual Ramsgate to Dunkirk and back to Ramsgate part of the trip was fully allocated to long serving members, but that the Maldon to Ramsgate outward leg was available. I grabbed this opportunity as I had always intended to go to Ramsgate on the Wednesday of Dynamo Week to see the Dunkirk little ships gathered.

It was almost as an afterthought that I approached Endeavour to see if there was room aboard to get over to Dunkirk. Knowing what a great success previous Endeavour trips to Dunkirk had been, I really did not hold out much hope - but to my surprise and delight Paul informed me that there was room and that accommodation was also sorted.

Due to a bad weather forecast Pudge sailed from Maldon a day early on the Saturday evening, arriving in quite a blow on the Sunday evening, so I had a ringside seat to see the Dunkirk little ships arriving. The highlight was to see Medway Queen enter the harbour under tow and watch her being skilfully berthed with the aid of the harbour tug in a rightfully prime position.

It was on the Tuesday evening that the familiar green hull of LO41 appeared in the harbour entrance and was allocated a berth away from the main gathering of little ships, but still in full view of them all.

I stayed aboard Pudge until the Wednesday morning and then hauled my gear partly over to the yacht club and the rest aboard Endeavour. Together with Paul and Jeremy, Colin and Gareth, I made up the six and was ‘twinned’ with Finlay.

Wednesday’s proceedings commenced with an amazing service of thanksgiving in the seaman’s church on the quayside, which was jam packed full of little ship owners and crew plus a large contingent of the Royal Navy. We were told by Gordon Warren, the Chaplain to the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS), of George VI’s invitation to the nation to participate in a day of prayer for the troops in Northern France, which resulted in churches throughout the land overflowing with worshippers. And there came to pass, we were assured, the Three Miracles of Dunkirk; six days of relative calm for the evacuation; poor visibility over the Luftwaffe aerodromes, which hindered their ability to take off and land and one more (which eludes me*!)

The afternoon was spent looking round the fleet and getting aboard Medway Queen for the first time in over half a century !  She has been almost as completely renovated as Endeavour and only now needs boiler and engines !!  Several of us ‘rescued’ one of the 3000 plastic soldiers ( the number she brought home) on display in the forward lounge – the donation made in doing so, going towards renovation funds.

On Thursday morning after a large bowl of porridge the crew were joined by Russell our allocated young RN trainee from HMS Collingwood.

As we sailed out the breakwaters were thronged with well-wishers, and a piper to give us a VIP send-off.  We found our position in the parade and as we got under way we were treated to several fly pasts of the Battle of Britain Spitfire and Hurricane (unfortunately the Lancaster was grounded due to an engine fire).

The passage took us East of the infamous Goodwin Sands across the shipping lanes and along the North, France coast past Gravelines the West Dunkirk port and into the original port of Dunkirk. Paul kept Russell on the tiller for much of the trip to take his mind off the unfamiliar movement of a small fishing vessel!  Although the wind did freshen towards the end of the 7 hour passage the only hairy moment was the DFDS ferry passing at 20 odd knots causing the fleet to round up to take her swells head on.

The entrance into Dunkirk was quite long winded as vessels were carefully positioned in the giant ship lock to minimise any chance of damage. However, when we finally made it into the inner harbour our welcome was once again tumultuous (and I do believe there were one or two French people in the crowds too!)

On Friday we attended a service at the local war cemetery (always a moving experience ) and on Saturday, (when we were joined by Anne & Theo), a second commemorative service by the memorial, adjacent to the evacuation beach (where Anne blagged her way onto the press tower to get grand view photographs !) and then a third at the site where one of several Thames Sailing Barges ended their days.

Finlay Marshall, Gareth, Jeremy, Colin,
Paul and Chris are joined by
Theo van't Hof for the memorial service
Endeavour had been allocated no fewer than four tickets to the grand dinner on the Saturday evening but Paul, once again demonstrating the goodwill felt toward him amongst members of ADLS, managed to procure two more from one of the little ships which could not make it, so all six of us, in best bib and tucker attended. Finlay & I sat apart from the others with the extra tickets and we found ourselves in the company of the only French little ship owner, who had brought his vessel from Paris by canal. When we got to the toasts it was he who proposed the toast to ‘The Queen'.

Paul proudly holds the ADLS ‘Caring’ award

A great source of pride to the five of us crew was when the Commodore, to Paul’s great surprise, presented Endeavour with the ADLS ‘Caring’ award (SODs award Spirit of Dunkirk) for the way in which she had shepherded and encouraged the fleet along the North Kent coast in inclement weather last year.

Sunday was spent visiting local museums sampling and re-sampling the special brew being purveyed by the local micro-brewer from his stall on the promenade, and visiting other vessels more easily accessed than Endeavour which was moored two off the quay. We finished our visit to Dunkirk with a delicious meal in a restaurant in the centre of town obviously well known to ADLS as it was packed with crews celebrating another great visit to the town.

Monday morning dawned with Paul again assessing the weather and advising the Commodore re the return to Ramsgate.  It was more tricky this time and the advice was to delay the departure for a few hours. Endeavour herself was bound for Ostend, but I could not spare another week or more away and had managed to grab a berth on Pudge to get back home, so I bid my shipmates farewell and humped my gear back aboard.

Once again a protracted lock out of the harbour and then as the fleet headed West Endeavour with a strong westerly breeze, shot off like a bat out of hell to the East with only the foresail set! Paul’s advice should have been heeded as, after a couple of hours ploughing into wind and tide the fleet was turned back to Dunkirk to sail again on Tuesday morning.

I leave others to continue the Endeavour saga !

* Editor's Note: The "Miracles of Dunkirk" were: 1) Against his generals' advice, Hitler stopped his armoured columns just a few miles short of the coast, before they could destroy the retreating allied force, which they certainly would have done. His reasoning appears to have been that air power alone was sufficient, which leads us to 2) terrible storms grounded the Luftwaffe allowing the allies, then ten miles from Dunkirk, to make their way up to the beaches under cover of darkness with very little disruption from aircraft, and 3) despite the storms in northern Europe, the Channel was like a mill pond, greatly facilitating the armada that came to the rescue of the stranded troops.

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