Operation Dynamo 2015 – Colin Sains

Tuesday 19th May

It was with some trepidation that I arrived at Old Leigh Boat yard to meet my fellow crew members, Jeremy Squires, Finlay Marshall, Gareth Jones and skipper Paul Gilson and for the very first time step on to Endeavour along with far too much kit.

Paul had set my mind partly at rest by assuring me that my extreme lack of nautical experience would not prevent me joining the boat for the start of the journey to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo.

Paul’s briefing was quite succinct – “There are two of us who will sail the boat and know what we are doing, the remainder are there for the trip and to make the tea. So bring some warm, weather proof clothing.” With that advice I was in.

We sailed with the rising tide and a following westerly breeze with the balloon sail raised and the weather seemingly set fair. But some ominous clouds soon appeared. We made good progress and I soon settled down to a position in the main hold mainly for personal safety and to keep out of the skippers’ line of sight.

We were quickly clear of the familiar Essex coastline and heading towards the Kent side of the river. Endeavour was soon making 8 knots and now the first of a number of squalls hit us and I realised how open a boat Endeavour is and Paul’s advice was absolutely correct. I stayed relatively dry!

The weather continued to rain down on us but all were exhilarated by the speed Endeavour achieved. Not bad for an Old Lady of nearly 90 I thought. The boat was almost planing and I was worried that I might be asked to try water skiing.

At times Paul informed us that we were making almost 11 knots and seemed genuinely excited to be at the helm.

Paul was pointing out the various landmarks both along the Kentish coast and indeed in the water- various marker buoys, fish and wind farms and general points of interest.

We dropped our sails to round the foreland and into the Channel and with waves now breaking over our bows it seemed to me that we were being hosed down. It was some relief that we entered Ramsgate harbour and quieter waters.

We would overnight at the Royal Temple Yacht Club where the hospitality was excellent and a chance to meet up with the crews of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) who were mustering ready for Thursdays’ crossing of the Channel.

Medway Queen entering Ramsgate harbour

This was the fall back day for arriving into Ramsgate with an opportunity to view the ships small and large that had taken part in the events of 75 years previously. Of interest to me was the old paddle steamer Medway Queen built a couple of years before Endeavour and which used to ply the Thames from London, Southend Pier and the Kentish seaside towns in the 50’s and early 60’s.

I have a particular memory of feeling particularly ill whilst returning to Southend Pier from Herne Bay whilst the sea threw the old girl around like a cork. Or was it a reaction to the sweets I had consumed at my uncle and aunt’s sweet shop in Herne Bay High Street? However M.Q. is now (like Endeavour), owned by a Trust, tasked with its preservation and refurbishment. Medway Queen is credited with saving more than 7000 lives at Dunkirk

In the morning there was a well attended service of Thanksgiving in the Sailors’ Church Royal Harbour Ramsgate led by The Bishop of Dover and the ADLS chaplain Rev. Gordon Warren RN.
All the crew of Endeavour attended this event.

After early breakfast of porridge and for those with stomachs of steel – a Full English fry up, we were all on board for a 0800 muster.
We were soon slipping our mooring into the outer harbour to take our place in formation, ready to commence the journey across the English Channel. In addition we now had onboard a naval cadet rating, Russell. This act mirrors the actual Dunkirk flotilla; each vessel had a naval commander on board.
I will never forget the crowds of people some of whom had been gathering on the quayside since first light to gain best position, all cheering each boat as they passed, accompanied by the sound of a Scottish piper - music indeed to Finlay’s ears, if not to the rest of us!
More excitement was to follow as we eventually started to move off Dunkirk bound led by two Royal Naval escort ships along with HRH Prince Michael of Kent and were “strafed” by a Hurricane and a Spitfire for several minutes.

The weather was good and it was really a magnificent sight to behold –one that I will long remember and proud to have had the opportunity of being a part of.

The naval escorts’ ensured that the flotilla of some 49 little ships kept in formation (our position was D3) and safely traversed the busy shipping lanes of the English Channel - although there could not have been a merchant vessel unaware that day of the passage of such a proud fleet of ships.

We arrived in Dunkirk around 1800 having been nearly swamped by a passing car ferry entering Dunkirk, to cheering from the quayside and another burst of Scottish bagpipe “music”.
After the very warm welcome to Dunkirk we attended a number of official events namely:-

1100 on the Esplanade Georges Cavrois a commemorative ceremony marking the 75thanniversary of the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo on the sand dunes overlooking the North Sea, attended by civilian and military delegations from Belgium, British and French veterans association. A moving sight to see the old veterans many in wheel chairs wrapped well in blankets, some protection against the biting NE wind.

After this ceremony we all visited the nearby exhibition of the Dunkirk evacuation.

1530 Wreath Laying at The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Dunkirk attended by the HRH Prince Michael of Kent the Mayor of Dunkirk and other dignitaries.

1830 AODLS Commemorative Cruise Supper at Villa Blanche, Dunkirk where the highlight of the evening was the Association’s presentation of their Spirit of Dunkirk’s (S.O.D.) award to Paul Gilson for leading Endeavour to the aid and assistance of another of the little ships in trouble on the Medway during a previous outing.

This award has only been presented a mere 12 times since the inception of the Association and one of which the Trust can be rightly proud of our skipper, Paul.

Also attending this event were 5 members of the Osborne family who had brought with them a wreath for the crew of Endeavour to cast into the waters off Dunkirk in memory of their uncles Frank and Leslie who gave their lives on June 1st 1940 when Renownaccompanying Endeavour was tragically destroyed by an Enemy mine.

During our stay in Dunkirk some of the veterans on an official veterans’ return visit were staying at our hotel.

It was delightful to talk to these old soldiers and some of their memories were quite vivid.

One such man, who was present with his son and grandson, told us that he was not part of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) but had been part of the Royal Naval task force charged with the execution of Operation Dynamo. He had been a Beach Master responsible for the despatch of the troops from the beaches. 

He had been on the beaches for 6-7 days in conditions which must surely be only described as a hell hole.

His grandson later told me that his grandfather only left Dunkirk Beach when he had been blown up and the only memory his grandfather carries with him is of laying on the beach with nothing on but his headgear, being dragged into a boat and waking up in Dover!

We were due to leave Dunkirk at 0600 on Monday 25th and head up along the French coast to Oostende for Oostende at Anker, an event that had been attended by Endeavourthe previous year and for which skipper Paul had enthused was “a great event attended by hundreds of people many of whom had clambered all over our little boat fascinated by the basic charms of a vessel with no steering wheel!”

However the weather was beginning to have a direct say in the plans of all ADLS participants and advice from Paul was to leave a little later than planned – around midday allowing the weather to calm down mid Channel.
However many were anxious to get under way asap and a compromise time of 0800 was reached with some of the larger boats and our naval escort boats eager to leave at the original time.

Endeavour, second from the left in the first line of boats, amongst the other
Dunkirk little ships at Ostend.
Photograph taken from the Hotel
The crew of Endeavour were pleased with the extra 2 hours in bed and so we were promptly onboard at 0800 ready to navigate the massive loch out of Dunkirk Inner Harbour and proceed towards Oostende. As the winds were in our favour but against those returning to Ramsgate for more celebrations, the plan was to raise all our sails and make way with the engine having a rest.

Having left the protection of Dunkirk, we paused to lay the two wreaths, the breeze stiffened and we were soon making good progress under full sail – an invigorating experience for any who have not experienced it.

We made good progress along the French coast meeting plenty of sailing boats enjoying the excellent conditions, with some sailing quite close by us to get a closer look at Endeavour under full sail.

However it was not long before we could hear on the radio the voices of the skippers on the smaller boats returning to Ramsgate that conditions were too dangerous mid channel and many had deemed it prudent to return to Dunkirk. “What did I say?” said Paul.

He was absolutely right, “the North Sea is not to be messed with.”

The eighteen vessels that returned to safe haven at Dunkirk are testament to his wisdom.

Arrival in Oostende soon followed and after some enjoyable “sailing” we were soon ensconced in our harbour side hotel. 

Two free days before Oostende at Ankerbegan and we made use of the excellent train and tram connections from their harbour side station for both facilities. We travelled up to Bruges which for those who have not been is well worth the effort, even if a little touristy.
We also visited the (German) North Sea/Atlantic defences which make use of the sand dunes south of Oostende and are easily reached by tram. Omens of what was to follow was the near gale force winds that whipped in from the North Sea whilst visiting this last excellent museum to the German defences to allied bombers.

Endeavour had been the previous year to Oostende for this event and Paul was particularly looking forward to the event as previous experience had been excellent with many visitors coming on board Endeavourmoored directly alongside the pontoon harbour.

However this year we were eventually allocated a mooring alongside a Belgian river cruiser across which was our only access to dry land. Paul began negotiations immediately to gain us a better position, but after several ‘meetings’ the result was a fait acomplis for the organisers.

The result was that access to Endeavour was difficult and along with the indifferent weather made for only handfuls of visitors to clamber over to see us. Memorable to me was a group of schoolchildren of 9-10 age group accompanied by one teacher, all impeccably behaved who were almost fighting to get aboard. In the event a group of the six luckiest were carefully assisted aboard and had a whale of a time clambering all over the boat.

Meanwhile the weather was not improving in the North Sea and the decision was made that as we were due to check out on Sunday, we would reluctantly leave Endeavour in the safety of Oostende Harbour and with the many friends the Trust has with the skippers/owners of AODLS who would keep an eye on the boat we left via Belgian Railways and Eurostar to return to the UK.


A small party of three of us returned courtesy of Mike King via Euro Tunnel to Oostende on Wednesday 3rd June and after a chilly overnight aboard “Endeavour” we sailed back across a much calmer and warmer North Sea, staying once more at Royal Temple Ramsgate overnight to facilitate finally returning to Old Leigh on Friday 5th June at Midday.

Thus I, along with skipper Paul Gilson, completed all legs of the 2015 visit to Dunkirk and Oostende on Endeavour

I and, I am sure, the rest of the crew thoroughly enjoyed every part of the journey, and I look forward to an opportunity to go onboard Endeavour some time in the future. 


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