In May 1940, Hitler's armies had swept west from Germany though Holland, Belgium and France, driving the British Expeditionary Force and other allied forces back towards the North Sea. The Allies were soon surrounded at the small town of Dunkirk, near the border with Belgium. On May 26th 1940, the War Office sent a cipher to the Admiralty stating that the evacuation should commence immediately. The following day, orders were sent out to requisition small craft with shallow drafts that could operate on the beaches off Dunkirk.

During that era, an honorary 'commodore' at Leigh would determine where the cockle boats could fish on a given day. He informed the Leigh fishermen that the Navy at nearby Southend wanted boats with volunteer crews to go to Dunkirk. They were to be at the pierhead, ready for sea, by eight o'clock on Friday morning. Once there, Naval ratings provided drums of fuel and rations, plus extra deckhands where required. At half past noon on 31st May 1940, Endeavour with her skipper P.O. Halls and crew, including James Colin 'Peter' Stroud and Norman Ewing, and five other Leigh cockle bawleys (Renown, Reliant, Leticia, Resolute and Defender) set out for Dunkirk as a part of 'Operation Dynamo', under the control of Sub Lieutenant M H B Soloman RN.

Endeavour in the 1940s with crew members James Colin 'Peter' Stroud
and Ivan Emery. Credit: Glynis Moss
Unlike many of the small ships that had been requisitioned, the Leigh boats went out with their own experienced crews.  Nevertheless, many of the Leigh fishermen had never been out of the Thames estuary before. Just after two o’clock, the flotilla reached Margate and was ordered to sail for France.

The boats traveled across the Channel under engine power. Between 18:20 and 18:40, the flotilla was scattered by an attack from enemy aircraft. RAF Spitfires were soon at hand and downed at least five Dorniers. Shortly afterwards the regrouped Leigh boats reached Dunkirk, which could be seen from miles away due to the huge flames and pall of smoke from burning oil tanks on the shore.

Initially, the Leigh boats worked from the beach, transferring troops to larger vessels waiting in deeper waters. By 19:30, the ebbing tide meant that the boats were at risk of grounding as they filled with troops, which would have made them a prime target for enemy aircraft. At 21:30 the boats started to embark troops from outside the jetty and transferring them to the barge Tilly and other ships. An hour later, the strong swell forced them inside the harbour walls. They entered in formation, picking their way through the debris from a sunken destroyer in the entrance to the walls where they picked up men for transfer to the armed patrol drifter Sarah Hyde and the steam  drifter Ben & Lucy. Many of the troops were initially reluctant to trust their luck to such apparently small craft but it is officially acknowledged that the Leigh boats rescued many hundreds of troops from certain death.

During the rescue, Endeavour's rudder was smashed. Together with her also damaged sister ships Letitia and Renown, the troops were transferred to the Ben & Lucy and the boats towed back to Ramsgate. Tragically, the Renown hit a mine during the return journey and was destroyed with the loss of her four crew. A memorial to those who died can be found in St. Clement's churchyard.

Admiral Ramsey, in command of 'Operation Dynamo', said of the Leigh boats, "The conduct of the crews of these cockle boats was exemplary. They were all volunteers who were rushed over to Dunkirk in one day. Probably none of them had been under gunfire before and certainly none of them under Naval discipline. These were Thames estuary fishing boats which never left the estuary and only one of their crews had been further afield than Ramsgate. Yet they maintained perfect formation throughout the day and night and all orders were obeyed with great diligence even under actual shellfire and aircraft attack."

In total 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French) were rescued by the hastily-assembled fleet, including the 700 privately-owned boats that made up the Little Ships of Dunkirk.  

Endeavour is one of only two surviving Leigh-built fishing boats that went to Dunkirk and is registered with the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. She has returned to Dunkirk several times since her restoration.

This article has been pulled together by Fraser Marshall using information from various sources, including the Endeavour Newsletter, but particular credit must go to the information on the ADSL website for other Leigh boats, which it was reasonable to infer must also be the story of Endeavour's Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk
The epic feature film Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, was released in cinemas in July 2017 to great acclaim. The film starred Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead and One Direction's Harry Styles.

However, the real stars were Endeavour and the other ADSL vessels that took part. It is no exageration to say that the scene when the little boats appear is a highpoint in the movie, and Endeavour is lucky enough to be the star of attention in a ten second shot of her passing a destroyer. On board, dressed as 1940s fishermen were Paul Gilson, Colin Sains and Finlay Marshall - see the photo below.

Endeavour and other 'little ships' on set, with Naval destroyer as escort