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, including the vast majority of Britain's professional soldiers, were soon surrounded at the small town of Dunkirk, near the border with Belgium. On Sunday, 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.

'I HEREBY FORMALLY REQUISITION from you, for employment on Admiralty Service  "Endeavour"'
Endeavour's requisition papers
In the first instance, the orders were only for the craft themselves; King’s Regulations prevented civilian crews from assisting the military in a combat zone, and for the first two days the lack of familiarity of the Navy crews that took command of the civilian fleet led to unnecessary loss of boats and lives amid, of course, considerable bravery.

On the 28th May, the Navy was unable to find sufficient trained sailors to crew the small boats, prompting the Admiralty to issue new orders. The six o’clock news from the BBC broadcast a second appeal for civilian boats to go to Dunkirk, this time with their own crews, and the Leigh fishermen responded. Defender, Endeavour, Letitia, Reliance, Renown and Resolute and their crews would go to France to assist with the rescue. To get around the Kings Regulations regarding civilians, the men would be employed by the Navy.

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 of the morning of Friday, 31st May. Once there, Naval ratings provided drums of fuel and rations, plus extra deckhands where required. Eric Osbourne, skipper of the Resolute, recalled that the Naval ratings managed to replace Renown's deck hatch upside down, which was regarded as an ill omen by Thamesmen. The same boat's deckhand Luke Osbourne was already rattled when he discovered a form numbered 13 that he had had to sign.

The boats were also supplied with route maps to find their way through the extensive minefields that lay around the British Isles. The Leigh ships were to take the longest of the three routes the Navy had designated for Operation Dynamo, route Y at 87 nautical miles. All routes had their drawback; Z was shortest but subjected boats to bombardment from on shore batteries, X was through a particularly heavily mined area of the channel. Y's distance meant the sailing time was circa four hours, double that of Z. Ships on route Y were deemed to be most likely to be most vulnerable from attacks from u-boats, surface craft and the air, but overall it was deemed the safest route for the operation.

Half an hour after midday the Leigh boats left the pier led by Defender, skippered by EA Turnnidge, the Leigh sailmaker. On board was Sub Lieutenant Martin H B Solomon
RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve), who commanded the group. He would later be awarded the DSC for his role at Dunkirk.

The Leigh boats went out with their own experienced crews.
On board Endeavour were skipper Fred Hall, engineer Norman Ewing and James Colin 'Peter' Stroud plus 19-year old Convoy Signalman Eric Marsh. Despite their experience with the boats, many of the Leigh fishermen had never been out of the Thames estuary before. As they reached the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the Thames, Endeavour took a line from Defender, Letitia was towed by Reliance and Renown towed Resolute.

Just after two o’clock, the flotilla passed Margate Roads, a deep water anchorage just north of the town of Margate, and was ordered to proceed straight to Dunkirk. Letitia's skipper Arthur Dench recorded "seeing hundreds of trawlers, etc., going to Dunkirk, we went with them". By the account of a post-War Naval report, this was no exaggeration; there were literally hundreds of private craft heading out from Margate in a line stretching almost five miles. It prompted the quip that it was possible to walk to France!

The boats travelled together across the Channel under engine power, achieving about 6 and a half knots. Dunkirk was visible within an hour of leaving England due to
to the 11,500 foot high pall of smoke and flame from the burning oil tanks at the bombed Saint-Pol refinery. 

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, light bombers that were attempting to sink the rescue ships. By 19:15 the regrouped Leigh boats reached the Dunkirk Roads, the seaways running parallel to the coast near the town.

Endeavour in the 1940s with crew members James Colin 'Peter' Stroud, who
crewed during the Dunkirk mission, and Ivan Emery. Credit: Glynis Moss
Initially, the Leigh boats worked from the beach, transferring troops to larger vessels waiting in deeper waters, but they determined that 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, the fishermen being unwilling to risk being stranded on the shallow beach.

They entered in formation, picking their way through the debris from a sunken destroyer in the entrance and trailing a phosphorescent wake. From the walls they picked up around 200 men for transfer to the Lewis-gun sporting drifter Sarah Hide* from Harwich and the Lowestoft-registered Ben & Lucy, a steam drifter converted to an armed minesweeper, waiting outside the harbour. Letitia even towed a lifeboat full of men to the Ben and Lucy as well as carrying them onboard. Eric Osbourne, skipper of the Resolute recalled that some of the troops were initially reluctant to trust their luck to such apparently small craft. "W
hen you're not a cockle fisherman and consider the idea of a 36ft. boat, seen from above, it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence!" he sympathised. It can't have helped that there was a four-foot swell and they didn't have any ladders to assist the men down.

Renown Memorial, St Clements, Leigh-on-Sea
From the early hours of 1st June, the Leigh boats worked independently. During the rescue, Endeavour's rudder was smashed, and she took a tow from the Sarah Hide.

Letitia's rudder was also damaged. Her rescued troops transferred to the Ben & Lucy, and she took a tow from the drifter. Renown suffered engine problems. Historian Julian Wilson speculates it might have been from being supplied with diesel by the Navy at Southend Pier instead of the petrol/paraffin its engine required. A 3.5 fathom rope (circa 21 feet/6.5m) was passed from Renown to Arthur Dench aboard Letitia and made fast to her stern.

Reliance, Resolute and Defender returned to Ramsgate together under their own power. Unable to find a larger vessel to pass their troops to, they ended up taking them all the way home and were recorded as bringing back 180 troops - Defender 60, Reliance 80 and Resolute 40. It is difficult to envisage quite how crowded those tiny decks must have been with so many men on board!

Three quarters of an hour after leaving Dunkirk, Renown hit a mine and was destroyed with the loss of her four crew; skipper
Harry Noakes, engineer Frank Osbourne, deskhand Leslie ‘Lukie’ Osborne, (all cousins) and naval rating Harold Porter. Letitia's skipper Arthur Dench later paid tribute to them saying, "They knew nothing of war, they went to save, not fight. They had done their work and now suddenly on their way home there came annihilation."

A memorial to all those who served at Dunkirk and the lost crew of the Renown can be found in St. Clement's churchyard (left).

Once back in the UK, the Leigh crews were discharged. The Navy had decided it only wanted boats capable of doing ten knots. The men were paid off; £3 for the crews, £4 for the skippers. After disembarking at Southend pier, the men took a train back to Leigh. Reliance's deckhand Harold King lost all of his pay bar a shilling playing cards for the short time it took to get home. "Easy come, easy go!" he reportedly said.

Admiral Ramsey, in command of Operation Dynamo, wrote 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 boats were Thames estuary fishing boats which never left the estuary, and only one of their crews had been further afield than Ramsgate before. In spite of this fact, perfect formation was maintained throughout the day and night under the control of a Sub-Lieutenant R.N.V.R. in command of the unit, 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. It is difficult to say exactly how many men were transferred from the beaches by the Leigh boats. The official count only included the vessel on which a soldier arrived back in the UK, which led some to under-appreciate the contribution of the little ships. It is estimated, however, it was about 1,000 souls the brave men of Leigh and their tiny boats saved.

Endeavour is one of only two surviving Leigh-built fishing boats that went to Dunkirk - the other being Letitia, now a pleasure boat - 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, and to historian Julian Wilson's To Rescue Our Soldiers, an in-depth investigation of the contribution of the Southend and area boats to Operation Dynamo available from www.academica.edu. I am also indebted to John Tough, Archivist of the ADLS for his assistance, and Richard Carrier's The Sands of 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 exaggeration 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

* The Sarah Hide is referred to extensively in Dunkirk documentation as the Sarah Hyde (indeed, it was written that way on this page until Oct 2020), but I now believe this to be the correct spelling.