The Sands of Dunkirk

Photo Montage by Fraser Marshall

In 1961, journalist, military historian and novelist Richard Collier published a book entitled The Sands of Dunkirk about the 1940 evacuation, a copy of which has recently found its way into the hands of the Trust.

The book used personal recollections and wove them together to tell the story from the first-person perspectives of those that were there. Long out-of-print, the book provides an interesting insight into what it was actually like for those involved.

In the book there is a section, slightly under a page in length, that talks about the Leigh boats. The first part is about an incident that occurred when Endeavour arrived at Dunkirk and encountered heavy shelling. The later part gives harrowing detail about the loss of the Renown.


We are delighted to say that the publishers have given us permission to reproduce this fascinating excerpt in the newsletter and on our website, and we would like to thank Becky Brown at Curtis Brown Group Ltd for allowing us to do so.

There is an account of the Leigh boats at Dunkirk on our website, pieced together from a number of reports, and some additional information has already been added from this extract from The Sands of Dunkirk. After this newsletter is published, we will incorporate further information into the account.

The Leigh boats, Defender, Endeavour, Letitia, Reliance, Renown and Resolute, had assembled at Southend Pier — then known as HMS Leigh — on the morning of 31st May 1940. Each boat was given fuel and rations and a Royal Naval rating. On board Defender was Sub Lieutenant Martin H B Solomon from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, commanding the group.

Once at Dunkirk, the Leigh boats initially ferried men from the beaches to larger boats waiting in deeper water until the ebbing tide eventually forced them inside the Eastern Mole — one of the concrete jetties that formed the harbour. ‘Schuits’ referenced in the extract, are Dutch flat-bottomed barges.

From The Sands of Dunkirk by Richard Collier:
Aboard the cutter-rigged cockle boat Endeavour, one of six that had come from the Essex mud-flats, Convoy Signalman Eric Marsh, a nineteen-year-old naval rating, hit the deck as a curtain of shells descended, seeking cover behind a sandbag; briefly he glimpsed the Eastern Mole, rearing above them, at low tide, like a liner's hull. When Marsh looked again, he saw in consternation that the Mole had receded. Skipper Fred Hall had the Endeavour heading for Dover.

At once Marsh stumbled aft. "What are you doing?"
Skipper Hall argued: "We can't go through that - it's suicide. We can't be expected to."
Sadly Marsh shook his head.  "It may seem strange, but we are." Patiently he explained the situation: naval discipline just wouldn't permit his returning empty-handed, yet Endeavour, while free to please herself, could hardly let him off in mid-Channel.

The first shock past, Fred Hall saw where duty lay. Within seconds Endeavour was heading back for the Mole, one of a six-strong fleet that ferried 1,000 men to the safety of the schuits.

The little ships had reason to be fearful. Their job done, Arthur Dench and the crew of his little green cockle boat, Letitia, were on their way home to Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, just clearing Dunkirk harbour in tow of a trawler, when Dench spied his nephew, Fred Osborne, engineer of the cockle boat Renown. "We've broken down," Osborne hailed, but his uncle reassured him. "Give us a rope and we'll tow you."

Soon, with 18 feet of rope securing Renown to Letitia's stern, the three boats were gliding up the Belgian coast, cheating the tide. The night was so peaceful Dench sent his crew — his nineteen-year-old son Jim, engineer Tom Meddle and deck-hand Ken Horner — below for some sleep.

What followed was stark horror. In the darkness Dench never saw the mine that blew Renown to smithereens — though for one hair-raising moment he "heard something scraping" against Letitia's side. Then, with an explosion like Judgment Day, the night split apart — so violently that the decking was cleft beneath his feet, trapping him in the sprung planking. As he wrenched free, tiny slivers of wood from Renown came raining "like a million matchsticks" from the sky.

The crew, bursting on deck, found Dench still clinging vacantly to Renown's tow-rope, though it was almost a day before they knew what had happened: the shock had bereft him of speech.
Copyright © Richard Collier, 1961. Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd., London on behalf of the Beneficiaries of the Literary Estate of Richard Collier.

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