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 French 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
Initially the orders were only for the vessels; 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 contributed to some unnecessary loss of boats and lives amid, of course, considerable bravery.

By 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 King's Regulations regarding civilians, volunteers 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 HMS Leigh (Southend Pier) 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.

They also quizzed the men, and those with families were told they could not go, which goes some way to explaining why some of the boats appear to have been crewed and skippered by men that would not usually have done so. Pye Osbourne, owner of Renown and her crewman, Percy Axcell, who were both turned away, both suffered from survivor's guilt after the boat was lost with all hands. Ken Horner, who would later write the Dunkirk Poem that is to this day on the wall of the Crooked Billet in Old Leigh, was just 17 and had to have his mother's permission to go with Letitia as a deckhand.

Endeavour in the 1940s with crew members James Colin 'Peter' Snoud, who
crewed during the Dunkirk mission, and Ivan Emery. Credit: Glynis Moss
Eric Osbourne, skipper of the Resolute, recalled that the Naval ratings managed to replace Renown's deck hatch upside down, something regarded as an ill omen by Thamesmen. Renown 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 shore batterys, 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.

The Dunkirk evacuation routes
The Dunkirk evacuation routes
Half an hour after midday, the Leigh boats left the pier led by Defender, skippered by Francis 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, and we have pieced together some of his life here.

On board Endeavour were skipper Fred Hall, engineer Norman Ewing and James Colin 'Peter' Snoad 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 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 some forty 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.

An account published in Richard Collier's 1961 account The Sands of Dunkirk states:
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.
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.

The Eastern Mole
The Eastern mole. With a 4 ftfoot swell and no ladders,
the troops can be forgiven for their reluctance to jump down
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 in addition to 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. "When 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.

From the early hours of 1st June, the Leigh boats worked independently. Jimmy Dench, Letitia's skipper recorded an example of the bravery and stoicism of the men during their penultimate trip to the mole. "On going in for a third time, a shell burst in between the last boat, of them, and us. We turned back, to go out, but the signaller that we had on board, and had only been "out" for about six weeks, and never been under fire, said: "We've got to go in again" So we went in."

During the rescue, Endeavour's rudder was smashed, and she took a tow from the steam tug Sarah Hide. Letitia's rudder was also damaged. Her rescued troops transferred to the Ben & Lucy, and she took a tow from the drifter, although Dench's account doesn't mention the issue with the rudder:
"We passed the others going out for their last journey and then a voice hailed us from the docks, we loaded up again, and also towed a lifeboat full of soldiers as well. These, as we couldn't find the Tilly, we put on board a trawler, which was towing another, and that in turn was towing two lifeboats, one sunk and the other with sailors in. We didn't know our course home, so we also made fast."
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 required. The Sands of Dunkirk records what happened.
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.
Renown was lost with all crew; skipper Harry Noakes, engineer Frank Osbourne, deckhand 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."

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

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!

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.

The Leigh Boats at Dunkirk

The Trust does not have a complete list of the crews that went to Dunkirk, and we would like to collect much more information about these brave men. We would love to have dates for them, details of career, family and any notable achievements and, of course, any recollections of Dunkirk that you may have. Photographs of them - particularly from about that time would be marvellous.

The table below has been compiled from various public sources with some additional information from the Trust's Trevor Osbourne as compiled by Bernard Hetherington of the Leigh Society.

If you can provide us with any additional information or corrections, please contact us via Facebook or email us at website@endeavourtrust.co.uk

Alternatively, you can post information to The Endeavour Trust, 9 Woodside, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, SS9 4QX

Let’s make sure our heroes are remembered!

Boat and Number

Date of Construction and Builder


Dunkirk Crew

(Sk=Skipper, Eng=Engineer, DH=Deck Hand, NR=Naval Rating

Current situation

Defender LO504

Haywood (Hayward?) of Leigh, 1920

Gilbert Harvey or Ted (Edge) Harvey

Sub Lt Martin Solomon (RN commander Leigh boats), FA (Bonner) Turnnidge (Sk), Jack Gregory

Converted to a cruiser. Participated in Dunkirk celebrations in 1965. Was lost in 1999 due to disrepair.

Endeavour LO41

Cole and Wiggins, 1926

Harry Robinson

Fred Hall (Sk), James Colin 'Peter' Snoad, Norman Ewing (Eng), Eric Marsh (NR)

Maintained by L-o-S Endeavour Trust

Letitia LO220

Johnson & Jago, 1938

Arthur Dench

Arthur (Waffa) Dench (Sk), Jim Dench, Tom (or Charles) Meddle (Eng), Ken Horner (DH)

In private hands

Reliance LO64

Date unknown; maybe 1940.

Tony Meddle

Alf Leggatt (Sk), Percy Meddle, Harold (Ally) King (DH)


Renown LO88

Hayward, 1928

George (Pie) Osbourne

WH (Harry) Noakes (Sk), Frank (possibly ‘Fred’) Leslie (Eng), Leslie (Lukie) Osborne, Harold Porter (NR)

Destroyed by a mine with the loss of all hands, 1st June 1940

Resolute – LO57

Hayward of Southend, 1927

Cecil Osbourne

Eric Osbourne (Sk), Horace D (Harry) Osbourne, Vincent Joscelyne (DH)

Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust had her in 1993 but lacked funds to restore her. She was the vessel our Trust originally hoped to restore, but was deemed beyond saving.

We reported her eventual demise here.

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 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' during filming, with Naval destroyer as escort

Credits: This page has been pulled together by Fraser Marshall using various sources, including the Endeavour Newsletter and the Trust's archives, but particular credit must go to the information on the ADSL website in respect of the other Leigh boats, which it was reasonable to infer must also be the story of Endeavour's Dunkirk. I am indebted to ADLS Archivist John Tough for his guidance.

Local 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 was extremely helpful with background details.

For assistance with compiling the table above, in addition to information in other public sources, we owe a debt of gratitude to Carole Mulroney and Bernard Hetherington of the Leigh Society and Trevor Osbourne.

Extracts from The Sands of Dunkirk are 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.

* 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 this is the correct spelling, confirmed by the Lowestoft Archives.