The Sussex lifeboat that saved hundreds of soldiers from the beaches of war-torn Dunkirk

With the anniversary of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk this month we look at the important role a Sussex lifeboat played.

The Cyril and Lilian Bishop lifeboat had already saved dozens of lives working off the coast of Hastings, East Sussex, in the 1930’s. But she was about to embark on an epic adventure that would earn her the name ‘The Ghost of Dunkirk’ as she appeared from the mist to rescue troops.

Dee Day White, who found the lifeboat in a boatyard in France several years ago, brought her back to Hastings where she is now on permanent display.

He said: “In May 1940, The British Expeditionary Force was marooned in France after retreating to the town of Dunkirk with the Channel in front of them and the German army at their back. Dunkirk was virtually destroyed with no electricity or water supplies. An estimated 308,000 British, French and Belgian troops were trapped and under constant fire the land and the air.

"The evacuation depended on shallow draft vessels being used as a shuttle service from the beaches to the large Navy boats lying off-shore.

"It was known as the miracle of the little ships and Hastings has its own Dunkirk ‘Little Ship’ in the form of the Cyril and Lilian Bishop lifeboat.

"In late May she was called up by the Admiralty and told to make her way to Dover as soon as possible. The next day three regular crew members – George Moon (coxswain), Will Martin (second mechanic) and Bill Hilder (first mechanic) left Hastings at 4pm with the rest of the crew comprising Bodger Barton, Jumbo White and Fred Button.

"It was a race down the coast because at sunset and after dark, shore batteries and look-outs would fire at all boats. But they made their way safely to Folkestone in daylight and left for Dover early the next morning. The lifeboat was then requisitioned by the Navy and a Navy crew took the place of the Hastings crew. After loading stores and refuelling she was towed by a tug along with other little ships. Our crew were sent back to Hastings by train.

Just before the lifeboat left Hastings she had new red, white and blue paintwork and a varnish. On her return from Dunkirk she was filthy dirt, with two German bullet holes in her topbox and a hole in her bow. Hundreds of pairs of Army boots had scuffed up her new paintwork. Her general condition showed she had been a busy life-saver.

"On her return to Hastings the clean up started and while hosing her out, it was discovered that her mast and head light was full of sand, so it appears that she had capsized while ferrying troops out to the larger ships.

"We have no figures of the exact number of lives our lifeboat saved, but others of the same size carried about 800-900 troops a day. It earned her the right to be called a Dunkirk Little Ship and the medal she was awarded is on display at Hastings Lifeboat Station.

"So this May lets remember all those troops who didn’t make it back and also remember to look on our own Dunkirk Little Ship with pride.”

Related topics: