New book looks at Dunkirk evacuation exactly 80 years on

Lancing author John Grehan explores the Miracle of Dunkirk in its 80th anniversary year. Dunkirk Evacuation – Operation Dynamo: Nine Days that Saved an Army has been published by Frontline Books.
John GrehanJohn Grehan
John Grehan

John, aged 69, said: “I have long had a little yacht berthed at Shoreham. It is not an imposing vessel, but its length overall is thirty feet. It is just long enough, and close enough to Ramsgate, to have been considered suitable by the Admiralty for use in Operation Dynamo.

“I have often wondered if my boat had been around in 1940, would it have been requisitioned by the Admiralty to go to Dunkirk to rescue the men of the British Expeditionary Force?

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“This was certainly the case with one of the famous boats that went to Dunkirk.

““The comedian Tommy Trinder’s boat Chalmondesleigh (named after the fictional character he frequently mentioned in his act) was moored at Shoreham when it was requisitioned by the Admiralty.

“Just a little further down the River Adur from where Chalmondesleigh would most probably have been moored, is the Shoreham lifeboat station. Its 41-foot boat, Rosa Woodd and Phyllis Lunn, with its 3.6-foot draft, made three trips to Dunkirk with a Royal Navy crew.

“In fact, the famous stories of the so-called little ships of private boats crewed by ordinary civilians heroically rescuing the men of the BEF from the beaches of Dunkirk is something of a myth.

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“It was great publicity at the time when the country was, as Churchill put it, in her darkest hour. The image of boat owners risking everything to sail across the Channel to bring the boys back home was a powerful one. The reality, however, was that most boats were simply requisitioned, with or without the owners’ permission, and taken over by the Royal Navy.

“It was also the Royal Navy, principally with its destroyers, which brought back majority of the soldiers.

“Dynamo was a carefully organised, highly effective, Royal Navy operation.

“But it is that which was so remarkable.

“In just a matter of a days, Admiral Ramsay was able to pull together warships and civilian craft of almost every description and arrange for them to be adequately crewed with trained personnel, marshalled into convoys where necessary, or, in the case of the smaller boats, towed across by tug boats. Minefields were swept and routes designated all within hours. It was an astonishing feat.

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“Many boat owners did want to take their own boats across to France, and some certainly did, more often than not without the approval of the Admiralty.

“But the Navy did not want masses of little boats randomly scooting across the Channel potentially running into trouble and causing more problems for the Navy.

“Before any of the requisitioned boats were taken across to Dunkirk, they were taken into Ramsgate where they were carefully checked and repaired where necessary before embarking upon the long and hazardous trip across to France. The last thing the Navy wanted was for a boat’s engine to fail when under enemy fire.

“All of this inspired me to write a detailed account of Operation Dynamo, which was published in 2018. During the course of the research for this book, I came across hundreds of astonishing photographs, many taken by the Germans and never previously published. It was not possible to fit them into my first book, but they were simply too good to be ignored.”

Hence the new book.

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“The Images of War series gave me the opportunity to be able to show these great photographs to others and to allow readers to see what it really was like.

“While there was a Dunkirk spirit, with a strong desire from people to help the stranded soldiers, the troops were saved through proper coordinated and controlled systems, not by ad-hoc arrangements.

“If one can relate that to the present COVID-19 situation, while individual efforts are always appreciated, it is only with careful and considered organisation will we overcome this new enemy.”

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