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Dunkirk and the ‘Little Ships’

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

(Technologies that helped win World War II)

The situation of the troops, who had been cut off from their advance into France by a pincer movement from the German army, was regarded by the British prime minister Winston Churchill as the greatest military defeat for centuries; it appeared likely to cost Britain the war, as the majority of the British Expeditionary Force was trapped, leaving the country vulnerable to invasion by Germany. Because of the shallow waters, British destroyers were unable to approach the beaches, and soldiers were having to wade out to the boats, many of them waiting hours in shoulder-deep water.

On 27 May, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping telephoned boat builders around the coast, asking them to collect all boats with "shallow draft" that could navigate the shallow waters. Attention was directed to the pleasure boats, private yachts and launches moored on the River Thames and along the south and east coasts. Some of them were taken with the owners' permission – and with the owners insisting they would sail them – while others were requisitioned by the government with no time for the owners to be contacted. The boats were checked to make sure they were seaworthy, fueled, and taken to Ramsgate to set sail for Dunkirk. They were manned by Royal Navy officers, ratings and experienced volunteers. Very few owners manned their own vessels, apart from fishermen and one or two others.

When they reached France, some of the boats acted as shuttles between the beaches and the destroyers, ferrying soldiers to the warships. Others carried hundreds of soldiers each back to Ramsgate, protected by the Royal Air Force from the attacks of the Luftwaffe.

According to the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, the term "Little Ship" applies to all craft that were originally privately owned and includes commercial vessels such as barges, fishing vessels and pleasure steamers; the Association does include some ex-Service vessels, which are now privately owned, and ex-lifeboats.

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