In May 1940 the all-powerful German army succeeded in driving a wedge between the French and British armies fighting to block their path. The British army of some 400,000 men had no answer to the efficient German war machine and retreated towards the coast of France. They grouped at Dunkirk, the sea in front of them and the Germans behind. It was clear that if this army was defeated, nothing could stop an eventual invasion of England.
Admiral Ramsey was tasked with the supervision of an evacuation of the British army. He did his work at Dover castle and looking for a name for the operation he noticed the dynamo in the Castle and hence the evacuation was called “Operation Dynamo”.
A fleet of over 1000 vessels was hastily assembled to form an evacuation fleet. The craft ranged from lifeboats and pleasure craft to cross channel ferries. The volunteer crews faced a terrifying ordeal of being machine gunned, dive bombed and shelled as they sought to pick up the queues of soldiers wading out up to their neck in sea water.
These are the words of the engineer of one such volunteer crew, Fred Reynard of Newport Isle of Wight. His ship was the MV “Bee” and the story starts on 28th May 1940.
“We were unloading iron plates at Portsmouth Dockyard when a naval officer came aboard and informed us that the Bee was being taken over by the Navy. He said the task for which she was required was dangerous and the crew could leave for home if they wished and a naval crew would be put aboard. Alternatively, the Navy would be grateful if we volunteered because of our expertise in handling the craft. The crew consisted of Bill Trowbridge, skipper; Harry Downer, mate; myself as engineer; and Marc Hocking, aged 18, as fourth hand. We all agreed to stay with the ship. A Royal Navy Sub-Lieutenant was seconded to Bee and four days rations put aboard before we left harbour at 7.30 in the evening. We steamed through the night and all the next day, arriving off Ramsgate at 5 p.m. The officer went ashore for instructions and was back within the hour. He told us the British Expeditionary Force was being driven into the sea and that our task was to lift as many off the beaches near Dunkirk as possible. We were again offered the opportunity of quitting; again we declined and at 7.30 p.m. the Bee set off.”
…..“What a sight met our gaze. The sea was covered in oil and there was wreckage everywhere. The docks were burning, as were huge oil containers and over the town of Dunkirk was a pall of black smoke. The shores were a sea of human beings and there was a constant stream of men coming over the dunes and down to the water’s edge. A light from a Very pistol warned us of impending danger. An aircraft appeared, machine-gun fire struck the water close by, but no bombs were dropped. Other planes were busy dropping bombs and machine-gunning along the beach. We proceeded towards the shore, and the nearer we got, the more destruction we saw. Upturned craft and human beings floated everywhere. Men were tending the wounded. Back came the bombers and a near miss shook Bee badly. Warships opened up on the planes. After a direct hit on a destroyer she listed heavily to port. Another destroyer, laden with troops, was hit and sinking. Men swam towards the shore; some were picked up by smaller craft, but a large number, torn and mangled, went down with the ship. Less than an hour since dawn, we were still afloat, yet seemingly had spent a lifetime in hell.”
From left to right, Fred Reynard, (engineer), Bill Trowbridge, (skipper) and Harry Downer, (mate), with his son. The brass plate on the wheelhouse, one which was awarded to all of the “little ships”, is hidden behind the skipper.
The “Bee” eventually got caught up in a steel wire from a sunken ship, which put one propeller out of action, and the navy ordered her to return home. By this time the crew had rescued almost four hundred soldiers.
For more information go to http://www.iowtodunkirk.com