The Little Ships
On the first day of the evacuation, only one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft were available to help the evacuation. But by the May 28, the first of a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats, comprised of merchant ships, fishing boats, lifeboats, speedboats, car ferries, Thames river boats and pleasure craft had crossed the channel from the south of England to aid the rescue mission. Some of the ships and their crews were civilian volunteers. The Ministry of Shipping requisitioned others after scouring the River Thames for the suitable craft. The size of boats was no object. The smallest vessel, the Tamzine, was a 14ft open fishing boat.
The ‘little ships’ as they became known served various purposes. Those that were large enough were used to help transport the troops back across the channel. A paddle steamer, the Medway Queen, made a total of seven trips across the Channel, rescuing 7000 men in total. The journeys were not without danger-or casualties. Six German aircraft attacked the Royal Daffodil, a ferry from Liverpool. Hit below the water line, she just about managed to make it to port.
The smaller craft were used as ferries to transport men off the beach to the larger ships as the harbor area could not accommodate all the troops. Furthermore, the harbor itself was out of action after the second day of the evacuation. Any ships using it had to use the long concrete ‘moles’ on either side of it- despite the fact they were not designed to be used by ships.
Without the help of the little ships, the sheer numbers of men evacuated from Dunkirk just would not have happened. On the first day, when they were absent, only 7669 people were shipped out. But by the eight-day, thanks to their contribution, 338,226 soldiers had made it back to British shores. As a mark of respect and gratitude, all of the little ships that took part in Operation Dynamo were allowed to fly the ‘Dunkirk jack’: a flag of the George cross-overlaid with the arms of Dunkirk.