In the light of the huge commercial success and critical acclaim of the film Dunkirk, local historian Dorothy Ramser remembers the bravery and sacrifice of the South Tyneside men who took part in this extraordinary episode in British history.
“The evacuation of stranded British soldiers and our Allies from the Dunkirk beaches in 1940, as showcased in Christopher Nolan’s wonderful film is a tale of resilience, courage and hope,” writes Dorothy.
“But above all, it is a story of David and Goliath, where defeat to the Germans seemed certain. Yet the bravery of individuals, with a common cause, saved the British Expeditionary Force – and ultimately changed the fate of the world.
“The men of Tyneside were in the air, on the beaches, in the Royal Navy and in the little ships that came to the rescue of fellow Britons stranded, hungry, thirsty and without hope.”
Dorothy reports that the situation of British and Allied troops (who had retreated to the French coast in the wake of an unstoppable advance by their German foe) on the beaches of Dunkirk had become so critical that an urgent request was received by the War Office, reading: “Wounded situation acute and hospital ships should enter during the day. Geneva Convention will be honourably observed, it is felt, and that the enemy will refrain from attacking.”
As a result, on June 2, it was decided to send two hospital ships, the Worthing and the Paris, clearly painted in white, with the regulation green stripe and the highly visible large red crosses on the hull.
However, both ships were attacked, the Worthing targeted by 12 Junkers two thirds of the way across the Channel, while the Paris was bombed and machine gunned by Stukas, killing the first engineer and the 15-year-old cabin boy. Others, including nurses, took to lifeboats which were also attacked. Luckily they survived, but the Paris did not, sinking shortly before midnight.
“The Nazi war machine seemed unstoppable,” writes Dorothy, “and they believed themselves invincible.”
However, other ships and boats had better luck, which was just as well, for the situation on the beaches was becoming desperate.
“Even very hungry dogs and cats tried to board the ships with soldiers who, though half-starved themselves and exhausted beyond belief, tried to help them by concealing them.”
The Shields Daily News ran a story in June 1940 describing how Tynesiders serving on a minesweeper evacuated soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches.
The Commanding Officer wrote:“When we arrived off Dunkirk it was apparent that the enemy was taking steps to prevent the accomplishment of the effort being made to rescue our comrades.
“Repeated bombing attacks were made on us by many aircraft. Our gunnery was excellent and although bombs were dropped ahead and astern of the ship no damage was sustained, despite the fact that I was unable to manoeuvre the ship owing to the many wrecks in the narrow channel.
“Enemy aircraft again made a bombing attack and we promptly replied. Aided by the gunfire of other vessels in the vicinity, the enemy was driven off.
“As the tide was two-hours ebb, I decided that any effort to beach my ship was too hazardous and accordingly the ship was anchored.
“The ship’s lifeboats were immediately lowered and manned by eager volunteers for embarkation of the troops on the beaches.
“Aided by several small craft, tired and wet soldiers of all ranks were ferried in safety to the ship.
“Throughout the operation, the enemy was firing along the whole stretch of beach. Several soldiers were found wounded, but their courage never wavered and although their disabilities in many cases hampered the efforts being made to rescue them, all were safely brought on board.
“The crew provided hot food and clothing and turned the engine room and boiler room and stokehold into drying rooms.
“My ship was filled to capacity and I decided to weigh anchor. With all speed we set sail for home and once there the soldiers disembarked leaving behind them a scene of Flanders dirt and sand.”
The commander went on to say: “Next day we set out again for Dunkirk, towing four cutters and were encouraged by sighting squadrons of the RAF which evidently kept at bay enemy aircraft, for none were encountered.
“Off Dunkirk, we were met with bursts of shrapnel from enemy guns which luckily for us fell short of the ship.
“The cutters and our lifeboats, manned by the ship’s company, set out for the beach where they landed, and steps were taken to round up troops who had taken sanctuary in the sand dunes and shattered houses.
“Throughout the night, the ship was constantly under fire and although shells exploded within 50 yards, no direct hits were registered.
“The ship was filled to capacity and bursts of enemy gunfire became more unpleasant. We set full speed course for home, towing the cutters. We overtook a ferry loaded with troops and as the officer in charge considered his services would be more useful at Dunkirk, the troops were transferred to my ship and he returned.
“Enemy aircraft were sighted but whether from prudence and the fact we were able to bring into action many Bren guns and hundreds of rifles in addition to the ships armament, no direct attack was made upon us. The behaviour of officers and ratings of all ranks were worthy of the highest praise.”
Tomorrow Dorothy tells of the heroism of a Tynside paddle steamer crew, and honours the local men who died at Dunkirk.