‘The Royal Navy at Dunkirk'

‘The Royal Navy at Dunkirk'

Author
Martin Mace
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Having volunteered to review this because it was nautical, I was braced for a fairly dull collection of defence writing of varying standards. This was emphatically not the case. Operation DYNAMO was conceived in haste and desperation, and carried out successfully against the odds. The sense of life or death urgency pervades every page of this book, and there are so many stories of individual heroism within its covers that there is a real danger that they all start to blur into one.

Mace has broken down the subject matter into chapters based on types of vessel and whether reports were written by those on board or on shore party. The reviewer recommends starting with Rear-Admiral William Frederic Wake-Walker, Senior Naval Officer Afloat, Dunkirk. This remarkable leader’s report is the best way of putting some context around the many reports in the book, because DYNAMO at the tactical level was near-chaos, with vessel masters largely using their own initiative and sea sense to effect transfer of as many troops from shore to sea as possible. Wake-Walker led from the front as often as he could. At one stage, he and several stranded 12th Lancers soldiers were attempting to paddle a section of pontoon bridge to sea before conditions forced them to turn back.
Wake -Walker’s report shows that the RN had put in a massive amount of planning to assemble and route the evacuation force, but the scale and pace of events on the Dunkirk coast would place a premium on individual decision-making and courage on the parts of vessel crews.

Seafarers of all hues were called in, and also volunteered, to serve in the sealift. RN, RNR and RNVR personnel were spread thinly across the flotilla to provide experience and, in some cases, to stiffen some backbones, in the tones of some reports. Accounts of the crews of merchant vessels involved are largely sympathetic. There are occasions when individuals and entire crews have to be replaced, such as the Isle of Man steamers ‘MANXMAN’ and ‘BEN MY CHREE,’ but from the reports, these are due to sheer physical and nervous exhaustion. The short passage duration, the constant enemy attacks and the pandemonium of unloading soldiers, coaling and departing again left no time for rest. The RN Lieutenant in command of the Dutch ‘skoot’ FRISCO’ reported that he had been awake for 90 hours straight.

Paddle steamers were seized on owing to their relatively shallow draught as a means of lifting many soldiers at once, but being cumbersome craft, achieving that aim on a lee shore, under air attack, with inaccurate charts (becoming more obsolete by the minute as vessels sank in the narrow approach channels and more and more mines were laid) was a huge test of skill, leaving the embarked RN personnel often dependent on the ship handling skills of the MN company on board. Even more handy vessels struggled - the Isle of Man steamer ‘KING ORRY’ did a lot of damage to the Dunkirk east pier after berthing following major damage from air attack. The master’s logic is clear in his report - embarking soldiers remained the priority.

The bottleneck throughout the whole of DYNAMO appears to have been transferring personnel from shore to sea. The hazardous lee shore and large swell was the downfall of scores of small boats used in improvised attempts to get soldiers off the beach. Some masters used their initiative to beach larger shallow-draft vessels like paddle steamers and Dutch ‘skoot’ barges, with limited success. The collected reports illustrate how far the Allies came in just 4 years. In 1944, a range of dedicated landing craft would reverse the flow of military manpower across the beach.


5/5 musroomheads. The reports speak for themselves, and the courage, fortitude and initiative of the personnel involved shines out all the more for the terse military prose in which their actions are described.
Author
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