The Trust’s spritsail barge Pudge took part in the Dunkirk evacuation. Here you can read about the lead up to the Operation, how the Little Ships were commandeered and Pudge’s role in the rescue.

A total of 30 sailing/auxiliary barges were involved in Operation Dynamo which was the code name for the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in 1940. Sadly many of the barges were destroyed and a few remained stranded on the beaches unable to re-float before the arrival of the German troops.

Background to Operation Dynamo

From the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships

In May 1940 the British and Allied Forces were desperately fighting to stop the German advance through Europe but by Mid-May Hitler’s Armies had swept West from Germany through Holland, Belgium and France forcing the British and French to retreat. Ten days later and the German spearhead had reached the sea cutting off the Allied Forces in the North from the main Army in France and cornering them into a small area around Dunkirk

On the 14th may 1940, the BBC made the following announcement: “The admiralty have made an Order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30′ and 100′ in length to send particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned”.

Although this may have sounded something like a request, it was, in fact an Order. These ships were required for harbour services and national defence and thus the idea of using private yachts as naval auxiliaries was quite well established by the time the emergency of Dunkirk broke upon the Nation.

On the 26th May 1940, a secret cipher telegram was sent by the War Office to the Admiralty stating that the emergency evacuation of troops from the French coast was required immediately. A contingency plan, long prepared under the code name ‘Operation Dynamo’ – the name being derived from the control centre at Dover, which was an existing generating station overlooking the harbour – was to be executed. In overall command was the Vice-Admiral Commanding Dover – Bertram Ramsey. On the following day, May 27th, the Small Craft section of the Ministry of Shipping was telephoning various boat builders and agents around the coast requesting them to collect all small craft suitable  for work in taking troops off the beaches where the larger ships could not penetrate. What was needed were boats with shallow draught and this directed attention in particular to pleasure boats, private yachts and launches on the Thames and also in muddy estuaries and creeks in deserted moorings along the South and East coasts which would be suitable for such an operation.

In many cases the owners could not be contacted and the boats were taken without their knowledge – such was the speed and urgency of the operation. Mr. Douglas Tough of Tough Brothers, Teddington, who, with Ron Lenthall, collected many of the boats on the upper reaches of the Thames, reported that the owner of one of the boats which was being commandeered could not be contacted but, hearing that his boat was being taken away, informed the Police that it was being stolen and pursued it to Teddington Lock. More than 100 craft from the Upper Thames were assembled at the Ferry Road Yard of Tough Brothers.

Here everything unnecessary was taken off and stored. Bob Tough, son of Douglas and a past Commodore of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS), has lists of china, cutlery, pots and pans etc. all taken off and stored and returned to the owners in due course. The boats were then checked over and towed by Tough’s and other tugs down river to Sheerness. Here they were fueled and taken to Ramsgate where Naval Officers, Ratings and experienced volunteers were put aboard and directed to Dunkirk. (At the end of this article there is an account of how some of the ships were requisitioned and who sailed them to Dunkirk))

The whole operation was a very carefully co-ordinated and records exist of most of the little ships and other larger vessels that went to Dunkirk.

As a result of the operation of the Little Ships and the considerable fleet of naval and Merchant Marine vessels which operated off Dunkirk beaches and the harbour between 28th May and the 4th June 1940, no less than 338,000 British and French troops were evacuated. Approximately one third of these were taken off the beaches and, within this number approximately 110,000 Frenchmen returned from England to fight again.

ETHEL EVERARD abandoned on the beach with her sails in tatters

Following the entrapment of the BEF at Dunkirk towards the end of May 1940, a conglomeration of some 850 British vessels of every shape and size sailed to the rescue. Most were small craft manned by civilians and they, together with naval ships such as the St. Fagan, plucked around 338,000 men (including 112,00 French and Belgian soldiers) from the beaches. It was the greatest rescue operation of a trapped army ever known. The Germans did everything they could to prevent the evacuation and the Luftwaffe repeatedly bombed and strafed the ships and men waiting to board them. This intensity of ariel activity resulted in Hitler halting the Panzer Divisions advance south. The tanks were kept out of the fray between 26th and 28th May in order that Goering could show off the prowess of his air force. Had the German armour fought on during those three days many fewer Allied servicemen would have escaped.

Dunkirk Beach

Qualification for full membership of the ADLS is to be the current owner of a proven Dunkirk Little Ship. The object of the Association is equally simple: to keep afloat for as long as possible as many as possible of the original Little Ships; to secure for them the honour to which they are entitled; and thereby to preserve “The Spirit of Dunkirk”.

The term Little Ships applies to all craft that were originally privately owned and includes commercial vessels such as sailing barges, British, French, Belgian and Dutch fishing vessels and pleasure steamers. The Association does include some ex-Service vessels, which are now privately owned, and ex-lifeboats.

The smallest known ship to have participated in “Operation Dynamo” was the 15 foot open fishing boat TAMZINE, which is now in the Imperial War Museum. The smallest vessel which made returns to Dunkirk were 26 feet and the largest was over 100 feet.

ADSL House Flag

It was then decided that ADSL should have a House Flag. Permission was given by the Admiralty, the College of Heralds and the City of Dunkirk for the Cross of St. George (the flag of the Admiralty) to be defaced with the Arms of Dunkirk for use as the Association’s House Flag. This can be worn by Member Ships at any time when the owner is aboard. In addition, when in company, we fly the un-defaced Cross of St George at the bow. Again this is by Admiralty Warrant. To avoid any possible confusion with barges wearing an Admiral’s flag, the Dunkirk Little Ships must wear the Red ensign when flying the un-defaced Flag of St. George at the bows.

Pudge’s Dunkirk Exploits

Pudge’s Dunkirk Plaques

Nowadays few sailing boats, let alone commercial vessels with cargoes of 150 tons or more, would be considered safe without a powerful engine. At the time of Dunkirk all but a few of the barges that went over managed well on sails alone. Pudge was an exception and her Kelvin diesel auxiliary engine, rarely used, saved her life as well as that of her crew and the others on board.

War records show that Pudge was requisitioned on the 29th May 1940 while she was in Tilbury waiting for a load of wheat for Cranfields in Ipswich, having previously transported Linseed to Millwall. Her skipper Bill Watson, one of the senior captains of the London and Rochester Trading Company, received orders to proceed to Sheerness under tow. Bill and his mate, known as ‘Old Dick’ prepared for the trip and were towed down river to Dover by the tug OCEAN COCK, along with the barges DORIS, ENA and TOLLESBURY.

When they got to Dover the naval officer in command asked for eight or ten volunteers from among the skippers and their mates to take their barges to Dunkirk. There were 17 barges in Dover harbour that day, lying alongside the Prince of Wales Pier and every one of the skippers was ready to take his barge across. They drew lots and six were selected for immediate service, the three engined/auxiliary barges, PUDGE, THYRA and LADY ROSEBERY, and the three sail only barges DORIS, H.A.C. and DUCHESS. The three auxiliary barges proceeded out of the harbour with the sailing barges in tow. PUDGE, DORIS and LADY ROSEBERY, in that order, were then taken in tow by the steel-hulled tug ST.FAGAN.

To keep together, save fuel and increase speed, they were towed across to Dunkirk and they reached the beaches under cover of darkness. There the three LADY ROSEBERY was ordered to proceed in-shore to pick up troops with the DORIS in tow. Whilst proceeding to do so and while PUDGE was starting up her engine, the ST. FAGAN was hit and blown up by a bomb. PUDGE was lifted bodily out of the water, but in the words of her skipper, “she came down the right way up”. When the smoke and dust had settled, the ST.FAGAN, LADY ROSEBERY and DORIS were no more. Of the 25 officers and men of the ship’s company, 2 officers and six ratings were saved. PUDGE had immediately launched her tender and picked up survivors including a stoker who had been on watch in the tug’s stokehold when the force of the explosion blew him out through a hole into the sea.

PUDGE was now alone. Leaking badly from the shock waves from the explosion she could do little good by staying. A destroyer relayed the order for her to make for home with her rescued survivors. Whilst heading back for England the tug TANGA took PUDGE in tow and three hours later arrived safely in Ramsgate.


Built 1931 by Philip and Son, Dartmouth for William Watkins Ltd of London.   YN791. Steel Screw Tug.

PUDGE was back carrying out her normal duties quite quickly. the Ipswich Port Book shows that on the 23rd June 1940 she was already back at work. She spent the rest of her war service mainly sailing between London and Ipswich. After the war PUDGE continued her work with the London Rochester Trading Company until her retirement in 1968 when she was sold to the Thames Barge Sailing Club  (now the Thames Sailing Barge Trust).

The ‘Saint’ Class Rescue Tug, St. Fagan

St Fagan was built as a fleet tug fitted for ocean service and was used pre-war to tow practice targets for the capital ships to shoot at. With the advent of the War, these vessels were assigned the task of recovering damaged merchantmen and warships and towing them to friendly ports. The Saint class were built in 1919, displaced 860 tons, had a complement of 30 and mounted a 12 pounder anti-aircraft gun for defence. They were very sturdy but hardly fast having a top speed of twelve knots.

St Fagan


For further information on how sailing barges helped at Dunkirk the following book maybe of interest.

Sailing Barges – The Dunkirk Story by Barbara Butler

Copies are available through the Trust or by contacting Barbara at                                    barb-witness@hotmail.co.uk

Retail Price £9.95.

An account of how the appeal for small craft happened. Written by Julian Wilson, F.I.Diag.E., MSc. BA, [Medieval History]

The first Owners who answered the first Appeal for small craft, on May 27th – were summarily ejected from their boats by the SNO’s in charge (at Southend Pier-head Control and OIC Small Vessels Pool, Sheerness Dockyard, for example) – under Admiralty Standing Orders that “no civilians can be allowed in a war zone”, – so civilian craft were to be skippered and crewed by naval personnel.

Many owners who arrived as requested – volunteering on that first day and who objected to their prized craft being handed-over to RN personnel untrained in the operation of small internal combustion engines, and in the operation of small craft in shallow waters, in amphibious operations from beaches – had their vessels commandeered at gunpoint, and were escorted from the assembly areas by Police, threatened with arrest.

Only 24 hrs later, on May 28th [see the BBC Archives and Ministry of Information Archives for that day in the National Archives at Kew] the Admiralty – realised that they simply didn’t have enough J.N.O’s and rating to crew all the small craft now arriving, changed their own Standing Order, and required the BBC to issue an appeal for small-craft owners to volunteer to skipper and crew their own vessels to Dunkirk.

That was in many cases far too late to help those owners who had volunteered on the first day, May 27th, and whose small craft had now vanished in the direction of Ramsgate in the hands of untrained Royal Naval personnel.

My father’s own Company, the Southend Motor Navigation Co. skippered and crewed by ex-RN veterans, the 2 Owners, my father and his Partner Albert Brand (ex WW1 RNAS) amongst them, had presented themselves at the Southend Pier-head Control Station as requested  by the first Appeal, with all 7 of their passenger-carrying pleasure boats, (capable and BOT Licensed for transporting 2000 persons, fully fuelled and provisioned for at least 3 days as requested) volunteering to serve their Country again by taking their own vessels to Dunkirk, only to be forcibly ejected from their vessels – which were given into the charge on untrained Naval personnel.

The same happened to the Owners of another 5 Southend on Sea Pleasure Boats which responded to the First appeal, the Myall Gilson, Osborn Families, and Otto Vogelsang.

Only 24hrs later, i.e. May 28th, the Admiralty had requested the Ministry of Information to order the BBC to broadcast an 2nd Appeal for all owners of small craft to volunteerthemselves and their vessels for service in this national Emergency.

The Southend Watermen were so angry at the way in which their sole means of livelihood had been “stolen” from them, that they put together a Petition under the guidance of the SMNCO. Company Solicitor, which was forwarded to the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill by Special Delivery, and lodged a copy with the Company Records in their Safe Deposit at the Westminster Bank, High Street Branch, Southend on Sea from whence I retrieved it amongst my father’s papers after his death, while providing source material about the SMNCo.’s little ships for Walter Lord, during his writing of his definitive Operation Dynamo History “The miracle of Dunkirk” in 1984.

This was an aspect of the assembling of the “little ships” which was quite unknown to me at the time, and Mr Lord asked me to research further into the matter for him, by contacting as many other surviving civilian owners as I could find.  Eventually I was able to contact about 200 civilian owners, IIRC, found that all those who had responded to the First Appeal had suffered the same experience on 27th May, their boats commandeered but their own services “not required”. I only found a few Owners who’d had the clout to argue with the SNO’s on May 27th, and made the condition “My boat doesn’t go unless you sign a proper Charter Form and I skipper her!”

Following the BBC Appeal on May 28th, the situation changed, and owner who volunteered with their boats on and after May 28th were accepted for Service, provided a naval rating was also embarked.

For your further education, I attach scans of the signed the File Copy recommended by the SMNCo Solicitor, which I also copied over to Walter Lord along with copies of my other research about the little ships from East Anglia. More than “a few” of those were taken over by their owners after May 28th.

Unfortunately, May 28th, 1940, was too late for my father and his Business partner, who lost 6 of their 7 vessels because of the RN-institutional arrogance.

Julian Wilson, F.I.Diag.E., MSc. BA, [Medieval History]
Family  Historian, Marine Historian, Medieval Historian

Document: copy of letter written to Winston Chuchill.

Winston Churchill Letter