Every type of boat at Dunkirk

IT was one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. In Operation Dynamo a convoy of small unarmed private craft, suddenly pressed into service, sailed across the English Channel under fire to evacuate 347,131 Allied troops trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, not only saving them from death, injury or incarceration as POWs but also ensuring that they lived to fight another day.

IT was one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. In Operation Dynamo a convoy of small unarmed private craft, suddenly pressed into service, sailed across the English Channel under fire to evacuate 347,131 Allied troops trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, not only saving them from death, injury or incarceration as POWs but also ensuring that they lived to fight another day.

Dunkirk occasionally finds its way into this column and today we revisit it with John Ball, of South Garden, Gorleston, a member of one of the leading local fishing families of yesteryear.

As most Yarmouth and Lowestoft drifters were already on war service, little local fishing boats, shrimpers, pleasure craft, Gorleston lifeboat Louise Stephens and Broads cruisers were recruited for this hazardous mission, assembling under local Skipper Leslie Balls and heading to Ramsgate in a motley convoy to join the burgeoning rescue fleet.

I think his flagship was probably the Oulton Belle, built at Fellows' Southtown shipyard ten years earlier and a favourite with holidaymakers who enjoyed pleasure trips from Yarmouth and Lowestoft until war broke out.

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According to John Ball, Skipper Balls - his uncle - mustered a reliable experienced crew but was one short. All local fishermen had already joined up but “after a frantic search of quayside public houses he managed to flush out a local character renowned for his regular excursions to the police cells following drunken brawls or ill-treatment of his long-suffering wife, although when at sea this wharf rat and wastrel was always well-behaved because he was away from the bottle.

“His immediate reaction was one of amazement that he should be asked to risk life and limb to save those soldiers who had 'let the Germans run all over them'. However, Leslie's persuasive appeal to his better nature resulted in a compromise: he would help to crew the ship to Ramsgate but take no further part.

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“In fact, he would be on the first train home.”

The voyage to the Kent port took two days but on arrival, the Yarmouth contingent found fine weather had resulted in Operation Dynamo being almost over, with a few naval vessels mopping up.

“Nevertheless the tension which had built up during this epic operation created an almost electric atmosphere and our erstwhile renegade was all fired up to go over there and finish the job!”

Years later Leslie Balls relayed this episode to his youngest brother, Ronnie, already an accomplished essayist and author, who turned it into a short story and submitted it to the BBC, who preferred it as a play. “The outcome was First Train Home, broadcast in 1960 with an all-Yarmouth cast, and repeated on the 25th anniversary of Dunkirk.

“Using a touch of poetic licence, it ended with the crew crossing the Channel and helping with the rescue. The final paragraph said with some poignancy, 'They did not take the first or any train home: some of the crew did not go home at all.'”

John Ball, whose 2007 book on the herring industry, Out of Yarmouth Harbour - available in local outlets - has already benefited Caister lifeboat and Yarmouth Inshore Fishing Federation by £300 - emphasises: “Fishing boats from this area played a small but significant part in Operation Dynamo. Most were...part of, or connected with, minesweeping.”

A flotilla of East Anglian ex-fishing craft, including the Lord Cavan, Silver Dawn, Fisher Boy, Jacketa and Formidable were ordered to act as Operation Dynamo ferries between the harbour and larger vessels lying outside. But they decided to sail back to Ramsgate and, although supposed to take around 100 men at a time, most took between 150 and 200.

“In total they brought back 4085 troops but the Lord Cavan was sunk by gunfire (one of the 30 vessels lost in the operation although the entire crew was saved.

“The record was Silver Dawn that took 312 on one trip (it would have been unsafe in anything but calm weather). On her last trip she damaged a propeller blade but still managed to get back with her passengers.”

One Tommy, exhausted after three sleepless days, fell asleep in a cosy spot below decks...and was missed when his rescue ship disembarked her troops and sailed on another trip. “He claimed to be the only soldier who was rescued twice,” writes Mr Ball, son of middle brother Billy.

During her Dunkirk mission the wooden Silver Dawn was LT194, registered in Lowestoft where she had been built in 1925, but in 1947 she was bought by Gorleston lifeboat coxswain Paul Williment and skipper Bob Stubbs, taking part in the postwar fishing from Yarmouth until she was broken up in 1956.

After the evacuation, the Oulton Belle returned to Yarmouth for a short period until being posted to the Firth of Clyde as a fleet tender, transferring American GIs from the Queens Mary and Elizabeth after their hazardous transatlantic voyage. When peace returned, she resumed her pleasure tripping from Yarmouth until 1954 when she was sold to Scarborough Cruises and renamed Regal Lady, taking passengers on trips along the Yorkshire coast.

There is an outside chance that Skipper Balls' flagship was another Fellows-built Yarmouth pleasure steamer, the Brit; both are on the official list of Dunkirk participants, but I doubt she was his command because she was already an Admiralty vessel, renamed HMS Watchful.

However, she did make three trips to Dunkirk, evacuating no fewer than 900 men, and in 1945 resumed tripping from Yarmouth, only to be sold to Scarborough Cruises and renamed Yorkshire Lady in 1951. In 1968 she was renamed Coronia, 17 years later headed to Gibraltar, and returned to the Yorkshire resort in 1991.

Both the Regal Lady and Yorkshire Lady were still plying their tripping trade when I visited Scarborough in 2005.

Mr Ball reckons two ex-drifter minesweepers were sunk in the Dunkirk epic - the Fairbreeze and Girl Pamela, both Lowestoft linked although the latter was Yarmouth-built for J Moore but sold to our rival port before the war. Two ex-Yarmouth drifters, Bloomfield's Ocean Reward and Ocean Sunlight, were also Channel casualties, the former lost during Dunkirk and the latter sunk by a mine ten days after Operation Dynamo. The Ocean Hunter participated unscathed at Dunkirk.

Other Yarmouth drifters used as minesweepers included, he says: recent additions to the herring fleet such as the steel-hulled Young Jacob, Ocean Lifebuoy, Ocean Lux, Ocean Vim, Rose Hilda, Ocean Treasure, Hosanna, Lichen, Playmates.

Mr Ball's list of war duties undertaken by other drifters (non-inclusive) is:

Auxiliary patrol: Girl Winifred, Romany Rose, Speranza, Young Ernie, Girl Nancy, Torbay II, Broadland (lost 1945), Ocean Retriever (lost 1943), Ocean Toiler. Examination service: Hilda Cooper, D'Arcy Cooper (lost 1944), Wydale, Girl Violet.

De-gaussing (removing unwanted magnetism): Ocean Gain, Ocean Guide, Ocean Pioneer, Young John.

Harbour service: Animate, Primevere, Girl Ena, Ocean Pilot, Supporter (lost 1944). Barrage balloon vesels: Comely Bank, New Spray, Our Kate, George Albert, Young Alfred. Water carriers: Boy Ray, Jack George, Furze. Anti-submarine tender: Gorse. Net layer: Ocean Swell.

Torpedo recovery: Animation. Mine recovery: Frons Olivae, Young Cliff, Achievable. Flare vessels: Girl Pamela and Ut Prosim (both lost).

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