The 1930s saw increasing evidence of difficulties to come and, as so often seems to be the case, Great Britain was ill-prepared. Breeding a new generation of naval officers and ratings, who have the experience and training to cope with the exigencies of war at sea, takes time.....

Preparing for war

The Little Ship Club was already established as the leading training organisation for navigation and seamanship in small craft and much of the instruction was in the hands of former naval officers. It was quite natural then for the Admiralty to turn to the Little Ship Club for help in training a Royal Naval Supplementary Volunteer Reserve. This effort was formally recognised in 1937 when the Admiralty awarded the Club a warrant to fly a defaced blue ensign - the Club is the only organisation ever to have been invited to apply for a warrant.

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, an act which signalled the beginning of the Second World War. The immediate military response was to despatch the British Expeditionary Force, eventually totalling over 390,000 men, to help defend the Franco-Belgian frontier. For some months - a period which became known as the "Phoney War" - little happened on that front and it was widely believed that the enemy was deterred by the massive French defences known as the Maginot Line.

Evacuation from Dunkirk

On 14 May 1940, this illusion was abruptly shattered when the German Army attacked in two major groups. In contrast to the essentially static warfare of twenty-odd years earlier, the Second World War was to prove highly mechanised and mobile. German forces rapidly outflanked the defenders, who were forced into retreat. Holding the line proved impossible and the British and French armies were pushed quickly into an enclave around Dunkirk. This French seaside town has a wide, sandy beach which shelves gently into the North Sea. Evacuating over a third of a million men in a hurry needed big ships but transferring land-based troops from a beach required large numbers of small craft with relatively shallow draught.

Lack of historical record

You could be forgiven for thinking that such a large undertaking as assembling an armada of boats off Dunkirk would have left strong traces in the historical record. In fact, this is not the case, with organisations such as the National Archives unable to produce much in the way of official evidence. The reason for this lack of documentation is quite simple: the whole episode developed and came to a head in a remarkably short space of time. Just over ten days elapsed between the onset of the German attack and the order being given in London to begin the evacuation. The possibilities of highly mobile warfare had run well ahead of the military thinking of the day and the urgency of the situation demanded extremely rapid action.

The Little Ship Club's role

There is a certain mythology surrounding the evacuation from Dunkirk, partly driven by the needs of wartime propaganda and partly brought about by post-war dramatisations in the cinema. The image of the plucky civilian skipper and his crew of weekend sailors heading off to the beach is largely a fiction - but not entirely.

In the main, the Royal Navy commandeered small craft and towed them to Ramsgate where they were assigned naval crews. The plain fact is that civilians are something of a liability under battle conditions. There were, however, some notable exceptions involving Little Ship Club members. Basil Smith, owner of the small motor cruiser 'Constant Nymph', went with his boat. At the time, he displayed the reticence characteristic of his generation; after the war, though, the story of his deeds emerged. Accounts in the Club's journal reveal a tale of considerable courage and determination in which Dr. Smith and 'Constant Nymph' brought some 900 men off the beach under continual enemy fire. Even more thrilling is the story of Lieutenant-Commander Lightoller, who took another motor cruiser, 'Sundowner', across with his son, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Commander Lightoller, who had been second mate of the 'Titanic' and had a distinguished career in the Navy during the First World War, had another son in the Royal Air Force who had given him some tips on avoiding trouble. Out in the North Sea, glorious weather meant that there was nowhere to hide. 'Sundowner' was machine-gunned and bombed by three enemy aircraft. Following the advice of his pilot son and taking evasive action at the very last moment - practically waiting until the bullets were stitching a line up the sea towards him Commander Lightoller narrowly avoided being hit. Eventually, a Royal Navy destroyer showed up and drove off the enemy with an anti-aircraft barrage. 'Sundowner' subsequently took several hundred men off the beach.

Both Dr Smith and Commander Lightoller survived but others were not so fortunate. To this day, there is a tattered Club blue ensign hanging in a frame on the wall at the Club with the poignant legend: "Found on the beach at Dunkirk - owner unknown".

Recognition of achievement

The Second World War has been described as the greatest drama the world has ever seen and many stirring deeds will have gone unrecorded. One, however, was recognised from afar. In the United States, the Cruising Club of America made its "Blue Water Cruising Award" for 1940 to "British Yachtsmen" for their role at Dunkirk. The award was presented in London, by an officer of the United States Navy, jointly to the Royal Cruising Club, the Royal Ocean Racing Club and the Little Ship Club. A replica of the medal, in a descriptive mounting, is displayed in the Club's foyer.


The planned invasion of Great Britain never took place and, for the time being, our armed forces were fully occupied elsewhere. On land, the most active theatre was the desert of North Africa and at sea, the Royal Navy was at full stretch combating the U-boat menace. It is not often realised that the Allies came closer to losing the Second World War in the Battle of the Atlantic than in the Battle of Britain - all that pre-war training undertaken by the Little Ship Club was proving invaluable.

Eventually the authorities were able to start planning for some contingencies. In 1942, Lieutenant-Commander Quill, then Secretary of the Little Ship Club, and his counterparts in a few of the other major sailing organisations, were summoned to a secret meeting at the Admiralty. It was agreed that a register be set up to record the details of boats and crews able to serve in the event of any future emergency. The archives of the Little Ship Club contain extensive correspondence between the Secretary and his counterparts in coastal sailing clubs.

Post-war sequel

The legacy of Dunkirk and the deeds of British yachtsmen is still alive today. In 1967, the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships was founded to bring together the owners of surviving small craft which had taken men off the beach. The Little Ship Club maintains regular friendly contact with the Association.

What happened to Dr. Smith and Commander Lightoller? Well, Dr. Smith joined the army and became the first member of the Club to be decorated for his gallantry; in the 1950s, he continued his service to others by joining the Mine Watching Service; Commander Lightoller had turned seventy by the time the war ended but afterwards took up building boats on the Thames for the river police.