Dickinson at Dunkirk – by Mark Dickinson

My father was a participant in one of the most memorable triumphs of twentieth century history: The Evacuation of Dunkirk.

The Dunkirk evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo and also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War Two from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk in the north  of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940. The operation commenced after large numbers of Belgian, British, and French troops were cut off and surrounded by German troops during the six-week Battle of France. In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called this “a colossal military disaster”, saying “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech on 4 June, he hailed their rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.

After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, France and the British Empire declared war on Germany and imposed an economic blockade. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to help defend France. After the Phoney War of October 1939 to April 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and France on 10 May 1940. Three panzer corps attacked through the Ardennes and drove northwest to the English Channel. By 21 May, German forces had trapped the BEF, the remains of the Belgian forces, and three French field armies along the northern coast of France. The BEF commander immediately saw evacuation across the Channel as the best course of action, and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest good port.

Late on 23 May, a halt order was issued by the German commander. Adolf Hitler approved this order the next day, and had the German High Command sent confirmation to the front. Attacking the trapped BEF, French, and Belgian armies was left to the Luftwaffe until the order was rescinded on 26 May. This gave Allied forces time to construct defensive works and pull back large numbers of troops to fight the Battle of Dunkirk. From 28 to 31 May, the remaining 40,000 men of the French First Army fought a delaying action against seven German divisions, including three armoured divisions.

On the first day only 7,669 Allied soldiers were evacuated, but by the end of the eighth day, 338,226 had been rescued by a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 vessels. Many troops were able to embark from the harbour’s protective mole onto 39 British Royal Navy destroyers, four Royal Canadian Navy destroyers, at least three French Navy destroyers, and a variety of civilian merchant ships. Others had to wade out from the beaches, waiting for hours in shoulder-deep water. Some were ferried to the larger ships by what became known as the Little Ships of Dunkirk, a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts, and lifeboats called into service from Britain. The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and had to abandon nearly all of its tanks, vehicles, and equipment. In his 4 June speech, Churchill also reminded the country that “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

After his school years and one year sailing around the world in a four-masted square-rigger, my father worked as a “land manager” (whatever that was). In the late 1930’s he joined the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and when war broke out with Germany in 1939 he joined the Royal Navy as a sub lieutenant. During the war he rose in the ranks to Lieutenant Commander in charge of a flotilla of minesweepers. But when the evacuation of Dunkirk took place he was seconded from the Royal Navy back to the RNLI. He played an active role in the evacuation. On his first trip to the beaches he was second in command of an RNLI vessel which was captained by a person my father suggested to me was a coward. The task was to reach the beach, load with evacuees and then return to England. My father told me that enroute, the cowardly skipper ran the boat through many, many soldiers perishing in the water and refused to stop to pick them up. My father was disgusted. On his next trips into Dunkirk he was in command and he did the job properly.

Here is an account, word for word, of his exploits as written in “Storm on the Waters”, the story of the lifeboat service in the war of 1939-1945, by Charles Vince, published in October, 1946.

One of the inspectors of the Life-boat Service, now in the Navy, Sub-Lieutenant Stephen Dickinson, found himself in command of the Southwold life-boat. He had already made two trips to Dunkirk, and on Saturday, the 1st of June, he went over for the third time on board a paddle-steamer, the Emperor of India. She had the life-boat and two other boats in tow. At eleven that night she anchored off Dunkirk, and Mr. Dickinson was sent ashore in the life-boat towing two of the ship’s boats. High explosive shells and shrapnel were bursting all along the beach, and it was empty of troops. They were sheltering in the town.

The first lieutenant of the Emperor of India landed and went in search of them, while the three boats waited in the surf under fire. They waited for two hours. It was one in the morning when the men arrived and in two journeys the life-boat, and the two ship’s boats in tow of her, brought off 160 men. Shortly before dawn the commander of the Emperor of India decided to return to Dover, but Mr. Dickinson remained with the Southwold life-boat, went to shore for the third time, and took on board his third load of fifty men. It was now dangerously near dawn. He tried to push the life-boat off the beach, but she was fast. He tried again; still she would not move. Then a soldier in her bows called out, “Hoi, mister, you’re pushing against a lorry”. It must have been run out into the sea to make a pier until it was almost submerged and the life-boat had missed it unseen in the darkness. She worked clear of it, unloaded her fifty men on to a ship and returned for the fourth time, but her engine stopped and could not be restarted . It was now day and she was helpless on the beach, but the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston life-boat, making for England with troops on board, came within hail and took off her crew. That afternoon the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston life-boat arrived at Dover, and there Mr. Dickinson had some sleep, the first for several days. Next morning – it was now Monday the 3rd of June – he volunteered for another trip, and got from Commander Upton the Shoreham Harbour life-boat. He led a marauding party round the dockyard, found a large sheet of steel, which he fastened behind the steering wheel, built a screen of fenders on either side, and with his helmsman so protected, and a white ensign almost as large as the boat herself at his masthead, was about to sail on his fourth journey when he was stopped. The shelling was now reported to be so heavy on the beaches that boats were forbidden to go across.

For his actions at Dunkirk my father was Mentioned in Dispatches, a fairly notable and distinguished honour. To be mentioned in dispatches describes a member of the Royal Navy whose name appears in an official report written by a superior officer and sent to the high command, in which their gallant or meritorious action in the face of the enemy is described.

The white ensign, the official flag of the Royal Navy, noted above was the same one he had flown during his previous trips into Dunkirk. We still have that flag. It was draped over my father’s coffin prior to his cremation, and it is now stored in my office.

My father played a role in another very significant and historic event, D Day, the Normandy landings in June 1944. He went in on D Plus One, in other words June 7th, to sweep for mines off the beaches of Normandy. And that is all I know about that episode.

There may well be other pieces of History in which members of the family played a part, but I am not aware of them.

Van Isle Marina was purchased by Stephen and Esther Dickinson in 1955. In 1970, Stephen and Esther had a 41-foot ketch, Kapduva, built in Hong Kong, and they spent the next 12 years sailing around the world before they settled into a more sedate retirement on Saltspring Island.