Dunkirk 'little ship' back in Devon from France for major restoration
4th June 2020
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Hero of Dunkirk finally returns home: Historic ‘little ship’ that took part in daring evacuation of Allied troops in World War II is brought back to Devon from France for major restoration

  • The Jane Hannah MacDonald III helped in the rescue of over 300,000 soldiers
  • The lifeboat was briefly sunk during Operation Dynamo but was later refloated
  • After the Second World War she had several owners and was stored in Migennes
  • The three Devon men have bought her for £7,500 and now hope to refurbish her

A historic ‘little ship’ that took part in the daring evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk has been returned to Devon for major restoration.

The Jane Hannah MacDonald III helped in the rescue of more than 300,000 soldiers from the beaches of northern France in 1940.

The lifeboat was briefly sunk during Operation Dynamo but was refloated due to buoyancy boxes in its hull.

After its voyage to northern France in the Second World War the vessel had several owners and was most recently was stored in Migennes, France.

Three Devon men have bought her for £7,500 and hope to refurbish her and have her back in the water.

The Jane Hannah MacDonald III helped in the rescue of more than 300,000 soldiers from the beaches of northern France in 1940. Pictured: Two of the new boat owners Rob Braddick (left) and Simon Morris

The lifeboat (pictured in May 1910) was briefly sunk during Operation Dynamo but was refloated due to buoyancy boxes in its hull

After its voyage to northern France in the Second World War the vessel had several owners and was most recently was stored in Migennes, France (pictured)

Operation Dynamo and the ‘little ships’

TheDunkirk evacuation, dubbed Operation Dynamo, saw 338,000 troops rescuedfrom the beaches of northern France between May 27 and June 4, 1940. Itcame after the speed of the German advance through the Netherlands,Belgium, Luxembourg and France left nearly half a million British andFrench troops trapped there.

The rescue was led by the Royal Navy, which drafted in ships and boats of every size. Dunkirk is remembered for the safe evacuation of the Allied troops but things could have been very different.

British and French soldiers hadfailed to halt the German advance and retreated to the port in NorthernFrance, separated from the rest of the French army. Thetroops, who had fled without much of their heavy equipment, could havebeen been slaughtered, but the German troops were ordered to wait.

The decision gave a vital window of opportunity for British soldiers to be rescued across the Channel.

There would not have been enoughcapacity if only military ships had been used and the large craft wouldalso have struggled to get close to the beach in shallow water.

The solution was to use private yachts and pleasure boats when the call for an emergency evacuation was given on May 26 1940. Aten-day evacuation, named Operation Dynamo, brought around 338,000British and French troops back to England between May 27 and June 4,1940. The Royal Navy sent 220 light warships and 650 other vessels under a hail of bombs and artillery fire. Survivors described bodies floating in the water around them.

One of them, holiday park owner Rob Braddick, told the BBC: ‘If we can get it refurbished and put back into Appledore or Bideford, that would be great.

‘Knowing it was one of the Little Ships of Dunkirk was such an interesting story – a real bonus. The boat has had some history.’

The lifeboat cost £931 to build at the Thames Iron Works in Blackwall in 1909 and first set sail on August 31, 1910.

She was given to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution by a wealthy London-based socialite of the same name.

She was stationed in Appledore, Devon, from September 1910 to November 1922 – where she was launched 22 times and saved 23 lives – then moved to Eastbourne.

The vessel was requisitioned for the Dunkirk rescue mission in May 1940, which saw 850 little ships save more than 300,000 Allied troops saved from German forces on the French coast.

The Jane Hannah MacDonald III took on so many soldiers that water seeped up through her valves, the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships said.

At one point she sunk, but was refloated thanks to bouyancy boxes that were built into her hull.

After the war in 1948, the vessel was sold into commercial fishing and has passed through the hands of a number of owners before being stored in Migennes.

Lifeboat enthusiast John Vistuer got it from expat Simon Evans in August 2014 and tasked Mr Braddick and Simon and James Morris to get her back to Britain and restore her.

The information technology specialist from Reading was drawn to the vessel after reading about the courage of former RNLI men who sailed it during stormy weather.

He told DevonLive: ‘It’s a boat which is 110 years old and still exists, which is amazing enough in itself.

‘It comes from the days when people rowed boats to rescues – when you think they did that from Appledore, rowing out and over the bar in a force nine gale, that is really something.’

He added: ‘She saved 23 lives between 1910 and 1922. How many people are descended from those whose lives she saved? It’s incredible.’

The lifeboat cost £931 to build at the Thames Iron Works in Blackwall in 1909 and first set sail on August 31, 1910 (pictured)

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940.  The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned.

Described as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.  

The Second World War began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but for a number of months there was little further action on land. But in early 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and then launched an offensive against Belgium and France in western Europe.

Hitler’s troops advanced rapidly, taking Paris – which they never achieved in the First World War – and moved towards the Channel.

They reached the coast towards the end of May 1940, pinning back the Allied forces, including several hundred thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Military leaders quickly realised there was no way they would be able to stay on mainland Europe.

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting. A ship laden with troops sets off for home as Dunkirk burns in the background

Operational command fell to Bertram Ramsay, a retired vice-admiral who was recalled to service in 1939. From a room deep in the cliffs at Dover, Ramsay and his staff pieced together Operation Dynamo, a daring rescue mission by the Royal Navy to get troops off the beaches around Dunkirk and back to Britain. 

On May 14, 1940 the call went out. The BBC made the announcement: ‘The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.’

Boats of all sorts were requisitioned – from those for hire on the Thames to pleasure yachts – and manned by naval personnel, though in some cases boats were taken over to Dunkirk by the owners themselves. 

They sailed from Dover, the closest point, to allow them the shortest crossing. On May 29, Operation Dynamo was put into action. 

When they got to Dunkirk they faced chaos. Soldiers were hiding in sand dunes from aerial attack, much of the town of Dunkirk had been reduced to ruins by the bombardment and the German forces were closing in.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned 

Above them, RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were headed inland to attack the German fighter planes to head them off and protect the men on the beaches.

As the little ships arrived they were directed to different sectors. Many did not have radios, so the only methods of communication were by shouting to those on the beaches or by semaphore. 

Space was so tight, with decks crammed full, that soldiers could only carry their rifles. A huge amount of equipment, including aircraft, tanks and heavy guns, had to be left behind.

The little ships were meant to bring soldiers to the larger ships, but some ended up ferrying people all the way back to England. The evacuation lasted for several days.

Prime Minister Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,00 men, but by June 4 more than 300,000 had been saved.

The exact number was impossible to gauge – though 338,000 is an accepted estimate – but it is thought that over the week up to 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued – men who would return to fight in Europe and eventually help win the war.

But there were also heavy losses, with around 90,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner. A number of ships were also lost, through enemy action, running aground and breaking down. Despite this, Dunkirk was regarded as a success and a great boost for morale.

In a famous speech to the House of Commons, Churchill praised the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ and resolved that Britain would fight on: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’ 

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