A true national service
IT was one of the darkest days in the history of the British Army. The evacuation of the beaches at Dunkirk marked the crushing final note of a battle defeat that threatened to lead to an invasion of the British Isles.
But even in our darkest hour, Winston Churchill managed to raise the spirits of the British people, by cleverly emphasising the "miracle of deliverance".
The nation rallied to rescue the Allied forces, who were stranded at Dunkirk with the full might of the Third Reich steamrollering them off mainland Europe.
In just nine days a remarkable 338,226 soldiers were plucked off the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, thanks to an impromptu flotilla of around 700 merchant marine boats – everything from fishing boats, pleasure craft and RNLI lifeboats took to the Channel to bring "our boys" home.
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As the nation marks the 70th anniversary of the first day of the evacuation – codenamed Operation Dynamo – one Bristol resident is looking back down the decades with particular poignancy.
Now aged 85, back in 1940 Tom Mogg was a keen 16-year-old apprentice with the General Steam Navigation Company.
"I was based at the company's HQ at Deptford," he says. "As well as 35 bigger ships, the company ran 10 Thames pleasure boats, which were ideal for rescuing troops at Dunkirk because they could carry up to 2,000 passengers and they could make up to 21 knots," Tom explains, as he looks through a stack of old photographs of ships in the lounge of his Brentry home – stopping finally on a picture of the Royal Daffodil proudly cutting through the monochrome waves.
"In the end these boats saved 10 per cent of all those rescued from the French beaches. Some of the boats didn't make it – the Crested Eagle and the Queen of the Channel were both sunk. But the one that sticks in my mind was the Royal Daffodil."
The Royal Daffodil made seven trips to Dunkirk in total, rescuing more than 8,500 troops and ferrying them back home under almost constant fire from the Luftwaffe. But the reason the little ship is so firmly anchored in Tom's memory is that as an apprentice at Deptford, south east London, Tom was given the job of reporting the damage that had befallen the ship.
"By the time the ship limped into the docks at Deptford it was barely afloat. I was literally asked to go and count the bullet holes – and there were thousands of them," says Tom.
"One of the ship's lifeboats alone had 187 individual bullet holes.
"When I walked into the ship, it was a bright sunny day outside, and it gave the impression that I was walking into a colander – there were so many shafts of light beaming in through the holes left by German machine gun bullets.
"So I had a long day going around the ship with one of the other chaps, and we simply circled every bullet hole we found, measured it, and made a note of it in a special logbook.
"If the hole was more than two inches across it had to be fixed by a shipwright, less than two inches and it could be done by a carpenter."
But the ship had a more pressing problem than the bullet holes.
"The Royal Daffodil had also been dive-bombed on its final crossing," Tom says. "And the bomb had passed through three decks into the engine room, miraculously missing the fuel tank by inches, and exiting the hull before it exploded.
"It had been a very lucky escape for those onboard the ship," he adds. "The damage caused was still considerable, however, and the captain had to instruct all the soldiers onboard to move to the port side of the ship to try to raise the hole in the starboard side out of the water. Meanwhile, the second engineer and another crew member managed to block up the hole with mattresses and timber, which allowed her to get back to Ramsgate, where the troops departed, and temporary repairs were carried out before she was brought to our yard at Deptford."
Tom went on to serve in the Merchant Navy throughout much of the 1950s, and later came to Bristol to work as chief superintendent for the district's 12 swimming baths, before finally setting up his own business, TAM Engineering, in 1980.
But it's that day counting bullet holes in the Royal Daffodil that sticks in Tom's mind as one of the most remarkable days of his entire career.
"The company had agents in all the ports on the south coast, and they were continually phoning up with details of the ships being lost in the Channel throughout the evacuation," he says. "So we were more aware of the scale of the operation than most members of the public.
"But it was the process of counting all those bullet holes that peppered the ship that has really stuck with me. It brought it all home to see the ferocity of the attack that the 'little ships' had suffered as they attempted to rescue our men from the beaches."