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How Ramsgate played a crucial role in Operation Dynamo rescuing thousands of soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940


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This week marks 80 years since the Isle of Thanet played a major part in one of the most heroic operations of the Second World War.

As Allied forces found themselves surrounded by the Germans in the Battle of France, more than 300,000 British, French and Belgians were in desperate need of being rescued.

The British Expeditionary Forces arriving in small boats from Dunkirk. Picture dated May, 1942
The British Expeditionary Forces arriving in small boats from Dunkirk. Picture dated May, 1942

Trapped on the French coast between the enemy and the murky expanse of the Channel, it looked to be an impossible situation for hundreds of thousands of lives.

But when news of defeat at Dunkirk reached Britain, a remarkable plan was hatched to rescue the brave soldiers, with the help of hundreds of civilians.

The plan was named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Dunkirk evacuation or the Miracle of Dunkirk.

It was decided the rescue operation could only work with small ships that could get close to the shoreline – but to rescue the sheer number of soldiers there would need to be hundreds of vessels.

Huge navy ships, which would be able to house many more people, would not be able to get close enough to the beaches to rescue the troops.

Winston Churchill inspects air raid damage at Ramsgate in Kent, 28 August 1940
Winston Churchill inspects air raid damage at Ramsgate in Kent, 28 August 1940

This meant amassing a huge number of small ships protected by Navy warships and the Royal Air Force.

The fleet needed a suitable place to embark – a location close to transport links where civilian rescue ships could be prepared.

With its large harbour and Royal Navy shore base Ramsgate was considered the perfect place for a large portion of the 800-strong fleet to prepare.

The seaside town had become a strangely quiet place since the beginning of the war. With many residents evacuating to safer places than the vulnerable coastline, less than half of the town's population were left.

But the kickstart of Operation Dynamo breathed life back into the town, as brave people volunteered to make the perilous journey across the channel.

The Medway Queen loaded with soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk.
The Medway Queen loaded with soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk.

The 'Little Ships' were a ragtag assortment of boats not made for combat - fishing boats, lifeboats and pleasure crafts, which joined the light warships of the Navy to offer a crucial lifeline to the trapped soldiers on the French beaches.

Among them was a paddle steamer called The Medway Queen, also dubbed the Heroine of Dunkirk.

The former pleasure cruiser made seven return trips from Dunkirk to the English coast, rescuing 7,000 troops and shooting down three German planes which posed a huge risk to the rescue fleet.

The ship has since been restored, and can be visited on Gillingham Pier where it's now berthed.

Operation Dynamo took time to build a steady flow of ships travelling from the Ramsgate harbour, as convoys were planned and organised to begin the journey.

The daring mission was dramatised in Christopher Nolan's 2017 film Dunkirk. PA Photo/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Melinda Sue Gordon.
The daring mission was dramatised in Christopher Nolan's 2017 film Dunkirk. PA Photo/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Melinda Sue Gordon.

Between May 27 and June 4, 1940, between 700 and 800 boats made the perilous crossing, sailing through a graveyard of sunken ships and dodging Luftwaffe gunfire to return the Allied soldiers to safety in Britain.

In a speech to Parliament on June 4, 1940, Churchill said: "The Royal Navy, with the willing help of countless merchant seamen, strained every nerve to embark the British and Allied troops; 220 light warships and 650 other vessels were engaged.

"They had to operate upon the difficult coast, often in adverse weather, under an almost ceaseless hail of bombs and an increasing concentration of artillery fire.

"Nor were the seas, as I have said, themselves free from mines and torpedoes."

Sadly, many boats, soldiers and civilians did not survive the journey.

"They had to operate upon the difficult coast, often in adverse weather, under an almost ceaseless hail of bombs and an increasing concentration of artillery fire..."

Years later, it has become tradition for people across the county to mark the courage and determination of the rescue fleet by attending annual events at Ramsgate Harbour.

Ten years ago, for the 70th anniversary of the operation, more than 50 craft used in the voyage to Dunkirk gathered at the harbour.

But this year, due to the ongoing pandemic, the marking of 80 years since Operation Dynamo has been postponed.

Organisers The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS), were hoping for a fleet of ships to make the journey across to the Dunkirk beaches once again, just as they did 80 years ago.

They are now looking to reschedule the event in 2021.

Little Ships at Ramsgate Harbour
Little Ships at Ramsgate Harbour

Ian Gilbert, the Rear Admiral at ADLS, said: "It is extremely sad that we have had to make the decision to postpone Dunkirk80.

"A huge amount of work has already gone into the arrangements both here and in Dunkirk, and many hours have been devoted to the preparation of the Little Ships for this commemorative crossing.

"It is only the second time we have not sailed since the first return in 1965."

Read more: All the latest news from Thanet

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