HSL 102 is currently berthed at the Portsmouth historic dockyard.
On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill, a long-time supporter of the RAF, became Prime Minister and on the very same day the Germans broke through the Ardennes, assaulting western Europe with fifty-four divisions. The Allies’ situation rapidly deteriorated and despite many courageous rearguard actions, the Germans swiftly overran France. By 20 May it was clear that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied personnel in the vicinity of the Channel ports would need to be evacuated. It was agreed by the War Office that non-essential personnel should be evacuated immediately in order to safeguard supplies for frontline troops. With effect from 20 May, 2,000 men would need to be evacuated each day and on 22 May a further 15,000 should be made ready. Early in May 1940 the Royal Navy had begun its requisitioning of cross-channel ferries, steamers, trawlers and other vessels. Some had been converted into hospital ships, minesweepers or escorts. A list had also been drawn up of all privately owned vessels. The intention was to be able to use various harbour craft and other vessels for non-essential work, freeing up the naval vessels. Although these early preparations probably did not have anything to do with the subsequent Dunkirk evacuation, foundations were in place that would prove invaluable.
The Dunkirk evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, began in earnest at 1857 hours on Sunday, 26 May 1940. The Luftwaffe had pounded Dunkirk harbour and the town; storage tanks were in flames, the quays were wrecked and only the west mole was capable of taking berthed vessels. As luck would have it, the BEF and their French allies managed to disengage from the advancing German divisions and the subsequent two-day pause in German land operations proved to be vital in evacuating many thousands of men. The speed at which the Germans had overrun France and had scattered the BEF and the French had taken Hitler by surprise, he faced complete victory and at the crucial moment was unsure how – or even whether – to press home his advantage.
Before 26 May 1940 some 28,000 men had already been evacuated from the Channel ports of Boulogne, Dunkirk and Ostend. On the first full day of Operation Dynamo (27 May), 8,000 men made it back to Dover. Despite having been severely damaged, the east mole was put into service on 28 May. Other vessels were coming in close to the shore and taking men straight off the beaches at Malo-les-Bains, Bray Dunes and La Panne. Indeed 6,000 of the 18,000 men rescued that day were taken from these beaches. A further 50,000 were evacuated the following day, but by now the Germans had resumed offensive land operations and La Panne was no longer safe. Elements of the BEF and the French doggedly held the shrinking perimeter around Dunkirk. Adverse wind conditions prevented men from being picked up from the beach and all the while there was the constant bombing and strafing from the Luftwaffe. None the less, 54,000 men were lifted from Dunkirk on 30 May.
On the night of Wednesday, 29 May the MCS was put on standby to assist in the evacuation. At Calshot, one pinnace and five seaplane tenders left their moorings at 0430. HSL 120 would proceed to Dover on June 3 and return to Calshot the following day. In all some six launches, Pinnace 32, seaplane tenders 243, 254, 276, 291 and AMC 3 (which belonged to the Civil Aviation Authority) began making for Dunkirk. Pinnace 32 headed for Ramsgate, but a fouled propeller meant that she would play no part in Operation Dynamo. The five seaplane tenders were towed out of Dover shortly after dawn on 31 May, but strong winds and rough seas meant that they had to proceed under their own power. They approached to within 12 miles (19 km) of the French coast and they then were engaged in ferrying troops off the beach to larger vessels out to sea. Throughout the entire operation they were under continued attack from German aircraft. It was estimated that the five seaplane tenders managed to save around 500 men.
Tender 254, with four crew members, was the first to be lost when she got in too close and was virtually capsized by the number of men attempting to clamber aboard. She was incapable of movement and had to be abandoned. AMC 3, with three crew members, including Corporal C. Webster, suffered a different fate. An army officer’s clothing got caught in the propellers and Webster was forced to cut the engines. The waves swept the boat around and it hit the beach and was holed.
Despite the fact that the seaplane tenders were unsuitable for work so close to the beach because of their underwater fittings (propellers, rudders, etc), they still made for the lines of men patiently waiting, sometimes up to their necks in the sea. Despite having lost ST 254 and AMC 3, the three remaining craft, which had all suffered underwater damage, continued to ferry men backwards and forwards. ST 276 and 291, after suffering significant damage, began to be towed back to Dover by a French vessel. ST 243 remained in the vicinity of Dunkirk for so long that it was only just able to return to Dover with the fuel it still had.
On 1 June, with the crews feverishly trying to repair and cannibalise their vessels, they were told that they would no longer be required. But by the early morning of the following day, two of the vessels had been made serviceable and in the event it was just as well because they were told to take a naval berthing party into Dunkirk harbour. The crews quickly collected extra fuel and requisitioned two Lewis guns, which were lashed to the boats with broken tow bars and an engine’s starting handle. With two boats and three crews, volunteers were asked for. Corporal Flower, Leading Aircraftmen Clarke and Wooton and Aircraftman White manned ST 276, whilst Corporal Lawson and Leading Aircraftmen Hunt and Lockwood and Aircraftman Kernohan crewed ST 243. Their passengers were twelve Royal Navy personnel, including a senior officer, who was accompanied by Pilot Officer Collins in command of the MCS party aboard ST 243.
According to the account given by Flower (who later became a Group Captain), the two vessels got underway at 1430 hours on 2 June. By 1700 hours they were around 8 miles (13 km) off Gravelines. No sooner had they come within hailing distance of one another in order to finalise how they would proceed into Dunkirk harbour than three Junkers 88 Stuka dive-bombers attacked them. Whilst Flower and Lawson took evasive action, three sticks of bombs and heavy machine-gun fire was unleashed against the two vessels. Wooton and Lockwood, the two crafts’ fitters, began to return fire with the Lewis guns. They both blazed away at the German aircraft as they circled for another attack. When it came a near miss on ST 243 split the vessel from stem to stern along the keel. It was only a matter of minutes before the seawater engulfed the engine and even as the launch sank, Lockwood continued to fire back. ST 276 swerved and turned in order to avoid the attacks.
The Germans made five more attacks on the little vessel, which was weaving at 18 knots. Wooton continued to return fire, but one of the attacks damaged the starboard engine and knocked out some of the controls in the wheelhouse. Amazingly nobody was hurt and as the German aircraft disappeared into the distance, ST 276 spun round to try to help the survivors of 243. None of the crew or passengers had been wounded, but they were suffering from skin burns from the petrol in the water and were finding it difficult to breathe because of the fumes. ST 276 had to make the difficult decision to abandon the survivors, otherwise there would have been no chance that the naval berthing party would have reached their destination at Dunkirk harbour. Indeed, according to Flower, the senior Royal Navy Officer, who was floating in the water with the other survivors, adamantly ordered them to head for Dunkirk. Flower promised to return to pick them up.
ST 276 was only capable of around 7 knots and as a result did not reach Dunkirk harbour until 1900 hours. She pulled alongside a Royal Navy motor torpedo boat and a senior naval officer, under German artillery fire, told Flower that he should scuttle the ST 276 and return to Dover aboard a destroyer. Flower refused; he had promised the survivors of ST 243 that he would come back to pick them up. A compromise was quickly reached and at sunset, with a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve lieutenant on board, they headed back along the coast to try to find the position where they had last seen the men floundering in the water. Darkness was closing in, but Flower and his crew continued their fruitless search until they were forced to give up. At 0730 on Monday, 3 June ST 276 moored in the inner submarine basin in Dover harbour. Of the people aboard ST 243, only Aircraftman Kernohan survived; the others were all lost.
By 2 June the situation around Dunkirk had deteriorated to such an extent that operations were now restricted to the hours of darkness. Throughout the 2 and 3 June evacuations continued, plucking another 52,000 men from certain capture. On 3 June, HSL 120, commanded by Pilot Officer R. G. Spencer, arrived in Dover. After just two hours to refuel and rest she was underway again at 1900 hours, headed for Dunkirk. Bizarrely they were accompanying an Admiral’s launch, which was under the command of Lieutenant C. W. S. Dreyer. Dreyer’s vessel, MTB 102, was on its eighth return trip to Dunkirk. Two days before she had come alongside the sinking HMS Keith and rescued Admiral Wake-Walker. The following day they had saved General Alexander. HSL 120 and MTB 102 were to escort Admiral Wake-Walker back to Dunkirk, where he was to supervise the embarkation of the last French troops.
When they approached Dunkirk harbour the water was littered with all manner of floating hazards. The crew also discovered that they had two stowaways on board, a pair of wireless operators from the Sunderland flying boats that had been moored at Calshot. They had been refused permission to accompany the vessel and after suffering from severe seasickness finally showed themselves. HSL 120 managed to make it back to Dover and on the morning of 4 June the last British vessel, a 40 ft (12 m) MTB commanded by Lieutenant J. Cameron, left Dunkirk harbour. By that stage, some 338,226 men had been extricated from either death or captivity. The immense effort to save these men was to prove decisive in the future and would ensure Britain’s ability to continue to wage war against Germany.