"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

October 22, 2009

DUNKIRK - 1940

Fireboat Massey Shaw at sea


At the start of World War II, the London fireboat Massey Shaw performed heroically as a member of the fleet of "Little Ships" that evacuated British soliders from Dunkirk in France.

Navy sailors and London firemen worked side by side to rescue members of the British Expeditionary Force defeated by the German Army.

According to the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships:

"The fires of Dunkirk gave them enough light to work by and the thick blanket of smoke provided some cover from air attack. But the shelling from German guns was relentless. The two Naval officers set a splendid example of calm and the beach party rowed ashore, fixing a line to maintain contact with the fire-float. After four or five journeys, the Massey Shaw was full once more with troops pressed together in the cabin and standing shoulder-to-shoulder on deck. Her load of nearly l00 men was transferred to a troopship at anchor in the channel and she returned to be re-loaded.

"After some engine trouble that the naval stokers who were unused to the Massey Shaw's machinery, eventually managed to overcome, stretcher cases began to arrive and these were hard to handle and transfer to the troopship. They made about five journeys from the beach to a paddle steamer and it was estimated that they embarked 500 men in this way. As dawn broke, the troopship was full and left for England. Massey Shaw returned to the beach and started loading again. At this point, on a falling tide, they began to bump on the sands and were in danger of damaging their propellers but, with their engines throbbing at full power, they just managed to get back into deep water. At 0330 they were the last boat to leave that part of the beach. Halfway across the channel, the Naval skipper began to have doubts about the compass, but then, to his relief, came across a drifter towing two small boats packed with troops. They followed them into Ramsgate where they arrived at 0800 on Sunday 2nd June, landing 30 or 40 more soldiers.

"The Massey Shaw returned to Dunkirk again the next evening with a Fire Service crew. This time they went to the jetty of Dunkirk harbour. It was difficult for soldiers to board her from the towering jetty and she came away empty. After returning to Ramsgate, she was ordered back to London. Off Margate, the Emile Deschamps, a French ship which had sailed to England from Dunkirk laden with troops the previous night, was passing her at a distance of 200 yards when it struck a mine and sank almost immediately. The Massey Shaw picked up 40 men, all severely injured and took them back to Ramsgate. Early on Wednesday 5th, she finally returned to London and as she came up the river she was cheered as she passed each fire station."