Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from
Dunkirk of 27 May-4 June 1940, is one of the most celebrated military events in British history, and yet it was the direct result of one of the most crushing defeats suffered by the British army. Only eighteen days before the start of the evacuation the combined British and French armies had been seen as at least equal to the Germans. If Belgium and Holland
came into the war, then the combined Allied armies could field 144 divisions,
three more than the Germans. Even without Belgium and Holland the
Allies outnumbered the Germans by almost two-to-one in artillery and by nearly 50% in tanks. For over six months the two armies had faced each other across the Franco-German border, but on 10 May the German offensive in the west began, and that all changed. After only ten days German tanks reached the Channel at Abbeville, splitting the Allied armies in two. All the Germans had to do to trap the BEF without any hope of escape was turn north and sweep along the almost undefended channel coast.
Instead the BEF was able to fight its way to Dunkirk, where between 27 May and 4 June a total of 338,226 Allied troops were rescued from Dunkirk and the beaches. At the end of 4 June
enough of the BEF had escaped from the trap to enable Churchill to convince his
cabinet colleagues to fight on, regardless of the fate of France.
The War Office made the decision to evacuate British forces
on 25 May.
In the nine days from 27 May-4 June, 338,226 men escaped, including
139,997 French, Polish and Belgian troops, together with a small number of
Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels (of which 243 were sunk during the
The docks at Dunkirk
were too badly damaged to be used but the East and West Moles (sea walls
protecting the harbour entrance) were intact.
Captain William Tennant, in charge
of the evacuation, decided to use the beaches and the East Mole to land the
ships. This highly successful idea hugely increased the number of troops that could be embarked each day, and indeed at the rescue operation's peak, on 31 May, over 68,000 men were taken off.
The last of the British Army left on 3 June, and at 10:50,
Tennant signalled Ramsay to say "Operation completed. Returning to Dover."
Churchill insisted on coming back for the French, so the Royal Navy returned on 4 June in an attempt to rescue as many as possible of the French rearguard. Over 26,000 French troops were lifted off on that last day, but between 30,000 and 40,000 French soldiers were left behind and forced to surrender to the Germans.
In 1939, with the
outbreak of the Second World War, Challenge was put under admiralty orders. She
took part in the evacuation of British and allied troops from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk,
France, who had been cut off
by the German army during the Battle of Dunkirk.
Along with her sister ship Contest and other tugs from the Thames, Challenge was an integral part of the fleet of
Little Ships which rescued over 338,000 men. These small vessels, which had
been commandeered by the Royal Navy, were able to get in close to the beaches
and take the troops to safety. All types of small craft were involved. River
launches and pleasure boats, Thames barges and
tugs. The barges carried supplies of food and water to the troops, and the tugs
which berthed the larger ships at the Mole, the long stone and wooden jetty at
the mouth of the port, also towed disabled vessels back to England.
We have found some of the recollections of Mr C.W. Wenban
from which we can piece together Challenges movements during the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Mr Wenban was a
waterman who happened to be standing on the Royal Terrace Pier, Gravesend. He was asked if he was free to make up the
crew of the Gravesend steam tug Challenge. He
was told the job was probably connected with getting troops out.
Of course he said yes.
He went home to get a couple of shirts and a toothbrush and
told his wife Dorothy what he was doing.
Before long he was aboard Challenge proceeding to Dover for orders. Once
there under Gravesender Captain C. Parker they were told to collect a barge
loaded with supplies and tow it across for the boys trapped at Dunkirk.
Mr Wenban recalled "We got to Dunkirk and received directions to put the barge ashore further along the shore. So we steamed along to the position they said, but instead of British troops we found Germans had occupied the ground. We quickly turned about back to Dunkirk harbour and this time we were told to go to La Panne. Challenge had just let go of the barge having run it at the beach at full speed ahead, when we watched a dive bomber come in to attack.
The plane went for the barge and dropped a bomb which blew the barge right out of the water. There were five army men on the barge. According to my information only one man survived, and he was a Gravesend man who I later met in Dover."
Challenge carried out a few towing jobs for the Navy control before setting back under orders for Dover
"On our way back we found a damaged destroyer loaded with troops" continued Mr Wenban "We got a line to her and towed her back to port, where the troops were able to disembark safely."
When entering Dunkirk waters
for the first time the first vessel that the crew of the Challenge observed was her sister tug Contest which was also crewed from Gravesend.
Both tugs where unarmed.
Back at Dover,
a few more towing jobs where done. One task was to issue ladders around to Navy
ships in the harbour. These were later used to enable thousands of troops to
embark from the Dunkirk
harbour arm down to the deck of the rescuing destroyer.
When a returning destroyer was rammed by a cross channel
ferry at the entrance of Dover
harbour Mr Wenban dived into the oily water and rescued two men from the water
get them into a French naval Pinnace.
On the final night of the evacuation Challenge was one of
the last craft to steam across the Channel to visit the beaches "We were under command of a naval officer
this time, although the vessel was still under the red ensign." Mr Wenban said
"When we got there there was a lot of noise going on from German guns.
There were many big fires. It was obvious that our little tug could do no more,
although we told to try and bring back anything we could see. Our officer
eventually ordered the tug back to Dover."
Returning to the Thames, Challenge was equipped with a flying bridge to mount an Oerlikon cannon and a
fore-bridge for two Lewis guns.
Work included towing the Maunsell Towers out to the Thames Estuary where they formed the front line of defence against invasion. Later jobs included towing parts of the Mulberry Harbour which ensured the success of the D Day landings in 1944. In the same year, a VI flying bomb exploded in the water close alongside causing extensive damage and
lighting a number of fires. Fortunately she survived and some of the shrapnel holes are still in evidence.