The little ships with big hearts – Leigh on sea and the Dunkrik Evacuation

On the 30th May 1940 a request was made from HMS Leigh for all ships to help with Operation Dynamo – the codename of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Many ships took up the call, most not prepared and equipped to face armed combat. The admiralty was calling out for small boats to requisition that had shallow drafts so that they could get close to shire on the beaches of Dunkirk. Their mission was to pick up soldiers and take them back to the larger ships further out to sea.


Word got to Leigh on Sea from HMS Westcliff. Rather than be requisitioned the 6 ships from Leigh went voluntary and fully crewed. They met at 8 am on the pier head and were provided by rations, fuel and some extra hands from the Royal Navy. Under the command of Sub Lieutenant M H B Solomon of the Royal Navy they set sail at 12.30. The ships would be 30 feet in length and 10feet wide they were Leigh Cockle bawleys.  Bawleys were broad beamed flat bottomed boats. They were designed to be beached at high tide on the sandbanks so the fishermen could gather cockles and shrimps. Their design made them perfect for Dunkirk.

Endeavour in the 1940s with crew members Jame Colin ‘Peter’ Stroud and Ivan Emery. Credit: Glynis Moss

The ships were called the Endeavour (Robinson crew); Renown (Harry Noaks crew); Reliant (Tony Meddle Crew); Leticia (Arthur Dench Crew); Resolute (Harry Osborn Crew) and the Defender (Harvey Crew). Their crew atlh9guh experienced fishermen had never really been out of the Thames estuary before.

Dunkirk could be seen from miles away due to the flames and smoke from the shore. Before reaching their destination around 18.30 the flotilla including our Leigh boats were attacked by enemy aircraft. At least five of the ships in the flotilla were sunk. Our Leigh ships regrouped and continued on their mission.

Some of the soldiers were reluctant to get on board the small ships but they soon changed their mind and it is accepted that the boats rescued hundreds of troops from death on the beaches of Dunkirk. Admiral Ramsey, in command of ‘Operation Dynamo’, said of the Leigh boats, “The conduct of the crews of these cockle boats was exemplary. They were all volunteers who were rushed over to Dunkirk in one day. Probably none of them had been under gunfire before and certainly none of them under naval discipline. These were Thames estuary fishing boats which never left the estuary and only one of their crews had been further afield than Ramsgate. Yet they maintained perfect formation throughout the day and night and all orders were obeyed with great diligence even under actual shellfire and aircraft attack.”

(GERMANY OUT) 2.WW Campaign in the west / battle of France 10.05.-22.06.1940: Dunkirk evac?ation of british BEF and french troops (26.05.-04.06.). : Allied troops on the beach waiting for evacuation. about (ullstein bild/Getty Images)

After the final brave run to collect soldiers, 8 hours later the ships made for home. The Endeavours rudder was smashed during the rescue and the Leitia and Renown were damaged too. Tragically the Renown was hit by a mine and was destroyed along with four crew members – Frank Osborne, Harry Noaks, Leslie Osborn and Naval Rating Harold Graham Porter. The soldiers on board had already been transferred to another larger ship.

In May 1968 a plaque was put up in the chapel of remberence at St. Clements church in Leigh to remember those who died on the Renown. A memorial was erected to all those that were involved in the Dunkirk rescue from Leigh in Leigh church. It quoted Arthur Denchs son John from a documentary in 2004 BBC Dunkirk series – ‘any of them boys who went to Dunkirk – who answered the call – they weren’t in the army or navy, they just answered the call – all of ‘em were heroes’.

Overall a total of 338,226 (198,229 British and 139,997 French) soldiers were rescued by those ships large and small who sailed to Dunkirk. 700 ships were privately owned and not controlled by the army. The rescue attempt went over 9 days and nearly one third of all those troops who returned were rescued by those smaller ships. The Endeavour and Resolute are the only two surviving ships from the Leigh flotilla that sailed to Dunkirk. She is registered in the association of Dunkirk little ships. She can be seen moored in Old Leigh, lovingly restored by the Leigh Endeavour Trust, with the help of grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Essex Heritage Trust and Cory Environmental and others.  Both ships were located in 2001 in Rochester. The Resolute, the other surviving Leigh boat was found to be beyond restoration.

Photo permission kindly given by the Endeavour Trust

The endeavour was built in Leigh on sea in 1924 by Cole and Wiggins for Harry Robinson. She is 36ft long, 11ft6in beam with a 3ft draft and has oak timbers. She has been involved in many events including a number of trips to Dunkirk (70th and 75th anniversary returns to Dunkirk in 2010 and 2015 amongst others) and also for the Queens flotilla for her Diamond Jubilee pageant in 2012.

For more information please visit the following webpage – The endeavour trust is an independent charity managed by enthusiastic and passionate volunteers. Without them the endeavour may be completely lost to us now. Please support them where you can. I want to thank them for allowing me the use of some of their photos of the ship.

Additional Note –

During the Second World War the area of the foreshore along Southend stretching along until Chalkwell was known as HMS Westcliff. It was taken over by the admiralty and also includes the Pier, the Palace Hotel and the Royal Terrace.  Included in this a 7 mile stretch of beach was called the HMS Westcliff and was for training and accommodation of troops. It was officially opened in 1942 by Lord Mountbatten.

Many ships from Southend and the local area were also involved in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Like the little flotilla from Leigh some survived and others did not. The boats from Southend tended to be more pleasure boats rather than the fishing boats from Leigh. Many were provided by the Southends Motor Navigation Company. Many of their boats would provide services between Southends to Canvey and other stops in between. 

The Julia Freak which was renamed the New Prince of Wales I after the war was one of their vessels. She was wooden hulled and launched in 1923 and was 104 feet long. She had a very shallow bottom and was used to jetty people along the pier at high tide.

Julia Freak, Southend Motor Navigational Company

There was also the New Prince of Wales who was lost in the evacuation; she drifted into the middle of an artillery duel between a German army shore-battery and a French destroyer.

New Prince of Wales, Southend Motor Navigational Company

The Southend Britannica was another but she survived the ordeal. She was 106 feet long.

Southend Britannica (left in picture) with the New Prince of Wales at Southend Pier Head. Southend Motor Navigation Company.

Some steamboats were also involved such as the Crested Eagle which was bombed and 300 souls aboard, crew and soldiers perished, but not before the captain made a heroic move. He turned the vessel towards the shore and beached the ship allowing about half to escape. 

The Wreck of the Crested Eagle at Dunkirk, Connexion France.

Another boat from Southend was the Peggy IV which was used along Chalkwell beach before the war. She sunk after a number of trips to the beaches. One of the survivors was Stanley Hughes, 17 at the time. He was given a medal by the town of Dunkirk. 

For more information on the boats involved in the evacuation at Dunkirk please see the association of little Dunkirk ships on their website –

If you have any information you would like to share of these amazing people then please drop me an email. Thanks!

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