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How the ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’ set sail from Norfolk to save those in need

PUBLISHED: 15:41 13 August 2017

The Jane Hannah boat sailed across to Dunkirk. Photo: John Wright

The Jane Hannah boat sailed across to Dunkirk. Photo: John Wright

John Wright

Nolan’s film provides a moving portrayal of the heroic actions of the crews of the 700 ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’ who sailed to Dunkirk to rescue servicemen who were stranded on the beaches and in desperate need of deliverance from the advancing Axis armies.

George Long whose boat was used to sail across to Dunkirk. Photo: John Wright George Long whose boat was used to sail across to Dunkirk. Photo: John Wright

The story of Dunkirk is legendary in these isles, with 338,226 soldiers rescued by the eighth day of the evacuation, and the term ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ coming to represent the courage showed by all those involved.

However, less well-known is the role that boats and sailors from our region played in the Dunkirk evacuation.

In a startling parallel to Nolan’s epic retelling, a 1946 article in the Eastern Daily Press reveals the role played by Peter Haines, the fourteen-year-old son of a Kessingland coastguard, who was among the first to turn up at the Fisheries Office when the need for men became known.

He was told to go home because he was too young, but insisted that he wanted to help.

George Long whose boat was used to sail across to Dunkirk. Photo: John Wright George Long whose boat was used to sail across to Dunkirk. Photo: John Wright

After the office telephoned his father in an attempt to get him to support their refusal to ship him, his father simply replied “I sent him. He wants to go; let him”.

Peter jumped aboard the Lowestoft boat, Winston, and assisted with the evacuation of the servicemen, returning to Lowestoft ‘loaded with souvenirs picked up on the beaches of Dunkirk’.

Furthermore, a number of boats from North Norfolk, including the Jane Hannah, which had previously served as a 35ft. lifeboat at Flamborough and was owned by one Bernard Chase, were sent to answer the call for help.

George Long, a 60-year-old Blakeney fisherman, assisted by Billy ‘Fat Freddie’ Long, the son of George’s brother William, took the boat from Blakeney to Lowestoft and then on to Ramsgate in Kent, from where it was then requisitioned by the Navy and taken across the choppy waters of the Channel along with other gallant rescuers and towards the British forces on the night of June 5, 1940.

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton in Dunkirk. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton in Dunkirk. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon

It was reported that the Jane Hannah was so heavily laden with troops at Dunkirk that ‘water came up through her valves’, showing clearly how the actions of Norfolk fisherman helped to save the lives of so many servicemen.

George Long’s service to his country at its hour of greatest need was recognised at the time, and he was certified as an Auxiliary Coastguard immediately upon his return to Blakeney on June 22, 1940.

With his grandson, John Wright, 78, who still lives in Blakeney, commenting: “I was so proud to learn about how George contributed to the rescue of soldiers at Dunkirk”.

He said he still has George’s handwritten instructions of how to get from Harwich to Ramsgate.

Winston Churchill: The Prime Minister's speeches were an essential component of what became our national narrative about Dunkirk, says Nick Conrad. Picture: PA Winston Churchill: The Prime Minister's speeches were an essential component of what became our national narrative about Dunkirk, says Nick Conrad. Picture: PA

Following its heroics, the Jane Hannah was towed under by a destroyer while being taken clear of the beaches and was left derelict for ten days before it was discovered floating half submerged in the Channel and towed by a British warship to safety at Newhaven, East Sussex.

The Jane Hannah was then repaired, returned to Blakeney, and later sold to Billy Long who used her for musselling.

The vessel’s survival and return to normal life serving as a testament to the role of brave Norfolk fisherman in the evacuation of Dunkirk, and a reminder of the determination of the ordinary people of East Anglia to return to their lives following the War.

Jane Hannah’s end seemed to have come when she was left rotting, far from the sea, in a railway yard at Kidsgrove in the Midlands. However, the spirit of Dunkirk is an indomitable one, and Simon Evans, a British boat builder and lifeboat enthusiast based in France, had the Jane Hannah delivered to his yard at St. Denis Les Sens.

The boat is now being restored and returned to the condition that it was in at its finest hour, and will serve to inspire future generations with the tale of the bravery of fisherman from our region who sought to save those who had sacrificed everything to serve their country.

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