Inspired by a Tweet made by the Portsmouth D-Day Museum last week, I have recently been researching some slightly different small boats. The War Department also operated small fast boats for the British Army and many of these served, surprisingly, in the same theatres as Coastal Forces.
Swallow was a War Department launch built in 1937; one of 18 Bird class ordered as high speed range clearance craft. These were the first purpose built boats of this type – responsible for keeping waters around coastal artillery practice batteries clear of shipping and capable of towing floating targets. The Bird class were 45 ft boats powered by three 100 hp Power-Meadows engines and capable of 18 knots. All 18 were built by British Power Boat in Hythe on Southampton Water.1
Piecing together the complete service of a small boat is difficult, but in The Unknown Fleet, author Reg Cooley reports that in 1939, Swallow served for four months in Sierra Leone for a 6” battery in Freetown. War Department launches were often crewed by civilians rather than Army officers and on this duty, Swallow was crewed by only three men.2 She would have returned shortly before war was declared.
The following year, on Thursday 30th May 1940, the War Department placed seven fast launches at the Admiralty’s disposal and sent them to Ramsgate where the Admiralty arranged for naval officers and ratings to meet and crew them. They were Marlborough, Wolfe, Grouse, Kestrel, Vulture, Swallow and Haig. An eighth, Pidgeon, followed on 1st June.3
The exact crewing of Swallow may have been somewhat mixed. She appears to have been under the command of Sub Lieutenant W. R. Williams, RN.4 However she may have also had on board her civilian master, W. R. Clark.5 6 On top of this, Lieutenant Colonel R. L. Hutchins, Grenadier Guards, who commanded the War Department flotilla that set sail from Ramsgate at 3am on Friday 31st, chose Swallow as his boat.7
The boats arrived off Dunkirk at 6am and Hutchins later recalled the scene that greeted them.
Dunkirk was under a pall of smoke from fires which appeared to be mainly to the south and west of the port. There were numerous wrecks outside the harbour, and along the beaches. There were large numbers of troops on the shore as far as it was possible to see to the eastward, and the beach was strewn with all forms of motor transport. Along the foreshore were a very large number of pulling boats, aground, capsized or damaged, and abandoned. There were also a considerable number of motor boats, motor launches and yachts aground and, in most cases, abandoned, and several wrecks close inshore. About one mile out in the Dunkirk roads were numerous destroyers and other vessels waiting to embark troops, but scarcely any boats running between the shore and these ships… the beaches were quiet except for occasional shelling and intermittent bombing.8
Hutchins quickly realised that his role lay in ferrying men from the beaches to the ships, rather than making long runs back to England.9
The exact timing of Swallow’s service at Dunkirk is slightly confused in available sources. According to the Naval Staff History, between 8am and 1.15pm Swallow alone is recorded to have ferried approximately 450 troops to HMS Impulsive and, after she sailed, 250 troops to HMS Winchelsea. Following that she sailed to Ramsgate at 6pm with 30 men on board.8 As her total in the final list is 68 men carried back to England,4 it’s presumed she returned to make a second trip back the following morning. On the other hand, Reg Cooley describes the ferrying of troops to the destroyers as being done over 24 hours. It’s also reported that Swallow was damaged and two of her three propellers were knocked out.5 10
At first glance, the idea of moving 700 men in such a small boat in five hours seems completely impossible, but Hutchins had quickly commandeered the destroyer’s own boats and other small launches to tow, so it may be possible that upwards of 100 men were transported in each trip between the beach and the destroyers. On the other hand, that would still require round trips to be done in less than an hour, which seems difficult in the circumstances. It may be that the 700 men were moved over a longer period of time (which is plausible as Winchelsea did not depart until the evening) or that the 700 men were moved by the entire flotilla of War Department boats under Hutchins’ command between 8am and 1.15pm.
At any rate, Swallow played no small part in the evacuation. In total, the War Department launches transported 579 troops directly back to England, in addition to the many thousands they would have ultimately ferried to the larger ships off the beaches.4 A number of civilian crewmen, including two of Swallow’s crew, F. Cherry and H. C. H. Hay, were mentioned in dispatches for their work.5 10
Swallow’s war service was far from over. Her role on D-Day will follow in another blog shortly.
- Reg Cooley, 1993. The Unknown fleet: The Army’s Civilian Seamen in War and Peace. Alan Sutton. p.92
- Ibid. p.94
- W. J. R. Gardner, 2000. The Evacuation from Dunkirk: ‘Operation Dynamo’, 26 May-June 1940 (Naval Staff Histories). Routledge. p.72
- Ibid. p.144
- Cooley. p.106
- David Hasbech, 2001. The Army’s Navy: British Military Vessels and Their History Since Henry VIII. Chatham Publishing. p.46
- Nicholas Harman, 1980. Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth. Hodder & Stoughton. p.186
- Gardner. p.70
- John Harris, 1972. Dunkirk: Storms of War. David & Charles. p.112
- David Hasbech, 2001. The Army’s Navy: British Military Vessels and Their History Since Henry VIII. Chatham Publishing. p.43
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