Writing by Peter Hilton

Dunkirk 1940

An account of one of the Dunkirk Little Ships #history

C. Robert Hilton introduces an account by his father, my grandfather:

‘My father, C.F.R. Hilton (1904-1980) passed through Sandhurst Military Academy and into the Tank Corps (as it then was). Some time later he was in an accident which caused a hairline fracture to the base of his cranium. He never suffered any ill effects after recovering from this, but was deemed ‘unreliable’ and discharged as medically unfit. Brain scans were not yet known. The army saw no reason to alter this decision with the onset of World War 2, so he found other ways of serving. His account of one of them follows.’

At the end of May, 1940, having joined the London River Emergency Service, I was told to go to Tilbury Landing Stage to join a yacht whose name I have forgotten. When I arrived there was no sign of the yacht.

It was a beautiful day and as I waited on the landing stage for something to happen I got into conversation with a ginger haired chap called Shaw. He said, ‘You’re a silly ass to join this organisation because nothing ever happens.’ He had been a member for about a week and was still trying to find the boat he was supposed to have joined.

Anyhow, whilst we were talking about all this sort of thing I noticed several small craft being taken down the Thames. Of course we knew the British Expeditionary Force was in serious trouble and there had been talk of an evacuation, so it occurred to me that these craft might be being gathered for this purpose.

I went off and made some enquiries and discovered that, if one had a crew of at least three or four people, one could put one’s name down for a boat to take over to France when one became available. So I came back to Shaw and suggested that perhaps we might do this. He was quite keen and we found a third chap who seemed also interested. We then had to go along to a rather dingy Ministry of Shipping office to sign on.

When we got there several other people were also signing on and somebody said, ‘What sort of operation is this? What are the chances of coming back?’ The little Ministry of Shipping man behind his desk said, ‘Well I would say less than fifty-fifty and if any of you are married men you ought not to volunteer,’ and with that our third member disappeared.

This rather upset us and Shaw said, ‘I’ll go and get him and make him come,’ so I said, ‘Well if he’s like that now, what would he be like if we get over there and things are a bit sticky?’ So we had to leave the office and look round for somebody else.

We came across some sort of longshoreman – he obviously wasn’t the sort of man who would be interested in this sort of operation, but we suggested that if we made him a present of a one pound note he might be prepared to sign on. Having signed he could leave us because I reckoned they wouldn’t notice how many people were going aboard.

This is in fact what happened. We took him into a pub and gave him a drink. He then came along to the Shipping Office, signed this document and we were told to go and wait for a boat. We paid our friend £1-0s-0d and he disappeared.

We waited and nothing happened, and all day still nothing happened. It began to get dark, so we were told the best thing to do was to try and get our heads down in some corner. Fortunately it wasn’t very cold, so we half slept on a seat on the landing stage.

At about three o’clock in the morning we were told that there was a craft for is. I was pitch dark and nobody dared even light a cigarette in those days because of the possibility of air attack. Anyway, the craft was alongside, we went aboard and were told to take her to Southend Pier where we would get further instructions.

The vessel was Rye Gate II, a cabin cruiser. There were very many old fashioned petrol cans on the stern, and as we cast off somebody shouted, ‘You’d better look out for those petrol cans because some of then contain fresh water.’ I said, ‘How do we know?’ ‘Oh well’ the petrol cans, the ones with petrol in them have a seal and the fresh water ones are not sealed.’

So going down the river we had to sort these out. We soon discovered there was nothing aboard in the way of a glass, cup, mug, spoon, knife, fork or anything. Anyway we arrived eventually at Southend Pier and were told to make our way as best we could to Ramsgate Harbour.

It was marvellous weather and we eventually made Ramsgate in the late evening with the object of going ashore to see if we could get some implements with which to eat and drink and some food. Well there was food all right, being dished out by the Women’s Voluntary Service, but nothing else. So Shaw and I went into town to see if we could find any shops open, but of course everything was closed. The only thing we could think of doing was to go into a pub and see of we could pinch a couple of glasses, or something like that, to drink out of.

The first pub we went to, it was impossible because the barmaid would keep on talking to usall the time and we had no chance. So we drank up and went to another pub where we were able to steal a couple of glasses. These we took back to Rye Gate II and sailed at first light for Dunkirk

I think I should also say that the reason why we had to steal the glasses was because we had been told that this was a highly secret operation and we mustn’t let out what we were going to do by word or deed. On reflection I imagine that practically everybody in Ramsgate must have known what was going on.

It was just like Piccadilly Circus. It was a flat calm, beautiful day with ships going to and fro. Although we had a course to steer we didn’t really need it. We just followed the others.

Just before war broke out my wife and I were living opposite Wapping Old Stairs in a flat right on the edge of the Thames. Every fortnight or so we saw a trader called the ‘Horst’ and got to know her well by sight. She was one of the first ships I saw as we approached the French coast. She was lying off being used as a craft to collect the soldiers who were being brought off the beaches.

Anyway we then proceeded to do our job which was to go in as close as we could, pick up as many people as we could and ferry them out to ships lying off like the ‘Horst.’

Having done this for some time the engines or the stern gland appeared to be seizing up. In any case the tide had gone out a great deal and the water was very shallow close in. So we tied Rye Gate II up astern of the ‘Horst’ and Shaw and I got hold of a ship’s lifeboat. We spent a good many hours rowing into the shore, picking up the troops, and bringing them back again. This, incidentally, was quite a problem as the soldiers were wading out up to their armpits. Immediately our lifeboat appeared they would grab the gunwales and several of them would try to get in at once. Several times we were turned over completely, in fact we had worked out a drill where Shaw went for the oars and I, with the help of some of the soldiery, beached the lifeboat, turned her upside down and refloated her and off to the ships again.

In the end of course we were ordered to leave the French coast, the evacuation was cancelled and I returned to Ramsgate in a small steamer, packed like sardines, too tired to even know the name of this craft.

I then took rail to London and later helped to board the yachts that were being towed up the Thames to various boat yards with Rye Gate II at the end of our tow.

It was quite an exciting trip up the Thames as most of the bridges were lined with cheering people and many coasters, tugs etcetera, welcomed us on their ships sirens.

This is of course a fairly brief account. There were naturally many incidents, serious and amusing, which occurred at this time. As for example when we were rowing and Shaw got a piece of bullet or shrapnel in the fleshy part of his leg. This he extracted with the aid of a pen knife, and we carried on. He suffered no ill effects as far as I know. At one point when we went on board the ‘Horst’ we found the radio in the wheelhouse blaring away on a BBC childrens’ programme. At the same time the beach was being dive bombed by Stukas, to the accompaniment of, ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin.’ It was quite surreal.

We brought quite a number of French soldiers from the beach. Nearly all of them had a bottle of wine in their knapsacks, and an able seaman had stationed himself on the deck of one of the craft to receive them and help them aboard. Naturally they were overjoyed to be rescued and offered their rescuers sips of wine. This particular seaman freely indulged himself. He also partook of some rum that had been left in an upper deck cabin for any people who needed it. The result was he got quite paralytic and I happened to see him at the end when we were finally leaving. He was in a vessel that was to be abandoned because the engines were not functioning. His pal was trying to get him to leave the bunk where he had settled down.

He was saying, ‘This is the finest bloody ship I’ve ever been on and I’m not going to leave.’ Eventually his friend and another chap managed to get him out of the bunk where he was sleeping, or had been, and in a state of complete nudity he was thus transferred to the craft which I imagine took him home.

C.F.R. Hilton later joined the R.N.V.R. and operated landing craft in the Mediterranean area. He finished the war as a lieutenant and won the Distinguished Service Cross.

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