Want to reinvigorate US manufacturing? Make it suck less

The chattering classes are all atwitter over the decline in US manufacturing jobs. And rightly so; the hollowing out of our manufacturing sector is a social problem, a fiscal problem, and even a national security problem.

Now, there are a whole lot of factors that have contributed to the decline in US manufacturing employment, so there are also many different ways to go about fixing things. I’m not going to begin to delve into all of them – that’s a book, not an article.

One key way to start fixing manufacturing in our country, though, is to make the work more appealing to current and potential employees, thereby making domestic manufacturing more appealing to entrepreneurs and investors who can help turn the tide of job loss.

There are a whole lot of factors that come into play here, too. But to mention a few glaring ones, I’ll start with working conditions. Manufacturing oftentimes involves miserably hot or cold work areas, awful odors, safety and health hazards, and hard physical labor. While it’s not financially feasible to make every job completely comfortable, doing what we can to mitigate the unpleasant aspects of the work will help us attract new workers and make our existing ones happier and more productive. That can be anything from modifying the workplace or the job itself to simply offering more or longer breaks from the most difficult jobs. Rotating jobs can often help.

Related to that one is work schedule. I’ve personally concluded that the twelve hour shift schedule commonly used in manufacturing (and in medicine and other industries too) is simply inhumane. You can’t work that schedule and have proper time for the rest of life. We in manufacturing should commit to eliminating it. Equally, overtime can be problematic; it’s a financial boon to the workers and therefore often desirable to them, but it can quickly become a difficulty for both finances and retention, and a detriment to employee health and well-being. Within reason, overtime is not a problem. But when it doesn’t allow for proper rest and recuperation, it’s dangerous and destructive. I don’t believe anybody should ever be scheduled for more than sixty hours in a week, and weeks with work hours approaching that should be the exception, not the rule. Indeed, we should take a hard look at what the time demands are for family, fitness and health, and allow that kind of time out of work, every week, for every employee as a matter of course. (I agree with leadership consultant Amir Ghannad that we leaders should take affirmative steps to support the health and well-being of our workers. As an aside along those same lines, I believe that, given the reality of the opiod epidemic, the current zero-tolerance drug policies of so many employers are destructive and unsustainable. The manufacturing industry should work on a uniform approach to treatment and rehabilitation for current and potential employees.)

In my many years of experience, I find that leadership and worker treatment are often substandard in the manufacturing world. For too long, managers were selected by seniority rather than ability, and we’re still suffering the consequences. Also, manager behavior has often seemingly been aimed at a Darwinian culling of the weak, rather than a proper caring for workers. I recently finished (and loved) Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family by Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, and Raj Sisodia. The title is self-explanatory, and should be the ideal for all leaders, especially in manufacturing where the work itself is often so trying.

One aspect of worker treatment I’ve come to loathe since I finished the book is the disparity in how we treat “professional” workers and wage employees. The descriptions themselves are telling: are my machine operators and maintenance mechanics not professionals, or are they less professional than my shift supervisors and warehouse manager? Why does one group have to punch a time clock while the other employees come and go as they please? Why do we routinely demonstrate distrust of the workers closest to the core jobs we do? I wanted to cheer out loud when I read Chapman describe how he ordering all his time clocks removed, and walls and cages around spare parts storage areas torn down. That is how we should treat everybody, and those kinds of changes will make manufacturing jobs much more inviting. As Chapman experienced, treating people with dignity also makes them more loyal and more productive. But most important of all, it’s the right thing to do.

The beauty of all the above is that we can do it for ourselves. It doesn’t take an act of Congress or a change in direction at the EPA or OSHA. Every one of us in a leadership position in manufacturing, right now, can begin making the jobs our most important workers perform more appealing – and therefore make our industry more appealing to customers and investors alike.

Andrew Jackson Higgins, industrialist and war hero

Photo by Robert F. Sargent, US Coast Guard

It’s one of the most iconic images from WWII. Usually it’s used to highlight the impossibly courageous men shown storming Omaha Beach during D-Day, and quite appropriately so.

This article, though, focuses instead on the boat, and its inventor and manufacturer, Andrew Jackson Higgins.

Who’s ever heard of Andrew J. Higgins? Pretty much nobody now, other than antique boat aficionados and die-hard WWII buffs.

And yet without him, we may well have lost that crucial conflict. None other than President (and former Supreme Allied Commander) Dwight D. Eisenhower called Higgins, “the man who won the war for us.”

Higgins was simply a builder of small boats. But first he was a failed logger. Prior to the war, he moved from his native Nebraska to Louisiana to harvest hardwoods in the swamps. Once there, he quickly realized he needed a good way to get to them. So he enrolled in a boat-building correspondence course, then developed his own shallow draft boat with a protected propeller and a “spoonbill” bow, and enough power to beach and extract itself. The boat worked great, but the logging business didn’t, and eventually went bankrupt. However, in the meanwhile Higgins had built up a parallel operation to build his swamp boats, and this became his focus. Thus was born Higgins Industries.

He thought his boat might have some military use and pitched it to the US Navy. Despite some fits and starts in the 1920s and 1930s, that effort never went anywhere.

But the Marine Corps had taken notice and had a very different approach:

The ramp boat was typical. In China, the Japanese had been using ramp boats along the coast and up the shallow creeks for years. We did not possess a single boat of this type. Yet, without it, the Marines never could have landed on a Japanese island and the Army would have been crippled in Europe. To get the boat, we went straight to the builder, Andrew Higgins, discussed plans with him and he built the ramp boat while the Bureau of Ships was still dazed by the temerity of the suggestion. (Holland M. Smith and Percy Finch, Coral and Brass: A Life Fighting With the Marines)

Higgins’s LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) became a cornerstone of the Marines’ Pacific island-hopping campaign that turned the tide against the Japanese. Along the way it also became a key tool in the serial invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France that helped win the war against Germany, and of course became famous in that invasion of all invasions, Operation Overlord.

Back in the Pacific, another key element in defeating Japan was disrupting the supplies of men and materiel to the chains of distant islands Japan had conquered. That effort took submarines, battleships and cruisers, yes – but also relied heavily on the tiny PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat made famous by President John F. Kennedy. Higgins was a key designer and builder for these boats too, putting his own money into getting the thing right:

Higgins Industries had considerable difficulty translating the Sparkman and Stephens design into a satisfactory boat. PT 5 was eventually placed in service on March 17, 1941, but its performance was disappointing. The original PT 6 was never placed in service. It was sold to Finland in 1940. On his own initiative and with his own capital, Andrew Jackson Higgins decided to build a modified version. When it was delivered in February 1941, it was a Higgins design rather than a modified Sparkman and Stephens, and was accepted enthusiastically by operating personnel, many of whom considered it superior to any previous type, including the Scott-Paine. (At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr.)

US Navy photo

When all was said and done, Higgins Industries would produce the largest number of PT boats of any manufacturer.

The PT boats would also provide a template for Higgins Industries after the war they helped the Allies win was over. Higgins formed Higgins, Inc., to make a variety of handcrafted wooden boats for the personal watercraft market. His company not only made great boats, but was ahead of its time as an employer, hiring racial minorities, the elderly, and the disabled, and paying all equally.

Andrew Jackson Higgins died in 1952. His company continued to sell watercraft under various owners until 1975. Only about 200 remain, and are highly prized by collectors.

Article sources:





Coral and Brass: A Life Fighting With the Marines, Holland M. Smith and Percy Finch, ©1949 Charles Scribner’s Sons, ©2017 Motte Publishing

At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr., ©1962, 2017 Naval History Division


You! Start treating people better right now!

As I’ve increasingly published my thoughts about the proper way, the moral way, to treat the people we’re privileged to lead, I’ve seen an interesting phenomenon among some of those who agree with me.

They’re waiting for someone else to do something about it. Look at the comments to this LinkedIn post by Caroline Fairchild, for example. Good people, people interested in making a change and improving the business world, are waiting for capitalism to change, or corporations to change, or this or that or the other thing to change.

They shouldn’t be.

Capitalism isn’t going to change, because we didn’t design it in the first place. It’s spontaneous order – an economic system based on many things, including the rule of law and our monetary system and relatively free trade, but most of all on the aggregation of millions of people making thousands of decisions each, every single day. We couldn’t “fix it” if we tried (though we can sure screw it up without trying). Besides, it can’t and won’t fix our moral failings. And treating people poorly is indeed a moral failing.

Corporations might change, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath. There are too many people with too many agendas involved, lots of them honorable and some of them not, to think we can wait until a CEO or a Board of Directors charts a new course before we act to fix our corner of the business world.

The way to make things better is for you to begin acting, starting right now.

I’m just finishing up Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia. I love this book and its message. (But please, in subsequent printings, can a kindly editor go in and remove three of every four of its authors’ uses of the word “journey?” I thank you.) This passage near the end caught my eye:

Embark on your journey now. You don’t need a memo from the almighty wizards of corporate to tell you that it’s OK to do the right thing. A spreadsheet can’t show you how to treat people. No executive order is required to allow you to pause each day to have a thoughtful conversation with someone in your organization. Listen to them. Show them that what they do and who they are matters. You – and everyone else in your organization – already have everything within yourselves to start living the universal truth that everybody matters.

That’s exactly right. The whole list of improvements you want to see around you may not be entirely in your power to bring about, but that’s no excuse for not getting started, today, on the ones you can.

Do away with all the time clocks

I’m halfway through Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia. It’s affirmed something I’ve felt for a long, long time: that most business leaders are doing it all wrong.

This passage hit me like a ton of bricks:

I remember a conversation I had with Ron Campbell, a veteran machine tester who had just returned from spending three months in Puerto Rico installing equipment for our Hayssen Flexible Systems division. He had a lot to say.

“First of all,” Ron asked, “if I tell you the truth, will I still have a job tomorrow?”

I replied, “If you have any trouble about what you say today, give me a call.” Believing that I was sincere and truly wanted to know how he felt, Ron opened up.

“Well, I see you have the word ‘trust’ near the top of this document,” he began. “However, it seems like you trust me a lot more when you can’t see me than when I’m right here. While I was in Puerto Rico, I was kind of an ambassador of the company, with an expense account and lots of freedom to do my job. I did the work and came back. I walked into the plant Monday morning the same time as a lady who works in accounting. She turned left to go into the office and I went straight ahead into the plant. Just like that, everything changed. All my freedom just slipped away. Suddenly there was all this suspicion and control. It felt like someone had their thumb on me all the time. I had to punch in at a time clock when I walked in, when I left for lunch and got back, and when I left to go home. If the lady in accounting wanted to call home to see if her kids made it to school, she could just pick up the phone and call; I had to wait until I had a break and then use a pay phone. If I have a doctor’s appointment, I have to get my supervisor to sign off on my card and I get docked for the time; she just goes to her appointment. I had to wait for the break bell to get a cup of coffee or even to use the bathroom. I walk in the same door with engineers, accountants, and other people who work in the office. Why is it that when they go to the office and I go into the plant, we are treated completely differently? You trust them to decide when to get a cup of coffee or call home, but you don’t trust me. If you really believe in these Guiding Principles of Leadership, why would you trust me when I was in Puerto Rico and not trust me when I am here?”

Chapman had his team remove every time clock, everywhere in his whole company, the very next day.

There’s much, much more to the book than this, but it really distills the message to the essence. Just about every company claims to put people first. Just about none of them do.

Read the book. We seriously need to fix how we treat our colleagues, especially those we lead, no matter what job they do. Chapman and Sisodia and Barry-Wehmiller have much to teach us in that regard.

If you can’t spare the reading time, at least read this article.

Spend your time on what’s important to you, and ignore the jerks

Caroline Fairchild, Senior News Editor at LinkedIn, shared this article by her friend Dan Lyons about the burgeoning culture of overwork in Silicon Valley, with her own questions for her readers about workplace expectations and hours worked.

It struck me as cognitive dissonance that in the nerve center of technology, which should be liberating us and giving us more time, there are bosses driving their workers back to subsistence farming workweeks. Plus, the article got me hating on the vocal jerks Mr. Lyons quoted about how amazing they are because they work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and never take vacation, and wouldn’t recognize their kids, and everyone else who doesn’t do what they do is a loser, blah blah blah…

I have nothing against people who want to spend every waking moment working – whatever floats your boat. But when you consider yourself superior to me because my values don’t match yours, and try to bully me because of it, then you’re just a jerk. And if you drive the people who work for you to live life by your values and not theirs, then you’re an unethical jerk to boot.

But mostly, the post and the article got me thinking about my career and my work schedules over the years. My career has been entirely in manufacturing, which has always and everywhere carried the “we work long hours” credo. And it’s not like I haven’t done my share – if the plant’s down, and you’re needed, you’re there until the job is done.

But that being said, my normal work routine is regular (sane) hours, weekends off, and taking every single day of vacation I’ve got. Because my personal priorities include family, health and fitness, professional success and outside interests (pretty much in that order), and I make appropriate time for them all. This despite the fact that I’ve had plenty of pressure put on me to work longer hours, or take more business trips, or make more sacrifices for bigger jobs and titles. (But never, ever from my dear wife. She reined me in from that awful path some years ago, and I thank her heartily for it.)

I keep the picture above on my desk. It’s my older son John and me at a Boy Scout camping trip less than a year and a half ago. It was one of my favorite outings, and I had a really great time with John and our friends. But it’s also become a reminder of how little time we have with our kids: in that picture John is still a boy, but this very short while later he’s truly becoming a young man. It’s a stark reminder of what’s important to me, and how if you miss some things, the opportunities are gone forever.

I’ll always count my blessings that I was there to sit at that campfire with John. I can’t think of a single business trip I feel that way about.

Thanks to the unknown trucker who saved my life, and other thoughts after a brush with death

Driving home for lunch yesterday, I had my first real-life experience with a freeway wrong-way driver. Unfortunately, I first saw him a few hundred yards straight in front of me, when the pickup that had been in the left-hand lane ahead of me suddenly swerved into the right-hand lane. The potential killer was barreling toward me at a relative speed of about 150 mph, and I had maybe a few seconds to react.

Also unfortunately, he and I were both in the left-hand lane, and I was next to a tractor-trailer in the right-hand lane. I braked hard, but even while I did so I realized I couldn’t slow down fast enough to get behind the semi.

Yet I still went right. Years ago I read that panicked drivers will swerve right, so you should never try to get around an oncoming car to your left. I’ve thought about that many times since, so maybe that’s why my instinctual reaction was what it was.

But if the trucker next to me hadn’t also moved right – as far right as he could go without crashing – I would not be writing this. Because he went right as I went right. And when I believed I couldn’t go right any more without hitting him, I did it anyway because otherwise I was going to hit the oncoming car, which continued on dead straight.

I couldn’t have missed him by more than an inch, nor could I have missed the left side of the semi by any more than that either. It was so close that when I got home, I inspected my pickup for damage. There was none.

So: thank you, thank you, thank you to that unknown trucker. If it weren’t for the room you made for me I would now be dead.

I’d like to say there are all sorts of lessons for life or business or whatever from my experience, but there aren’t. As I said, I’ve thought many times about this type of scenario, and what I decided I’d do when I had time to think about it is exactly what I did when I had no time. And in this particular case, it worked. But if the oncoming car had swerved to his left, I would now be dead. (And I’m not even sure where I read what I did about panicked drivers, so it could have been completely bogus information.)

There are so many variables, you simply can’t prepare for every eventuality. Perhaps my many times contemplating such a scenario explains why I didn’t panic, and in fact felt no fear. But on the other hand, there simply wasn’t time. I saw the car, I reacted, and I watched it tear past me. Then I drove the rest of the way home, a little wobbly, in sheer wonder that I was still alive.

And I kissed my wife and my two sons, who just happened to be home from school because a fall heat wave gave them an unscheduled half-day.

What is God trying to tell me?


You must read this book! Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America by Danielle DiMartino Booth

“I dedicate this book to every hardworking American who wakes up in the morning asking themselves what went wrong.”

Danielle DiMartino Booth worked on Wall Street and as a financial columnist at the Dallas Morning News, then worked her way up at the Federal Reserve District Bank in Dallas, eventually advising Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher. Now she’s President of her own economic consultancy and media commentator on all things financial. She is indeed an insider, well-positioned to tell us what’s gone so very wrong in America’s financial system.

And boy, does she tell it. This is no dry recitation of high finance minutiae. It’s a fast-paced look at the events surrounding the 2008 economic meltdown, before and after, along with a character study of each of the big players, both government and corporate. Danielle DiMartino Booth pulls no punches here, God bless her.

When I first received this book (a requested Father’s Day present this year, which made my wife remark how weird I am), I promised my old friend Professor Howie Baetjer (Lecturer at the Department of Economics at Towson University, and author of Free Our Markets: A Citizen’s Guide to Essential Economics – another must-read book) that I’d share my thoughts about it with him. Here’s what I posted as a first-blush opinion for him on LinkedIn:

Howard Baetjer, you asked me to tell you what I thought of Danielle DiMartino Booth‘s book, Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America. I just finished it and it’s marvelous (and infuriating). She doesn’t favor abolishing the Fed as you do – but you’ll find a treasure trove of ammunition for your point of view in her pages.

That ammunition is the very clear evidence Booth presents showing the staggering incompetence (and at times what I’ll call cozy corruption) driving the decisions made by the Federal Open Market Committee. She has nothing good to say about the latest few Chairmen of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan (about whom I wrote caustically some years ago here), Ben Bernanke, and current incumbent Janet Yellen (who comes off perhaps worst of all in these pages). From Greenspan’s clueless inflation of the housing bubble, to Bernanke’s slavish devotion to Greenspan’s easy money policy and his own unilateral expansion of the Fed’s mandate, to Yellen’s academic obliviousness to the real world, this trio of “leaders” richly deserve all the brickbats they receive in this book. So do most of the other committee members who enabled the years of horrible decision-making, along with the multitudes of analysts supporting them, whose PhDs seemingly blind them to the fact that their “mathy” econometric models are pretty much never right, and oftentimes disastrously wrong.

Booth does a great job educating the reader about the multitude of different organizations, regulations, relations and corporations that drive America’s financial policies. That she does this without boring the reader to tears alone makes this book a gem.

But as I said in my initial thoughts, the book is indeed infuriating. Nobody normal pays any attention to the Fed, which is a shame because the ordinary people to whom Booth dedicated her book have been, and continue to be, robbed blind by the very institution that’s supposed to protect them. Booth shows exactly how, and continues to be a vocal advocate for reforms to get the Fed back to serving the country rather than impoverishing it, and serving the common man rather than the untouchable bureaucrats and fabulously wealthy game-riggers.

Richard Fisher is one of the few who tried to get the Fed back on track during the times Booth covers, and is one of the very few heroes in this otherwise bleak book. He retired two years ago, so the reforms Danielle DiMartino Booth spells out in her closing chapter are all the more critical. Or perhaps my friend Howie Baetjer and his latter-day abolitionists should win out…

Leadership: treat your people like dogs

Okay, that’s click-bait.

You should really treat your people like I treat my dog. (Well, not literally, because there are those people who consider belly rubs in the workplace inappropriate.)

I try never to walk past my dog Hunter without at least giving him a pat on the head. Most of the time, I take several minutes to give him that workplace-inappropriate belly rub. What if, every single time we encountered someone we lead, we invested time to express our sincere appreciation (appropriately)?

I provide for all of Hunter’s basic needs: food, shelter, veterinary care, exercise, and so on. But my family and I also give him a treat fairly frequently, whether it’s a snack or some scraps from a plate or his favorite, a pizza bone. Sometimes it’s because he performed a trick, but most of the time it’s just because everyone should get a treat every so often. What if we gave our workers not just their basic earnings and benefits, but also something special on a regular basis, just because we appreciate them?

Hunter has had a couple of episodes that cost me dearly. Both were visits to the emergency vet, where you don’t walk in the door for less than a couple hundred bucks. I gladly paid it both times. When the people who spend at least a third of their lives helping us succeed run into those enormous challenges we all eventually encounter in life, whether a health crisis or a tragic personal loss, what if we were equally willing to pull out all the stops to get them what they need, whether extra time off or financial assistance or just a shoulder to cry on?

Hunter is enormously loyal to me, and is usually beside himself with joy to see me when I return home after being gone. That’s just great. But I don’t do all these things because I want that loyalty or face licking – it’s just an extra benefit of having the best dog in the world.

I’m willing to bet that workers treated the way I describe would also be fiercely loyal employees. But that shouldn’t be the reason to act the way I describe – it should also be just a tangential benefit, an especially valuable one in today’s brutally competitive marketplace.

We should treat people that way because decency and kindness and a desire to be the best leaders we can – or really, the best people we can – all say that’s how we should treat people.

Interesting history

I’m in the midst of reading *Coral and Brass* by General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, his account of his many years of helping to shape the modern Marine Corps. Last night I was reading how the Marines, as WWII broke out, had wanted an amphibious tank, and that their wishes were fulfilled with the development of the amtrac, or LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) – invented as the “Alligator” by one Donald Roebling.

That name caught my eye. A quick Web search, and I knew: he was the great-grandson of John Roebling, and grandson of Washington and Emily Roebling, the father-son-daughter-in-law combination that envisioned and built the Brooklyn Bridge.

What a great family.

Dunkirk: Uncommon courage made common

What with the popularity of the WWII history of Dunkirk thanks to the recent movie, plus my longtime obsession with the stories of that war, I figured I’d read a book about it. I happened upon Dunkirk by Lt. Colonel Ewan Butler and Major J. Selby Bradford. I’m just about to finish it, and it’s proven to be a riveting tale of unwavering, unfathomable courage on the part of the men of the British Expeditionary Force, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, and most remarkable of all, ordinary British citizens. I republish here a whole chapter that, to me, represents the very essence of the everyday heroism that saved everything in those bleak days:


ON the evening of Sunday, 26 May, 1940, Mr. Alfred Harris was drinking a double whisky in a Twickenham public-house. It was unusual for Mr. Harris to drink whisky — indeed, he was no great frequenter of public-houses at any time. Bank clerks, even when they have risen to be Chief Cashiers, are not given to high living.

On that evening, however, Harris had felt that he must have a drink. The news from France was terrible. It gave a man a horrible tight feeling in the pit of the stomach. There was nothing, of course, that a retired Chief Cashier could do about it — that was the maddening thing. People like him could only wait and listen to the wireless and pretend to go about their business as though everything was normal, as though a whole British Army — the only Army we had — did not face annihilation.

By that strange bush-telegraph which operates in moments of great crisis, the news that an attempt would be made to take the Army off by sea, had already reached the saloon bar. “Operation Dynamo” had been officially ordered only three hours before, but already people knew about it and were talking about it.

“I reckon they’ll need every boat they can get,” somebody said.

“What about Berkshire Lass, Mr. Harris?”

There was some laughter at this, for everybody knew about Berkshire Lass. The fruit of many years of painful saving, Harris had bought her at last early in 1939, in time to enjoy one season of blissful cruising in the still reaches of the Thames before war put an end to such pleasures. She was a 35-ft. cabin-cruiser, somewhat dubiously powered by a converted Morris car engine, and she was the pride of Mr. Harris’s heart. Through the long years in the bank he had dreamt of retirement and of a boat of his own. Berkshire Lass had not even been second-hand when he bought her, and there were some in Twickenham who held that he had been swindled by her former owner, but Harris had laboured joyfully, painting, caulking, polishing, and tinkering with the old engine, until his boat, as he was not afraid to tell anybody who cared to listen to him, was as smart as anything of her size on the river.

The laughter round the bar irritated Harris. Why not Berkshire Lass, if it came to that? Probably they’d want every boat they could get over there. Mr. Harris finished his whisky quickly and went home.

Mrs. Harris, after whom the boat had been named (she was a Reading girl when Harris had married her), made all the proper feminine objections to the plan, Harris, let alone Berkshire Lass, had never been to sea. He had little idea of navigation, a science which, his wife understood, was very necessary in the English Channel if not in Twickenham Reach. She made no mention of her real objection to the plan — that her husband might get killed — in fact, almost certainly would get killed as far as she could see. Other women’s husbands were being killed at that moment over there, and Mrs. Harris would have felt it shame to mention that aspect of the problem.

In the glorious days when he had bought Berkshire Lass Harris had made certain pleasant but unnecessary purchases, suitable, as he vaguely felt, for the master of a boat. At the bottom of a drawer were two pairs of thick sea-boot stockings, greasy and strong smelling, a sou’wester and a tremendous turtle-neck sweater. These had never yet been worn but now they were brought out and stowed in an old kit-bag, a relic of Harris’s service in the First World War. More with a view to humouring her husband than because she believed that these precautions would serve any practical purpose, Mrs. Harris made out at his dictation an elaborate shopping list and undertook to buy all the items which it contained at the International Stores on the following morning. Then they both went to bed, but neither slept much that night.

On Monday morning Harris went down to the yard in which Berkshire Lass was in dry-dock for the duration of the war. Three other men, hated rivals in peace-time, were already there tinkering with their boats.

“Not off to France by any chance?” said the most hated of all, a fellow who, last summer, had made unpleasant remarks about Berkshire Lass.

“That’s right,” Harris admitted — somehow the chap seemed less unpleasant now — “any objection?”

“I gather they’ll tell us what to do at Westminster Pier,” said another of the men.

“Can you take your boat out alone? Looks as though we’ll need all the space we’ve got when we get there.”

“I can take her anywhere,” Harris asserted stoutly, not without a slight sinking of the heart, and he set himself to examining the engine.

They reached Westminster Pier on the morning of 28 May, and placed themselves trustingly in the hands of the Royal Navy. A Sub-Lieutenant, R.N.V.R., won Harris’s heart with his approving comment on Berkshire Lass’s appearance, although he cast a dubious look at the engine.

“Think she’ll make it?” he asked. “It’s about fifty-five sea miles from the North Goodwin to Dunkirk.”

“She’ll make it,” said Harris.

In a strange ill-assorted flotilla they made for Ramsgate, Harris nobly oil-skinned and sou’westered, though the sea was very still, seated tensely at the little wheel on the port bulk-head of the cabin. Although for any considerable ship the weather was virtually dead calm, Berkshire Lass pitched and bucketed round North Foreland, throwing spray back as her bows dipped to a slight head sea. This, Harris decided, was the life. He watched the sky narrowly for any of these dive-bombers of which one had read so much in the newspapers recently, but saw only sea-gulls, wheeling and screaming over the little ships. The dive-bombers were to come later.

It was at Ramsgate that certain deficiencies in Berkshire Lass’s equipment first made themselves evident. Hitherto, they had sailed in  convoy, but now it was a matter for charts and for that navigation of which Mrs. Harris had spoken so doubtfully. Moreover, the compass, proudly bought, second-hand, proved to be, if not inaccurate, at least none too trustworthy. Nevertheless, the Naval Control Service, crisp, efficient and not even contemptuous, as Harris had feared, provided charts and routeing instructions. Once more the engine came under critical survey.

“I hope you can rely on that engine of yours,” an officer said to Harris, “because if it packs in and you lose contact with your convoy, heaven help you. With that compass you’d probably fetch up in Calais, and that would be just too bad.”

Harris, lovingly cleaning a spark-plug, and speaking with an assurance which he did not really feel, promised that the engine would not fail. Another trouble was the absence of water tanks. On the Thames there had been no call for such things, since river water, properly boiled, makes an excellent cup of tea, and there are riverside pubs a-plenty. But now, Berkshire Lass was bound for a beach where many thousands of thirsty men awaited deliverance, and accordingly a galvanized tank was, with great difficulty, rolled aboard, and somehow edged into the cabin amidships. At last they sailed, on the morning of 30 May.

Due east to the Gull, and thence to the North Goodwin light, they sailed, the little ships plugging along, some of them making no more than four or five knots, while all about them were larger vessels — drifters, trawlers, odd-looking Dutch coasters, pleasure-steamers, and big yachts. Like sheep-dogs running round a slow-moving flock a destroyer or two, and a few motor torpedo-boats swept about the convoy.

The first attack came as they crossed the Sandettie Bank, south-east of the North Goodwins. Ships were coming back from Dunkirk. A large steamer which, to Harris, looked very like the dear old Maid of Orleans in which he and his wife had crossed to France for a happy holiday two years before, her decks crowded with troops, was attacked suddenly by dive-bombers swooping from a clear sky. Although the westward bound steamer was a quarter of a mile away from Berkshire Lass, a bomb destined for her fell so close to Harris’s boat that the spray of its explosion came down into the cockpit like rain, and ran in little rivulets from the skipper’s sou’wester as he huddled against the cabin bulkhead. A burst of Bren-gun and rifle fire from the steamer met the raiders, who replied with their forward machine-guns. Then it was all over, and the Ju. 87s were climbing steeply. They banked and wheeled eastward — towards Dunkirk, whither Berkshire Lass was also bound.

So this, Harris thought, was it! Not much to write home about so far, though a good deal more than anybody in Twickenham had yet seen of warfare. Still, it would be hotter when they got there, and every turn of Berkshire Lass’s little propeller brought them nearer to the beaches. One or two boats fell out with engine trouble, and Harris could not resist a feeling of malicious satisfaction when he observed that the big cruiser belonging to his rival and neighbour — he who had spoken slightingly of Berkshire Lass in the days of peace — had fallen out of station ahead. She was a comparatively powerful craft, and towed two dinghies. With real delight Harris managed to put himself alongside, condole with the mortified skipper, and somehow himself grasp the painter of the leading dinghy and make it fast to Berkshire Lass.

They were coming in now, across the Outer Ruytingen, and there, ahead, over on the port bow, was a great pall of smoke, which seemed to blot out the whole sky. There was mist, too, and, as far as Harris could judge, enemy aircraft were not busy.

When Harris at last came into Dunkirk Roads it was already evening. His two dinghies were bumping along cheerfully in the wake of Berkshire Lass, but now, here and there, were abandoned row-boats, ships’ cutters, drifting in the light swell. At Ramsgate they had carefully explained that the difficulty of evacuating troops from the beaches lay in the fact that the sand shelved away so gently into deep water that only boats of the shallowest draught could approach the shore. Surely, Harris thought, the more of these boats the better, and somehow he managed to make fast one of the derelicts to a cleat on Berkshire Lass’s stern. Here they were, at last, the men whom Harris had come to save, the men whose fate had given him that nasty tight feeling in the stomach, back there in Twickenham. As Berkshire Lass made in towards La Panne at sunset, they were standing waist-deep in water, singing. Somebody had got a mouth-organ and, above the chug of his engine, Harris heard the melody of the “Londonderry Air”, inexpertly played, but, at that time and place, infinitely touching.

They piled aboard Berkshire Lass, heavy boots playing havoc with the precious paint-work, hobnails gashing the afterdeck and the white canvas roof of the cabin. They piled into the three boats, so many of them that Harris feared they would overturn the little craft, but an officer, who did not himself go aboard, saw to it that this did not happen. Then Harris put about and made for a drifter which lay out to sea. This was the moment against which Mrs. Harris’s shopping list had been drawn out. Harris had worked it out with care — a life of banking teaches a man to be scrupulous where details are concerned. Tinned foods, he had decided, would be difficult to distribute, since how should the tins be opened? So to the sopping men on Berkshire Lass he handed out dried figs, bread, chocolate, water, in paper cups, and cigarettes. They loved him for it.

That first trip out to the drifter seemed to take a very long time, and, indeed, the little cabin-cruiser, with three loaded boats in tow, and herself overladen, made slow going, yet at last the passengers were safely delivered, and Berkshire Lass turned back to the shore. Then the shelling began — a screaming whine, a fountain of water, and, much later, the report of the gun. Harris decided that this was horrible. When he reached the beach again shells were falling steadily, spattering him with sand. A splinter, humming like a hornet, ripped through the cabin top and buried itself in the settee beneath. Nevertheless, Berkshire Lass took another load out to the drifter.

The shelling ashore was very heavy now, and the drifter’s skipper, a real sailor, the sort of sailor whom Harris had always admired and envied, spoke to the captain of the little craft which lay under his counter:

“You won’t get anybody much off, now, not while this shelling’s on,” he said. “Better come aboard, and have something to eat.” Harris suddenly remembered that he had not eaten since leaving Ramsgate. He felt very hungry, and very proud. That skipper had spoken to him as an equal, as though he were a sailor too. Well — so he was, after a fashion, now. The stew and coffee tasted wonderful.

At 3 a.m. shelling stopped, and away went Berkshire Lass again, until, by 5.30, she and her consorts had taken off almost all the troops then waiting on the beaches. The air attacks and shelling began again after that, until, as machine-gun bullets zipped into the water round his ship, Harris felt a numbing blow on his left shoulder, and then great, sharp pain. Blood began to trickle down his oilskin.

It was then, too, that a sharp wind, blowing in from the sea, began to toss and batter the little craft, and the boats that she was towing. One of them, filled with troops, capsized, and Harris, with only one arm capable of handling the wheel, somehow brought Berkshire Lass round to the men in the water, so that their comrades could haul them aboard. When he got back to the drifter he fainted.

It was afternoon when he came to in the forecastle of the drifter. Someone had given him an opiate, and his shoulder was bandaged and in a sling. Harris’s first words were for the Berkshire Lass. She was still on the job, refuelled, and skippered by a member of the drifter’s crew. Harris went on deck and saw her making for a long pontoon on which troops were crowded. The beaches were empty now, and when Berkshire Lass returned, Harris insisted on taking over. The pontoon made things much easier. One could bring the boat right alongside — almost as though one were coming up to a Thames landing-stage. The enemy were still shelling the beaches.

It was at 8 p.m., just after Vice-Admiral, Dover, had warned all ships that the final evacuation of the B.E.F. was expected on the following night, that the end came for Alfred Harris and Berkshire Lass. A single dive-bomber, swooping out of the afterglow, seemed to bear the little ship a grudge. He attacked twice with the machine-gun, and at the second attack Harris was hit again. They picked him out of the water, and took him to a hospital ship. This time he had been hit in the lung, and, in an operating theatre as calm and hushed as any in a London hospital, the bullet was taken out. When Harris came to this time he was told that they were nearing Dover. Wildly he asked after Berkshire Lass, but nobody knew what had happened to her. However, as Mrs. Harris pointed out when, still bandaged but on the road to recovery, her husband greeted her in hospital: “After all, lots of people have lost much more than that in the war — why, you were nearly killed. I wouldn’t worry so much about an old boat if I was you.” Harris found it difficult to explain that he was not exactly worrying about Berkshire Lass — he was mourning, as one mourns someone very precious, who has died bravely doing her duty, and whose place can never be filled.

From Dunkirk by Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Maj. J.S. Bradford. © 1950 Hutchinson & Co. © 2017 Sapere Books.

Do read the whole book – it’s a beautifully written, concise tale of a far too little-known bit of history, when Western civilization as we know it teetered on the brink and was saved by impossibly brave people like Mr. Harris.

Printed by permission of the publisher, Sapere Books. My thanks to their Marketing Director, Caoimhe O’Brien.