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.