In 1942 the NFS Anthology was published by Lindsay Drummond of London. Within its pages one anonymous writer, who selected the pseudonym PROTO, was a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service known to have joined in 1939 at Blackfriars Bridge, London. He served there until December 1941. From the beginning of the war until February 1941 he served continuously aboard the Massey Shaw fireboat. His memories of the evacuation of Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo, are exceptional in being a first-hand account of a fireman’s actions in a military environment.

Before we embark in PROTO’s recollections, we’ll take a brief look at the history of the boat and its heritage.

On 22 June 1861 Superintendant James Braidwood of the London Fire Engine Establishment, the forerunner of today’s London Fire Brigade, was killed when a wall collapsed on him during the notorious Tooley Street fire at Cotton’s Wharf not far from London Bridge.

Braidwood, a Scot from Edinburgh, had been officer in charge of the capital’s first organised fire force since appointment on 1 January 1833. In his death London’s firemen had not just lost a great commander and progressive thinker, but also an astounding leader of men, a man seemingly impossible to replace.

Three months of searching was conducted before the capital identified such a man; Eyre Massey Shaw. Shaw was born in Ballymore, County Cork. He was an educated man who toyed with the idea of a life in the church but instead opted for the army and gained a commission in the North Cork Rifles, a militia regiment of the British Army (later the 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps). He served from 1854 to 1860 achieving the rank of captain. His resignation from the military was followed in June 1860 by appointment as Chief Constable of Belfast Borough Police, in charge of both the police force and fire brigade. Just over a year later he crossed the Irish Sea for the esteemed role in London.

He brought with him the military title of Captain and as such set a precedent for UK fire brigades. Prior to then the phrase superintendent had been the most common title given to leaders of a fire brigade. No titles of a military origin were used. Following Shaw’s appointment it is evidenced nationally and locally on the Isle of Wight, that the men who commanded borough, town and even minor parish fire brigades were bestowed with the rank of captain. Shaw had a direct connection to the Island through Prince Bertie at whose request he made multiple visits to Osborne House to advise on fire safety and protection. The fire station, pump house, reservoir and system of private pipes and sixteen hydrants at the esteemed residence were all developed based on Shaw’s recommendations. Between the floors of the house fire spread is mitigated by the application of a filling formed from the crushing and processing of millions of oyster shells as per Shaw’s specifications.

Shaw, whilst courting some controversy in London’s society of elite’s, was considered a powerful commander of the capitals brigade. Building on Braidwood’s theories and under the directive of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act of 1865, Shaw restructured and greatly increased the capacity of the newly titled Metropolitan Fire Brigade. When he resigned in 1891, in protest at the take-over of the Brigade by the London County Council, the depth of the resources at his disposal had increased from 129 men to 675, from 17 land and two river stations to 55 land, four river and 127 escape stations and he had worked closely with the leading manufacturers Merryweather’s and Shand Mason to ensure steam fire-engines were both introduced and built to a specification that was tailored to his firemen’s skills, strengths and working conditions in the streets and waterways of the capital. His influence on British fire-fighting went much farther than the mere adoption of the captain’s title.

Sir Eyre Massey Shaw passed away on 25 August 1908 at Folkestone as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.

The 10 November 1934 edition of the Isle of Wight County Press ran a small article that read; A NEW TYPE OF FIRE FLOAT – A fire float for the London County Council, which is being built by Messrs. J. Samuel White and Co., has several new and interesting features. It has been designed as to travel at a maximum speed with a minimum wash. Named Massey Shaw, this new type of fire-fighting ship will be 78ft long, with a draught of 3ft. 6in., and is specially adapted for passing under the Thames bridges at any state of the tide, and will be particularly useful in shallow water and narrow channels.

The vessel weighed 50 tons, was powered by twin 8-cylinder Gleniffer 165hp diesel engines giving 12 knots, with twin 4-stage centrifugal pumps and firefighting equipment supplied by Merryweather & Sons Ltd., delivering up to 2400 gallons of water a minute at total cost of £17,000.

The Massey Shaw's launch at J.S. White's, East Cowes.

The County Press of 2 March 1935 reported that the vessel had been launched five days earlier. Noting that this was the first fire-boat White’s had built for London County Council since 1912, the article remarked on the vessel being brightly decorated in flags and that Mrs Morris, wife of the Chief Officer of London Fire Brigade Major C.C.B. Morris, christened her with the breaking of a bottle of Empire wine whilst uttering the words; I name you Massey Shaw and wish good luck to you and all who sail in you. How prophetic were those words to become.

By July her trials in the Medina had been successfully completed and the Massey Shaw made her way around the Channel, into the Thames and to Blackfriars Bridge River Station. She was immediately pressed into action with a crew of eight and gave good service at several fires before the war. When the Auxiliary Fire Service was formed a number of its members were trained as a contingent of the vessels crew alongside regular firemen of the London Fire Brigade.

The Massey Shaw’s part in the Dunkirk evacuation is detailed in Fire Service Memories, by Sir Aylmer Firebrace (1948), a former Royal Navy commander who was appointed Chief of the Fire Staff when the National Fire Service was created in August 1941. His account is worth reading from the perspective of the NFS’s supreme commander who at the time of Operation Dynamo was appointed by the Home Office to the role of Regional Officer for London Fire Brigade.

However Firebrace wasn’t there, PROTO was a fireman and he was. What follows is PROTO’s account of the part played by the fire float Massey Shaw in the evacuation of Dunkirk. His account carries great detail of the first two trips. The third trip is referenced but with lesser detail as he was not among the crew. It is important to note that PROTO’s account was written in 1942 when the nation remained gripped in a war, the end of which, at that time, couldn’t be predicted.


Friday, the 31st May, was the day of the Massey Shaw’s first trip. The enemy had dropped magnetic mines along all the approaches to the harbour during the night and had brought up more batteries and was shelling the beaches more heavily from all sides. The surf also was increased again by a freshening easterly wind, and, although it became less dangerous in the afternoon, it had by then broken up and distributed all along the beaches the improvised jetties which had been built of lorries during the previous day and these half or wholly submerged lorries were a great inconvenience. Notwithstanding the increased difficulties and dangers nearly 60,000 men were brought to England. On Saturday, 1st of June, the enemy made his most determined attempt to ruin the operation, and it was decided that it was too expensive to carry on in daylight and that a great effort should be made during the darkness. Fortunately when darkness came the smoke from the fires ashore gave cover from air attack but not, of course, from shelling. This day’s total was 62,000, the record for the operation.

By 11:30 p.m. on Sunday 31,000 had been lifted for the day, and the Senior Naval Officer reported that the B.E.F. was evacuated. Monday was mainly occupied in clearing up stragglers, and an Admiralty message ended the operation Dynamo at 2.23 p.m. The total number rescued and brought to England from Dunkirk alone, both British and French, was 316,000.

There were two methods of embarking troops from Dunkirk. One was for destroyers and other ships to lay alongside the jetty in the harbour and pick up the men direct, the other was embarkation from the beaches to the E.N.E. of the harbour by means of boats. Embarkation from the harbour alone would never have been sufficient in any case to evacuate the whole force in that time, and it was extremely expensive in men and ships, as the harbour was subject to very heavy air and artillery bombardment, the results of which so choked the entrance with wrecks that in the later stages only one ship could enter at a time. The lifting from the beaches was therefore an essential part of the operation, and it was here that the famous “little ships” did their work.

The coast east of Dunkirk is not easy to approach even under conditions of peace, when channels are buoyed and lighted, and the dangers are confined to those marked on the chart. Lines of sandbanks run parallel to the shore, with channels between them, and swatchways connect the channels. The shoreward channel, giving passage and anchorage for fair-sized ships, is a mile or more from the beach, and in the later stages of the operation troopships anchored here to be filled by smaller ships, such as the Massey Shaw, themselves fed by smaller boats from the beach. The beach shelves very gradually, and at or near low water even a small ship drawing only four feet of water must stay some hundreds of yards from the shore, since in a slight swell it is necessary to allow a feet extra depth of water to prevent the ship bumping on the ground in the trough of a wave. Moreover, with an ebb tide the anchor must be weighed and the ship moved to deeper water at frequent intervals, and to enable her to remain for a reasonable length of time in each berth she must be anchored in at least ten feet of water. Embarking men from a shelving beach in even a slight swell is not without difficulty. Either the boat must be kept outside the breakers, in which case the men are compelled to wade through them, getting wet from head to foot, and to climb into the boat in four or five feet of water, an awkward job even without rifles and equipment, or the boat is beached through the surf and is then difficult to float after being laden with men, and is liable to be broached to, i.e. turned broadside on by a breaking wave, and filled and sunk by the next wave. Further difficulty arises when the men to be picked up have no experience of boatwork, and are inclined to jump aboard the boat as though they were boarding a crowded bus.

The Admiralty asked for the use of the Massey Shaw on Thursday 30th May.

For some days before that Thursday, in the intervals of scrubbing the Massey Shaw’s decks and polishing her brasswork, we had seen tugs working down the river with strings of small boats, yachts, lifeboats and even skiffs and dinghies. During the forenoon of that day certain rumour began to circulate, but it was not until the afternoon that it was definitely known that the Massey Shaw was going to Dunkirk and that volunteers were wanted. The crew finally picked out of a large number of volunteers comprised four regular firemen of the London Fire Brigade, six auxiliary firemen, two sub-officers and a station officer. This was a larger crew than the Massey Shaw usually carries, and it was chosen on the footing that the float might spend several days fire-fighting off the French coast without reliefs. All the L.F.B. firemen were qualified to drive the engines, and one of them was an ex-naval signalman. At that time the A.F.S. had not been given instruction on the engines.

After two hours’ intensive work in collecting men, gear and stores, we got under way soon after 4.0 p.m. that day. The L.F.B. pilot took us to Greenwich, and from there a sea-going pilot took us to Ramsgate, stopping at Holehaven for the night. As soon as we left Greenwich we set to work preparing for action by painting service grey all the brasswork and fittings previously painted white. We moored at Holehaven at about 9.0 p.m., had supper ashore and five or six of us slept in the cabin, which seemed to us then about as many as the cabin would hold, the rest sleeping ashore. We turned out fairly early the next morning, and after breakfast ashore, and a personal welfare from the Commanding Officer, who came down from London and breakfasted with us, we got under way again for Southend. The orders were to call at Southend Pier for instructions whether or proceed or not, as the evacuation was thought to be almost finished. Our arrival coinciding with an overcast sky and a chilly easterly wind (the same wind which was raising an awkward surf on the Dunkirk beaches) made the final instructions to proceed momentarily not altogether welcome. We were now irrevocably committed.

The passage round to Ramsgate was uneventful; most of the crew were occupied in further preparations for sea, particularly in fitting timber over the cabin windows to protect them from the waves, which, had the sea been rough, might have filled the cabin with water and perhaps endangered the ship. As we approached Ramsgate we fell in with other craft of all sorts clearly bound for the same destination, including several ocean-going tugs towing double strings of lifeboats, each with one or two men aboard. We arrived in the roadstead off Ramsgate Harbour at about 1.0 p.m. amongst a crowd of shipping, and signalled our arrival: “Fire Float Massey Shaw from London in attendance. Request permission to enter harbour.” The reply from the naval signal station on the pier head was “Not approved. Anchor outside.” Shortly afterwards we were ordered into the harbour, and moored alongside the wall to the west of the entrance.

An hour or two later the Massey Shaw was under way for Dunkirk to bring home a shipload of troops. We had expected a longer spell in the harbour, but had been able to collect a supply of drinking water in grey-painted petrol cans, and some more timber for covering the cabin windows. The harbour was crowded with craft of all descriptions, and at regular intervals ships laden with troops entered, unloaded and moored, while others moved off empty for another load. There were a number of powerful naval motor boats, which, being awkward to handle in the small and crowded harbour at low speeds, frequently collided with each other with much splintering of wood. A young sub-lieutenant R.N., with a chart and a steel helmet but no other luggage, came aboard to take command, and as soon as the crew were all aboard the order was given to let go.

The chart had marked on it in pencil the channel which had been swept through the minefields. The channel headed straight from the North Goodwin Lightship towards a point a mile or two east of Dunkirk Harbour (visible after an hour’s run from Ramsgate by the huge column of smoke pouring from it), and deviated to starboard about ten miles from the coast, so as to pick up the channel of Dunkirk Roads five miles to the west of the town. There was a cross on the chart some three miles to the east of the town, opposite the village of Bray Dunes, which marked our appointed beach.

The Massey Shaw is not normally equipped with a compass, and a small boat’s compass had been purchased before leaving Blackfriars; there had, of course, been no time to swing the ship with this compass on board and make some record of its deviation, i.e. the errors produced by the ship’s own magnetism, and in the result the compass was no more than a rough guide to the courses steered. As we approached the French coast it was obvious from the courses taken by other vessels in the vicinity that we were some way off the swept channel, and it did not seem worth while bearing away to starboard to regain it, so, taking advantage of the float’s shallow draught, and with the help of a pocket tide table, a course was worked out crossing the sandbanks and entering the roads only a mile west of the harbour mouth. There was a tense moment while crossing the last bank, when the waves got very steep and the water clouded with sand, and the question was raised whether the tide had been worked out correctly, but a moment later we were in the deep water of the roads, and turned eastwards along the coast.

Troop positions on 30 May 1940.

Most of the way over the water was littered with floating wreckage. There was a continuous stream of ships of all kinds going out empty and returning so packed with soldiers that not a square inch of deck was visible. Having read in the papers lurid accounts of the hell of fire and steel which was supposed to be awaiting us, we were agreeably surprised to see so many ships coming back apparently quite undamaged. Our bombers and fighters went by occasionally at terrific speeds, most of them about fifty feet above the water. As we approached the coast there was a good deal of noise, the first of its kind that many of us had heard, and we could see the bursts of anti-aircraft shells over the town. From three or four miles out the roar of the fire was audible, and the pall of smoke from it seemed nearly a thousand feet high, jet black and turbulent. Its blackness was accentuated by a foreground of sunlight on bright green meadows and the red buildings of a farm close to the shore.

The beach was a curious sight as we steamed along parallel to it. It looked much as it must have done on a summer evening in peacetime; the same apparently leisurely crowds sitting, standing and moving about, cars travelling to and fro along the coast road and boats cruising close to the shore, but, instead of the variegated colours of a Bank Holiday, a uniform khaki. In some places the line of the beach appeared to be crossed by breakwaters reaching down into the sea, but they were columns of men wading out into the shallows, waiting for the next boat. The beach and the water near it were littered with lorries and army cars, the scattered material of the improvised piers smashed by the surf which had been running since early in the morning.

The Massey Shaw anchored of Bray Dunes late in the afternoon. There was a continuous confused noise of gunfire; rifle shots, machine guns, anti-aircraft and occasionally the heavier crash of bombs. There was sometimes a noise as though the sky was made of calico and was being torn across. The general effect was at the same time lighter and more continuous than the now familiar sound of an ordinary air raid, more like November 5th in peacetime. Nothing fell anywhere near the float, and from first to last she was untouched by gunfire, the scars she received being caused by minor collisions and hurried coming alongside troopships in the dark. The atmosphere, however, throughout the operation was made fairly tense by the feeling, which we afterwards learnt to be quite unfounded, that at any moment German helmets might appear over the sand dunes, and the beach, and shipping be raked by machine-gun fire at close range.

As soon as the float was anchored, two men jumped into the boat and pulled for the end of the nearest human breakwater. The boat was a light skiff picked up in Ramsgate Harbour, suitable for harbour or up-river work, and it was obvious that care would be needed to pick up men with it amongst the breakers and that it would not carry more than six. The crew swung around and backed as far in towards the shore as they could and then kept head to the waves and yelled to the men to come on. At first they hung back, all non-swimmers and scared of the breakers. Then they waded out and started to clamber aboard, and in spite of the protests of the crew more and more men jumped in, until the boat failed to rise to a wave, filled, and sank in four feet of water, which was happily warm.

At this point the general racket of gunfire increased suddenly, and aeroplanes were seen circling overhead at an immense height, interspersed with bursting anti-aircraft shells. It was an interesting moment for the men in the water. With much difficulty the Massey Shaw’s men persuaded the eight soldiers who had sunk the boat to wade out until the water reached their chins and make for the passing motor boat. Owing to the gradual slope of the beach this was an unpleasant business for non-swimmers, as each wave went right over their heads, and one man was nearly done and had to be half carried. Eventually they were all got aboard the Massey Shaw.

As the boat was lost, and every other boat which came within hail had its own ship to fill, there was a consultation on board as to the best method of making contact with the troops ashore. The naval officer suggested that as the tide was flowing, the float could be run in towards the shore until she grounded, and men be got aboard by means of scaling ladders let down over the bows. The L.F.B. officers, however, advised against this, pointing out that the propellers would almost certainly take the ground, the “A” brackets buckle, and the float be unable to steam and have to be abandoned, and this advice was accepted.

It was then decided to try and get a line on to an R.A.F. speedboat which was aground in the shallows and drag it out with a load of men. Two attempts were made with rocket lines, but there being no shore party except soldiers, who were unused to this sort of work, the attempts failed. The sub-lieutenant and one man therefore swam ashore with the end of a rocket line and hauled in a long grass line which they made fast to the quarter of the speedboat, as she lay with her head up the beach. The float’s crew then hove away on the line with the capstan, and the speedboat began slowly to drag towards the deeper water. Unfortunately when the soldiers saw what was afoot about fifty of them jumped aboard the speedboat, and as many as possible climbed on to the cabin roof to be away from the breakers, making the boat hopelessly top-heavy and unmanageable. Again the Massey Shaws swore and protested, but without avail. Eventually, as it was clear that the boat would certainly capsize if hauled through the breakers stern first, an attempt was made to transfer the line from the quarter to the bow. Unluckily at the same moment the float’s crew, finding the capstan too slow, raised the anchor and went slow ahead with the engines. In the result the line ran out rapidly as it was being transferred, and got away before it could be made fast. The Massey Shaw’s man swam after the end of it and attempted to get it ashore again, but the tide was too strong, and the line was hauled inboard with the man on the end of it.

It was now getting dark and the tide was ebbing and the water shoaling dangerously; the float had to be moved out to avoid grounding. The sub-lieutenant was still on the beach, and for two or three hours the crew attempted to regain contact with him and the speedboat; but the distance was now twice as great, and the set of the tide along the beach very awkward, and in the gathering darkness the many sunken lorries and other pieces of wreckage were a greater menace. Boats were at a premium, but at length a boat was borrowed from a passing tender. This boat was manned and rowed towards the shore, and a man waded through the breakers with a line. He could not find the officer and entrusted the end of the line to the soldiers, but when the crew hove away the line came straight home, having evidently not been properly made fast.

About 11.0 p.m. the officer got out to the boat on another boat. He had been working in the water and on the beach for about three hours, but immediately insisted upon a further attempt being made to pick up more men in spite of the darkness and the ebbing tide, and again went ashore himself in the boat with two of the crew. The boat was rowed ashore with the end of the long grass line, which was made fast to a derelict lorry, and the boat was pulled back and forth along the line. In this was a further forty men were conveyed aboard the float, and it was decided that she carried as many as would be safe for the voyage home. These men were a part of a company of Royal Engineers drawn up in column in the darkness under the command of their officers. At first they refused to come when they learnt that we could not take them all, and when they consented to be split up they came smartly in parties of six and got into the boat properly. Except for an unpleasant moment when an extra big breaker half filled the boat and it did not seem likely to survive, this part of the operation went very smoothly. It was only when the float was full up and the water again getting dangerously shallow that the sub-lieutenant left the beach. He changed into such dry clothes as were available and stayed on deck throughout the night, navigating the Massey Shaw back to Ramsgate in the dark, with an inaccurate compass.

All the soldiers and some of the crew were wet to the skin, and for the sake of warmth as well as seaworthiness they were all stowed below decks. About thirty men, all wet, many of them seasick, were packed into the cabin, which had seemed crowded the night before at Holehaven with six. Others were stowed as far as possible out of the way in the engine-room, and the forepeak, already crowded with gear, was packed so tight that there was some difficulty in extracting the men when the hatch cover was raised again in Ramsgate Harbour. The voyage home was uneventful except that shortly after we got under way an enemy aeroplane, attracted by the glow of our wake in the phosphorescent water, aimed a bomb at us which came unpleasantly near.

Sixty-five soldiers were disembarked at Ramsgate at about 7.0 the next morning.

Ramsgate Harbour, circa 1940.

After breakfasting in the town the crew spent the morning cleaning up the float, particularly below decks, and filling up with fuel and lubricating oil. Then dinner ashore and a much-needed rest, which was interrupted by the requisitioning of the float by the naval authorities for another trip the same night. The L.F.B. sub-officer, who had been at the wheel throughout the previous trip from the time the Massey Shaw left Ramsgate until her return and had carried out the difficult and responsible task of handling her amongst the wrecks and shallows of Dunkirk for four or five hours, volunteered to go back again. Two auxiliary firemen also volunteered for another trip. A number of naval ratings were put on board to make up the crew, including two stokers to handle the engines and a gunner to man the Lewis gun which was mounted on the deck as a defence against air attack, but which was never actually used. An R.N.V.R. lieutenant was put in command. In addition to the crew a beach party of a dozen men under a sub-lieutenant was carried, and the programme was to arrive off the beach at dusk, land the beach party, ferry men out to troopships in the deep water channel, and at the end of the operation pick up the beach party and leave at 3.30 a.m. A thirty-foot ship’s lifeboat was removed from its moorings in the middle of the harbour and taken as a tender.

This time, on a falling tide, we approached the coast by the orthodox channel and had to steam some four of five miles eastwards along the coast before passing the harbour, and another mile to the beach at which we were detailed to operate. There were many more wrecks in the channel than on the previous day. In some cases the sunken ships rested on their keels, with the superstructure awash, and some had capsized, leaving a side or bottom above the water, looking in the dusk like a sandbank dried out at low tide.

At about 11.0 p.m. the Massey Shaw anchored by the stern in ten feet of water with her head towards the shore. The fires in the town had spread since the previous night, and gave sufficient light to work by in comfort, and at the same time spread a blanket of thick smoke over the beach, making air attack impossible. Intermittent flashes of gunfire from the battle round the perimeter of Dunkirk rose beyond and on either side of the town, and many of them were followed by an unpleasant sound, like the hiss of a rocket turned inside out, of approaching shells. Every quarter of an hour three of four shells at intervals of about a minute burst within 200 yards. Some could be seen hitting the water, but from the number of casualties taken aboard it was evident that most were bursting on the beach. One shell came near enough for the fumes from it to be smelled on deck and to cause a false alarm of gas, for which every man who had a respirator put it on. But a minute later, as the yelling from boat to boat up and down the beach continued undiminished, gas masks were removed and replaced in places of safety in the cabin. This was the nearest we came to suffering any casualties on board. The two naval officers set an example by their bearing throughout the operation, behaving as though at a formal dinner-party except when it was absolutely necessary to shout, and never even referring to the shelling.

As soon as the anchor was down the naval beach party rowed ashore on the end of the long grass line paid out to them from the Massey Shaw’s bow. The boat returned along the line very quickly, full up with soldiers, and after four or five journeys the float was fully laden with men, compressed into the cabin and standing on deck. An attempt was then made, by paying out more line, to transfer the seaward end of it to a couple of sailing barges at anchor a little farther out, so that the float could return to them after unloading and save the time and labour of anchoring. The line, however, was not long enough, and in the struggle to make it reach the barges the end was let go by mistake. The Massey Shaw then moved out to a troopship at anchor in the channel, transferred nearly a hundred men to her and returned, picked up the lifeboat and the grass line and reloaded.

While returning for the second load, the port main engine stopped. The naval stokers in the engine-room were not familiar with the engines, and by the time they had discovered the cause of the stoppage they had used up all the compressed air in trying to restart. It took half an hour to recharge the air bottles by means of the auxiliary air compressor, and in the meantime the R.N.V.R. lieutenant (who took the wheel all the time the float was working off the beach) had to manoeuvre with one engine, a difficult feat even in daylight, with plenty of room. It was during this half hour that most of the scars brought back from Dunkirk were received.

After a time stretcher cases began to arrive, and they were a great anxiety. The only place where there was room for them was on the foredeck, which was already covered with coils of rope, which were continuously in use, in addition to the windlass and other deck fittings. Transferring the wounded from the boat to the Massey Shaw was difficult, but getting them on board the troopship was worse. Their endurance was magnificent, but every movement naturally hurt them, and as we lay alongside the troopship the swell repeatedly threw the float against her side with a crash and jolt which drew groans and oaths from them. At one time the troopship, a paddle steamer, was compelled by the falling tide to move into deeper water when the Massey Shaw was fast alongside her paddle-box and in the midst of transferring a man on a stretcher on board of her.

The last two or three hours of the operation seemed even the next morning like a dream, and the sequence of events is hard to remember. One had a confused impression of the water crowded with boats in the flickering light of the fires, the gradually increasing irritation of bursting shells, anxiety over the rapidly shoaling water and the calm and polite voice of the officer against a background of gunfire and the shouts of boats’ crews trying to find their own ships. We probably made about five journeys out from the beach to the troopship, and it was calculated that we put approximately 500 men aboard of her. Finally the captain of the troopship told us that he could take no more men, and raised his anchor and steamed for home. The sky had begun to lighten. 

We returned for our boat’s crew and anchored by the stern as usual to wait for them. They reached us with a load of soldiers, and, as they were climbing aboard, the float began to bump on the ground forward, and a moment later she was bumping aft as well. The last man was pulled hastily on board, and the engines put astern while the anchor warp was hauled in. We got it all in except two fathoms of chain and the anchor itself, and these we struggled for a minute to get on board, but we were too exhausted. The float was bumping again, and there was nothing for it but to slip the anchor. The engines were put to full speed ahead, and with some anxiety we watched a tangle of 20 fathoms of 4 ½ -inch line whipping out over the stern, expecting it at any moment to bring up all standing on one of the numerous fittings on the quarter-deck. Then the end disappeared into the sea, and we were under way for home. The time was exactly 3.30 a.m. and the operation was officially finished for the night. We were the last boat to leave that part of the beach.

The voyage home in the dawn was a delightful and peaceful contrast to the hectic night we had passed. The sea had gone down completely, and as the sun rose a slight haze reduced visibility to two or three miles, and so far as we could see we were alone. After three hours’ steaming the officer began to have doubts of our position; the Goodwins were somewhere ahead, and the compass was untrustworthy. The engines were slowed to half-speed. Half an hour later a drifter towing two small boats, all three packed with troops, appeared a mile or two to port. We closed in on her, and ascertained that she was making for the North Goodwin Lightship and followed her home. We arrived in Ramsgate at about 8.0 a.m. on Sunday 2nd June, and landed thirty or forty soldiers.

The Massey Shaw returned to Dunkirk again the next evening with a Fire Service crew, consisting of two auxiliaries and the sub-officer who had been over the first night and a relief L.F.B. crew sent down from London. The sub-officer who had already done two trips wanted to go again, but was not allowed to, having had practically no sleep for three days. The same R.N.V.R. lieutenant was in command. The float entered the harbour and laid alongside the jetty. One of the auxiliaries climbed up on to the jetty to make fast. There were troops on the jetty, but the climb down to the Massey Shaw’s deck in the dark was too difficult and she came away empty. In the darkness and confusion the auxiliary was left on the jetty, and his absence not noticed for some time, but he found another ship and returned safely. 

The next day the Massey Shaw left Ramsgate for London, but off Margate she was overhauled by a French ship, which at a distance of two or three hundred yards struck a mine and sank almost immediately. The Massey Shaw instantly put about and steamed for the spot where the ship had disappeared. About thirty men, all severely injured, were rescued and taken back to Ramsgate. Amongst the wreckage the float had picked up a line with one of her propellers, and she was accordingly beached the next day in order to clear it.

Early on the Wednesday the Massey Shaw again set out for London, and as she came up the river the crews of the previous days were sent down to meet her by speed boat, and she steamed up to Lambeth with the full crew on board. Each river station turned out and cheered her as she passed. At Lambeth the crew was received by the Commanding Officer, and the wives and mothers of all on board were specially fetched from their homes for the reception.

The Massey Shaw's welcome return to the capital.

Looking back on the operation after nearly two years, the impression which still remains strongest is of the extraordinary feeling of pity aroused by the sight of thousands of one’s countrymen waiting on the beach, with death or capture behind and the sea before them; and everyone who took part in the evacuation will agree that however great the danger had been it would have been impossible to leave the beach while there was room on board for one more man. As it happened, although many seamen, both professional and amateur, lost their lives in the operation, the casualties were comparatively light, and the enemy was prevented from putting up serious opposition to the evacuation by the efforts of the Navy, the R.A.F. and those units of the B.E.F. that remained behind.

IWFBF further research

Of the crew of the Massey Shaw two firemen were Mentioned in Dispatches, Henry Albert William Ray and Edmund Gordon Wright, both of the Auxiliary Fire Service. Sub Officer Aubrey John May was the member of London Fire Brigade who for a civilian received the rare honour of the Distinguished Service Medal.

May was born on 8 August 1897. At the time of the 1939 Register, he was based with No. 65 River Station, residing on-station at Whitefriars Fire Station, 7 Carmelite Street, London, E.C. 4, positioned within yards of the north bank of the Thames and the Blackfriars Bridge. The building closed as a fire station in 1964 and is today an office block but retains the distinctive masonry archways through which the land-fire appliances would once have emerged.

The same entry in the Register shows that on that date under his charge were three senior firemen, five firemen, two pilots (all London Fire Brigade) plus one Company Officer and eight firemen of the Auxiliary Fire Service. The full-time occupations of the A.F.S. members make interesting reading. Company Officer Douglas Stimson was unsurprisingly a master-sailor, among his men were a wool merchant, petroleum engineer, three clerks and a sartorial artist!

The identity of PROTO remains a mystery.

The imposing frontage of the former Whitefriars Fire Station as it appears today in London's Carmelite Street.