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.