"...I should say that the Operation was the greatest thing this nation has ever done."
John Masefield, The Nine Days Wonder
Things were looking bad for Britain in May 1940. They had probably never looked worse.
Since the start of the World War Two, British forces (British Expeditionary Force or BEF) had been crossing the Channel preparing to repel the anticipated German attack on Western Europe. Finally, on 10th May 1940, the Germans unleashed their forces. There was no stagnation in this conflict and the term ‘Blitzkrieg’ or ‘lightening war’ was no exaggeration. Belgium surrendered as early as 14th May, while the Germans crossed the River Meuse in France on 13th. On 20th May they were at Abbeville, 12 miles from the Channel coast.
The Port of Boulogne fell on 24th May and Dunkirk was under heavy and sustained bombardment. Fighting continued over Calais, but its use as an evacuation port was over. It was left to the courageous Allied soldiers to continue fighting at Dunkirk – to the end – to draw off German forces.
Lucy Lavers' role in Operation Dynamo
Between the 27th May and the 4th of June in 1940, a flotilla of little ships helped the British Royal Navy to carry out one of the most daring and dangerous missions of the War - the evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. And among these little ships was newly-built Aldeburgh lifeboat Lucy Lavers, who made her way to Ramsgate where she was taken over by Royal Navy crews for the crossing to Dunkirk. For Lucy Lavers, this was her first action after coming on station earlier in May that year.
Lucy Lavers was one of 19 R.N.L.I. lifeboats involved in Operation Dynamo. There are not many details about her part in the evacuation, but it must have been a remarkable few days, even by standards of a lifeboat. She was one of two Aldeburgh R.N.L.I. vessels to cross the Channel – the other being Abdy Beauclerk - and she had only just been delivered to Aldeburgh. So Dunkirk really was Lucy Lavers' first ‘shout’.
Lucy Lavers was taken down to Ramsgate by her Aldeburgh 2nd Coxswain, Tom Parnell. Records show that she was towed to Dunkirk on 2nd June by Golden Sunbeam, which was commanded not by an R.N.L.I. coxswain, but by S/Lt TW Betts, RNVR. Lucy Lavers was the only single- screw Liverpool type lifeboat to take part in the evacuation.
More details survive about the experiences of other lifeboats at Dunkirk, and these go some way to telling us what would have happened to Lucy Lavers. Most of the lifeboats were requisitioned by the Royal Navy, with the exception of those which sailed direct from Ramsgate and Margate. There was clearly some appreciation for the qualities of the lifeboats; one Naval Officer remarked, “I took the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston lifeboat across to Dunkirk on two nights. Her performance was a revelation and a delight.”