In the summer of 1940, Britain’s back was to the wall. It was losing the war against the Nazis. In France, the Allies had been overwhelmed by the Wehrmacht and its new tactic of Blitzkrieg – ‘Lightning War’ – and now hundreds of thousands of soldiers were trapped at Dunkirk with the sea at their backs, awaiting evacuation to England. To coincide with the recent launch of a major film on this pivotal episode in WWll, starring Irish actors Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and Barry Keoghan, Pat Poland recalls the part played in the drama by a fireboat named after the legendary first and most famous commander of the London Fire Brigade – Corkman Sir Eyre Massey Shaw.
On 9th April, 1940, the Wehrmacht invaded Denmark and Norway, and just over a month later launched its offensive in the west, racing into Belgium, the Netherlands. Luxembourg and France. The so-called ‘Phoney War’ (when, for months, the Allies and Germans sat facing each other with nothing happening) came to an abrupt end.
On 26 May, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force was authorized to fall back on the Channel port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) to await evacuation. In England, plans for a major evacuation of the 300,000 plus troops were being formulated under Vice Admiral Ramsay.
Code named ‘Operation Dynamo’ (Ramsay’s command centre was situated in the cramped dynamo room deep under Dover Castle), the plan called for every available sea-going craft, large and small, to assemble at Ramsgate to make the forty-six nautical miles (approx. fifty-three statute miles) crossing to Dunkirk: the Royal Navy alone could not provide sufficient vessels for the massive undertaking.
Thus, on the evening of 29 May, London Fire Brigade was asked to provide a fireboat to make the perilous crossing to France: a war-zone patrolled by the Germans, including submarines.
The response for volunteers was overwhelming, and within two hours, thirteen London firefighters (both from the regulars and Auxiliary Fire Service) from the River Unit had been selected. The vessel of choice was the fireboat Massey Shaw, named after the legendary Chief Officer of London Fire Brigade, Corkman Capt. Sir Eyre Massey Shaw.