Small boats in wartime – Survival at Sea and Dunkirk at the IWM

A few careless words may end in this


Anglo Saxon jolly boat

The jolly boat of the Anglo Saxon – sadly now badly dried out; the poster above was shot without flash

A trip to the Imperial War Museum is always moving, but those who appreciate and fear the sea will be very struck by the exhibition Survival at Sea my son and daughter and I saw this week.

The statistics in relation to merchant navy losses during World War II are impressive. I didn’t know that more than half of shipping losses world wide during the period of the war were British, or that more than twice as many merchant navy seamen were lost in WWII compared with WWI. The years 1939-45 were a very, very dangerous time to be a seaman.

Naturally many of the sailors caught in enemy attacks escaped from burning and sinking ships in lifeboats and ship’s boats, and two exhibits are particularly striking in their humanity. In one, young men in a lifeboat used a pencil and torn bits of canvas to record how their crewmates died one by one; the other the jolly boat from the ship Anglo Saxon is an 18ft open boat with 24 notches cut in the inwale near the stern – each one records a night at sea before rescue. Some crewmen survived in each case, but they were pitifully few.

Bligh House

By an extraordinary coincidence, our way back to London Bridge Station passed the home of another extraordinary survivor – Captain Bligh of the Bounty. Following the famous mutiny, Bligh and his loyal officers and seamen cast off in an open boat then sailed first to the relatively island of Tofua (30 miles away) and then survived a 47-day voyage to Timor in the Dutch East Indies.

He seems to have been an extraordinary seaman and leader, even if he was flawed in the way apparently described by the oddly named J C Beaglehole:

‘[Bligh made] dogmatic judgements which he felt himself entitled to make; he saw fools about him too easily… thin-skinned vanity was his curse through life… [Bligh] never learnt that you do not make friends of men by insulting them.’

I’d say that was a common enough flaw and difficult to forgive – but naturally not quite enough to justify sending someone off to near-certain death.

Another exhibit we noticed was the Tamzine – easily the smallest Dunkirk Little Ship I’ve ever seen, though there must have been many like her.

Dunkirk Little Ship Tamzine Dunkirk Little Ship Tamzine Dunkirk Little Ship Tamzine

3 thoughts on “Small boats in wartime – Survival at Sea and Dunkirk at the IWM”

  1. Two points: You were lucky to have someone like Admiral Ramsay and Winston Churchill who saw that the MEN were the essential thing, not the material. And that you had the brave men to face the sea in their little boats to save their fellow countrymen out of peril.

    And I think that William Bligh was one of the most capable seaman ever. He was one of the first persons whose nautical masterpiece and whose outstanding performance was injustly treated by the press and thus the public opinion. Sir Joseph Banks never ceased in his support for Bligh. He knew what an outstanding sailor Bligh was.

  2. Apropos Bligh and sailing across the sea; there was a Polish chap who bought an old 18' racing dinghy and sailed her across the Pacific to California, having never sailed before in his life. This was shortly after WWII, by memory. He was an economic migrant. I'm not at my parental home where I have a copy of his book and I can't remember his name. His prime aid was a library where he learnt that ballast and a deck are the most important elements of seaworthiness – so he dumped heavy things in the bottom of the flighty little craft and I can't remember how he covered the deck. I read the book about seventeen years ago so please forgive the gaps in my memory. The library also had charts, which he copied onto tracing paper and that served him well enough for his crossing. Undoubtedly some knowledge of the sea would have helped, for instance he was twice becalmed in the lee of an island and despaired of ever landing before his water ran out before working out how to avoid the lee rather than heading straight for an island as soon as he spotted it. That such a man succeeded in crossing the Pacific is very impressive but doesn't surprise me. I have myself made a number of (rather shorter and very much humbler) crossings in small open cockleshells of boats with various crew. The good crew were those with an iron determination, not necessarily the ones with great experience. The lass who pulled herself together and heaved away even when violently seasick is a hero – the type that will succeed. Shackleton found similar things when he was sailing to Elephant Island in a small boat, having been wrecked in the Antarctic ice. He had some big strong young men with him and some old ones. It soon turned out that physical and mental toughness were very different things. Mental toughness is also not the same as a tough attitude. Macho is not the same thing as mental toughness.

    Just my twopageworth 😉

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