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