Dunkirk and the General Steam Navigation Company
By Tom Mogg
The General Steam Navigation Company was founded in 1824. At the start of the 1939-45 war they had about 45 ships, of which 10 were pleasure boats. These were ideal as they could carry up to 2000 passengers at up to 21 knots. These, and some of the Company's cargo boats, saved around 10% of all those rescued from the French beaches. This is the full story of those ships.
The twin-screw motor vessel Royal Daffodil, built in 1939, could carry 2073 passengers at 21 knots. She started the war by helping to evacuate school children from London to the east coast ports of Lowestoft, Felixstowe and Yarmouth. She made seven trips to Dunkirk and saved over 8500 troops. On her final voyage she was dive bombed and hit on the starboard side. The bomb passed through three decks, through the engine room, just missing the main fuel tank on that side, and exploded astern of the ship. This caused the engine room to flood. The Master ordered all on board to move over to the port side, causing the ship to list sufficiently to lift the hole out of the water; enabling the second engineer and the donkey man to crawl in and block the hole with mattresses and timber. She then returned to Ramsgate, disembarked her troops, and had temporary repairs. From there she travelled round the coast, into the Thames and on to the Company's repair yard at Deptford for full repairs. The upper structure was riddled with bullet holes, one of the lifeboats having 187 holes, all of which had to be filled.
Her sister ship, the Queen of the Channel, managed only one trip to Dunkirk, taking off some 950 troops, but after leaving she was attacked by Stukas and straddled with a stick of bombs. This lifted her out of the water and broke her back. While every effort was made to save the ship she had to transfer her troops to a coaster and then sank.
The twin-screw motor vessel Royal Sovereign made six trips, four to Dunkirk and two to La Panne, rescuing some 12,000 troops. Later that year she struck a mine in the Bristol Channel and was a total loss.
The paddle steamer Royal Eagle, (built 1932) made two trips to La Panne, saving at least 2000 troops. She was one of the last to leave Dunkirk on 2'"1 June, with a number of wounded on board.
The paddle steamer Golden Eagle made three trips, but on the first visit she found the PS Waverly sinking so she rescued the crew and troops and took them back to Margate. On returning to near the east pier at Dunkirk her lifeboats managed to take men off the beaches; in two trips a total of 3200 were saved.
Another paddle steamer involved was the Medway Queen, bringing back a fall complement of 800 troops each time.
The paddle steamer Crested Eagle arrived at 1400 hrs on 29th May and berthed on the east pier along with a trawler, a cross Channel ferry, and a destroyer. The Germans made a sustained attack, destroying each in turn, troops and crews transferring from one ship to the next, until they were all on the Crested Eagle. But as she left she too was bombed and had to beach farther down the coast, and became a total loss.
A further 4000 troops were rescued by the PS Queen of Thanet, which included 2000 taken off the SS Prague which had been disabled. All of those rescued were taken over to Margate jetty. Fortunately the SS Prague was able to limp back into Dover.
Some of the Company's cargo boats also took part in the rescue. The motor vessel Bullfinch was ordered to stand off the beach at La Panne, but as the troops were unable to reach the ship she was instructed to run ashore. She dropped her anchor and ran up onto the beach, but the anchor did not hold and she swung broadside on and was firmly aground. Quickly 1500 troops piled on board, but she could not pull herself off. While she was stranded the Germans attacked with bombs and strafing. All the troops were below in the holds and 'tween decks. The Bullfinch struggled to get free. A Sergeant Head, one of the troops on board, asked if he could man one of the ship's two Bren guns. When three dive bombers next attacked the Sergeant shot down one, and again with the next attack.
The GSNC later recommended him for an award. While still struggling to get free the Royal Sovereign came along and soon pulled the Bullfinch off.
All along the French coast right down to Bordeaux GSNC ships rescued refugees and others wanting to leave France, as well as their own staff and agents. Exact numbers are not always known, but the following ships took part: MV Goldfinch saved some 500 from St Valery, where about 2400 waited on the beach. MVs Drake and Crane went to other N French ports and on down into the Bay. The SS Falcon brought back 60 refugees including 24 officers and men of the RAOC from Bordeaux. While the SS Woodlark saved not only the GSNC staff but also 73 members of Lever Brothers who had fled down the coast from port to port hoping to find transport before it was too late.
Other GSNC ships which participated were the SS Groningen, the SS Cormorant and the MV Stork; exact details of their efforts are not recorded though they would have collected GSNC staff from the other agencies in France together with others wishing to escape. Undoubtedly GSNC ships must have rescued at least 35 000 people, perhaps more.
Acknowledgement: "Semper Fidelis ", GSNC's official history from 1924 - 1948.
Tom Mogg served a 5 year apprenticeship at the GSNC's Deptford yard, later serving on 14 of the Company's ships, from 1945 to 1957.
This article appeared in the GIHS Newsletter of April 2007 and had previously appeared I a Woolwich Antiquarians Newsletter