In our last issue we featured the historic fire boat - Massey Shaw. Here is John Furlonger’s description of her historic trip to Dunkirk in May 2000.
When in May 1940 the Admiralty asked for a fireboat to be sent to Dunkirk, the London Fire Brigade was overwhelmed by the volunteers who came forward. And so it was also with the Thames small boat owners - rudely interrupted as they were by the summary requisitioning of their beloved weekend pleasure craft, the snatching away of their cabin cruisers. Some boats taken were even smaller, hardly ships at all - these ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk. They too came forward, not as would-be heroes but as ordinary people in whom this Dunkirk Spirit had long since earlier already taken up residence. This was to the the people themselves, hands-on, bringing the boys back home to fight another, ultimately victorious, day.
Over 800 ‘Little Ships’ took part in ‘Operation Dynamo’ as the Dunkirk evacuation came to be known. Not all came from the Thames, not all were small. The London Fireboat Massey Shaw was 78ft long with a beam of 13ft 6inches. She had draft of only 3ft 9ins being specially designed for the London River and to be able to manoeuvre under all the Thames bridges and to navigate all the innumerable creeks, backwaters and gullies at all states of the tide. She had only every been to sea once before, on her delivery in 1934 from her makers at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Fortunately the Great God of the Sky and Deep looked kindly down upon the ‘Little Ships’, in early June 1940. In flat calm seas Massey Shaw took off some 600 soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches to larger vessels lying offshore. She returned directly to England with a further 102 souls on board.
60 years later the spirit is still manifest in ordinary people. Over the first weekend in June this year, more than 55 ‘Dunkirk Little Ships’, including Massey Shaw, took part in a commemorative pilgrimage back to the beaches of Dunkirk. The last remaining member of the 1940 volunteer crew of Massey Shaw, R.J.W. ‘Dick’ Helyer, BEM, was feted, rightly so, at a send off for the fireboat from the London Fire Brigade River Station Pontoon at Lambeth. The return coincided for the very last time with the old solders reunion, the Dunkirk Veterans Association, on the beaches of Dunkirk. Royalty saw fit to attend. Grown men, including the fireboat crew, wept.
Although the Old Solders Association will no longer return to Dunkirk, the Little Ships intend to do so, again and again. After all Trafalgar Night is still celebrated! Despite both Neptune and the Great God of the Sky and the Deep doing their very best to deter the fireboat and the other ‘Little Ships’ from ever reaching Dunkirk this year, the proud guardian of Massey Shaw, The Massey Shaw Preservation Society, are determined to be on the next pilgrimage, probably in 2005.
The Woolwich Ferry, not noted for being inclined to give way, actually stopped in both directions when Massey Shaw, returning from the Dunkirk commemoration to her home at Wood Wharf hard by c.s.Cutty Sark, hove into view. A tremendous salute followed as Massey Shaw glided between both stopped ferries - not only from their horns but also from the massed ranks of vehicles lined up on the decks. People Spirit.
This article appeared in the September 2000 GIHS Newsletter