Thomas Kirk Wright (1939–62) was one of the ‘Dunkirk Little Ships’. On 28 May 1940 she sailed from Poole to Ramsgate to join the rescue flotilla and was the first of 19 lifeboats to reach Dunkirk on 30 May 1940.
She made 3 trips in total, rescuing members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the beaches, but on the final voyage she came under fire from German troops and was badly shot up although no one aboard was hit. She managed to get back on one engine, and was then repaired and returned to service at Poole.
Brian Traves, a volunteer at Poole Old Lifeboat Museum with his wife Marge, registered Thomas Kirk Wright with the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships and was presented with a brass plaque. You can view the entry for Thomas Kirk Wright on the Association’s website.
A special memorial service was held outside Poole Old Lifeboat Museum on Saturday 29 May 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation.
The Second World War was less than a year old in 1940 when British, French, Canadian and Belgian troops, who had been fighting against Hitler’s troops in Belgium and France, were forced to retreat to the French port of Dunkirk.
They were cut off by the German army during the Battle of Dunkirk but the Germans failed to overwhelm the allies and an ambitious rescue plan was launched to save the hundreds of thousand soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk.
Codenamed Operation Dynamo, and hailed as ‘the greatest rescue operation in history’, hundreds of civilian sailors, along with the Navy and the RAF, selflessly risked their lives to evacuate over 338,000 troops from the beaches of France.
Thomas Kirk Wright was commandeered by the naval-officer-in-charge at Poole in response to calls for small craft to rendezvous for the evacuation, and she left Poole on 28 May 1940 headed for Ramsgate.
At a speed of 6 knots it took her over 24 hours to reach Ramsgate, and she had to refuel 2 or 3 times during the trip. Amongst the Poole crew manning her that day was Sandy Wills, who sent a postcard home a few days later (see below).
At Ramsgate the Thomas Kirk Wright was captained by Leading Seaman Huntington, and, manned by naval ratings, she arrived off Dunkirk on 30 May 1940. She was the first lifeboat taken over for the purpose and, in all, 19 lifeboats took part in the operation.
According to L/Sea Huntingdon’s Official Admiralty Log, now held at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, on her first trip to Dunkirk, Thomas Kirk Wright was kept offshore by gunfire from shore batteries.
She returned to Dunkirk for a second trip on 2 June 1940 when she was towed across by the tug Foremost 87, together with another RNLI lifeboat. L/Sea Huntington’s log records that they managed to get troops off the beach east of Dunkirk, and also tried to save survivors from 2 or 3 trawlers that had been blown up, one of which was French, the others English.
Ideal for working off the beaches, the surf lifeboat Thomas Kirk Wright, with its two impellers, had a draught of only 76cm (2ft 6ins). She was needed because the beach at Dunkirk was too shallow for larger boats to reach the men, so she was used to ferry troops from the beaches to waiting warships, which then carried them back to England.
The Thomas Kirk Wright made a third trip to Dunkirk on 3 June 1940 and ferried more troops from the harbour, but this time she came under fire from German troops. She was loaded with French soldiers at the time but miraculously no one was hit and, although she had 30cm of water in her hull, she was saved by her tremendously strong construction.
However, the combination of arduous work in shallow sandy water and of being handled by personnel unused to her system of propulsion led to one of her motors being put out of action, so she had to make the trip back to Dover on one engine. This proved to be her final trip to Dunkirk, as she was then repaired and returned to service at Poole.
Sandy Wills, one of the Poole crew who sailed the Thomas Kirk Wright from Poole to Ramsgate on 28 May 1940, sent home this postcard on 5 June 1940:
By the ninth day of the evacuation, a total of over 338,000 British and Allied troops had been rescued by the hastily assembled fleet of 850 boats.
Along with the naval men who manned many of the lifeboats, Margate and Ramsgate’s lifeboats were crewed by volunteer lifeboat crews. Click here for archive pictures and a recording of Margate’s Coxswain talking about Dunkirk.
There were also civilian volunteers who crewed their skiffs, yachts and dinghies. Among the civilian fleet were several of Poole’s pleasureboats – Bolson’s Skylarks VI, VIII and IX, Tom Davis’s Felicity and Island Queen, and Harvey’s Southern Queen and Ferry Nymph.
These heroic volunteers came under constant fire from the Germans but were covered by counter fire from the RAF and Navy. The evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in the face of such danger and over such a length of time gave rise to the well-known phrase ‘the Dunkirk Spirit’, representing the stubbornness and refusal to accept defeat by all those who took part in the successful evacuation including Poole’s little boats.
Also, one of the Chelsea Pensioners who attended the naming ceremony of Poole’s current Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat Sgt Bob Martin (Civil Service No. 50) on 6 June 2009 told some of the crew that he had been rescued from Dunkirk by one of the 19 lifeboats that took part in Operation Dynamo.