The stories behind the story
FTFDTH podcast 11 – The story of little ship The Bee at Dunkirk, WW2
This is the full script used for the WW2 Dunkirk podcast on little Dunkirk ship the Bee
The officer told us the British Expeditionary Force was being driven into the sea and that our task was to lift as many off the beaches near Dunkirk as possible.
Zero hour was dawn, 3.30 a.m. Sleep was out of the question … and we busied ourselves hanging a scrambling net over the bows. Dawn finally broke, we raised anchor and made for the shore.
We could see ships out at sea making their way from Dunkirk to England and could also see the dive-bombers after the ships. To our horror, many other ships had been sunk, their funnels and superstructures sticking out of the water - it was a ships' graveyard and it looked dreadful.
We drove at full speed on to the shore and grounded; they came towards us, some wading almost to their necks in the water, and we realised that our efforts to assist them aboard with ropes and scrambling nets were futile.
In wartime ordinary men and women are asked to do extraordinary things. This is the story of the part some Isle of Wight merchant sailors played in rescuing allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk – in Operation Dynamo
It’s the WW2 story of the little sailing ship The Bee ….
I’m Paul Cheall, son of Bill Cheall whose WW2 memoirs have been published by Pen and Sword – in FTFDTH.
The aim of these podcasts is to give you the stories behind the story. You’ll hear memoirs and memories of veterans connected to Dad’s war in some way – and much more.
I want to start this podcast about the Dunkirk little ships by sharing with you some of the reactions to the previous episode about Capt Tom Woods. There’s a lot of relatives alive who remember Tom and there have been some amazing comments on Facebook. Here’s just a few of them:
First of all Sarah, his great granddaughter said
“I've listened to the podcast twice so far and cried both times.
I have been quite moved by everyone's response, especially my Uncle James' reaction - he knew Tom well so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. What is so moving for me is to hear your father's account, the account of someone whose life was saved that day. There are so many of us who wouldn't be here had events taken a different course at numerous points in the war.
Then Sue said
Just listened to this and it's made me cry. It was great to hear an account of someone rescued by my grandad and to hear his letters read aloud. Reinforces what a brave man he was, and all the others who took part in the rescue
Christine said - How emotional to hear this account. It felt like granddad was reading those letters. It really brought this historic time to life with granddad really in the thick of it. What an honourable man he was and all his civilian colleagues
Well, thanks so much to you folks for your thoughts on Facebook. It’s so incredibly heart warming to know how my podcast connected to people so close to the story. Thank you once again for commenting.
So, moving on, this WW2 podcast is the last in the current Dunkirk trilogy and indeed the last in the present series - and it's a really exciting finale about the so-called little ships of Dunkirk, in particular one called the Bee, from the Isle of Wight.
The IOW is an island just off the southern English coastline near Southampton. A lot of the D-Day ships sailed from Southampton because it’s pretty much straight across the sea from Normandy in France.
The Isle of Wight was totally dependent on almost all supplies, including food, being carried by a fleet of small freighters. These were among the flotilla of little ships which sailed to Dunkirk.
In 1940, the war was going very badly for the Allies. The Germans had raced across Europe and by late May they had pushed the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army into a small area in and around Dunkirk.
Almost 400,000 men were trapped together with their transport and equipment with the sea in front of them and the Germans behind.
A total disaster threatened.
The troops on the beach were being shelled by the advancing German army and attacked with bombs and machine guns by the Luftwaffe.
A fleet of over 900 ships was hastily assembled to try to rescue the Allied army. While the operation was spearheaded by the Royal Navy with 42 destroyers and other large ships, and ships of the French Navy, the majority of vessels were the 700-odd, little ships of Dunkirk”.
You know listeners it’s quite ironic that when the evacuation was first announced there were plans for using just four destroyers for the entire affair.?
The flotilla included merchant marine boats, fishing boats, coasters, yachts, motor boats, pleasure craft and Royal Lifeboat Institution lifeboats, whose civilian crews were called into service for the emergency. Apparently, even Thames fire ships from the London Fire Brigade that had never been in the open sea sailed down the river to take part.
If you’ve heard the previous two podcasts you’ll be aware how Major Leslie Petch and his soldiers of 6th Battalion the Green Howards (including my father) struggled through France to get to the Dunkirk beaches and managed to get on board the Lady of Mann.
This is the WW2 story of how some other soldiers were rescued.
The aim of this WW2 podcast is to tell the tale of the motor-barge The Bee and her crew.
And how some Isle of Wight men of humble backgrounds bravely responded when called upon to face the danger of death and injury - for the sake of their country.
I’d like to introduce you to writer Michael Wills whose efforts have led to this story being preserved on a dedicated website iowtodunkirk.com. More about that later.
Michael’s interest in this story is because her skipper, Bill Trowbridge, was his great uncle. Michael was born in his house and lived there during the war years, while his own father was away in the Army.
And we are very lucky to have the complete storyof the Bee’s voyage written by Fred Reynard the ship’s engineer.
Michael knew Fred well when he was a boy, and used to have short trips down the River Medina on the Bee.
The Isle of Wight County Press announced on 4th February 1928, that Shepard Brothers had taken delivery of a new motor barge, The Bee, which was to replace a sailing vessel of the same name which had been carrying goods to and from the Island since 1801.
The new vessel arrived in Newport on 31 January 1928, coming from Faversham, where she had been built at James Pollack and Sons shipyard. She’d been given a cargo of cement for ballast.
Just like the other vessels working on the River Medina the Bee was shallow draft so that she could easily sit on the mud when the tide was out. In fact her draft was just two metres when loaded.
This was a real advantage for her work at Dunkirk as she could go very close to the shore to pick up troops.
She was 24 metres in length, weighed 45 tons and was powered by two 44 hp Bolinder engines
The Bee’s routine role was dramatically interrupted in May 1940, while she was moored in Portsmouth.
The Admiralty signalled the official start of Operation Dynamo on 26th May 1940.
Two days later, the Bee was in Portsmouth Harbour and the crew were unloading routine cargo, when a Naval Officer boarded the ship and told the captain that the Navy was taking over command of the vessel.
A naval crew would take over unless the existing crew volunteered to take part in a dangerous mission. Like the crews of the other Island ships, they all did.
By 30th May the crew found themselves being bombed and shelled off the beach of Dunkirk.
So this is the full story of the Bee’s adventurous WW2 voyage as told by Fred Reynard, the engineer…
“We were unloading iron plates at Portsmouth Dockyard when a naval officer came aboard and informed us that the Bee was being taken over by the Navy. He said the task for which she was required was dangerous and the crew could leave for home if they wished and a naval crew would be put aboard.
Alternatively, the Navy would be grateful if we volunteered because of our expertise in handling the craft. The crew consisted of
Bill Trowbridge, skipper;
Harry Downer, mate;
myself, Fred Reynard, as engineer;
and Marc Hocking, aged 18, as fourth hand.
We all agreed to stay with the ship. A Royal Navy Sub-Lieutenant was seconded to Bee and four days rations were put aboard before we left harbour at 7.30 in the evening. We steamed through the night and all the next day, arriving at an assembly area off Ramsgate at 5 p.m.
The officer went ashore for instructions and was back within the hour. He told us the British Expeditionary Force was being driven into the sea and that our task was to lift as many off the beaches near Dunkirk as possible.
We were again offered the opportunity of quitting; again we declined and at 7.30 p.m. the Bee set off.
Listener, here’s an alternative version of the narrative from a WW2 book by Norman Moss - 19 weeks:
The navy commandeered the Bee, a seventy-ton coastal transport boat. The engineer, Fred Reynard, a chirpy little man, said to an admiral, "Beg pardon sir, but what do your young gentlemen know about Swedish engines? I've been handling this one since 1912."
The officer told him about Dunkirk and said, "Ever been under shell-fire?"
"Ever heard of Gallipoli?" Reynard shot back.
He and his crew took the Bee to Dunkirk with a navy sub-lieutenant nominally in command.
Listeners I can’t stop laughing at that anecdote I really can’t!
Anyway back to Fred …
Two routes had been offered to the officer and he was free to discuss these with the crew. We could make for Calais, but would come within range of shore batteries, or we could travel by a more northerly route, a distance of 85 miles, but here there were German E-Boats making a nuisance of themselves.
We opted for the short route via Calais, travelled on our own and timed our arrival during the cover of darkness.
We dropped anchor as per instructions to wait for the dawn. Overhead was the drone of aircraft, the sky was stabbed by dozens of searchlight beams, while all around one could see the dark shadows of ships large and small, all at anchor.
We remained unmolested. In the distance one could hear the rumble of guns and the explosion of bombs, while fires raging in the town lit the sky. …….
Zero hour was dawn, 3.30 a.m. Sleep was out of the question … and we busied ourselves hanging a scrambling net over the bows. Dawn finally broke, we raised anchor and made for the shore.
What a sight met our gaze. The sea was covered in oil and there was wreckage everywhere. The docks were burning, as were huge oil containers and over the town of Dunkirk was a pall of black smoke. …..
The shores were a sea of human beings … and there was a constant stream of men coming over the dunes and down to the water’s edge.
A light from a Very pistol warned us of impending danger.
An aircraft appeared, machine-gun fire struck the water close by, but no bombs were dropped. Other planes were busy dropping bombs and machine-gunning along the beach.
We proceeded towards the shore, and the nearer we got, the more destruction we saw. Upturned craft and human beings floated everywhere. Men were tending the wounded.
Back came the bombers and a near miss shook Bee badly. Warships opened up on the planes. After a direct hit on a destroyer she listed heavily to port.
Another destroyer, laden with troops, was hit and sinking.
Men swam towards the shore; some were picked up by smaller craft, but a large number, torn and mangled, went down with the ship.
Less than an hour since dawn - we were still afloat, yet seemingly had spent a lifetime in hell.
We were now nearing the beach; another near miss, no one could be lucky enough to survive this holocaust. Now a welcome sight. Nine of our fighters arrived and straight into the Huns they went; … easy targets those dive bombers.
Some scattered and fled, some went down. Our planes could not remain long and back came Jerry with his unceasing bombing, but still that procession of men came down to the water’s edge…. There was nowhere else to go.
Cars, lorries and motor cycles were being sabotaged by being driven into the sea or destroyed on the beaches. A lone chestnut horse ran up and down the beach. …
More RAF planes arrived, one crashed on the beach … but with more of our planes what a different story it would have been.
Bee drove at full speed on to the shore and grounded; they came towards us, some wading almost to their necks in the water, those men of the BEF, and we realised that our efforts to assist them aboard with ropes and scrambling nets were futile.
Waterlogged and utterly exhausted, many wounded, it was impossible for them to make such an effort.
We quickly sawed the ship’s ladder in two, placing one half on each side of the bow. The success was reward enough to see these men file aboard some equipped with nothing but a covering of clothing
But all with a determination to live. WW2 podcast.
A pause in loading for another raid. We escaped.
But just along the beach there was a terrible toll in life and little ships. Another start and with a few interruptions we filled to capacity.
Every spot where a man could stand was packed both down in the hold and on deck.
Their weight was such that we were stuck firm on the beach …. and for over an hour we struggled to free ourselves until our plight was spotted by a French tug and we were pulled free.
When finally underway our elation was short lived. We were ordered to transfer the troops to a larger vessel lying offshore, (375 soldiers were transferred to a tug), and not once but twice more returned to the beach for further troops.
Fearing that any further grounding might be permanent we used our pinnace, a small boat, to pick up the soldiers, but this proved a painfully slow process amid ever increasing bombing and shelling.
Where there had been ten or a dozen enemy planes dive-bombing ships earlier on, numbers now seemed more like 50, and not only was there more shelling it was also increasingly accurate.
Just as we were leaving a naval motorboat came on the scene and picked up another twenty men that she later transferred to us. However going in for another pick up she capsized in the, by now, rough seas and all but one of her crew swam ashore. ….
The other member tried to swim out to us but he made little progress against the tide so we threw him a life buoy on a line …
and eventually pulled him on board. Just as we were leaving for a second time we saw a small boat leave the shore, so we waited for her too and brought five French soldiers on board.
When we finally pulled away for the last time and were ordered to continue with our human cargo to Ramsgate, it marked the end of the most unforgettable 24 hours of my life.
We reached Ramsgate and tied up to discharge our troops amidst expressions of gratitude, not solicited and better left unsaid, for simple thanks could move us to tears in the wake of such an experience.
The stronger helped the weaker up the gangway and they were met by ladies with cups of hot tea, cakes and cigarettes while the Red Cross were there to take charge of wounded.
So that other vessels could make use of the landing facilities we moved Bee into the middle of the harbour and the telegraph finally rang ‘finished with engines’. ….
I went up on deck, lay down on a folded canvas and as sleep overcame me I remembered a lad who had [earlier] knelt by the engine room hatch and recited the Lord’s Prayer.”
Well, listeners, PHEW! Let’s just catch our breath. What a narrative that was. Can you imagine being there? Man what a story.
Our thanks must go to engineer Fred Reynard telling that story. If anyone is listening who's related to Fred or indeed anyone mentioned in this podcast please do get in touch.
Keep listening folks cos I’ve got one of Winston Churchill’s awesome WW2 speeches coming up to round off the episode.
I’d like to remind everyone of the WW2 web site that Michael Wills has set up to record the history of these small ships from the Isle of Wight. It’s iowtodunkirk.com.
There were five other similar Island boats which went to Dunkirk. These were the MFH, The Murius, The Chamois, The Hound and the Bat. It would be wonderful if relatives of their crews could contribute to this website.
So if anyone has any photos, information to add or stories to tell about the Island’s heroic contribution to the Dunkirk operation, please go to iowtodunkirk.com. And add your thoughts to the many contributions already there. I’d recommend having a good dig around on that website because there is nugget of fascinating history behind every one of the many links.
Apparently, during the rescue, one of the Bee’s propellers was fouled by a piece of wire so she could only use one engine. When she got to Ramsgate the skipper was ordered to return to Newport for repairs. On her way back she passed the Hound, the MFH and the Murius on their way to Dunkirk. Can you imagine what the crew of the Bee were thinking then, knowing what a cauldron of danger their mates were sailing into? Podcast, WW2 diary.
Listeners there is one posting on the iowtodunkirk.co.uk website I'd just like to share with you. It relates to the incident I just mentioned and it also casts a light on how the Dunkirk operation must have affected the crew.
Julia Furby said ‘My Dad worked as a marine fitter for Pickfords for 43 years, (the same company as Mike’s great-uncle and skipper of the Bee). He was working there during the Dunkirk evacuation.
Dad told me that when the Bee was at Dunkirk she picked up a hawser from a sunken ship, wrapping it around her port propeller.
The navy person who was on board of her said to keep her going at all cost, she returned on one engine. This action resulted in her crank shaft bearings breaking down.
She returned to Newport and was pulled up onto the slipway at Odessa Yard which is in Little London, (Newport Quay). Dad had the task of sawing the hawser off and repairing the engine.
He said that the crews on returning didn’t talk much about what happened but went straight home to families and to sleep.
Listeners I’m now going to end Fred Reynard’s story on an extremely sad note because I have to tell you this. Remember one of the crew I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast? It included a young man, Marc Hocking, aged 18, as fourth hand.
Well, all the crew of the Bee ended their Dunkirk mission alive and in one piece.
But, years later in December 1968 Marc was working on one of the boats.
They had taken a drifting barge in tow during bad weather. And while it was being towed from Portsmouth, a large wave hit the barge.
The tow rope snapped and whipped back and wrapped round Mr Hocking. He died a week later from injuries he received.
(This is the script used for the WW2 Dunkirk podcast on little Dunkirk ship the Bee)
The miracle of the little ships remains a prominent folk memory in Britain. The operation, was code named Dynamo, named after the dynamo in a room under Dover Castle.
This is where Admiral Ramsay planned and supervised the operation, and saved 338,000 Allied troops. That was 198,000 British and Canadian, and 140,000 French, including some Belgians and Poles - But it was not without cost.
177 British planes were lost trying to protect the evacuation, (the Luftwaffe lost 132).
200 Allied sea craft, including six British and 3 French destroyers were sunk. Almost a hundred of the little ships were sunk in the operation and many of their crews lost or wounded.
Some 18,000 soldiers were killed during the period, either during the fighting or on the beaches. Around 50,000 troops were captured. Many of these were force marched back to Germany as prisoners of war.
Nevertheless, Operation Dynamo was a success which gave the beleaguered British nation a great morale boost. The rescued soldiers formed the backbone of the Army which eventually triumphed in 1945.
Later in the war he planned the Royal Navy’s part in the Normandy landings of D-Day. Tragically, he was killed in an air crash near Paris in January 1945.
But he will be best-remembered for executing the greatest evacuation fleet in maritime history.
I want to thank Michael Wills for his help and support in making this story of the Bee available to us. Michael is a writer of historical thrillers. If you’d like to know more please do take a look at michaelwills.eu. I’m putting a link to all the web sites mentioned in this podcast in the shownotes at fightingthroughpodcast.co.uk so you don’t need to remember them all.
Michael has said that while researching for his website “I tried to trace the fate of the six Isle of Wight ships which took part in the Dunkirk evacuation.
Apparently the Bee was sold in 1966. Last seen painted navy grey, working as a transport barge in Portsmouth harbour in 1971. I reached the eventual conclusion that, sadly, all of the boats had been scrapped.
So, it was very good news to hear that one of the ships, the MFH has survived and took part in the 2015, 75th anniversary re-enactment of Operation Dynamo.
She joined other veterans in ceremonies taking place at Dunkirk to celebrate this historic event.
Like several other ships in the Medina fleet, the vessel had a name related to fox hunting, for example the “Hound”, and the “Tantivy”. MFH stands for, “Master of Fox Hounds”.
However, the ship is no longer called the MFH, cos she was re-named by her present owner to “Gainsborough Trader”. She has been beautifully restored and is now berthed in Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe, London.
So listeners if you make the trip to London sometime and you see the Gainsborough Trader, I hope this podcast helps you appreciate just some of the adventures this little ship will have had.
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On 31st May 1940, when Captain Butcher took his Isle of Wight ship, the Bat, to the Dunkirk beach for the second time, he picked up a hundred soldiers and amongst them was a certain Sergeant Reginald Toogood.
Sergeant Toogood was a signaller and a professional soldier, then aged 28.
It turns out that he too came from the Isle of Wight. How’s that for a coincidence!?
You’ll find his photo in the shownotes.
If you're wondering who the lady was, talking at the beginning of the podcast, it was my dear old mum Anne when I was talking to her just a couple of weeks ago about WW2.
Then the rest of the war began…
This was the script used for the WW2 Dunkirk podcast on little Dunkirk ship the Bee, a WW2 diary podcast