Thames Passenger Boats – Operation Dynamo (Dunkirk) 1940

A number of Thames passenger boats took part in Operation Dynamo but there is often some confusion as to which went and which did not. The truth of the matter is that although salt sea water did not agree with all of the passenger vessels, they were in someway or another involved and called upon for the evacuation so deserve to be credited as such.

With the 77th anniversary of Operation Dynamo upon us , below are listed details on which passenger vessels took part and how they were involved.

Many thanks to Steve Hastings for gathering and putting together this superb list  – Steve has written a great book on Dunkirk and Tigris One titled “The Turn” and can be bought from Amazon HERE



At 11:50 [am] on Thursday 30th May 1940 the Admiralty (Dynamo Command, Dover), the Thames freshwater steamers were creating more of a hindrance than a help issued the following radio communiqué to;


“Thames river steamers have no condensers and cannot run on seawater. Request no more be sent.“

Mears’ vessels His Majesty, Royal Thames, Viscountess, Connaught, Kingwood, The King, Abercorn, Hurlingham and Marchioness were all left at Sheerness to be towed back upriver unscathed during the first few days of June 1940. Jack Sturgeon was involved in their preparation to return them upriver. These vessels returned to their wartime role as mobile floating hospitals on the Thames in addition to any tripping duties available for the rest of the war. It must have seemed at this time to those remaining at Westminster that Mears’ fleet had returned from Dunkirk itself. These vessels can all claim to have been involved in Operation Dynamo, but never left British waters.

Somehow J. Mears’ Viscount slipped the net and left Sheerness at 18:00 on Thursday 30th May commanded by S.Lt. D.L. Satterford R.N. following the motor yacht Prince of Wales. Viscount’s freshwater steam engine gave up due to the salt water conditions somewhere off Herne Bay and she was anchored overnight. The crew effected enough repairs for her to proceed at 04:00 and limp round to Ramsgate by mid–morning on Friday 31st May where her boiler pump packed up. Viscount was moored inside the harbour at Ramsgate for the rest of Operation Dynamo while her crew transferred to the motor boat Ryegate II.

Royalty was up at Eel Pie Island for a refit to diesel for most of the war.

Mears’ Kingstonian, Marian, Princess Beatrice, Princess Maud, Queen Elizabeth, Richmond Belle and Sovereign all remained at Eel Pie Island, presumably because those crews returning from delivering Mears’ larger steamers from Westminister to Sheerness returned to the news they’d be unsuitable. However, J. Mears’ His Majesty and Royal Thames were taken down in convoy with Georgie Edwards aboard His Majesty as the mate. They left Kingston in the early hours of Wednesday 29th May to arrive at Sheerness by dusk. Due to an oversight the Mears’ crews arriving in the first run from Westminster were allowed to return home leaving their vessels moored up at Sheerness. It could also be they were dispatched for the aborted second run from Eel Pie Island. The crews from the Empress and Queen Boadicea II remained to volunteer to accompany their vessels. Naval crews for the Mears’ fleet were now scarce and it was decided to take each vessel independently round to muster off Margate and Ramsgate as crews became available. The next vessels to leave were Caversham, already converted to diesel commanded by S.Lt. A.J. Weaver R.N.V.R. and soon after Queen Boadicea II, commanded by Lt. J.S. Seal R.N.R. bound for mustering off Margate.

Caversham didn’t get far from Sheerness before her engine caught fire during the night of 29/30th May and she was returned to Sheerness to act as tender to arriving Dutch skoots in the mouth of the Medway. She tried again to leave for Dunkirk on Friday 31st May, but sprang a leak entering the rough waters around the North Foreland and with her pumps not working she was dumped in Pegwell Bay. Her crew continued on to Dunkirk aboard the motor boat Quisisana.


Princess Freda was commanded by S.Lt. E.S. Foreman R.N.V.R. and ferried troops from the beaches to an unknown destroyer and the Dutch trawler Betje which finally towed her back to Ramsgate.


Princess Lily, commanded by Prob.T/S.Lt. K.E.A. Bayley R.N.V.R. left Sheerness on Thursday 30th May with 19 other small boats escorted by a trawler, almost certainly Strathelliott. She arrived off the beaches at Dunkirk in the morning of Friday 31st May and continued to work between Malo–les–Bains and La Panne until she fouled her propeller and could only go astern. She finally succumbed to engine trouble forcing her crew to abandon her at 22:00 off La Panne on Friday 31st May. Her crew transferred to the gunboat Mosquito and were delivered back to Dover at 05:00 the following morning.

Mears’ Margherita was sunk in the Passe de l’ouest off Mardyck by the wash from a British destroyer before reaching Dunkirk. Her coxswain Harry ‘Peddler’ Palmer was picked up and survived.

Queen Boadicea returned to operate for Jacksons of Hammersmith. She was eventually employed as the Kingswear ferry on the River Dart and was scrapped in 1984.



Skylark X, one of many Skylark’s at Dunkirk came back into the Jackson Brothers’ fleet until being sold to Thompsons in 1957. She was moored at Hampton Wick in 1980 converted as a houseboat and finally sank in 1984.



The Tamar Belle survived to return to Thames Motor Boats until 1974, then operated bearing her original name tripping on the River Trent in Nottingham.

normal_ThamesBritannia-01_bb.jpg(Tamar Belle right)

Murrell’s motor passenger vessels Dreadnought II and Dreadnought III were both lost off the beaches. (Dreadnought II should not be confused with Redknapp’s Dreadnaught II, which did not go to Dunkirk).


Whatford & Sons’ Court Belle II departed Sheerness at 14:10 on Thursday 30th May. At 15:50 her engine broke down off Herne Bay and she was taken in tow by Strathelliott arriving off Ramsgate at 22:00. She departed for Dunkirk at 02:05 the following morning in tow of another vessel. At Dunkirk she suffered from a two and a half inch grass–line around her propeller after her second run to a Dutch skoot. The line wrapped solidly around the blades, pulling the shaft and causing a major leak into the bilge. Repeated attempts by her coxswain to remove the line failed and her crew comprising Jack Sturgeon and a naval rating were evacuated to a naval motor torpedo boat and she was machine–gunned along her waterline so she’d sink and not fall into enemy hands. Jack last remembered seeing Court Belle II on the evening of Friday 31st May, her gunnels just visible above the surf as the M.T.B. turned and deliver him back to Ramsgate. He was sent home for two days rest and recuperation before being dispatched back to Sheerness to organise the returning survivors for towing upriver for repairs.


Lamont’s Malden Annie IV, commanded by S.Lt. T. Lawrie R.N.V.R. became much of a hindrance to operations. She departed Sheerness on Thursday 30th May, but her freshwater steam engine broke down before reaching Ramsgate and at 20:45 she was also taken in tow by Strathelliott (the Dynamo Report states 08:45, but this is impossible). Still in tow bound for Dunkirk on Friday 31st her bollards and cleats ripped out and by 12:15 the Strathelliott had begun to tow her again stern first with a strop around the boat. Off the beaches at Dunkirk she was left to drift abandoned after her engines failed to start. Her pumps were choked, her bilge full of rubbish and she was reportedly taking water fast. She later fulfilled some useful purpose used as part of a pier hastily constructed along with army trucks and other debris by The Royal Engineers. S.Lt. Lawrie transferred to a motor barge and returned to Ramsgate subsequently taking command of the motor boat Wings of The Morning on Sunday 2nd June.


Mutt returned to Mears’ fleet until their demise in 1946. She was sold on to Thames Launches and subsequently to J. Watson in 1953, then operated for Turks Launches.

(Jeff pictured – sister to Mutt – photo by Ian Boyle)

Barrell turned his motor launch Shamrock back from the flotilla to rescue the crew of Queen of England after she was rammed and cut in two by the Dutch skoot Tilly at 23:00 on Wednesday 29th May somewhere near the South Falls. Shamrock proceeded on to Dunkirk taking in tow another of Barrell’s boats, Canvey Queen after her engines had stopped. Once at Dunkirk Shamrock and Canvey Queen together with E. Crouch’s Princess Maud ferried troops off the beaches to a group of destroyers including H.M.S. Anthony. During the late morning of Thursday 30th May Princess Maud ran aground and had to be abandoned. Shamrock suffered a fouled propeller less than two hours later and full of rescued troops was towed by the Canvey Queen to unload to H.M.S. Anthony. After disembarking the men and her crew, she was abandoned. This left just Canvey Queen to tow boats for the drifter Fairbreeze until she too fouled her propeller and was abandoned off Dunkirk on the evening of Thursday 30th May.



(Pictured : Queen of England (astern of Britannia) and Henry,Harry and Warren Hastings with Queen of England in 1937) 

Good Hope was apparently lost whilst working off the beaches.


Further to the previous technical corroborations regarding Thames vessels that did or didn’t see action at Dunkirk it must be obvious that of those listed and detailed confirmed crossing the channel, just over a third returned. Most of the vessels that returned were damaged in one way or another, yet all the Mears’ large freshwater steam powered vessels survived without a single scratch

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