Adventures of a ‘Little Ship’ built in Sussex, the boatyard’s only Dunkirk survivor

For 34 years, Michael Duddridge has been the owner of the only surviving sailing yacht built in the boatyard of David Hillyard of Littlehampton that took part in Operation Dynamo.

Wednesday, 15th July 2020, 1:41 pm

In 1940, Windsong was involved in the evacuation of the British Army from the beaches at Dunkirk during the Second World War and after returning to civilian life, she was involved in further adventures, until 1986, when Michael found her, in a rather neglected state, in a mud berth at Landshipping, on the River Cleddau, near Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire.

He sailed her from Wales to Holland, to a berth on the River Maas, near where he was living at the time, and for the next five years, sailed her around the Dutch coast and across the North Sea to take part in the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships’ annual rallies in various ports on the east coast of England.

In company with 74 other Little Ships, he made the crossing to Dunkirk in 1990, to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of the evacuation of the British Army from France.

Windsong on the Thames Estuary, attending an Association of Dunkirk Little Ships rally

Here Michael tells us Windsong’s story:

Windsong is a ketch rigged, 13½ ton yacht, which was built at David Hillyard’s boatyard in Littlehampton.

Norman Henry Bartlett became her first owner on July 23, 1931, and 55 years later, on June 27, 1986, I became her 13th.

As the first owner, Norman Bartlett would have taken delivery of his new yacht complete with its Bible. The other Hillyard tradition, I understand, was to delay presenting the account until six months after delivery, to ensure the new owner was completely satisfied with his purchase.

Mid-Channel in the company of 74 other Association of Dunkirk Little Ships veterans on passage to Dunkirk to attend the 50th anniversary commemoration

The first owner must have been one of the two men pictured in the cockpit when Bekin of Cowes captured the earliest photograph of the boat in 1931, the year of her launch.

By November 1936, Gordon Lewis Dalton of Brighton had become the fourth owner. However, he was to enjoy only three summers of cruising before the threat of war put an end to pleasure yachting. In 1939, he arranged for the boat to be laid up in Hillyard’s boatyard for the war’s duration.

On May 14, 1940, the BBC Nine O’Clock News broadcast the following announcement: “The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today, if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.”

Windsong was hardly self-propelled - she was a sailing ketch, with a small two-cylinder Thorneycroft ‘Handy Billy’ engine, intended to provide manoeuvrability in harbour, not passage making in the open sea. The Admiralty’s Small Vessel Pool (ASVP) was more interested in motor boats able to cross the southern North Sea unaided, because the possibility of having to evacuate the British Army trapped in Dunkirk was now being actively considered in Whitehall.

Windsong photographed by Bekin of Cowes in 1931, the year of her launch

As the early weeks of May passed, this possibility became a pressing reality, as newspapers began to report the plight of thousands of troops hemmed-in on the beaches of northern France, being bombed and strafed continuously by enemy aircraft.

By this time, the harbour at Dunkirk had been so devastated by bombing that only two vessels could berth there at the same time. The only alternative was to evacuate troops directly off the beaches, using small craft with a shallow draught.

Without further prompting, Mr Dalton contacted Hillyard and instructed them to make Windsong ready for sea as he intended to take her over himself to give whatever help he could.

That afternoon, May 31, 1940, he sailed for Dover and reported to the Naval officer of the ASVP, who was co-ordinating the movement of small vessels, and was told to report to Ramsgate for sailing instructions. There, he and five other small craft were taken in tow by the trawler Kinder Star and set off into the night. I have been towed only once, by the Dover lifeboat, and in daylight – to be one of six boats in a ‘daisy-chain’, at night, must have concentrated the mind marvellously!

One of the oldest David Hillyard sheds, dating back to 1837. Picture: Malcolm McLuskey L26386H10

By the morning of June 1, they moved in towards the Dunkirk beaches but a heavy air raid developed. In the book Dunkirk by A.D. Divine, he records Mr Dalton’s own account: “We were on the point of making for the beach when we were heavily raided by dive-bombers, one large salvo just missing our trawler, and we were ordered to cast-off.”

Frustratingly, there are no more detailed records of Mr Dalton’s experiences as he plied between larger ships anchored offshore and the beach, where soldiers, standing chest-deep in the sea, waited patiently for their turn to be helped aboard one of these small boats, to be ferried out to the larger transports waiting in deeper water.

What records I do have are copies of hastily-scribbled jottings on Naval message forms, scraps of paper and what look like pages torn from a notebook, listing the arrival, refuelling and departure of small boats at Dover.

Windsong is back there on June 2 at 8.20am and was refuelled with 12 gallons of fuel. By my reckoning Gordon Dalton had been at the wheel for almost 48 hours without relief and, obviously exhausted, a note records that he was replaced by Mr T.H. Falkingham and Mr A. Barden. These I imagine were two of the many fishermen enlisted by the Navy for the duration of the operation. But whoever they were, the notes went on to say ‘T.H. Falkingham and A. Barden volunteered and OK. Deserve a medal’. Tantalisingly, we are not told why they deserved a medal.

The last shred of information concerning that first week of June 1940 came to me by word of mouth. While in Dunkirk for the 50th anniversary return by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, I was approached by a man who explained that as a young Sea Cadet he had gone to Dunkirk on board the yacht Sundowner, belonging to Commander C.H. Lightoller DSC, RNR who, as the senior surviving officer of the RMS Titanic had been the principal witness at the inquiry into that disaster.

He told me that on returning to Ramsgate from the beaches for the last time, Sundowner, in company with Windsong, was ordered to sail to Brightlingsea, where they were both formerly taken over by the ASVP for the duration. Windsong, he understood, was to be employed in spotting mines in the Thames Estuary.

David Hillyard boatyard in 2009. Picture: Malcolm McCluskey L04411H9

Of the redoubtable Gordon Dalton, I know nothing more. He did not reclaim Windsong when she was released by the Royal Navy in 1946, because, on February 16 of that year, she passed into the ownership of Lady Effie Millington-Drake. She was the wife of the diplomat who was ‘our man’ in Uruguay in 1940, who, by sending spurious signals, caused the captain of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee to scuttle his ship, rather than face the overwhelming superior force that these signals led him to believe was awaiting his departure from Montevideo, where he had been sheltering after his earlier action with three British cruisers.

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An original David Hillyard sign