Dungeness Lifeboat RNLB Charles Cooper Henderson's Role in the 1940 World War Two Evacuation of Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo)
Dungeness Lifeboat 'RNLB Charles Cooper Henderson' was one of nineteen RNLI lifeboats which served in World War Two in the evacuation of approximately 338,000 Allied Soldiers from the beleaguered beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 27th May and 4th June 1940.
Requisitioned by the Royal Navy and crewed by their own seamen, virtually nothing has been known by the RNLI up until now about the actual service and tasks she was put to during the evacuation operation, other than the fact that when she was returned to the station, she had sustained considerable damage which required urgent repairs.
Amazingly, more than seventy years on from Dunkirk, a very touching and informative document – an account written by Robert Hector, the then Royal Naval Quartermaster (and already by that early stage of the war a survivor from the sinking of HMS Bittern by German dive bombers off the coast of Norway) and who acted as coxswain of the 'Charles Cooper Henderson' during the Dunkirk evacuation, has recently been received here at Dungeness Lifeboat Station and provides a somewhat terrifying first-hand account of the action seen by the lifeboat and its small and evidently extremely-brave crew.
Although it cannot actually be verified (the crew were no doubt rather too busy at the time to keep accurate records), the account suggests that possibly more than two thousand Allied Troops were rescued by the 'Charles Cooper Henderson' from Dunkirk harbour and beaches and then ferried out to the larger, deepwater vessels, for eventual repatriation to England. This figure seems perfectly reasonable, when it is recorded that between the 27th May and 4th June 1940, a total of 239,555 troops were repatriated to England from Dunkirk Harbour and a further 98,671 from the Dunkirk Beaches. (Total troops repatriated to England 338,226).
We are most grateful to Mr Derek Breed, of Southampton, who found the document among his late father Joseph Breed's possessions and forwarded it to us, in order that we could add it to our station's history records. Joseph Breed had been in the Royal Navy Reserve when war broke out and served as a gunner on several merchant ships. Although it is unknown to Derek when and on what ship his father and Robert (Bob) Hector first met, what is certain, is that they remained the best of friends throughout their lives. Incidentally, Bob Hector, (who Derek advises lived for most of his life in Portsmouth), mentions rather 'casually' within the document that he was injured during the evacuation by a bomb splinter hitting him in the lower jaw. Derek would suggest (having met him many times) that Bob was being very modest in that respect.
Naturally, we here at RNLI Dungeness believe that this somewhat-sobering document, Bob Hector's first-hand account of his time as coxswain on Dungeness' lifeboat the 'Charles Cooper Henderson' during the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk is invaluable wartime history and more than worthy of being published. Please read his account and be astounded by the bravery and tenacity displayed by the Charles Cooper Henderson's crew at that desperate time and which doubtless was also reflected by the crews of all boats involved – both large and small.
Note 1: As for the 'Charles Cooper Henderson', she of course is most worthy of her title of 'One of the Little Ships of Dunkirk' and no doubt displays with pride the brass plaque which those 'Little Ships' are afforded. Following her return to Dungeness from Dunkirk, she continued an amazing and distinguished career spanning a total of forty three years, including the rescue of nine men from the collier 'Teeswood' on 29th July 1956, for which her coxswain George Tart was awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry. The Charles Cooper Henderson (Subsequently re-named 'Caresana') was finally acquired by the Dunkirk Little Ship Restoration Trust in 2011.
Note 2: The original document relating Bob Hector's account of his 'Story of Dunkirk' was typed for him by his daughter on an old fashioned typewriter and in places the ink is unfortunately rather faint. For the purposes of clarity and for that reason alone, we are printing herewith a transcript of the original document.