Salute to the ‘Little Ships’, and the men and boys who crewed them


One of my all-time favourite films is a light comedy entitled ‘The Bishop’s Wife’, starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young. One of the many reasons for my affection for this film is the scene in the old church where Grant, (playing an angel) produces, out of seemingly nowhere, the boys who had once drifted away from the choir, to sing Noël (Montez À Dieu – O Sing to God) by Gounod. Irreligious these days I may be; but the music, and those voices, speak to me as though they are at my very doorstep. But the man who wrote the original story, upon which the film was based, was an American poet named Robert Nathan.

Mr. Nathan’s works were many and varied, but the words which caught my attention were written to honour the ordinary people who made the real Dunkirk possible. It is true that the vast majority of those rescued came by the Navy’s destroyers; but many of those rescued made their way to the Navy by virtue of the small boats, and their civilian crew. Further to my small posting on the Dunkirk film, I would feature Mr Nathan’s moving words; simply as a salute to those extraordinary ordinary people,

Dunkirk (A Ballad)

Will came back from school that day,

And he had little to say.

But he stood a long time looking down

To where the grey-green Channel water

Slapped at the foot of the little town,

And to where his boat, the Sarah P,

Bobbed at the tide on an even keel,

With her one old sail, patched at the leech,

Furled like a slattern, down at heel.

He stood for a while above the beach,

He saw how the wind and current caught her;

He looked a long time out to sea.

There was steady wind, and the sky was pale,

And a haze in the east that looked like smoke.

Will went back to the house to dress,

He was halfway through, when his sister Bess

Who was near fourteen, and younger than he

By just two years, came home from play.

She asked him ‘Where are you going Will?’

He said ‘For a good long sail.’

‘Can I come along?’

‘No, Bess,’ he spoke.

‘I may be gone for a night and a day.’

Bess looked at him. She kept very still.

She had heard the news of the Flanders rout,

How the English were trapped above Dunkirk,

And the fleet had gone to get them out –

But everyone thought that it wouldn’t work.

There was too much fear, there was too much doubt.

She looked at him, and he looked at her.

They were English children, born and bred.

He frowned her down, but she wouldn’t stir.

She shook her proud young head.

‘You’ll need a crew,’ she said.

They raised the sail on the Sarah P,

Like a penoncel on a young knight’s lance,

And headed the Sarah out to sea,

To bring their soldiers home from France.

There was no command, there was no set plan,

But six hundred boats went out with them

On the grey-green waters sailing fast,

River excursion and fisherman,

Tug and schooner and racing M,

And the little boats came following last.

From every harbour and town they went

Who had sailed their craft in the sun and rain,

From the South Downs, from the cliffs of Kent,

From the village street, from the country lane.

There are twenty miles of rolling sea

From coast to coast, by the seagull’s flight,

But the tides were fair and the wind was free,

And they raised Dunkirk by fall of night.

They raised Dunkirk with its harbour torn

By the blasted stern and the sunken prow;

They had raced for fun on an English tide,

They were English children bred and born,

And whether they lived, or whether they died,

They raced for England now.

Bess was as white as the Sarah’s sail,

She set her teeth and smiled at Will.

He held his course for the smoky veil

Where the harbour narrowed thin and long.

The British ships were firing strong.

He took the Sarah into his hands,

He drove her in through fire and death

To the wet men waiting on the sands.

He got his load and got his breath,

And she came about, and the wind fought her.

He shut his eyes and he tried to pray.

He saw his England where she lay,

The wind’s green home, the sea’s proud daughter,

Still in the moonlight, dreaming deep,

The English cliffs and the English loam –

He had fourteen men to get away,

And the moon was clear, and the night like day

For planes to see where the white sails creep

Over the black water.

He closed his eyes and he prayed for her;

He prayed to the men who had made her great,

Who had built her land from forest and park,

Who had made the seas an English lake;

He prayed for a fog to bring the dark;

He prayed to get home for England’s sake.

And the fog came down on the rolling sea,

And covered the ships with English mist,

The diving planes were baffled and blind.

For Nelson was there in the Victory,

With his one good eye, and his sullen twist,

And guns were out on the Golden Hind,

Their shot flashed over the Sarah P.

He could hear them cheer as he came about.

By burning wharves, by battered slips,

Galleon, frigate and brigantine,

The old dead Captains fought their ships,

And the great dead Admirals led the line,

It was England’s night, it was England’s sea.

The fog rolled over the harbour quay,

Bess held to the stays and conned him out.

And all through the dark, while the Sarah’s wake

Hissed behind him, and vanished in foam,

There at his side sat Francis Drake,

And held him true, and steered him home.

Robert Nathan

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