Tonnage: 26 grt (74 m3) Length: 58 ft (18 m) Beam: 12 ft 6 in (3.81 m) Draught: 5 ft (1.5 m) Propulsion: Gleniffer diesel engine, 72 hp (54 kW), single screw Speed: 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph) Operations: Operation Dynamo
M.Y. Sundowner at Dunkirkby Commander C.H. Lightoller, RNR (Retd)
The following account is taken from the ninth Wartime Pamphlet of the Little Ship Club, edited by A E Scrace and published in the Spring of 1942. It was transcribed from a 'yarn' given at an LSC meeting in St Stephen's Tavern by C H Lightoller. It has been reprinted in parts elsewhere but the full version provided here for research purposes.
My eldest son, F. Roger Lightoller, and I with one Sea Scout (Gerald Ashwell) took Sundowner out of her winter quarters at Cubitts Yacht Basin, Chiswick, on May 31st, 1940, at 11 a.m. and proceeded according to instructions towards Southend, where we arrived at midnight. The first of about 40 boats that had mustered at Westminster.
At 3.15 a.m. on June 1st we left Southend in company with five others. Arriving off Ramsgate, I asked for orders and was instructed "Proceed to Dunkirk for further orders." As my charts were somewhat antiquated, I asked if I could scrounge one a little more up to date, and on entering the harbour was presented with a set complete with Secret Sailing Instructions, giving — as I expected — route, buoys, channels, etc.
We left Ramsgate at 10 a.m. by the route laid down and halfway across avoided a floating mine by a narrow margin. Having no fire-arms of any description — and not even a tin hat — we had to leave the matter of its destruction to someone better equipped. A few minutes later we had our first introduction to enemy aircraft, three fighters flying high. Before they could be offensive, a British Destroyer — Worcester, I think — overhauled us and drove them off. At 2.25 p.m. we sighted and closed the 25-ft. Motor Cruiser Westerly, broken down and badly on fire. As the crew of two (plus three naval ratings she had picked up in Dunkirk) wished to abandon ship — and quickly — I went alongside and took them aboard, thereby giving them the additional pleasure of once again facing the hell they had just left.
We made the fairway buoy to the Roads shortly after the sinking of a French transport with severe loss of life. Steaming through the wreckage, and other things, we entered the Roads. For some time past we had been subject to sporadic bombing and machine-gun fire, but as the Sundowner is exceptionally and extremely quick on her helm, by waiting till the last moment and then putting the helm hard over — my son at the wheel — we easily avoided every attack, though sometimes we were nearly lifted out of the water.
It had been my intention to go right on to the Beaches, where my second son, 2nd Lieut. R. Trevor Lightoller, had been evacuated some 48 hours previously. But those of the Westerly informed me that the troops were all away from there, so I headed up for Dunkirk Piers.
By now dive bombers seemed to be forever dropping out of the clouds of enemy aircraft overhead. Within half a mile of the pierheads a two-funnelled transport had overhauled us on a converging course and was just passing us to port when two salvoes were dropped in quick succession right along her port side. For a few moments she was completely hidden in smoke and I certainly thought they had got her. But she reappeared out of the smoke gaily steaming on and heading for the piers which she entered just ahead of us.
The difficulty of taking troops on board from the quay high above us was obvious, so I went alongside a destroyer (Worcester again, I think) where they were already embarking. I got hold of her captain and told him (with a certain degree of optimism) that I could take a hundred (though the most I had ever had on board was 21). He, after consultation with the military C.O., said "Go ahead. Take all you can." I may say here that before leaving Cubitt's Yacht Basin we had worked all night stripping her down of everything movable, masts included, that would tend to lighten her and make for more room.
Roger, as previously arranged, packed the troops in down below and I'll say he did the packing to some purpose. On deck I detailed one naval rating to tally the troops aboard. At 50 1 called below, "How are you getting on?" receiving the cheery reply, "Oh, plenty of room yet." At 75 he admitted they were getting just a bit cramped — all equipment and arms were being left on deck — so I told him to let it go at that and pack them on deck (having passed the word for every man to lie down and not move, the same applied on deck). By the time we had 50 on deck I could feel her getting distinctly tender, so took no more. Actually we had exactly 130 on board including we three Sundowners and five from Westerly. During the whole embarkation we had quite a lot of attention from enemy planes, but derived an amazing degree of comfort from the bark of the Worcester's A.A. gun overhead.
Casting off and backing out we again entered the Roads, where it was continuous and unmitigated hell.
The troops were just splendid, and of their own initiative detailed look-outs ahead, astern and abeam for inquisitive planes, as my attention was pretty well occupied watching the course and passing word to Roger at the wheel. Any time an aircraft seemed inclined to try its hand on us one of the look-outs would call out quietly, "Look out for this bloke, Skipper," at the same time as pointing. One bomber that had been particularly offensive itself suddenly plunged vertically, hitting the sea at some 400 m.p.h., about 50 yards astern. It was a sight never to be forgotten — so were many others, for that matter. Incidentally it was the one and only time that any man on board ever raised his voice above a conversational tone, but as that big black bomber hit the "deck" they all raised an echoing cheer.
My youngest son, Pilot-Officer H. B. Lightoller (lost on the very day war broke out, in the first raid on Wilhelmshaven) flew a Blenheim, and had at different times given me a whole lot of useful information about attack, defence and evasive tactics (at which I learned later he was particularly good), and I attribute in a great measure our success in getting across without a single casualty to his unwittingly help. On one occasion an enemy machine came up astern at about 100 ft. With the obvious intention Of raking our decks. He came down in a nice gliding dive, but I knew that he must elevate some 10 or 15 degrees before his guns would bear (I really wasn't worrying much about bombs). Calling my son at the wheel to "Stand by," I waited till as near as I could judge he was just on the point of pulling up, then "Hard-a-port." (She will turn 180 degrees in exactly her own length.) This, of course, threw his aim off completely. He banked and tried again. Then "Hard-a-starboard" with the same result. After a third attempt he gave us up in disgust. Incidentally, he was a sitter if I had had a machine-gun of any sort and, funny enough, though the troops had rifles and ammunition, everyone was apparently too interested in the manoeuvre to think of using them. Altogether, there were three that a machine gun would have put paid to.
Not least of our difficulties was contending with the wash of fast craft, such as destroyers and transports. In every instance I had to stop, take the way off the ship and head the wash otherwise our successful little cruise would have ended in a bathe. The effect of the consequent plunging on the troops down below, in a stinking atmosphere with all ports and skylights closed, can well be imagined. They were literally packed like proverbial sardines — even one in the bath and another perched on the w.c., so that all the poor devils could
do was just sit and be sick.
Arriving off Ramsgate I was first told to "lie off." I told the authorities that I had 130 men on board (not that they believed me) and that I was more likely to lie on my beam ends as anything. I was then told to "come in." Whilst entering, the men started to get to their feet and Sundowner promptly heeled over to a terrific angle. With the help of Roger's bellowing roar from the wheelhouse we got them down again and told them to stay down or they'd be in the "drink" I got her alongside a trawler at the quay and made fast. After I had got rid of those on deck I gave the order "Come up from below," and look on the official's face was certainly amusing to behold as troops vomited up through the forward and after companionways. As a stoker P.O., helping diem over the trawler's bulwarks put it, "God's truth, mate! Where did you put them?" He might well ask.
My intention had been to clear up the mess, get a couple of hours' sleep — we had had none for two nights — and push off again. We might as well have pushed off right away, for no sooner had we piped down than a boat under our bows caught fire, and so ended all thoughts Of Sleep. Furthermore, to our disappointment, we learnt that for the slower boats the authorities had decided to "call it a day." Later, with my son in command, Sundowner hoisted the White Ensign and the Admiralty took her over.