I would like to know what authorisation, if any, the ministry of shipping or the navy carried with them when commandeering the “Little Ships”. When the official presented themselves to the owner of a vessel, assuming they could find the owner, what documentation did they carry, if any?


2 Answers 2


According to the History of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships the BBC announced a few weeks beforehand an Admiralty order that all small boat owners were to offer their ships.

On the 14th day of May, 1940, the BBC made the following announcement: "The Admiralty have made an Order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30' and 100' in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned".

Although this may have sounded something like a request, it was, in fact, an Order. These ships were required for harbour services and national defense and thus the idea of using private yachts as naval auxiliaries was quite well established by the time the emergency of Dunkirk broke upon the Nation.

So they had some warning. On the day, they telephoned around and sent Ministry and RN officers to collect the ships.

On the 26th May 1940, a secret cipher telegram was sent by the War Office to the Admiralty stating that the emergency evacuation of troops from the French coast was required immediately.... On the following day, May 27th, the Small Craft section of the Ministry of Shipping was telephoning various boat builders and agents around the coast requesting them to collect all small craft suitable for work in taking troops off the beaches where the larger ships could not penetrate.

And in many cases they just took them.

In many cases the owners could not be contacted and boats were taken without their knowledge - such was the speed and urgency of the Operation. Mr. Douglas Tough of Tough Brothers, Teddington, who, with Ron Lenthall, collected many of the boats on the upper reaches of the Thames, reported that the owner of one of the boats which was being commandeered could not be contacted but, hearing that his boat was being taken away, informed the Police that it was being stolen and pursued it to Teddington Lock. More than l00 craft from the Upper Thames were assembled at the Ferry Road Yard of Tough Bros.

The idea of private captains rushing off to Dunkrik is a myth.

The Mrs. Miniver story of owners jumping into their Little Ships and rushing off to Dunkirk is a myth. Very few owners took their own vessels, apart from fishermen and one or two others. The whole Operation was very carefully co-ordinated and records exist of most of the Little Ships and other larger vessels that went to Dunkirk.

A quick sampling from the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships shows many ways the Little Ships were acquired, but it doesn't shed much light on how the requisitioning happened, but it does show that there were many other ways a boat could end up at Dunkirk.

  1. It was already an RN boat.
  2. It was "requisitioned" or "commandeered".
  3. You volunteered your craft.
  4. Who knows? It's only known that the boat was a Dunkirk.



Bluebird had three more owners before the war and, like others of her kind, was requisitioned by the Admiralty. She made two false starts in getting to Dunkirk. The first time she developed engine trouble. Then, when she got as far as Sheerness, there were too many volunteers and she was left behind.


Already an RN boat, Royal Navy lifeboat.

No lifeboat-style log was kept to record her service at Dunkirk. But we know that, on 1st June, found damaged and drifting off Margate with her four naval ratings aboard, she was herself rescued and towed back to the English coast by Margate lifeboat.

Count Dracula


She was a private yacht until her owner, Carl Greiner, sent his son Alan to take her to Ramsgate, where Cmdr. Brookes took charge. He had already spent two days and a night at the beaches and his previous ship was sunk under him.

He was delighted at the speed and power of Count Dracula and he took two 35ft lifeboats in tow. They were loaded to the gunwales with troops and Count Dracula lifted 702 British as well as 10 Belgian soldiers. She ended up quite well armed, having collected, with her troops, three Brens and one French Hotchkiss machine gun, which enabled them to have a shot or two at the Stuka dive bombers.

Elizabeth Green


Elizabeth Green was one of the first of the privately owned rescue ships to help in the evacuation of Dunkirk and on her second trip she was one of the last to leave. Her role is exceptionally well documented. Not many of the skippers - especially the young naval crews hastily detailed to command these unfamiliar and unarmed civilian vessels, kept a detailed log. But Sub-Lieutenant E. T. Garside, RNVR, compiled an hour-by-hour account of his first nine days of active service. Not that he was ever likely to forget it.


Already an RN boat, requisitioned before Dunkirk.

The Admiralty requisitioned Glala in October 1939 and she became a Harbour Defence Patrol Yacht stationed at Sheerness on the Thames estuary. A photograph taken in 1940 shows a machine gun on the foredeck and depth charges on the stern. She appears in the naval records of Saturday, 13 January 1940, "Sloop BITTERN found a German mine which she towed towards Sheerness. It was secured to the Nord Buoy and harbour defence patrol yacht GLALA (51grt) beached the mine from there."

Like so many other vessels her moment came during Operation Dynamo. Commanded by Sub-Lieutenant John Alexander Dow, RNVR, she set out for Dunkirk at 0800 on 31st May 1940 in company with the yachts Amulree and Caleta.

Lady Lou

Already an RN boat. Commandeered in 1939.

In 1939 the Rampart Boat Building Company of Southampton (then Rampart Boatbuilding Works) had 9 of its ships commandeered for war service. It is believed that a Rampart was the last to leave Dunkirk; several remained there permanently.



Her present owner who needed a sound hull on which to build a living boat then bought her as a semi-derelict. The hull was ferro-creted and the cabins added. It was not until this work had been completed that it was found that 'Monarch' had been part of 'Operation Dynamo'.


Already an RN boat. Requisitioned in 1939.

In 1939 Zelia was collected from Rampart Boat Building Works not by her intended owner, but by the Royal Navy who had need of her on H.M. service and re-named her Rania.

The King


On 28th May 1940, The King was one of the 540 privately-owned vessels commandeered for the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk. Her elegant shape and low freeboard were ill-suited to the open sea and even the wash from a destroyer would have swamped her, especially when she was fully laden with troops. But it was one of the miracles of Dunkirk that the sea was calm and she returned without mishap.

  • As well as the myth of the boat owners going to Dunkirk is the ones that did demanded money to make the trip instead of just patriotically offering their services to the nation. In fact those that did go were temporarily seconded to the (i think Merchant Marine) or at least a service that was under the control of the Navy and therefore drew basic seamans pay for the duration of service. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 21:14
  • 1
    @PurplePilot They also needed money for fuel and provisions for the journey etc. It is important to remember that the boats were not needed to bring soldiers home. Because the harbours were blocked the troop ships had to lie offshore. The small boats were needed to get the soldiers off the beaches and to the ships. Though a number inevitably came home in the small boats.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 23:00

This may be slightly too remote from the original question, but I think if you are interested in that you will see the relevance of the following for the general context around requisitioning.

A major constitutional case developed after WW1 around the requisitioning of a hotel in London and the case went to the House of Lords. As part of the background, the lawyers studied the whole history of requisitioning by the government (often 'the Crown') right back to medieval times.

Much of that legal history was connected with the requisitioning of ships.

An entire book-length study of the case contains some of the evidence, and you can access that from the Internet Archive from here: de Keyser case.

For a more general study of requisitioning during WW1, which also has a chapter on the requisitioning of ships, take a look at Private Property, Government Requisition and Private Property 1914-1927 by G. R. Rubin. (You might get a cheaper copy on Amazon!).

The principles established in and after WW1 were adopted more or less wholesale for WW2, as far as I have been able to determine.

I hope this is of some interest and apologies if it is perceived to be off-topic.

  • 1
    Plus one just for the de Keyser case - the Introduction is an enlightening read just on its own. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 10:50

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