Daring escape from Dunkirk in a stolen German vessel

British and French soldiers on the beach and in shallow water at Dunkirk as they wait to be evacuated, 1940.
British and French soldiers on the beach and in shallow water at Dunkirk as they wait to be evacuated, 1940.
Funnells horse-drawn wagonettes outside Clarence Pier, Southsea, in the early 2000s.

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I receive much mail from readers asking if I can help track down someone from the wartime period. Most of the time I do not publish the results of my research because it is of little interest to anyone apart from the immediate family.

But last week I was intrigued to receive an e-mail from Ontario, Canada, marked ‘private and confidential’. It asked me not to include any names for the moment although I do have them.

The writer says: ‘I am looking into an interesting story from 1940 after the fall of Dunkirk, May/June, and the possible role Portsmouth played. I have reached out to the Hampshire Constabulary History Society and they pointed me towards you.

‘I have a relative who, I believe, arrived in Portsmouth on a British naval ship (or an armed fishing/merchant vessel) after escaping from France in the summer (June/July) of 1940.

‘It’s my understanding that as a teenage boy, my late father in-law was involved in the Dunkirk evacuations and accidentally left behind.

‘At some point later he, plus two British forces’ servicemen, stole a boat in France and managed to sail it across the Channel. The two other servicemen were both drivers, one in the RAF, the other the army.

‘On the way across the Channel they were seen a short distance from the coast and escorted into harbour and were apprehended. They were then taken to Portsmouth.

‘The stolen boat the three travelled on was, as I understand, either a German vessel or, at the very least, a vessel under German control’

The writer continues: ‘I have just learned that Portsmouth had its own Admiralty Police Force. Perhaps this would have fallen under their domain?

‘I know that it all sounds very odd, but I know that very odd things happen in wartime.

‘Have you heard of reports (or even rumours) of personnel making it back from France during the summer of 1940 without support of British Forces? ‘I know of one soldier, Bill Lacey, who made it back to Dover in a stolen French boat several months later. He went on to work in special forces.

‘If a German boat was used, that fact might not have been reported as a vessel like that might have further secret use (plus the equipment on board might be useful).

‘The story has wider implications – the civilian teenage boy, at a later date, was trained in covert work.

‘My father in-law always spoke of the Admiralty as his contact. He was never officially in the armed forces.’

There we are then, intriguing indeed.

Is there anyone who can help me? I am researching the story through other channels but if you can help I’d be grateful.