The German western campaign in May 1940 decisively defeated the British and French forces arrayed against it. By the end of May, the Allies began the withdrawal of British and French forces from the Continent to prevent their surrender or destruction. The evacuation effort centered on the French coastal town of Dunkirk. As German forces completed their conquest of France, more than 1,000 vessels--including small civilian yachts and fishing boats--ferried Allied forces across the English Channel to Great Britain. While enduring heavy air attacks, this makeshift armada succeeded in rescuing over 200,000 British and 100,000 French troops from the Continent. Britain hailed the evacuation as a victory, despite the decisive German military victory and the French decision to sign an armistice.
Back from Dunkirk, having gained much honor for their invaluable services in aiding the evacuation, many small craft were towed up the Thames into home waters. And what they had left: the smoking ruin of a port, continally bombed and shelled, a blazing town which the Allies defended to the last. The smoke from the fires of Dunkirk almost obscured the sun. For in this inferno while the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] and their French comrades held off the Nazis in an epic rearguard action, it was here that the yachts, motorboats, and "saucy janes" performed magnificent feats of rescue. Many were lost, sunk, or blown to bits, or burnt, but the gallant armada carried out the task assigned to it. In vessels of all sizes and descriptions, a third of a million men, including the wounded, were embarked, and brought home under the protection of the Royal Navy. Under their own power, or in tow, the amazing boats of Dunkirk crossed the Channel with their valiant, but exhausted passengers. Later, Londoners passing near the river saw the "Little Ships" arriving and gave them a cheer from the bridges. And at many places, the crafts were tied up by the score, their emergency war work very well done.