The Massey Shaw – The Dunkirk Little Ship Named After A Cork Born Fire Chief
By Patrick Poland
Images courtesy of the Massey Shaw Education Trust
Published in Autumn 2017 edition
To coincide with the launch of a major new film on this pivotal episode in World War II, starring Irish actors Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and Barry Keoghan, Pat Poland researched the, not insignificant, part played in the drama by a fireboat named after the legendary first and most famous commander of the London Fire Brigade – Corkman Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw.
The Road to Dunkirk
Following the outbreak of war in September1939, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)crossed to France. Billeted mostly along the Franco-Belgian border, due to the level of inactivity the period was soon labelled the ‘Phoney War’, or, by the Germans, the ‘Sitzkreig’ (the ‘Sitting War’). No Western power committed to launching a significant land offensive, notwithstanding the terms of the Anglo-Polish and Franco-Polish military alliances which obliged the United Kingdom and France to come to Poland’s assistance. At the post-war Nuremberg Trials, the German military commander Generaloberst Alfred Jodl testified that: ‘If we did not collapse in 1939 that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign, the 110 French and British divisions in the west were held completely inactive against the twenty-three German divisions’. The first British soldier killed in the Second World War was twenty-seven- year old Corporal Thomas Priday, who died on December 9th, 1939, a full three months after the outbreak of war. Ironically, he was killed by ‘friendly fire’. But, on 9 April, 1940, the Wehrmacht invaded Denmark and Norway, and just over a month later launched its offensive in the west, racing into Belgium, the Netherlands. Luxembourg and France. The ‘Phoney War’ came to an abrupt end. The campaign against the Low Countries and France lasted less than six weeks. It was clear that the entire BEF, along with its French and Belgian allies, was seriously at risk of being surrounded and destroyed.
As German pressure forced them into a gradually-contracting bridgehead, on 26 May, the British commander was authorised to fall back on the Channel port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) to await evacuation. Meanwhile, in England, plans for a major evacuation of the 300,000 – plus troops were being formulated under Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, Royal Navy. Code named ‘Operation Dynamo’ (Ramsay’s command centre was situated in the cramped dynamo room deep under Dover Castle), the plan called for every available sea-going craft, large and small, to assemble at Ramsgate to make the forty-six nautical miles (approx. fifty-three statute miles) crossing to Dunkirk. The Royal Navy alone could not provide sufficient vessels for the massive undertaking. Thus, on the evening of 29 May, London Fire Brigade (LFB) Headquarters was asked to provide a fireboat to make the perilous crossing to France – a war-zone patrolled by the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, including submarines. A request to the LFB River Service for volunteers was overwhelming, and within two hours, thirteen London firefighters (both from the regular and Auxiliary Fire Service) from the 400-strong unit had been selected. The vessel of choice was the fireboat ‘Massey Shaw’, named for the first Chief Officer of London Fire Brigade, Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, KCB, who was a legend in his lifetime.
Eyre Massey Shaw
Eyre Massey Shaw was born in Cove (later Queenstown, now Cóbh) Co. Cork in 1828, the son of well-to-do merchants. His grandparents lived at Monkstown Demesne, across the estuary of the Lee, of which Monkstown Castle (at present under renovation) is a local landmark. Related to the aristocracy through his connections with Baron Clarina of Co. Limerick, a famous cousin was the playwright and author, George Bernard Shaw. Taking his BA, later MA, at Trinity College, Dublin, he served with the North Cork Rifles in which he achieved the rank of Captain. At this time, he married Anna Dove, daughter of a Portuguese wine merchant. The unit was disembodied at the end of the Crimean War and Shaw found himself at a loose end. He successfully applied for the dual post of Chief Fire Officer and Chief Constable of Belfast where his reputation for achieving results grew.
In 1861, the biggest blaze in London since the Great Fire of 1666, broke out in dockland and burnt for a month. Along with bringing the insurance industry to its knees, it claimed the life of the London fire chief, James Braidwood, commander of the insurance-run London Fire Engine Establishment, a nongovernmental organisation. Shaw was again on the move, again successful, and stepped into Braidwood’s shoes. Within a few years, however, the insurance companies signalled their withdrawal from active firefighting, thus impelling the British government to establish the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB). On 1 January, 1866, the thirty-eight year old Corkman became its first Chief Officer. One senior officer wrote of him: ‘He realised that firefighting was a skilled art, and regarded his profession in the same light that naval or military officers regard theirs. He further realized that to be a successful firefighter, it was necessary to employ sound strategy and tactics. He was a complete autocrat, and his word was law in the brigade’.
During his term of office, he increased the number of fire stations from twenty to eighty and the staff from 129 to 700. Importantly, the MFB was mandated to protect life as well as property – a major shift in emphasis from the days of the insurance-run fire brigades who took little interest in life-saving. He was a working fire officer ‘sans pariel’, utterly devoted almost to the point of obsession with the problems of fire in the world’s largest city. Everyone in London knew of Captain Shaw. But it was not all work and no play. He moved easily among the society salons of high Victorian London, which gained him not only a reputation as something of a ‘ladies’ man,’ but a number all to himself in Gilbert and Sullivan’s new operetta, ‘Iolanthe’ – the only real person to be named in any of their works. The fire chief, we are told, was not at all amused. He retired in 1891, later having both legs amputated due to thrombosis, caused, it was said, by several serious injuries he had suffered during a lifetime of firefighting. He died in 1908 and was buried with full honours in Firemen’s Corner, Highgate Cemetery, London.
The Massey Shaw
In 1935, the London Fire Brigade named its new state-of-the-art fireboat after the iconic Corkman. Built by J. Samuel White of Cowes, Isle of Wight, at a cost of £17,000, the vessel was designed to a specification which called for the ability to pass under all bridges on the River Thames and its tributaries at any state of the tide. Thus, it had a draught of just 3ft 9in (1.14m). The seventy-eight-foot-long Massey Shaw, with its superior all-steel hull design, had an impressive output – it could deliver 3,000 gallons of water per minute, the equivalent of six standard fire engines pumping at full volume. It was capable of 12 knots. Based at the pontoon at Fire Brigade Headquarters on the Albert Embankment, it soon proved an invaluable addition to the LFB’s river fleet. After the outbreak of war, the boat was re-liveried in drab ‘Battleship Grey’.
Now, the Massey Shaw was about to embark, the crew armed with Lee-Enfield rifles and a Lewis gun, on arguably the most dangerous mission it had ever undertaken. G. V. Blackstone, a principal officer with LFB and author of ‘A History of the British Fire Service’ takes up the story: ‘Senior officers clamoured for the command, but Major Jackson, the acting Chief Officer, insisted that a fireboat was a Station Officer’s command and a Station Officer must accompany her. No details had been given by the Admiralty of the purpose for which she was needed, but to the brigade the loan of a fireboat meant firefighting and the pictures in the newspapers had shown huge oil fires burning at Dunkirk. Foam branches and foam in drums were hurried aboard her and she got under way at 16.00 on 30 May. Arriving at Ramsgate, the crew could only gaze in wonder at the queue of fishing boats, yachts, and other small craft making their way into the harbour. As soon as the senior naval officer was contacted, they were told they were not going to Dunkirk to fight fires but to assist in taking off the British Army’.
The Massey Shaw made three trips across the Channel, with a mixed crew of firemen and naval personnel. The first day she picked up sixty-five men and brought them straight back; the next day she spent ferrying over 500 men from the beaches to bigger craft off-shore and then returned to Ramsgate with another fifty men aboard; the third night she set out and got into Dunkirk harbour, being the last of the ‘little boats’ to do so. There were only French troops there and they seemed reluctant to come aboard. The fireboat was damaged when squeezed between the quay and a destroyer, and was ordered by a senior naval officer to head back to England. In mid-Channel, she picked up forty French sailors whose vessel had sunk after striking a mine. Sub Officer (later, Company Officer) Aubrey John May later received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) from King George VI and two firemen were Mentioned in Dispatches.
Of the 933 craft engaged in what became known as the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, lifting more than 338,000 troops from the beaches, the Massey Shaw was singled out for special mention by Vice Admiral Ramsay: ‘Of the civilian-manned craft, one of the best performances was that of the fireboat, Massey Shaw. All the volunteer crew were members of the London Fire Brigade or Auxiliary Fire Service and they succeeded in doing three round trips to the beaches in their well-found craft’.
The Massey Shaw played a major part in firefighting during the subsequent Blitz of London. An unusual claim to fame occurred in 1947 when it was the venue for a secret meeting on the Thames between Herbert Morrison, MP, and Aneurin Bevin, MP, which resulted in the formation of the British National Health Service. Decommissioned in 1971, it was berthed at St. Katharine Docks, slowly deteriorating. By 2013, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery, it was completely restored and is now operated by the Massey Shaw Education Trust. The fireboat has returned to the northern French port on several occasions as a proud member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships who, long ago, in the words of broadcaster and author J. B. Priestley, ‘made an excursion to Hell and came back glorious’.
Massey Shaw Education Trust
Massey Shaw is currently moored at:
West India Dock
Tel: 0793 005 2951
Pat Poland served with the 1st Field Military Police Company FCÁ and the Cork Fire Service. He holds an MA from the School of History, University College Cork. His first book, For Whom the Bells Tolled: A History of Cork Fire Services 1622 – 1900, was published by History Press Ireland in 2010. Volume II The Old Brigade : the Rebel City’s Firefighting Story 1900-1950 was published in 2018.