02/03/2021

The story of L’orage: A Dunkirk Little Ship

Small Craft

As the proud owners of a Dunkirk Little Ship which saved thirty-four troops, Sally and John Calvert chat with us about their boat L’orage: how they came to find it, why it’s so important to them, and the history behind this small heroic boat that saved so many.

When we talk to John on the phone, he’s watching L’orage from the window of his and Sally’s Victorian boathouse which overlooks the Thames – and conveniently houses L’orage underneath. It sounds like the perfect set-up. “Although,” John warns, “if the water ever rises, it has to be moved outside to stop it from bumping into the floor of our lounge.”

Before finding its place underneath the Calvert house, L’orage had been owned by Raymond Baxter OBE: Spitfire pilot, BBC commentator, presenter, and avid helmsman. With the trusty L’orage under his feet, Mr Baxter co-founded the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships alongside Charles Lamb and John Knight. Now 850-strong, the ADLS holds events every year for the owners of these heroic little ships.

L’orage now being in the care of the Calverts, we were keen to hear more of life with this remarkable craft.

John and Sally with L’orage in Ramsgate, 2015

How did you come to own L’orage?

It started because Sally and I thought it would be nice to have a boat that you could go away on and just keep going. Before finding L’orage, we’d been using an Andrews slipper launch. We’ve had it for about thirty years and it’s beautiful – but it’s a day boat, so you can’t sleep on it, can’t cook on it or live on it. We wanted a boat where we could do those things; somewhere we could sleep, have breakfast in the morning, visit various places, and just get away for weeks on end.

‘Come and have a look, here comes our boat!’

So, Sally and I started looking around at what sort of boat we could have. We both knew it would have to be a traditional boat – that’s just the way we are. We would visit the Thames Traditional Boat Rally at Henley every year; it’s a fantastic event. Before Raymond Baxter passed in 2006, we used to see him and L’orage at the Boat Rally, too. We always admired that little ship.

And, because we live by the river, we’d even see Raymond sailing L’orage past our home two or three times each year. Every time I saw them coming, I’d shout to Sally, ‘Come and have a look, here comes our boat!’, and we’d watch Raymond sailing L’orage down the river from our window. We always thought it was such a pretty boat: exactly the type of thing we wanted.

Fully restored and moored in Goring on Thames

We bought L’orage in 2009, a few years after Raymond Baxter had sadly passed. Sally and I were at the Traditional Boat Rally again, sitting on a couple of deck chairs, and I was browsing through the programme when something caught my eye. The ‘For Sale’ advert was in very small print, with a tiny photograph of just the bow of L’orage in view. We couldn’t believe it.

We enquired about L’orage that day and went to have a look at the boat itself. It was in a terrible state, but we decided to press forward with it anyway. We phoned the broker dealing with the sale and put forward an offer, saying that it only stood for twenty-four hours, otherwise we’d go elsewhere. I remember it very well – it got down to the very final five minutes of that twenty-four hour wait, and they finally called. They had accepted, so L’orage – this boat that we had admired for so long – was ours.

Do you feel a sense of responsibility to tell the Dunkirk story?

Having a boat which was part of the Dunkirk event is really important to us. We were invited to the premiere of the Dunkirk film in 2017, and there has certainly been more awareness amongst the public since then, but sometimes it can be a slightly neglected thing. It was especially neglected during the war – unsurprisingly so, because as it turned out we had five years of war left to get through.

It was basically like the Dunkirk evacuation happened, we got our soldiers back, fitted them out and off they went again. It wasn’t really something that was publicised greatly and people don’t know enough about it – in a way, having L’orage makes it feel like it’s part of our responsibility to keep that memory alive.

Choppy seas en route to Ramsgate, 2014

L’orage brought back thirty-four troops in total when it helped at Dunkirk, and it would have made trips for the whole week carrying soldiers between the beach to the ships. The reason little ships were chosen, or requisitioned in some cases, was that the larger ships were so big that the soldiers couldn’t get onto them due to the draft underneath.

Smaller ships like L’orage, however, could get in further and take the soldiers who were stranded on the beach to safety. When it made the trip back to England, those thirty-four troops would probably have been hanging off the sides, there were so many. We know one was French, because a French rifle was found in the boat afterwards.

We got to know everyone in the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships – they’re a fantastic bunch of owners. It’s a great community to be a part of; we’re all passionate about wooden boats and our Dunkirk little ships, and the members come from all walks of life.

We like to get on each other’s boats and have a nice chat and a drink, and there’s a real sense of community and friendship. At the moment, there are about one hundred surviving Dunkirk boats, including L’orage – and we’re still finding them! Sometimes there’s a little ship found in a boatyard in Scotland or even in different countries.

The bulkhead showing a full set of Dunkirk Anniversary plaques

What has your experience of owning L’orage been like?

It was a dream come true, but in a situation like that – with the work that needed doing – the reality sinks in when you go and collect it. When you see all the rot and mould, you think to yourself, ‘What have I done?’. We got L’orage back to the boathouse and had a proper look at it. I do restore smaller boats, but I wouldn’t have been able to fix L’orage. So, we had to have it restored professionally, and chose Classic Restorations at Windsor boat yard for the job.

They had to refit about one hundred feet of wooden planking underneath the boat, from the waterline downwards. The wheelhouse was rebuilt too, as well as the two sides – they were rotten and needed to be replaced with long panels of mahogany, with the window sitting in between. It needed a complete refit inside, too – you wouldn’t have wanted to spend a night on it as it was before!

Since buying it, L’orage has become such a big part of our lives. It will probably be the last possession we’ll ever part with – as long as we can get on it, we’ll keep it, cherish it and look after it. Every two years it has to come out of the water for maintenance and repairs – and you do find some nasties – but no matter what it needs, we just do it.

‘We got L’orage back and off we went, taking it back to Dunkirk’

The entire restoration for L’orage took around nine months, and they were working on it flat out throughout. We’re lucky actually, because it was ready just three weeks before the Dunkirk 70th Anniversary return in 2010. So, we got L’orage back and off we went, taking it back to Dunkirk.

That was an extraordinary experience for Sally and me, and we’ve gone to every five-yearly anniversary since. I think that because we have such an important boat, we do feel a sense of responsibility to keep it in good order. After all, it was Raymond Baxter’s boat, and because he was one of the founders for the Dunkirk Association of Little Ships, it’s almost as if L’orage is the mothership that started it all.

The 70th Anniversary Return to Dunkirk, 2010

Do you take L’orage to all of the events personally?

Yes, absolutely. Sally and I make a great team; I’ll get on the helm and Sally does all the ropes. On a typical summer we’ll earmark all the ADLS events and we’ll take L’orage to everything we can. A standard year for us involves quite a few different trips: sometimes we’ll take part in the Annual Veterans Cruise at the Thames Motor Yacht Club; sometimes we’re invited to the Queen’s back garden to take the knights out at Windsor Castle; we also like to take part in the Traditional Boat Rallies at Henley every year. Sally and I were even invited to take part in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant for the Queen’s 60th Anniversary. That was a great experience – and very wet.

What’s the furthest you’ve taken L’orage?

The furthest we’ve taken it would probably be Ostend. There’s an event that we like to go to called Ostend at Anchor; it’s a celebration of Belgium’s liberation from the Nazis, and it’s by far the most amazing seafaring event.

The people are absolutely lovely. You gather together in this massive great harbour full of traditional boats; they’re mainly sailing boats, and there are a lot of Dutch barges there too, with guys sitting on the back playing accordions, singing shanties and all that kind of stuff. It’s quite an event!

HRH Prince Michael of Kent onboard L’orage in Dunkirk, 2010

Do you have a favourite memory or event with L’orage?

There are so many stories to tell about our boat, although one sticks out. Sally and I were at the Thames Traditional Boat Rally in Henley when we were approached by an elderly gentleman. He looked at L’orage and said, ‘I know this boat. I watched it being built.’

At first, I didn’t think it was possible because he didn’t look old enough. But he told us his age and he was older than the boat – we were shocked! So, we invited him onboard for a chat and a glass of wine and he happily accepted, saying, ‘I’d like to see what you’ve done with it’.

It turned out that he had been a schoolboy in Kingston, the same town where L’orage had been built. As a child, he’d asked his father for a little sailing dinghy; his father told him, ‘Look son, I’ll buy you a dinghy if you can find somewhere reliable to keep it and maintain it’.

So, the next day, he walked down Kingston high street and he saw a sign that said ‘Boats and Cars of Kingston’. He went in, asked for the foreman, and managed to get himself a little space in the corner for his new dinghy. As it turned out, L’orage was kept right next to his space, and he watched the whole thing being built. He became a great friend of ours from then on, although unfortunately, he passed away last year. He ended up coming down to see us a last time in a wheelchair – he always had more stories to tell. 

Guidelines-permitting, John and Sally are set to take L’orage on more journeys in the near future. As a protected part of our history, it’s astonishing to hear the story behind L’orage – and even more fantastic to know there are more memories to be made onboard the deck of this heroic Little Ship.

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