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, 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 those 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.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to tell the Dunkirk?
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.
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.
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 wasn’t 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.
We got to know everyone in the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships – they’re a fantastic bunch of owners.