Garrett E Eriksen examines some of the uniforms, medals and equipment of Navy and Civilian personnel deployed to the Evacuation of Dunkirk.
The rest of this article can be found in the September 2017 issue of The Armourer.
The events at Dunkirk over 26 May to 4 June 1940 saw nearly 400,000 soldiers evacuated from the shores of the embattled French coastline. The desperate situation the troops found themselves in required that every available Royal Navy ship make way to assist in the evacuations. Britain was only 22 miles away, but it might as well have been 200 miles for the encircled soldiers. However, not only did the Navy respond in a fashion that would be hailed as one of the finest efforts in Naval history, but the call saw civilian pleasure craft, British tugboats, and personal yachts all braving potential destruction by German Luftwaffe to help in the efforts. Operation Dynamo, or the “Miracle of Dunkirk” as it came to be known, has since been a symbol of British fighting spirit during World War II and as a prime example of the triumph of humanity over great peril. It is with this in mind that we examine the uniforms of Royal Navy sailors worn during the Dunkirk Evacuation.
THE UNIFORM OF THE ROYAL NAVY
The uniform of the Royal Navy sailor has ever been iconic. From the bicorne, or cocked hat with frocked coats and jackboots, worn by the captains and admirals of the late 1800’s, to the regular Seaman of the early 1900’s in blue trousers and jacket with a blue and white scarf and white cap listing the vessel he was serving on embroidered in gold on the cap tally – the greatest Naval power in the world at the time had much to be envious of.
The 20th century saw a change in Naval uniform styles from elegant, yet flamboyant, to a more practical and modernised form foreshadowing the contemporary uniforms we are familiar with in today’s Royal Navy (RN). Despite this, the changes to the RN uniforms were not as numerous as those of the British Army which saw massive alterations to almost every feature to deal with a changing warfare landscape which the RN did not have to deal with on the same scale as land troops. That being said, the Navy had multiple ranks and rates that needed to be immediately differentiated by their uniform and thus the undertaking to convert old uniforms to newer versions was arguably more involved, not to mention alterations depending on the climate of the area they were deployed to which would require alterations of a different kind.
THE ROYAL NAVY OFFICER – THE CAPTAIN
With many a variance in uniform and insignia depending on the station of the officer, this section will focus on the Captain’s uniform as it is certainly the most popular RN uniform for collectors, and one of the most recognisable to the layman, the 1940’s officer’s uniform is considered a dapper and exemplary item for any private or public collection. Simple yet bold, the captain sported dark navy-blue trousers, black leather shoes, a white, cotton button-up shirt, a black tie, a double-breasted navy-blue jacket with brass buttons (often called the “monkey jacket”) and gold gilt work on the cuffs denoting rank, and a white and black peaked cap with gold embroidery also denoting rank. It should be noted that the officers had 12 different orders of dress ranging from full, ceremonial dress, to mess dress, to tropical dress, among others; but the dress being focussed on in this article will be the No. 5 Undress which was used for standard working detail and would have been the most likely uniform worn during the Dunkirk Evacuations.
Of this uniform, the most popular items are the monkey jacket and the peaked cap as both are immediately recognisable and often had rank insignia and other designations. The cap was made of blue cloth with a black, mohair band, and often had a white removeable cotton cover; whilst the peak was also made of navy-blue cloth despite popular remakes today having it made almost exclusively of hard plastic or leather. For captains, the front of the peak was embroidered with a single line of golden oak leaves whilst higher ranks had a double-line. The cap also displayed the embroidered insignia of the Royal Navy flanked by golden leaves on the fore just above the leather chin-strap.
In terms of accuracy of uniform and caps worn at Dunkirk specifically, it can be difficult to say if a Senior Ratings cap would have been blue or white and this may create an issue for collectors wanting to have accurate displays. As a rule, white caps were worn in summer and blue caps were worn in winter, however not all officers followed this rule and it was not until the late 1950’s that white caps became the de facto standard. It was British summer during the Dunkirk Evacuation, however photos from the time show some officer’s wearing blue or white caps, thus it would be historically safe for the collector to have a display that held either colour.
The officer’s rank was displayed on the cuffs of their double-breasted “monkey jacket” via gold, embroidered rings and a stylised curl. Different ranks and ratings held differing numbers of rings with the Captain having four rings (including the stylised curl ring) on each arm. Apart from this, the uniform was stark but may have included service ribbons worn above the breast pocket. It should be noted that epaulettes were introduced as part of the standard uniform only from 1941 onwards, although the officer’s greatcoat sometimes had epaulettes denoting rank.
Unfortunately, despite their iconic status, Royal Navy uniform items are not very popular in general militaria collections and thus finding a 1940’s era Senior Ratings cap of any rank might prove difficult. However, if a collector should persevere, they will be rewarded with relatively low pricing on captain’s caps of around £80-£100 ($101-$126) on average, depending on condition. Monkey jackets are even harder to find in good condition though, but also have a similarly low price of approximately £100 ($126). On rare occasions, a collector may find a set of cap and jacket (and possibly trousers, shoes etc) together – these sets can cost in the region of £120-£300 ($151-$378) depending on condition and what items are included in the set.
THE ROYAL NAVY RATING – THE LEADING SEAMAN
Popularised in early World War II memorabilia and fashion, even until the present day, the Seaman was a stalwart of the Royal Navy and has a uniform as iconic as any officer class. The Class II Rating included sailmakers, photographers, telegraphists and signalists, stokers, and petty officers. The No. 1 Dress prevalent amongst Class II ratings was called the ‘square rig’ and consisted of navy-blue bell-bottomed trousers, a cotton ‘flannel’ shirt, resembling the modern T-shirt, a jumper with gold embroidered rank and trade insignia worn on the shoulder and a Seaman’s collar worn around the neck. The collar was made of blue denim cloth with three white stripes tapered across the material and was affixed to the front of the trousers forming a V-shape over the jumper whilst displaying the white under-shirt. Under the collar, but over the jumper, was also worn a black, silk handkerchief. The Seaman wore black, leather, lace-up shoes, much like those of the officer class, and all Class II Ratings wore a white knife lanyard, although they were not required to equip a knife to the lanyard if they did not wish to.
Find out more on Dunkirk, including the Square Rig uniforms and ‘Pork Pie’ caps in the September 2017 issue of The Armourer.
ROYAL NAVY EQUIPMENT – THE DITTY BOX
The Ditty Box has long been a mainstay of a sailor’s inventory aboard ship. Typically made of pine wood with dovetailed joints, a hinged lid with a lock and key, these boxes often held a sailor’s personal necessities such as ablution items, letters and photos from home, sewing kits, etc. Due to space limitations on board ship the boxes were often small, usually measuring no larger than 14″x12″x8″, and had storage compartments within to maximise space. Though having fallen out of use since the late 1950’s, Ditty Boxes have a long history and are often sought out by collectors of Naval history. Up until the start of World War I, it was relatively common for Ditty Boxes to be intricately carved and/or personalised for each sailor, however by World War Two, British sailors in the Royal Navy were issued regulation Ditty Boxes that were of uniform size and material and often had the owners name displayed on a metal nameplate – though this did not stop sailors from personalising theirs in some manner either through carving their names on the lids or adding graffiti in another form on the interior or on the bottom-side.
Royal Navy Ditty Boxes are relatively hard to come by as many are either in familiar collections as heirlooms or in museum collections, however the collector should be careful of online reproductions or Ditty Boxes from different wars and eras as the Ditty Box was universal for sailors of many Navy’s. The Royal Navy Ditty Box is subtly distinct in its design and for the fact that it would be less likely to have elaborate graffiti on it unlike the American Civil War era boxes that would have stylised art on the lids and a hook lock instead of a lock and key; or the German design with an indent in the lid, carry handles and a high likelihood of the sailor’s name being written on the side of the box instead of a metal name plate. Collectors can expect upwards of £320 ($400) for a Ditty Box of decent condition and history.
DUNKIRK LITTLE SHIPS
What truly made the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation stand out was the bravery of the “little ships” – a fleet of over 700 civilian ships from Ramsgate in the South of England that made their way to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation efforts. For a collector to truly display the spirit of Dunkirk in their collection, something from the civilian fleet would be a must. However, owning a piece of the civilian fleet might be trickier than something from the militaria spectrum. Short of purchasing one of the actual “little ships” (which one can do for the low price of £37,995 ($47,892)) one would be relegated to items taken off the ships during refurbishment if they were no longer workable. For example, a bronze propeller for £250 ($315), or a selection of bronze portholes for £195 ($245) – however, it is recommended buyers do a significant amount of research before committing to any purchases of “little ship” maritime items as proving their authenticity can be difficult. Add to this that many of the ships have changed names and owners over the years and it can be chaotic at best. Collectors are rather advised to stick to stamps, postcards, photographs, newspaper clippings or prints for “little ship” memorabilia unless authenticity of the nautical item can be established without question.
COMMEMORATING DUNKIRK – MEDALS AND RIBBONS
Many operations and events during a conflict have various medals and ribbons presented to soldiers to commemorate their actions and sacrifices – Dunkirk is no exception to this. At the time, no specific Dunkirk medals would be awarded to veterans of the conflict, rather veterans would have likely qualified for the 1939-45 Star and 1939-45 War Medal. A specific commemorative medal for Dunkirk was created several years later in 1960 by the ‘Association Nationale des Anciens Combattants du Secteur Fortifié des Flandres et de Dunquerque’ (French National Association of Veterans of the Fortified Sector of Flanders and Dunkirk (since disbanded)) on behalf of the town of Dunkirk. Initially the medal was only awarded to French soldiers present at the evacuation but in 1970 the qualification was open to British military veterans as well as civilians who manned the “little ships”.
The 1939-45 Star and 1939-45 War Medal are fairly common and many collectors will have these in their collections already with prices ranging from £2-£10 ($3-$12) depending on condition. The Dunkirk medals are also relatively easy to find for the average collector; however, pricing seems to have a wide range with some medals starting at £7 ($9) and others reaching up to £75 ($95). Collectors should note, however, that fakes abound and it is recommended to check the pedigree of the medal before committing to a purchase. Identifiers for the genuine article will include: the name of the town of Dunkirk being on the reverse of the medal along with a 1940 date etch, however it will be in the French spelling of ‘Dunkerque’ as opposed to the English ‘Dunkirk’; for the original French pre-1970 iteration of the medal the reverse will also have a small signature etching rounding the edge of the medal to the right of the oil lamp design which will read: ‘ECOLE DES METIERS D’ART – PARIS’ (School of Art – Paris) – post-1970 medals do not have this signature and a marked decline in quality is noticeable due to the increased manufacture demands; and finally many of the original medals were issued with certificates and serial numbers to establish authenticity.
Find out more on Dunkirk, including medals, uniforms, weapons and fighter planes, in the September 2017 issue of The Armourer.