This is the ‘Endeavour’–the last of the cockle boats that made the rescue run to Dunkirk early in World War 2–one of the reasons I always make a pilgrimage to the Peterboat Inn, in Leigh-on-sea, Essex, where I spent part of my youth.
The gentleman in the picture is my old schoolmate Simon Osborne, the son of a very lucky cockle fisherman. Leigh is the center of the cockle industry in the UK. The pub is mentioned in my story “Piggybank” which is collected in The Wounded and other stories about sons and fathers. If you’ve read that story and wondered what’s true in it, I really did pull a blind boy out of the sea. It was nothing really, but for about an hour I was hailed as a hero. It’s weirdly connected in my mind to the heroes of the cockle boats, all mixed up with sadness, pride and loss.
The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of those ‘finest hours’ wherein all the small boats of southern England risked the treacherous English Channel to rescue the soldiers trapped on the beach as the Nazis advanced. It was both a British defeat and British victory. As William Manchester says it, “…English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s bleeding sons…”
There are only a few people left in the world who remember this ‘glorious’ defeat at Dunkirk. My friend’s father banged his head as the cockle boats from Leigh-on-sea prepared to leave to bring back their share of ‘pongos’. The military wouldn’t let him go because he had a concussion. The cockle boat he would have sailed in, Renown LO88, hit a mine on the way back and all were killed. His son, my pal Simon Osborne, wouldn’t be here if not for that bumped head. And if so many of those men had not been rescued from that beach, maybe none of us would be here.
The lost crew, Lukie Osborne , Frank Osborne, Harry Noakes and Harold Porter are all memorialized in the graveyard of St. Clements Church, a lovely Elizabethan building which overlooks the estuary. As a kid I would sit on the tombs, look out to the great river in the distance and the rising land of Kent beyond, and dream of being a hero. Such is the fate of little boys who become men. You’ll find that proverbial hero’s journey in nearly all my work, including the recently published House of Large Sizes.