The Point of a Gun Explained

Restoring the Dunkirk Little Ship ‘Naiad Errant’ was not just a matter of bringing her back to her original state. Co-owner John Richards wanted to recapture her appearance at a particular moment of her history, as he tells us in this interview published in the Winter 2001 edition:

Ed.  Is the rumour correct that you've equipped your Dunkirk Little Ship the ‘Naiad Errant’ with a machine gun?

JR. Yes, - but one officially rendered unable to fire, or ‘decommissioned’ as they say.

I assume that's because she had one at Dunkirk.

Actually no. ‘Naiad’ played two different roles in 1940. At the end of May, Tough's of Teddington took her to Ramsgate. From there Able Seaman Samuel Palmer took her three times to Dunkirk. (We have three photos of her in grubby-white on her return). Immediately after Dunkirk, the Navy retained her and fitted her out as an Armed Patrol Vessel. They painted her grey (including the glass of the portholes!), allocated her the number '7', and gave her a machine gun.

So your decommissioned gun recaptures her as in August 1940, not as at Dunkirk in June.

Exactly so. It will only appear when on parade on special occasions.

Many small craft will have had such guns. Isn't it a bit over-the-top to single out ‘Naiad Errant’ for one?

It probably appears so, but I have my reasons. On August 12, 1940, Pathé News had an item: 'Our Mosquito Navy'. They filmed a flotilla of nine Armed Patrol Vessels at Felixstowe. Only half were armed. As ‘Naiad’ was one of them, she was kept in the foreground! They filmed a Naval Officer using ‘Naiad's’ gun for instruction. By chance. ‘Naiad Errant’ was the only clearly-identifiable boat because her 3D name lettering had been painted white when they painted on her number seven. Sixty years later Pathé's ‘Our Mosquito Navy’ is almost the sole surviving film of Little Ships, so it tends to be included in every visual presentation of Dunkirk. In fact, she so 'appeared' at the Millennium Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall!

So, presumably, when Christian Brann wanted a 1940 photo for the dust jacket of his book "The Little Ships of Dunkirk", he had hardly any other choice. Tell me about your work on her.

The first thing I did was to make her name-letters in wood and have them cast. Later I had replacement stanchions cast from a pattern that I had turned in wood which was based on her 1939-40 photos. Sandy Evans agreed to the removal of her ‘pulpit’ and for me to provide her with her distinctive low railing. I re-equipped her with a small pram dinghy (she is the smallest existing Dunkirk Little Ship to carry her own tender). I inherited a wrongly positioned, short, post-war mast, so I replaced this with a replica of the tall original.

Was the restoration as a whole your doing?

I masterminded it and my son Paul and I paid for it, but the majority of the work was done at Rochester.

Sandy Evans has had ‘Naiad’ on the Thames for ages. Why Rochester?

In 1999 Sandy was in a flotilla of Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) in the Medway when a large piece of wood got between a prop and the hull and knocked out a piece of caulking. ‘Naiad Errant’ was only saved from sinking by the initiative and equipment of the other ADLS members.

Our readers who are concerned with safety will be eager to know what this equipment was.

The first item was a massive but portable pump mounted on a board with its own generator. The second was having available numerous pieces of pre-drilled wood with screws and adhesive for immediate fixing over any hull damage. Without this equipment ‘Naiad’ would have sunk in 30ft of tidal water.

What happened next?

Morris Tolhurst’s Beacon Boatyard was nearby at Rochester. He is a prominent member of the ADLS The choice was obvious, especially as ‘Naiad’s’ keel had “hogged” and she was deemed too frail to be moved. It was doubtful whether ‘Naiad’ could be saved.

How or why did you step in?

My son Paul had owned the Dunkirk Little Ship ‘Mehatis’, (originally ‘Lady Gay’) and since 1991 we had jointly owned the ADLS open Gibbs' Thames launch ‘Lady Isabelle’, whose restoration I had masterminded. As an amateur historian and writer I had always envied ‘Naiad’ her extensive archives. We decided that ‘Naiad Errant’ was too famous a Dunkirk boat to be lost. We offered to pay for her repair and became joint-owners with Sandy Evans. We sold ‘Lady Isabelle’ to finance it.

You set yourself a big task!

Yes. I began with a simple aim - to rescue her and get her seaworthy for the Sixtieth Return to Dunkirk in 2000. I was over-optimistic. The task was massive. Morris Tolhurst managed to straighten the keel and put more than 400ft of new planking in the hull. We nearly made it in time, but ‘Naiad’ was insufficiently furnished for her crew to be safe in a rough sea. Sadly, she missed this event.

‘What next?’ I then asked myself. Would I simply continue to repair her, or take the opportunity to restore her? We discovered that much of the original wood was rotten, so I decided on a restoration from the keel up! This doubled the length of her stay at Rochester, since time was then spent undoing earlier work before real restoration could begin.

How do you view the work of 'restoration'?

Restoration is a tricky balance between safety, authenticity, legality, efficiency, style and convenience. I tried to avoid 'improving on' Osborne's ‘Naiad’, although I admit that she now has some comforting 'invisible' assets - heating, holding tanks, calorifier and engine soundproofing, and is better equipped with VHF/DSC and GPS. But I wanted to capture her in her 1940 mode.

She has a central wheelhouse. Originally she had a single sliding hatch for access to the foredeck. A later owner had made two large hatches for removing the engines. I had to revert to the original single hatch, but asked Morris Tolhurst to rebuild the wheelhouse roof in such a way that it could be lifted off in its entirety! This he did without any noticeable change!

The removal of the second hatch enabled me to replace her spotlight. The original was mounted on a cone in which the handle could move and I have not been able to copy this (Does any reader have a spare one?). Until we find one, ‘Naiad’ has a hybrid spotlight: part 1930s design motor-bike light and part Plastimo deck-mounted swivel unit and handle.

I have fitted her with a pair of chrome horns which look right. Such vintage equipment is not reliable enough to be safe at sea, however, so tucked away near them I have what I call my ‘modern little blaster’!

‘Naiad’ struck me as small, dark and cluttered, so I have done everything possible to combat this by trying to create space and light, and to give her an overall unity. Fortunately this did not have to be a 'committee' restoration, and I have been able to keep a very tight control of every single detail. This means that everything about her and on board her is tailored to my vision of how she should be, based on my exhaustive research. (I have written two booklets on her already, and am engaged in something rather bigger.)

For example, in recent years, she wore her 1940’s no. 7 near the bow in black. As virtually nothing else was black, this over-emphasized the ‘7’ at the expense of the boat. I subdued it, therefore, to a silver-grey. While being proud of her 1940 Naval number I wanted to play it down since she is primarily a Dunkirk Little Ship and did not carry it until two months later.

What did you find the most difficult items?

The dashboard and the windows! With twin engines a dash can easily get over-cluttered! I wanted the best modern equipment for safety, yet the simplest possible design. I did this by removing from the dash everything that was not necessary for use when actually under-way. I reduced the number of switches wherever I could. (A single three-way switch, for instance, can save space for alternatives such as the anchor light/navigation lights.)

My second problem was the leaking windows. They had been a factor in the rot. Chrome plated waterproof look-alikes were unobtainable. So I opted for tailor-made ones in stainless steel which I then disguised by adding chrome facings.

Were there other major items?

Yes. Our 1940 photos show a ‘meat safe’ and a stowed boarding ladder in her small rear cockpit. We recreated both. The meat-safe now aptly houses the fridge. The boarding ladder is historically important because every soldier boarding her from the sea at Dunkirk had to use it. I based the design on the one in Osborne's ‘Lady Lucy’.

I gather your masterminding has extended to the soft furnishings.

Yes. For the boat to be a visual unity, it was necessary. I had a clear and simple colour scheme: varnished mahogany - white - blue - and a little grey. The varnished mahogany was dictated by her wood. As for the white, William Osborne's photos of her being built and launched (which we have) show that he chose to paint her mast, handrails, and porthole surrounds white. (The latter, I imagine, to minimise their visual intrusion into the topsides.) It seems that he aimed for a ‘clean look’.

‘Naiad Errant’ was the prototype of his New Swallow Class. Osborne's mast design was Swallow-influenced. In profile, neither mast nor cross-trees has straight lines. Both have gentle curves.

Her Swallow Class made blue the inevitable third colour. Because ‘Naiad’ was inherently gloomy, I had the seats and berths white with blue trim, not vice versa. This greatly increases the reflected light in the cabins. I made sure her curtains when drawn back have adequate runners so they do not restrict window light. (How often dark cabins have curtains that block out the light even when drawn back because of inadequate rails)

I gather your curtains have hand-drawn swallows on them!

Yes, but their main feature is the stripes. ‘Naiad’ is partly a memorial to her Dunkirk Skipper, Samuel Palmer, who won the Distinguished Service Medal, and whose picture and replica medal are on display in the boat. By a happy coincidence, the DSM. fitted my colour scheme exactly! The ribbon is three blue stripes on white - one of them thin. I bought blue-and-white striped material and added the 'thin' blue stripe with a waterproof Gem marker. (The swallows were merely a device for dividing up the sets of DSM stripes -I drew them with a ball-point pen!)

A ‘badge’, like our swallow, is quite a useful means of identification. I have blue adhesive ones both for decoration and to discourage theft. It is much easier to stick one on a boathook, a pick-up buoy, an emergency light, paddles, etc., than it is to write ‘Naiad Errant'’on every single item!

I see you have even designed a special Naiad tie with the downward flying swallow.

Yes. I had a few done to give those most closely involved with her. The direction of the swallow is that of the middle of the three routes to Dunkirk which she took, and the stripe is in the colours of the Dunkirk Medal ribbon.

Your tender has the traditional oval badge-mounts with a light-blue swallow in each against a navy background. Did you paint these?

No. I designed the original tie swallow. It was easier to have two enlarged colour photocopies done of the swallow on my tie, and then just have them laminated!

I could not but notice your outsize red ensign.

I know this looks a bit daft nowadays, but in 1939 and 1940, when owned privately and by the Navy, ‘Naiad’ flew a two-yard ensign. Furthermore, a Guardsman whom ‘Naiad’ rescued from Dunkirk in 1940 took her ensign home as a souvenir. Fifty years later he gave it to Sandy Evans: it also was a massive two-yarder. So, in trying to recapture ‘Naiad’ in her Dunkirk era, we fly an ensign of similar size to those three we know she flew in 1940. This is in accordance with the pre-war fashion on the Thames which was to have Ensigns that nearly touched the water.

This is the second Dunkirk Little Ship that you have restored. What is the attraction?

Owners of Dunkirk Little Ships are but temporary custodians of national symbols of our deliverance from Nazi domination. If Britain were now Nazi-dominated I would not now be enjoying personal or religious freedom. Such freedom means more than words can say, and I feel honoured to have helped prolong the life of a Little Ship that symbolizes so much that we must cherish but tend to take for granted.

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