Thames Barges go to war

Despite the advance in technology by 1939 the humble Thames Barge played a vital role in the conduct of the Second World War.

Obviously importing goods into the country was difficult and achieved at the cost of many lives and ships. This meant that priority was given to vital was supplies and where possible foodstuff was provided from within the country.

The railways were used to capacity for troop movements and the road network was poor with petrol in short supply.

Many modern merchant ships were converted for a military use which brought the Thames Barge into an important role as it harnessed wind power rather than using valuable fuel and with a shallow draught could not only face coastal journeys but could access the many creeks of the Essex Countryside .

Having no engines barges were in particular demand for carrying ammunition and explosives as there was no risk of sparks etc to the dangerous cargo.

A manpower bonus was that it required a team of two people to sail it and one of these people could be a boy or a woman. This was an important feature in a country where fit adult males were required to join the armed services. Thus many barges serving in the war period were crewed by husband and wife or father and son teams.

With a large area of deck space and hold they proved an important part in the evacuation of Dunkirk when many barges made the trip returning crammed with soldiers. Sadly the barges made easy targets for the Luftwaffe and many were destroyed at Dunkirk including Clement Parker's Duchess.

Several barges were moored in the estuaries to act as mobile platforms for lookouts as part of the  anti aircraft/submarine/ E boat warfare although their main duty was to report German aircraft dropping mines into the sea. Nearly 60 barges were used on the south coast for this duty.

Several barges were moored in the Port of London with barrage ballons attached as part of the Port defences.

After the war the barges were decommissioned although it was not until 1947 when the last sailing barge was returned to it's owners although the subsequent decline proved that for the sailing barge World War two provided it's last hurrah.

Some local war time incidents involving barges are detailed below


Lost near the Whitaker Spit when it hit a mine. Her crew were saved.


On 19 December 1942  at 7.30am Bankside was laden with flour when it hit a mine at Maplin sands.

The forepart sank taking with it the skipper who was trapped in the wreckage.

The rear end stayed afloat for a short period that allowed a fishing smack to close in and pick up the first mate who was taken to Burnham on Crouch  still plastered with wet flour following the explosion.


At 8.30am on 12 March 1943 Alaric was navigating the Whitaker Channel with skipper Harry Eves and his son Adam aboard.

The barge was strafed by canon and machine gun fire from 6 German Fighters which fatally injured Harry although amazingly Adam survived with scratches.  

When the fighters left the area Adam turned the barge around to make for the safety of Burnham on Crouch and both he and Alaric survived to tell the tale.


On 24 January 1943 Resolute hit a mine in the estuary of the River Crouch.

The barge sank taking with it the mate although the skipper was picked up from the sea by rescue units.


Dawn was used to land supplied for the BEF in France in 1939 and ordered to help evacuate the troops from Dunkirk. Sadly whilst in Dover harbour awaiting escort for the Channel crossing she was hit by a naval Tugboat and damaged forcing her to limp home rather than make the trip to Dunkirk.



dunkirk beaches- ideal for the shallow draught barges

In 2011 part of the hull of a Thames Barge was found in the Dunes at Dunkirk. Although the identity of the barge is not known it is almost certainly one of the brages listed on this page. The hull has been restored and is on display in Dunkirk Museum.

dunkirk museum hull

A total of 30 sailing/auxillary barges were involved in Operation Dynamo which was the code name for the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk in 1940. Sadly many of the barges were destoyed and a few remained stranded on the beaches unable to refloat before the arival of the German troops.

The barges involved in Dunkirk are listed below.

Barges that survived

Barges lost during the Operation

Ada Mary


Beautrice Maud



Barbara Jean







Haste Away

Ethel Everard

Lady Sheila

Lady Rosebery





Queen Alexandra