The Snow Goose & the Dorrien Rose by Julia Jones

The Snow Goose
In the autumn of 1940 the Saturday Evening Post in America published a short story, 'The Snow Goose' by Paul Gallico (1879-1976). It won the prestigious O. Henry short story prize and in 1941 was expanded into a novella, published in both the US and UK. It was hugely popular. Later it became a Golden Globe-winning film, a spoken word recording, an RCA record with words and music. More recently it's been represented as a touring puppet show and it's an acknowledged influence on Michael Morpurgo’s hugely successful novel War Horse

For me, as a 1950s child, the story was accepted as truth and the most significant version was the book published in December 1946, with illustrations by Peter Scott. (I'm faintly shocked that there could be any others.) Our copy belonged to my mother but I appropriated it as soon as I could and have always treasured it. I never actually asked her whether she minded me removing it to my shelves -- or indeed how she felt about the book. One of her older brothers was with the British Expeditionary Force and was there on the beaches, waiting for rescue. She never told us that until much later - when she couldn't suppress the past any more.

Lt Cmdr Peter Scott
Coastal Forces Museum
Scott’s connection with The Snow Goose was much closer than merely acting as its illustrator. (I find it hard to remember that he wasn't the author.) Paul Gallico was a friend, of sorts, and had based significant details of the story on Scott’s pre-war lighthouse home at the mouth of the river Nene in South Lincolnshire. He’d also lifted Scott’s own account of 'Amabel', a tamed wild goose, which Scott had included in Wild Chorus (published 1938). Gallico was a sportswriter as well as a novelist and had met Scott in an ice-skating competition, then again at the summer Olympics 1936 where Scott won  sailing bronze. There was also a tri-partite friendship with the 1936 Olympic gold-medal winning yachtsman Chris Broadbent (a Norfolk friend of Scott’s also serving with RNVR from September 1939). 

The Snow Goose’s central character Philip Rhayader is a painter and a lover of wild geese, living in a lighthouse. Rhayadar is a lonely man with a misshapen body (this could well be a private joke against the good looking and sociable Scott). When news of the stranded British Army reaches Chelmbury (nearest town to the fictional lighthouse) ‘every tug and fishing boat or power launch that could propel itself was heading across the North Sea to haul men off the beaches to the transports and destroyers that could not reach the shallows’ (SG p 35) Rhayader has only a small clinker-built sailing dinghy but ‘For once – for once I can be a man and play my part.’ When my mother, post-war, bought her first small sailing yacht, she instantly renamed her Snow Goose and the waters round the UK are full of similar tributes. Rhayader’s fictional dinghy is almost identical to Tamzine, the IWM exhibit of the smallest of the Dunkirk Little Ships – though he sails her to Dunkirk alone from Essex and Tamzine was towed from Kent. 

Imperial War Museum
In Gallico’s story the healed snow goose flies with the dinghy and the crippled hero like a WW2 Angel of Mons. Trapped men on the beaches witness the destroyer that is waiting to transport them hit by a dive bomber:
‘ “Coo did she go up! She burned before she sank an’ the smoke a’ the stink came driftin’ inshore, all yellow an’ black, an’ out of it comes this bloomin’ goose, circlin’ around us trapped on the beach. An’ then around the bend ’e comes in a bloody little sailing dinghy, sailing long as cool as you please, like a bloomin’ toff out for a pleasure spin on a Sunday hafternoon at ’Enley.” 
“Oo comes?” inquired a civilian. 
“Im! ‘Im that saved the lot of us…”’ 

Rhayader sails them out seven at a time to the fictional Kentish Maid, ‘a ruddy hexcursion scow wot Hi’ve taken many a trip on out to Margate in the summer, for two and six.’
‘Hi don’t know ’ow many trips ’e made but ‘im an’ a nobby Thames Yacht club motor boat an’ a big lifeboat from Poole that come along brought off all of us there was on that particular stretch of hell, without the loss of a man. We sailed when the last man was off, an’ there was more than seven hunder’ of us haboard a boat built to take two hunder’. 

Medway Queen
Medway Queen Preservation Society

For the fictional Kentish Maid, interpolate the Medway Queen or any of the fleet of pre-war pleasure craft that took thousands home to England from Dunkirk, and the actuality of the evacuation is reaffirmed.  Gallico's dialogue makes me cringe these days: I'm also aware of the later sourness with which Scott's then wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, dismissed his portrait of her as Fritha and I now see the heroes of the evacuation as those who went backwards and forwards every day for a week, knowing they would be shot at, mined or dive bombed, over-loaded with horror and pain, exhausted. Mum's brother, I now discover, was brought home in the store-ship SS Dorrien Rose then billeted at Aston Villa Football ground as there was so little space available for the return of so many troops. 

Peter Scott wasn't at Dunkirk. The start to his sea-going career on the destroyer HMS Broke, had been delayed by bouts of illness, sore throat, high fever, debilitating sea-sickness, jaundice. He had seen his companions in the RNVR training courses go off without him, had missed involvement in the Norwegian campaign then, when the BEF was retreating to Dunkirk, hard-working HMS Broke was in Devonport dockyard undergoing a refit. Scott had only just arrived: 'I remember the awful impatience of those hot days of early summer because Broke remained in the dockyard until after the fall of Dunkirk and I had to remain with her.' (Eye of the Wind)
HMS Broke

The Snow Goose will never quite lose its magic yet the more I burrow around discovering true stories of Dunkirk the more moved and impressed I feel. I had thought little of the SS Dorrien Rose except I felt grateful to her for conveying Mum's brother safely home. And I quite liked her for being mundane -- not vulnerable & appealing like Tamzine nor antique & spectacular like Medway Queen or warlike and effective like HMS Broke. Just an ordinary cargo vessel doing her job. 

Except that I now discover, on the morning of May 28th SS Dorrien Star had been sent to deliver stores to Dunkirk. I'm not sure she was intended as part of the people-carrying fleet. In the early hours of the morning she met the cross-Channel excursion ship Queen of the Channel, loaded with 950 troops, bombed and sinking. With consummate seamanship the master and crew of SS Dorrien Rose managed to manoeuvre her bow-to-bow with Queen of the Channel and hold her there while all 950 men climbed across to safety in just over half an hour. Two days later she went back once again picked up my Uncle Pat and six hundred others of the Queen's Own Royal West Kent regiment. They'd been engaged with the enemy or on the march for nine days with little food or sleep, they'd been were strafed by machine guns whilst they waited on the beach. Two of my uncle's companions had been killed beside him. All they asked of SS Dorrien Rose was that she should get them home. Which she did

The Queen of the Channel

I heard someone grumbling yesterday that a social care chief had been given a knighthood 'for doing his job'. I probably laughed and agreed. Yet when you look at the exhaustion in the faces of the hospital staff on the evening news and you hear them admitting how they've needed to stop for a moment and weep then I think it's easy to see how truly heroic it may be 'to do one's job.' And carry on doing it. There were ship's crews during Operation Dynamo who shouted abuse, barricaded themselves in and refused to go back to Dunkirk, there were commanding officers who broke down in tears when they went to collect the next day's orders, ammunition, supplies of chloroform. There were suicides too. But not very many. I'm not going to spin out an analogy. I'm just going to say that you don't need a tiny dinghy and a magically circling wild bird to become a bit of a legend. 

SS Dorrien Rose
from The Ships that Saved an Army
by Russell Plummer


Sandra Horn said…
A wonderful and fascinating story of Dunkirk! Scott was such a troubled, complex character...
Susan Price said…
Julia, a hat-tip for your research. And it made my jaw drop. You're right: the grinding every-day heroism of 'just doing your job' isn't appreciated enough -- and then there are those, as you tell us, who did their job and then more than their job.
Jan Needle said…
Thanks Jul. Reading you stuff sometimes makes me feel as though I was actually in that war, as so many of my relatives and their friends were. Up to and including Uncle Les, who fought it as a conscientious objector. His brother Ron thought he was the greatest hero of them all.
fiona flynn said…
I grew up walking past Scott's lighthouse by The Wash. I didn't know anything about him other than his bird paintings. A beautiful little boat. Thank you.
Reb MacRath said…
Thanks for this post, Julia. The Snow Goose is another classic that somehow slipped under my radar--but one that I'm now eager to read thanks to you.
Wendy H. Jones said…
What a fascinating account. Thank you.
Penny Dolan said…
Julia, such a wonderful post and so many insights. Thank you.

ps. I agree with your response to the dialogue though I'm sure my young eyes would have missed all those issues back when I first read The Snow Goose.
Eden Baylee said…
Thank you for the history lesson Julia. A fascinating write!

John Underwood said…
My father was rescued by the Dorrien Rose too. Apparently she made two trips, and my father was on the second trip I think.
Thanks for the story!

Popular posts

The Year of Just Being There: Dipika Mukherjee looks back at 2016

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Close Reading | Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose | Karen Kao

A Week of Three Libraries -- Julia Jones

Why Would You Vote for Peter Duck? You Don’t Have To -- Julia Jones