British ships sail to Dunkirk for 70th anniversary
A flotilla is to sail from Britain to France on Thursday to mark the 70th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, when stranded Allied soldiers were rescued by a ragtag band of "Little Ships".
Even though the Battle of Dunkirk was a heavy military defeat, the rescue is considered in Britain as emblematic of the national character.
Seventy years on, around 60 of the ships involved are sailing across the North Sea again to commemorate the Operation Dynamo evacuation of some 338,000 soldiers from the French coast.
Between May 26, and June 4, 1940, the hastily-arranged flotilla of around 700 boats, including fishing vessels, pleasure crafts, paddle steamers and lifeboats, rescued British, French and other Allied troops cut off by the German army, ferrying them from the shallow waters to larger ships.
The phrase "Dunkirk spirit" is still common in Britain nowadays, summing up defiant courage and solidarity in the face of adversity.
Wartime prime minister Winston Churchill called it a "miracle of deliverance" and the evacuation inspired his celebrated "We shall fight on the beaches" speech.
The ships have been gathering at Ramsgate on the southeast English coast, ready for the crossing to Dunkirk in the northeastern corner of France.
Among them are ships called Papillon, Aureol, Thamesa, Wendy Ken, Wanda, Brown Owl, Bluebird of Chelsea, Gay Venture, Amazone, Southern Queen, Chumley, Maid Marion, Endeavour and Ferry Nymph.
"They are a wonderful sight to see," said Robert Brown, Ramsgate's assistant harbour master.
"It's a rare opportunity to see first hand some of the boats that played such a vital role during one of the most important operations of World War II," he told the BBC.
Weather permitting, the ships are due to leave Ramsgate harbour at 07:00am (0600 GMT), escorted by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Monmouth.
Following commemoration events in Dunkirk over the weekend, the ships are due to return to Ramsgate on Monday.
The rescue is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.
Through the evacuation, Britain "bought time" for the rest of the world, said World War II historian Nick Hewitt.
"Without Dunkirk, Britain doesn't have an army and it's extremely questionable whether Britain could have fought the war," he said.
"Without an army Britain can't take the war overseas and can't continue to fight."
© 2010 AFP