British ships sail to Dunkirk 70 years after evacuation

27th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

A ragtag band of boats that helped rescue Allied soldiers from northern France in 1940 sailed to Dunkirk Thursday to mark the anniversary of the evacuation, a pivotal World War II moment.

The flotilla of about 60 "little ships" that sailed across the North Sea from southern England included boats from the original rescue mission.

Pushed back across northern France by the invading Germans, some 338,000 British and French soldiers were rescued from the beaches of northern France during the evacuation -- known as Operation Dynamo -- between May 27 and June 4, 1940.

It enabled the British to fight another day and provided their country with a source of pride in the face of extreme adversity.

For Britons, the phrase "Dunkirk spirit" still sums up defiant courage.

"It gets you a bit," said Peter Shaw, an 89-year-old British ex-army sergeant who was one of those evacuated off the beaches of Dunkirk and was at the French port on Thursday.

As he scanned the docked flotilla, many of the boats made from teak, oak and mahogany, he said: "When you look at those little things there -- how did they ever get over?"

Shaw, 19 at the time, said an order had come down informing them it was every man for himself and they should find their way to the beach.

"We didn't know we were going to be evacuated," he said.

The hastily arranged fleet of about 700 vessels, ranging from pleasure craft to fishing boats and paddle steamers and lifeboats, worked under a hail of German bombs to take the troops off the beaches and ferry them to larger ships.

Wartime prime minister Winston Churchill called it a "miracle of deliverance" and the evacuation is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the outcome of the war.

On Thursday, survivors of the operation spoke of close calls and the luck they had, while boat owners from later generations said they felt compelled to participate to honour the memories of those who had died.

Michael Dennett, who owns a 30-foot former military boat that was used in the operation and in World War I as well, said his father was among those evacuated out of Dunkirk.

Dennett, whose boat still has bullet holes in it, has also worked on other Dunkirk vessels, and he said they hold special meaning for him.

"Every boat that I work on, I wonder if that's the boat that saved him," he said of his father Albert, who died when Michael was a child.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday, "The heroism and valour shown by the people who went to the rescue of the thousands of troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk 70 years ago is a testament to the courage and endeavour of British people."

He added: "Our country should always be grateful to and remember all those who were involved in the evacuation and our thoughts go to all those who didn't make it home."

Tom Dent, 88, was among those who volunteered to join the evacuation, setting off in a pleasure cruiser from England and spending about five days off Dunkirk ferrying soldiers to larger ships.

Looking back, he calls it a "marvellous thing," but at the time he was "just part of a system -- a job to do."

He estimated they rescued hundreds of soldiers with the boat despite being fired upon by the Germans.

"If they came out to us, we picked them up," he said.

But Dunkirk residents also have bitter memories of the tragedy they lived through at the time.

Maurice Lemiere, 80, was at the port on Thursday morning to view a collection of memorabilia from the World War II era, part of the 70th anniversary commemorations.

He saw none of the evacuation in 1940, with families having taken cover wherever they could in the face of the German onslaught.

"Everybody was in their basements," he said, adding the city had been devastated. "There were no more houses. There was nothing."

He remembered taking food from vehicles left behind by Allied troops after the evacuation.

The flotilla will return to England on May 31.

© 2010 AFP

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