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France salutes the little ships of Dunkirk

29 May 2015


Sail on: little ships set out for Dunkirk 75 years after Operation Dynamo

Sail on: little ships set out for Dunkirk 75 years after Operation Dynamo

SPECIAL services and commemorations have taken place in France and south-east England to remember the fleet of little ships that took part in one of the largest evacuations of troops ever to take place in such a short space of time.

In May 1940, just eight months after Germany's invasion of Poland sparked the start of the Second World War, the British Expeditionary Force, together with French and Belgian troops, was stranded near the coast of Dunkirk, cut off and surrounded by German soldiers.

An armada of little ships - from fishing vessels to paddle steamers, river cruisers to pleasure boats - set sail from Ramsgate and other southern English ports to bring the troops back to Britain. Nearly 340,000 troops were landed in England as a result of Operation Dynamo; but about 90,000 were left behind - many of them dead.

Among them were the crew of the MV Crested Eagle, and more than 300 soldiers it had picked up. It had left Dunkirk at 6 p.m. on Tuesday 28 May 1940, with about 600 troops on board. At 6.30 p.m. two bombs dropped by Stukas hit its fuel tanks.

Ablaze, the captain piloted towards shallow waters, where about half those on board were able to escape before another bomb hit its main deck. Eye-witnesses spoke of seeing human torches on the ship, which had become white hot through the heat of the flames. Many of those who survived the fire were killed by machine-gun fire from the Luftwaffe's planes.

On Sunday, Prince Michael of Kent unveiled a plaque in memory of those killed on the Crested Eagle during a service on Zuydcoote beach, north of Dunkirk. Among the crowd were French and British naval officers and ratings, local schoolchildren, holidaymakers, and a small number of veterans, as well as the current owners of the little ships.

A brass band played "God Save the Queen" and "La Marseillaise", and the Mayor of Zuydcoote, Paul Christophe, told the crowd that "what was, for a long time, seen as a defeat in France is now seen as the first step towards victory."

Later, Prince Michael of Kent joined veterans and members of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships as it held its own memorial service on the quayside in Dunkirk. The association's chaplain, the Revd Gordon Warren, thanked the people of Dunkirk for their hospitality, and noted that there was barely a building in the town older than 75 years - such had been the scale of the destruction.

"Unlike many organisations where people are getting older and slowly dying out, here it is about the Dunkirk little ships," he said after the service. "They have all got new owners; they have all got new families on board, and so it keeps regenerating itself.

"It is vital to remember what they did, the lessons that were learned, and the miracles that happened on those beaches. The Channel hadn't been as calm before that anybody could remember for ever; but for six days the sea out there was flat, which meant all those little boats could ferry people backwards and forwards."

He said that the commemoration, which happens every five years in Dunkirk, "reminds us of not just those who were saved, but the few that lost their lives as well".

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