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
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
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
"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
"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".