Dunkirk veterans set sail for anniversary event

Second World War veterans set sail from Dover today to cross the English Channel to Dunkirk for a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the evacuation.

Second World War veterans set sail from Dover today to cross the English Channel to Dunkirk for a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the evacuation.

The former troops and their families were given a rousing send-off, with a performance from the Parachute Regimental Band and a chorus of Jerusalem from a Royal Choral Society choir.

A Spitfire and a Hurricane aircraft performed a military fly-past, soaring through the grey sky above the ferry as it made its way to northern France.

Meanwhile a flotilla of "little ships" involved in the evacuation set sail from Ramsgate in Kent to join Norfolk Line's Maersk Dover on the French coast.

The vessels, many of which were private fishing or pleasure boats, were drafted in to help evacuate the troops from the beaches of Northern France in 1940.

They are being escorted back there today by Royal Navy frigate HMS Monmouth.

In Dunkirk the nine veterans will attend a ceremony to mark the historic rescue mission.

A silence will be held to commemorate the event and a bugle player will sound the Last Post.

Rose petals will be scattered and white doves released to symbolise peace.

The veterans were joined on board the ferry by members of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Help for Heroes charity.

The Dunkirk evacuation, dubbed Operation Dynamo, saw 338,000 troops rescued from the beaches of northern France between May 27 and June 4, 1940.

It came after the speed of the German advance through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France left nearly half a million British and French troops trapped there.

The rescue was led by the Royal Navy, which drafted in ships and boats of every size.

Described as a "miracle of deliverance" by British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.

One veteran making the trip, former private Lionel Tucker, recalled his 21-mile march from Cassel in northern France to the beaches of Dunkirk.

The 93-year-old from Southampton was with the 1st Battalion of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, keeping their vehicles roadworthy.

He said: "We reached Cassel and we were being heavily shelled by the Germans and we were trying to hold the place but eventually we had to get out.

"We had to do as much damage to our vehicles as we could to stop the Germans from using them.

"Then we had to march 21 miles to Dunkirk, which was horrific because we were being bombed by German planes.

"We were diving into ditches and people were being killed."

On arrival at Dunkirk they found it "in ruins", he said.

"When we got to Dunkirk it was worse than ever," he said. "A German came over with his plane and took a direct hit."

Afraid he would have to swim for it, he threw his kit into the water so as to lighten his load, he recalled.

But instead he was ferried across the Channel on a vessel called the Maid of Orleans.

"When I got on board I flopped down and went to sleep and never woke up until I got there and saw the white cliffs of Dover," he said.

He described today's journey back to Dunkirk as "emotional".

Prime Minister David Cameron said: "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.

"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.

"We can all be very proud of the 'Little Ships' of Dunkirk and the commemorative events this week are a fitting reminder."