Dunkirk spirit still flickers as the veterans relive their memories for the last time

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The Independent Online

"Where do you want the wheelchairs?" The question, bawled out as 50 Dunkirk veterans arranged themselves around a tiny fishing boat to mark the 60th anniversary of the rescue of 330,000 Allied troops from the beaches of northern France, was a poignant reminder of how many years have passed and all that time takes away.

"Where do you want the wheelchairs?" The question, bawled out as 50 Dunkirk veterans arranged themselves around a tiny fishing boat to mark the 60th anniversary of the rescue of 330,000 Allied troops from the beaches of northern France, was a poignant reminder of how many years have passed and all that time takes away.

In berets, regimental ties and much-bemedalled blue blazers, the old soldiers were getting together yesterday for almost the last time.

Later this year the Dunkirk Veterans' Association will be wound up. The association, with an average membership age of 84, is dying. Most of Dunkirk's survivors have passed on and those who remain are too frail to keep the show on the road.

But the mood was jolly yesterday as the remaining survivors gathered round the Tamzine, the smallest of hundreds of the famed "Little Ships" to brave the Channel and German bombers in May 1940, after a desperate appeal for anything that floated to pick up "our boys" as German forces closed in.

Yesterday, despite the walking sticks and hearing aids, there were glimpses of the spirit that saw these men through the war.

After endless, bossy instructions from Fleet Street's finest, one old man advised photographers to hurry up lest the tide came in. Another veteran dismissed the young snappers with a practised flick of two fingers.

But Ivan Daunt, 82, from Rochester, Essex, a former Rifleman, recalls the very different mood that gripped the men on these French beaches all those years ago.

Dunkirk is remembered, somehow, as a victory, at least for British courage and determination. But, back then, he says, Dunkirk definitely felt like defeat, and even the end.

German planes roared overhead and bombs rained. But the British troops pinned down on the sand, he remembers, were peculiarly quiet. "We were lost for words," he says. "I don't know how else to put it. We were just so demoralised and humiliated." Eight months into the war and he had found the enemy's true strength.

"I could not believe how well-equipped the Germans were. I had had just a few months with a rifle and no proper field training and there they were with all this equipment and organisation. They were prepared for war and we weren't."

Mr Daunt reached Dunkirk at the end of a three-day retreat from Belgium as the country was being overrun and British troops were given the order "every man for himself". Hiding by day and travelling by night, he had seen the enemy close up.

The propaganda would play down British losses at Dunkirk and emphasised British courage. But Mr Daunt - "home and just glad to be alive" - believed then what is commonly accepted now, that all the Germans needed to do was cross the Channel and take Britain.

Joe Barnes, the youngest Dunkirk survivor, saw the evacuation from the other side. While Mr Daunt was making a precarious passage across the Channel in a small cargo boat laden with petrol, Mr Barnes, just 14, was part of the eight-strong crew of the Sun XII tug commandeered by police on the Thames and ordered to the French coast.

He was soon in the Channel below the German Stukas. The beach evacuation was well under way when he reached Dunkirk. "It was already a graveyard for ships," he said. "There were sunken vessels everywhere."

He remembers the thousands trapped on the beach. "And I remember the dead ones too because they were floating everywhere," he said.

He had never seen a dead person before and the loudest bang he had heard was on Guy Fawkes night. Mr Daunt's hair fell out a month after Dunkirk.

And Jack Sharpe, now 79, remembered yesterday how survivors coped when his ship HMS Ivanhoe was hit by German bombs after lifting 400 soldiers from the shore.

The ship was pulled back across the Channel by a Dover tugboat with hundreds of dead, dying and wounded on board. "Drink," he says raising his hand to his mouth, was the lifesaver for those that did not die. But Mr Barnes, despite his tender years then, cannot remember any ill-effects.

"I was away for three weeks and when my mother contacted the owners of the tug they just said I was away on government business.

"When I returned home she asked where the hell I had been. I said to France. She said goodness, not Dunkirk. I had not even remembered the name."

Most of the Dunkirk survivors went on to fight in famous campaigns in North Africa, Burma and elsewhere. The military historian Max Arthur who has just published a 10-volume collection of front-line accounts from the Second World War, agreed yesterday that wartime propaganda had turned Dunkirk the defeat into a mythical Roy of the Rovers victory.

But, he said, the "miracle" of Dunkirk was that the Royal Navy and a huge flotilla of civilian vessels had saved a third of a million mostly French and British troops who lived to fight another day.

Without those men the outcome of the war might have been entirely different.

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