'Little ships' relive Dunkirk war victory

Fifty boats made the pilgrimage across the channel to remember the rescue of 300,000 soldiers in 1940. Terri Judd was on board
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The Independent Online

Vera Lynn's "White Cliffs of Dover" floated in the air as the "little ships of Dunkirk" drifted into the French port yesterday, their polished wooden decks gleaming and their flags fluttering. The string of 50 small vessels, dwarfed by giant container ships and ferries crossing the Channel, had made their slow progress across from Ramsgate to mark the 70th anniversary of the moment hundreds of boat owners snatched victory from defeat.

Alfred Freeman was just 19 years old, one of the last survivors of the 2nd Battalion, Royal East Kent Regiment, stranded on the beaches when the flotilla that Sir Winston Churchill called a "miracle of deliverance" turned up to bring the soldiers home and rescue them from the advancing Germans.

Mr Freeman died four months before of the anniversary but yesterday his ashes were taken over by his son on the "Little Ship" Mary Jane so that they could be scattered in Dunkirk.

"It was one of his wishes. We spoke about it over a pint," said Mick Freeman, a former Metropolitan Police detective inspector. "He just said 'What are you going to do with me when I die? I would like some of my ashes scattered off the beach at Dunkirk'."

On the dock, waiting to see the ships come in, was Ken Blake, 90, Alfred's old friend and a fellow soldier from the regiment, who was lifted carefully aboard Mary Jane so he could make the last part of the journey into the harbour.

Standing proudly next to the mast as Mr Freeman held up an original standard from the battle, Mr Blake stared solemnly ahead as the crowd cheered and waved.

"It is wonderful, absolutely fantastic. I wouldn't have missed it for anything," said the pensioner who was left at Dunkirk in 1940 as others were rescued.

"We were rear guard defences tasked with holding the Germans back so the lads on the beaches could get on the boats. We were told to get out the best way we could. Twelve of us walked to Le Havre and caught the last British destroyer leaving France. I was very lucky," Mr Blake said, clutching a picture of his friend. "I miss him terribly. He was the finest soldier this country ever had."

In May and June of that year more than 300,000 troops – desperately needed back home to guard against invasion – were evacuated from Dunkirk just in time as the Germans advanced.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who was in charge of Operation Dynamo, had sent destroyers and transport ships but they were only expected to have time to lift off about 30,000. The harbour had become partially blocked by ships sunk in consistent attacks from enemy aircraft and it became necessary to take the soldiers off the nearby beaches, an impossible task as the water was too shallow. The "Little Ships", some brought across by Royal Navy personnel but many by their civilian owners, came to the rescue, ferrying troops to the larger ships or bringing them back to England. Many returned several times or perished in the battle.

David Murr, a man who has invested blood, sweat and tears in restoring the 1926-built 42ft Mary Jane, said: "It is quite simple for me. If it was not for these 'Little Ships' saving the soldiers, we would be speaking German and there is no point in owning a 'Little Ship' if you can't get the veterans on board and celebrate their achievement in time of disaster. They turned defeat into victory and I am the proud custodian of a piece of British history. We have no choice with the veterans. They will die. We have an easier choice with the 'Little Ships' because we can save them."

The garage owner first found the Mary Jane in a yard in 1994 and spent years restoring her with his late friend and former merchant seaman William Worley, whose ashes travel everywhere with the wooden ship.

His son-in-law Miles Bruce said: "He lived his life through the boat. As far as we are concerned we are back seat drivers when it comes to something like this. It is about the veterans. It is almost like a pilgrimage to remember history."

The small community of ship owners make the trip every five years and know there will be few other occasions when the veterans, now aged in their 90s, will be able to enjoy the occasion.

Setting off in cold, drizzly weather from Kent yesterday, old pleasure cruisers, RNLI boats, working ships and sailing yachts moved into formation to recreate the great crossing, the oldest vessel of which was the 1898 Thames barge Greta, gracefully sailing behind tinier vessels bobbing in the waves. They were watched over by coastguard ships and the Royal Navy frigate HMS Monmouth.

For the first time young Navy sailors were placed on board in a symbolic gesture of the link between the military and civilian boat owners. Able Rating James Sherriff, 22, said: "I have only just passed out of my training and this is a great way to start, to be able to contribute to something that celebrates the veterans and their past."

After a weekend of celebrations they will return to the shores of England, all vowing to come back again in five years.

Siobhan Wilson, crew on Mary Jane, said: "It is the commitment and passion I love, the commitment to the memory and the passion they have got to follow it through. Everyone here today has given so much time, energy and effort into being here. Half of these boats would not be afloat if it was not for that commitment. They would have died."