Once more unto the beach for ships that saved an army

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The Independent Online

There were no plumes of oily black smoke to mark the way to Dunkirk yesterday and the Channel was lumpier than the milky calm of 60 years ago.

There were no plumes of oily black smoke to mark the way to Dunkirk yesterday and the Channel was lumpier than the milky calm of 60 years ago.

But the "Little Ships" had not changed and neither had that curious Dunkirk spirit, which unified Britain back in 1940 and has inspired the owners of those vessels to pour fortunes into keeping them afloat.

For 24 hours, the 62 Dunkirk veterans had lain stormbound in Dover harbour, unable to repeat the 39-mile voyage they made - some several times - in those nine days of evacuation.

Then yesterday morning the weather lifted. The sun, which had lit every daylight hour of Operation Dynamo in 1940, turned the sullen Channel a sparkling green and, one by one, the Little Ships sailed to form a flotilla filling every man and woman taking part with pride and nostalgia.

But yesterday's return to Dunkirk was not just for them. At every breakwater and pier at Dover yesterday morning there were crowds of spectators to wave the vessels adieu. "You all look fantastic. A credit to Britain," called the Dover lifeboat's coxswain, Dave Pascall, over the loudhailer as, one by one, we left Granville Dock.

As each made its way through the dock gates it was time for a roll-call of maritime gallantry. There was Firefly, the smallest, at 26 feet. She had run backwards and forwards, ferrying out small groups of British Expeditionary Forcesoldiers who waited, shoulder deep in their thousands, for what Churchill called "a miracle of deliverance".

There was Sundowner, owned in 1940 by Charles Lightoller, the second officer of the Titanic. He took 130 on board and when he got them to Ramsgate the boat almost capsized as they disembarked.

Our own boat was Bluebird of Chelsea, a motor yacht exquisitely restored by its owner Martin Summers and originally owned by Sir Malcolm Campbell, who held the world land speed record. Bluebird made two round trips laden with hundreds of troops and spent several days and nights as a ferry off the beaches.

Then there was Fermain V from Guernsey, which escaped the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands just in time to sail to the Dunkirk rescue. Fermain was still a ferry working out of St Peter Port four years ago and has since been taken over by the Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust.

Eventually, almost exactly at the planned time of 3.30pm, the flotilla entered the mouth of Dunkirk harbour. On this day 60 years ago the seaward end of the mole was bombed by the Luftwaffe and cut off from the rest of the pier. Now it is bridged by a gangway, left as a memorial to those who died there.

In the harbour, the French reception began. There were hundreds there to greet us, including old poilus offering victory signs and a piper playing a mournful tune as those around him cheered.

An estimated 600-700 Little Ships went to Dunkirk and about 100 were sunk. Of the 338,000 British and French soldiers rescued, they brought away many thousands. But in the minds of everyone yesterday was the question of what it must have been like for real. The general consensus: terrifying, almost unimaginable.

Josh Millais, one of our crewmen, put it this way: "Just think how the blokes on the beaches would have thought of us when they saw us coming. To them, we wouldn't have been a flotilla of Little Ships, we'd have been a whole host of little angels."