The poor bloody infantry salute a military muddle

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The Independent Online

Sixty years ago they shared the beaches with dead comrades, sunken ships and Stuka dive-bombers. Yesterday, they mingled, in their blazers, berets and medals, with children in bathing suits, teenagers gobbling ice creams and day trippers eating mussels and chips.

Sixty years ago they shared the beaches with dead comrades, sunken ships and Stuka dive-bombers. Yesterday, they mingled, in their blazers, berets and medals, with children in bathing suits, teenagers gobbling ice creams and day trippers eating mussels and chips.

British soldiers left the Dunkirk beaches for the last time yesterday. Officially, they will never return and certainly never again in such numbers. Five hundred veterans of the evacuation, which ended 60 years ago yesterday, lingered on the white sand last night as a Lancaster bomber, a Spitfire and a Hurricane circled overhead.

A little way out to sea, 74 of the "little ships" that rescued the British Expeditionary Force bobbed on the waves.

The old soldiers were not so reluctant to depart 60 years ago, when they were among the 340,000 defeated British and French troops rescued from these beaches.

"It must have been just here, or somewhere near here, that I delivered a dispatch to General Alexander, sitting in a deckchair," said Frank Robinson, 79, from Lincolnshire, who was a teenage dispatch rider six decades ago. "You have to close your eyes to blot out all this [he motioned to the Iguana cafe and the Paradis disco], but I can see it just as it was. Mind you, if the sea had been this rough in 1940, the whole of the British Army would have been in the cage."

The Dunkirk Veterans Association has decided the time has come to disband. Yesterday's commemoration was, officially, the largest and the last. But many veterans insisted they would continue to return to the beaches in private groups each June, for as long as their minds and bodies were capable of making the trip.

Watching the men parade in the town yesterday, their step still vigorous, their faces proud, many thought the association may have given up too soon. But later reports said two old soldiers had collapsed and died after the ceremony.

Stanley Kirby, 80, from Basildon, Essex, proudly led one of the groups of veterans - 800 in all - who marched past the Prince of Wales. As an able seaman, he rowed countless trips between the beaches and warships waiting offshore in the first few days of June 1940.

"Two things stick in my mind: the endless lines of burning British trucks leading up to the beaches; and the soldiers queuing silently into the water, with Stukas buzzing overhead. If one boat was full, the soldiers would just walk back to the dunes and wait for the next one. It was like they were queuing for a bus back home. You can't get more British than that."

It is also rather British to insist on commemorating a defeat, as Winston Churchill insisted that Dunkirk was. The Prince of Wales described the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and 90,000 French troops, after the lightning German advance through northern France in May and June 1940, as a "miracle" and a "monument of improvisation" yesterday .

Several veterans said that they had been only vaguely aware of taking part in a great or miraculous event. Ken Wiltsher, 79, of the Royal Engineers, said: "We were all regular soldiers, remember. What was happening seemed typical of everything we were used to. One big muddle."

But Prince Charles pointed out that the "big muddle" - or "monument of improvisation" - made it possible, psychologically and militarily, for Britain to continue the war. The regular troops rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk formed the nucleus of the volunteer and conscripted armies that went on to fight in north Africa, Italy and Normandy.

The Prince flew on yesterday afternoon to open a new museum at Bénouville, north of Caen - the site of Pegasus Bridge, the first patch of French soil recaptured by British airborne trips in the first minutes of D-Day on 6 June 1944. The opening of the museum was marked by a parachute drop by British and French troops.

"Without the success of Operation Dynamo [the Dunkirk evacuation], without the sacrifice of those who never returned home, the D-Day landings may never have taken place," the Prince told the Dunkirk veterans. "I salute you and all you stand for."

At a beach-front café, one British veteran was making the same point to a group of admiring, but not entirely convinced French teenagers. "I'll tell you this," he was saying, jabbing the air with his finger. "It was Dunkirk that won the war."

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