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Dunkirk veterans step back in time

Published 23/05/2015

Dunkirk veterans (left) Michael Bentall and Garth Wright salute during a service at the Allied Beach Memorial on the 75th anniversary commemorations of Operation Dynamo
Dunkirk veterans (left) Michael Bentall and Garth Wright salute during a service at the Allied Beach Memorial on the 75th anniversary commemorations of Operation Dynamo

Hooting with laughter, Garth Wright revved the engine of the old Norton 16H motorbike, a grin beaming from his face, his old helmet and goggles slightly askew.

"This brings back a few memories," he exclaimed, struggling to get on to the powerful machine. "But I can't get my leg over like I used to!"

It certainly didn't appear to be the case moments later when he cosied up to a young woman dressed as a Second World War ATS girl, earning a kiss on the cheek for his troubles.

Mr Wright, 95, was reacquainting himself with old military vehicles from the war, brought over to the Allied Beach Memorial in Dunkirk for the 75th anniversary of the famous evacuations.

Spotting a pair of old Norton 16H motorbikes, one of which was found in a barn in Belgium after being hidden from the Germans, it didn't take much to persuade the owners to let him clamber aboard.

Mr Wright, from Plymouth, served with the Royal Artillery in the war as part of the 51st light anti-aircraft regiment, and started off in France as a despatch rider.

As he revved the engines on the Nortons, the crowds cheering at his excitement, Mr Wright smiled to himself, saying: "Good times again."

Despite the sombre reason for their return, the veterans of Operation Dynamo - the rescue mission to save hundreds of thousands of troops from the beaches as the Germans advanced across Europe - seem to be having a rather good time in Dunkirk.

Last night, following a service at the British Memorial at the Dunkirk Military Ceremony, 94-year-old Arthur Taylor from Bournemouth enjoyed a barbecue aboard the New Britannic, one of the historic "little ships" and a boat credited with saving 3,000 lives.

And there were even rumours that one or two veterans were propping up a hotel bar late into the night.

Seven veterans have made the trip over - Mr Wright, Mr Taylor, James Baynes, 94, from Knutsford near Manchester; George Burton, 97, from Reading, Berks; Vic Viner, 98, from Dorking, Surrey; Edward "Ted" Oates, 95, from Wendover, Bucks; and Michael Bentall, 94, who came all the way from Ontario in Canada.

The veterans of the Dunkirk evacuations are now few and far between - many more made the last anniversary trip in 2010 - but they have undoubtedly been the focal point of the commemorations, with people lining up to meet them - men shaking their hands, women hugging and kissing them and young children asking to pose for photos.

As they waited for the service at the Allied Beach Memorial earlier today the veterans chatted happily, despite the chill, proudly showing off the commemorative plaque of their visit given to them by the mayor of Dunkirk.

Among those sharing his memories was Mr Viner, who followed his father into the Navy, joining up in 1933. A leading seaman in 1940, he was ordered aboard a destroyer and told to take one of its small boats and pick up soldiers from the beaches. It was May 26, the day before Operation Dynamo began.

Mr Viner said: "When I got back on my fourth trip my colleague beside me said, 'You have got blood on your hands'. I looked down and there was blood all the way down - we had sweated blood."

He was then sent to the beaches, where Captain William Tennant, who oversaw the Dunkirk evacuations, ordered them to make "order out of chaos".

Mr Viner spent six days and six nights at Bray-Dunes, just north of Dunkirk, helping get the soldiers off the beach to the little ships.

He said: "It was terrible, course it was - being bombed every day, no food, no water, stinking like mad.

"You can't tell anybody what it was like, you had to have been there."

Mr Oates, who was in the Royal Service Corps, remembered helping to stretcher wounded soldiers on to a hospital ship which was moored at the Mole jetty at the mouth of Dunkirk harbour.

He said returning to the town "helped strengthen the memory a little bit".

"You just remember bits, all sorts of little things - a 22 stone sergeant cook, Len Broadley, riding a bicycle with its tyres down on the beach, a group of Belgian soldiers with brass helmets."

Despite the mixed memories, the return to Dunkirk has been a proud moment for the veterans.

Mr Taylor said: "It has been wonderful to be here. It is part of history, and I was surprised at the number of French and Belgian people that have come up to me and thanked me for being over here.

"It is different to the trip in 2010. It was a far bigger occasion then, but I suppose there are not so many veterans left now.

"It is brilliant to be here again, to think that the memory of this will last me until I die.

"But I've booked to come back in 2020 - it will be my hundredth year."

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