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'Little ships' arrive in Dunkirk

Published 21/05/2015

One of the Little Ships involved in the Dunkirk evacuation is prepared in Ramsgate Harbour, Kent, to set sail for France to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo.
One of the Little Ships involved in the Dunkirk evacuation is prepared in Ramsgate Harbour, Kent, to set sail for France to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo.

A fleet of "little ships" has arrived in Dunkirk after crossing the Channel in honour of those who carried out one of the most famous missions of the Second World War 75 years ago.

Under a cloudless sky, the flotilla set sail for the French port from Ramsgate in Kent this morning, their departure heralded by fanfare from well-wishers lining the harbour walls.

The famous boats took around six-and-a-half hours to make the 30-odd mile journey, the vessels rolling and pitching in the waves.

Aboard the Princess Freda, a Thames passenger vessel that took part in the Dunkirk evacuations, were veterans Garth Wright, 95, from Plymouth, and Michael Bentall, 94, who came over from Canada for the anniversary.

Despite the choppy crossing, the two men beamed as they chatted, swapping their experiences from so long ago.

Mr Wright was serving with the Royal Artillery's 51st light anti-aircraft regiment in 1940, guarding an aerodrome at Lille, but as soon as the German advance came the RAF pulled its aircraft back to England.

With nothing to protect him, he and his men made their way down to Dunkirk - and found themselves facing "mayhem".

Roads were choc-a-bloc with refugees and there was constant aerial bombardment from German Messerschmitt planes.

Mr Wright said: "I went down to the beach and dug myself a little slit trench with my tin hat.

"You could set your watch to it - every half hour the planes used to come over in their waves. The town itself, on a day like today, would be like night because of the old tanks were all aflame and there was dense thick black smoke.

"It was sheer hell on Earth. The Stukas and the Me 109s came over every half hour strafing and bombing. Terrifying damn things those Stukas were - they used to aim their plane at you and you would see the bomb leave the plane, coming right for you."

Mr Wright was eventually rescued after he helped act as a stretcher bearer and, carrying people on the destroyer HMS Codrington.

He said: "I never thought I would get off that beach. Every half hour they would come over, and I thought that every time was going to be mine.

"Wave after wave after wave of machine gunning and bombing, all through that narrow strip of beach. It's a miracle, isn't it?"

Some 49 little ships eventually made the journey across to Dunkirk for the weekend of anniversary commemorations.

As the flotilla arrived at the harbour an honour-guard lined the walls, the local people meeting them with cheers and flags.

For Mr Bentall, returning to Dunkirk proved an emotional occasion. As a young soldier in the 4th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, he found himself forced to march almost 120 miles to the beaches near Dunkirk in the face of the German advance.

He and his comrades eventually found a rowing boat and headed out into the Channel, where they were finally rescued by a larger navy vessel. The danger was not quite over, as a German plane dropped a bomb on the ship - only for it to turn out to be a dud.

An exhausted Mr Bentall slept through the entire thing.

Now a father of six and grandfather of 15, Mr Bentall said: "I didn't come here because I was feeling I had to come because of myself, it was for the chaps that I was with.

"It was fate. I don't know how I escaped. It was a miracle, and today I really don't believe I am here.

"It is a dream come true, in a sense. It is unbelievable."

He added: "I feel very lucky that I managed to get away in one sense, but I am also sad that I lost so many friends, pals and comrades. I don't understand how I have lived so long. But it was fun being on that boat today, seeing all the boats."

The two veterans were accompanied by two current servicemen - 19-year-old able seaman Lauren Parsons and Shaun Kent, 28, a corporal in the Royal Marines.

Ms Parsons, from Southampton, joined the Royal Navy in January and is now training at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, Hampshire.

She said: "It is an amazing opportunity for me to come here and meet the veterans and get to know what they went through and how they felt 75 years ago.

"Seeing all the ships together is incredible, and the fact they only do this every five years, to be part of it this year, the 75th commemoration, is truly quite special."

Ms Parsons said that meeting the veterans helped her better understand what they experienced.

She said: "You see it in films, but you never imagine it being real until you speak to the veterans and they explain it to you.

"They are really lovely and have some amazing stories.

"Garth was speaking in church about how he had his face in the sand and everyone was surrounding him - that is when you know it is real.

"Imagining everyone in here on the boat, all the injured getting brought back to the English side, it's unbelievable. "

She added: "I have always had a great appreciation for what they have done for us anyway, but when you actually get to meet them and they tell you what it is like, it becomes more real."

Mr Kent, 28, from Derby, has been a Royal Marine for 10 years, serving two tours in Afghanistan.

For him, meeting the two veterans gave a new appreciation of that heroic generation.

He said: "It is hard to get an idea of what it must have been like back then. You see it on the TV and in photographs but you can't really comprehend it.

"Being out here today with all the small boats has been fantastic and gives you a little bit more of an idea of what it would have been like.

"You learn an awful lot, that regardless of what people like me have done, it doesn't quite compare to what they did, because it is two different types of fighting.

"Listening to them, it almost breaks you down, and it is very humbling to listen to."

He added: "To see all the little ships and all the civilians take part as well has been fantastic.

"It is good to know there is still the support for the World War II veterans, and that should carry on for years to come."

A series of events are planned around Dunkirk to commemorate the rescue of more than 300,000 troops during Operation Dynamo in 1940.

Tomorrow there will be a service at the British Memorial at the Dunkirk Military Cemetery, followed by a reception and presentation for Association of Dunkirk Little Ship (ADLS) skippers at the Dunkirk town hall.

The main event to mark the historic rescue mission will be on Saturday, when an official service will take place at the Allied Beach Memorial.

Later that day there will be a parade of military vehicles and bands through the streets of Dunkirk and on Sunday a memorial plaque will be unveiled at the site of the MV Crested Eagle, a paddle steamer which was attacked and sank with 300 soldiers on board. There will also be an ADLS commemorative service on the quayside in Dunkirk next to the little ships themselves.

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