A FLOTILLA of “little ships” which helped evacuate soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during one of the pivotal operations of the Second World War will return to France today to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the mission.
About 50 vessels will set sail from Ramsgate in Kent for the French port, recreating a journey that saw them save the lives of hundreds of thousands of British, French and Belgian troops.
Hundreds of vessels crossed the Channel between May 27 and June 4 1940, with fishing boats, pleasure yachts and lifeboats pressed into service to rescue soldiers who had been forced back to the coast in the face of the German advance across Europe.
The modest fleet of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) will be escorted by the RNLI and the Royal Navy boats HMS Ranger and HMS Trumpeter - on board which will be Prince Michael of Kent, the ADLS’s honorary admiral - for their journey across the Channel.
A Spitfire and a Hurricane fighter plane will perform a military fly-past, echoing the air support the RAF gave to her naval colleagues as they desperately tried to rescue men from the beaches.
As the flotilla heads out, a piper will also play from the lighthouse at the end of Ramsgate’s west pier, and standards will be lowered as a mark of respect.
It is not a re-enactment but a commemoration for those who fought and died and didn’t return.Ian Gilbert, commodore
Two veterans of the Dunkirk evacuations - dubbed Operation Dynamo - will travel over on the Princess Freda, a 63ft Thames passenger vessel that ferried soldiers off the beaches to a waiting navy destroyer.
One of the two will be 97-year-old Michael Bentall, who has travelled from Canada for the commemorations.
Mr Bentall served with the 4th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, which was part of the British Expeditionary Force.
As the Germans advanced, he fled 120 miles towards the coast, reaching the beach somewhere between Dunkirk and La Panne.
He and his comrades found a rowing boat and headed out into the Channel, where they were eventually rescued and returned to safety in Sheerness some time around June 4 1940.
Around 10 other veterans are expected to attend a series of commemorative events at Dunkirk over the coming days.
Tomorrow there will be a service at the British Memorial at the Dunkirk Military Cemetery, followed by a reception and presentation for 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.
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.
The commemorations began yesterday in Ramsgate with a church service to honour and remember the crews of the little ships.
At a second service in Ramsgate harbour the Bishop of Dover, Trevor Willmott, praised the ordinary people who manned the “ramshackle fleet” and answered the call to “serve and save” 75 years ago.
Speaking of today’s Channel crossing, Ian Gilbert, commodore of the ADLS, said: “It is not a re-enactment but a commemoration for those who fought and died and didn’t return.”
Mr Gilbert said the “immense success” of the evacuations was a major deterrent to Hitler and allowed for the backbone of the British army to return to fight in Italy, north Africa and Normandy later in the Second World War.
He said: “The reason the anniversary commemorations are so important for us is that there are very, very few veterans left.
“In the not too distant future, these ships will be the only tangible link we have, as all the veterans will be gone.”
The Dunkirk evacuations saw an estimated 338,000 troops rescued from the beaches of northern France between May 27 and June 4, 1940.
Described as a “miracle of deliverance” by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.