A fleet of "little ships" arrived in Dunkirk on Thursday after crossing the Channel in honour of the historic retreat 75 years ago during the Second World War. The flotilla sailed for the French port from Ramsgate in Kent on Wednesday morning, their departure heralded by fanfare from well-wishers lining the harbour walls. The boats took six-and-a-half hours to make the 30-mile journey, the vessels rolling and pitching in the Channel's waves.
Aboard the Princess Freda, a Thames passenger vessel that took part in the Dunkirk evacuations, veterans Garth Wright, 95, from Plymouth, and Michael Bentall, 94, who came over from Canada for the anniversary, reminisced. Wright served 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".
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."
Wright was eventually rescued after he helped act as a stretcher-bearer, 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. On Friday, a service will be held 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.