Dunkirk ‘Little Ships’ to repeat landmark journey 85 yrs after saving 338K lives

They were the “Little Ships” that took part in the Miracle of Dunkirk, rescuing 338,000 troops from the beaches of France in the Second World War.

From May 26 to June 4 in 1940, around 850 boats crossed the Channel to Normandy to save Allied soldiers from the advancing Nazis.

Last year many of the surviving boats had been due to sail once again from Ramsgate to Dunkirk to mark the 80th anniversary – and commemorate the bravery of the original crews.

But those plans were put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships has now decided to instead make the journey in 2025, on the evacuation’s 85th anniversary.

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A restored boat is wheeled out

It says just 120 of the boats that joined the hazardous expedition remain – and fears others may be rotting away in boatyards.

However experts are aware of eight that went into yards for restorations during the pandemic and it hopes as many as possible will be involved with the 2025 flotilla.

One proud owner of a rescued Little Ship is Jodi Smith, whose grandfather William took part in the evacuation as captain of the Gainsborough Trader on May 31, 1940.

He braved German bombers to rescue hundreds of troops from the harbour mole at Dunkirk – a stone structure jutting out into water too shallow for larger vessels.

Soldiers wade out to a boat in the shallows
Soldiers wade out to a boat in the shallows

Jodi said: “There were air attacks while they were trying to get troops from the mole to the big ships.

“Grandad left the mole for the last time with 140 troops.

“One of those was a colonel but, despite all our research, we’ve no idea of his name – or of how many troops Grandad rescued in total.”

Her grandfather died in 1977, when Jodi was 13, but her father told her of his heroic exploits. Then in 2015 she was honoured to represent Captain WH Smith at the 75th Dunkirk anniversary.

Rescued troops pile on board
Rescued troops pile on board

Jodi said: “I went to Dunkirk to commemorate the 75th anniversary in honour of my grandfather.

“While there I had the privilege of being invited on board Gainsborough Trader by the present owner.”

Jodi said the experience of attending Dunkirk had been “very humbling”, adding: “It was there that my partner Geoff and I decided we’d like to own a Dunkirk Little Ship in honour of my grandfather.”

That summer she bought and restored the Papillon – and then joined a crossing in 2016.

The Papillon - Jodi bought the boat in grandad’s memory
The Papillon – Jodi bought the boat in grandad’s memory

The trip coincided with director Christopher Nolan’s filming of his movie Dunkirk.

It starred Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy and also featured former One Direction star Harry Styles. Jodi said: “We sailed our Dunkirk Little Ship from the Isle of Wight, via Ramsgate, to Dunkirk to take part in the filming.

“As we were approaching Dunkirk, filming was under way and in the distance we could see thick black smoke billowing from the beaches.

“Straight away I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.

A little ship sets sail on Operation Dynamo
A little ship sets sail on Operation Dynamo

“It gave me a small insight into what my grandfather and all the crews of the Little Ships experienced. As we approached the mole, we sailed past ships moored alongside which were full of ‘soldiers’ who had taken a break from filming to watch us sail past.

“The flotilla of 12 original Little Ships received a huge round of applause and a standing ovation.

“It was such an emotional experience, it made me even more proud.”

After the war the Gainsborough Trader was bought by the Pickfords shipping company and renamed Master of Foxhounds to transport goods along the Thames.

The Gainsborough Trader
The Gainsborough Trader

She has since been bought by new owners and had her original name restored. She took part in 2015’s 75th anniversary crossing and is now moored on the Thames.

Mick Gentry, from the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, said the organisation could help people identify whether or not a ship had taken part in the historic evacuation.

He said: “There are Little Ships that are still being recovered, or that return to our association after a change of owners.

“We have an archivist who possesses a very comprehensive listing of Little Ships that took part.

“We’re able to quite quickly ­determine if a boat is a proven Dunkirk Little Ship.”

Singer Harry Styles, left, in the film of Dunkirk
Singer Harry Styles, left, in the film of Dunkirk

Mick added it is always the boat that is welcomed into the association, explaining: “It’s the Little Ship that is the member.”

During the wartime crossing, codenamed Operation Dynamo, the vessels came under near constant bombardment from the German Luftwaffe.

Around 235 were destroyed and 5,000 soldiers lost their lives.

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill hailed the feat as a “miracle of deliverance”.


Dorian is 106 years old
Dorian is 106 years old

Built in 1915, the Dorian served as a naval pinnace launch supplying battle ships in harbour – and powered by 38 oarsmen.

She was converted into a “gentleman’s motor cruiser” after being sold off by the Navy.

Thanks to her role at Dunkirk, she is thought to be the only boat used by the Navy in both world wars.

She became a houseboat on the Thames, but was found in decay by the Restoration Trust in 2010 and bought for £1.

Dunkirk 'Little Ships' to repeat landmark journey 85 yrs after saving 338K lives

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Funds dried up, then four years ago Nigel Walters spotted her.

He said: “I asked about her. It was being done extremely well, but it was a bare hull.

” So I got involved and funded the rest of the restoration. She really came alive just over a year or so ago.

“We built her back using traditional techniques – she’s probably better now than she was then.”

Regal Lady

The Dunkirk Little Ship Regal Lady
The Dunkirk Little Ship Regal Lady

Regal Lady, which also took part in the rescue mission, now sits fully restored in Scarborough harbour serving as a floating Dunkirk museum.

The 91-year-old vessel carried 1,200 men to safety in the 1940 evacuation.

Owner Heath Samples said: “Dunkirk was such a turning point in British history – and all our history. It was a time to be proud of, all our lives benefited from that.

“But there aren’t many Dunkirk little ships left. There were 800 that went across. It’s a privilege to have a piece of that history.”

The ADLS hopes as many boats as possible will take part in its 2025 commemoration. A spokesman said: “The flotilla usually numbers 60 to 65 Little Ships. For the 2020 return we had 75 Little Ships committed – before the Covid outbreak led to its cancellation.”

Fleury II

The Dunkirk Little Ship, Fleury II, has had some mod cons added to it
The Dunkirk Little Ship, Fleury II, has had some mod cons added to it

In a Cornish boatyard, the Fleury II has been restored to its former glory – with a few extras.

Built in Christchurch, Dorset, in 1936, the motor yacht was another of those that made the dangerous Channel crossing. But with a leaking glassed deck and rotting deck beneath, she needed structural repairs as well as a refit.

Project manager Holly Latham said: “The traditional feel of the boat has been enhanced with modern engines and electricals, a new galley and period light fittings using LEDs.

“A rewarding part of the project has been the new owner’s eagerness to respect the history of the vessel while making sure she can be fully enjoyed during the next chapter of her life.

“Practical changes have been sensitively hidden to complement Fleury II’s heritage and ensure her survival for decades to come.”

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