(AFP) – May 27, 2010
DUNKIRK, France — A ragtag band of boats that helped rescue Allied soldiers from northern France in 1940 was due in Dunkirk on Thursday to mark the anniversary of the evacuation, a pivotal World War II moment.
The flotilla of about 60 "little ships" that sailed across the North Sea from southern England included boats from the original rescue mission.
Pushed back across northern France by the invading Germans, some 338,000 British and French soldiers were rescued from the beaches of northern France during the evacuation -- known as Operation Dynamo -- between May 27 and June 4, 1940.
It enabled the British to fight another day and provided their country with a source of pride in the face of extreme adversity.
For Britons, the phrase "Dunkirk spirit" still sums up defiant courage.
Brian de Mattos's father Basil was part of the rescue mission, and he was on board one of the ships that set sail amid light rain from Ramsgate in southern England.
"It's quite an emotional day to be following in my father's footsteps 70 years after he went out there -- obviously in slightly different conditions both in terms of weather and enemy action," he told the BBC.
Perfecto Palacio's pleasure boat, which participated in the evacuation under a different owner, was already docked in Dunkirk by Thursday morning.
Unlike the others, he had sailed from his home in Spain at the start of the month and was to join the flotilla when it arrived.
He bought the boat about a decade ago and this year marks his second time participating in the re-enactment of the evacuation. "It's a way to give my thanks to those people that died," the 76-year-old said.
According to the history of the boat passed down to him, the vessel ferried several groups of soldiers to larger ships before finally leaving Dunkirk. When it sailed for Britain, the 16-metre (52-foot) vessel had 150 on board, he said.
"Can you imagine? With all their ammunition, their arms? It's incredible," said Palacio.
The hastily arranged fleet of about 700 vessels, ranging from pleasure craft to fishing boats and paddle steamers and lifeboats, worked under a hail of German bombs to take the troops off the beaches and ferry them to larger ships.
Wartime prime minister Winston Churchill called it a "miracle of deliverance" and the evacuation is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the outcome of the war.
Current Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday, "The heroism and valour shown by the people who went to the rescue of the thousands of troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk 70 years ago is a testament to the courage and endeavour of British people."
He added: "Our country should always be grateful to and remember all those who were involved in the evacuation and our thoughts go to all those who didn't make it home.
"We can all be very proud of the 'Little Ships' of Dunkirk and the commemorative events this week are a fitting reminder," he added.
But Dunkirk residents also have bitter memories of the tragedy they lived through at the time.
Maurice Lemiere, 80, was at the port to view a collection of memorabilia from the World War II era, part of the 70th anniversary commemorations.
He saw none of the evacuation in 1940, with families having taken cover wherever they could instead in the face of the German onslaught.
"Everybody was in their basements," he said, adding the city had been devastated. "There were no more houses. There was nothing."
He remembered taking food from vehicles left behind by Allied troops after the evacuation.
The flotilla will return to England on May 31.
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