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Monday, 15 May, 2000, 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK
Dunkirk: Lest we forget
Dunkirk evacuation
The remarkable evacuation operation at Dunkirk
The veterans of Dunkirk may be ready to call time on their annual reunion, but the 60-year-old memories are still fresh for the soldiers plucked to safety in the daring rescue.

For young people in the UK today - many of whom have no firsthand experience of war - the evacuation is a ripping yarn at best, a complete mystery at worst.
Eric Pemberton: A Dunkirk veteran

Sixty years ago, the British Expeditionary Force, which had been sent to defend Belgium, beat a retreat from the advancing German army.

By 26 May 1940, the troops were besieged on the beaches around Dunkirk harbour in northern France without food or water.

Downing Street ordered a daring rescue bid to save the 338,000 stranded soldiers. The result was a rag-tag flotilla of more than 800 civilian fishing boats, barges and paddle steamers, along with 220 naval vessels, crossing the English Channel.

Dunkirk spirit

The Dunkirk Veterans Association, set up after the war to care for the injured and to keep the Dunkirk spirit of endurance and co-operation alive, is soon to be disbanded as most of the surviving members are in their 80s.

On Monday, 55 veterans met for the final time at London's Imperial War Museum.

But while the men still clearly recall their ordeal, what do young people today think of this defining moment of British history? Clearly, keeping the memory of Dunkirk alive and relevant is proving to be an uphill challenge.

An ad-hoc survey by BBC News Online found few young adults could pin down exactly what happened on 4 June 1940. But they did have strong views about whether the spirit of Dunkirk lived on.

"People today are too selfish. All they do is think about themselves, they don't care about anyone else," said Nicole Moore, 15.
Jon Antoniou, 17: Spirit lives on

Jon Antoniou, 17 disagreed: "People haven't lost interest in lives, have they?"

Even at the war museum, some students confessed to some confusion when asked about the events at Dunkirk.

"That's Scotland, isn't it?" asked Simon, 14.

"I don't know who that person was," said Emete, 16.

"It was when they went over and got stuck on the beach. They all got taken in by loads of little ships," said Ed Irving, 14.

"We should (remember Dunkirk), because they saved us. We'd be speaking German otherwise and it is too complicated a language."
Dane Davis, 16: Curious about soldiers' experiences

Dane Davis, 16 sought out an old soldier to find the human face behind the history lessons.

"I know a bit about it - I spoke to one of the officers and he told me about Dunkirk. I was really curious and asked him how it was, was he scared and that.

"He said it was very scary - he said that when you are tired, you just have to work hard. He was living on maggots."
Camilla Smith, 14: "It's bombs and boats"

Camilla Smith, 14 said it was hard to imagine what her grandfather had been through at Dunkirk.

"We haven't been through anything like that - but films and books help a little bit."

Eric Permberton, 82 one of the association members and a former member of the Royal Army Service Corps, explained the essence of the Dunkirk spirit.

"Everybody helped everybody. On the beaches, there was no panic, we all took our turn."

On leave in England after the rescue, the spirit lived on: "We kept stopping at railway stations and there were soldiers giving us chocolates, giving us tea, giving us everything."

Albert Barnes, went to Dunkirk at the tender age of 14 in the merchant navy. "People say to me, do you think our lads would do it now?' and I think they would - I'm sure they would. I know my two grandsons would, anyway."

A teenage view
Dunkirk is a fading memory
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