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Friday, 2 June, 2000, 18:46 GMT 19:46 UK
Dunkirk's heroes return
The boats were greeted by waving spectators
The boats were greeted by waving spectators
A motley flotilla of "little ships" has successfully reenacted the voyage across the English Channel which turned the tide of history.

The ships taking part in a commemoration of the 1940 Dunkirk rescue mission greeted cheers and music from the French port's dockside with their own chorus of blaring horns.

A day late, due to bad weather, their crews had a brief taste of what Winston Churchill called a "miracle of deliverance" in Britain's hour of need.
soldiers
The daring rescue saved 338,000 soldiers

Guided by the frigate HMS Somerset, they had taken between six and eight hours to follow a journey which helped save 300,000 lives 60 years before.

Merchant vessels moved aside or slowed in respect as the boats negotiated the world's busiest shipping lane at just seven miles an hour.

A Mark IX Spitfire made four fly-pasts, bringing cheers from war veterans and boat crews of the 60 historic vessels, many of which have not been back to the port since the British and Allied soldiers were rescued from the advancing German armies.

Click here to see the flotilla in Dunkirk.

All manner of vessels, including fishing boats, yachts and pleasure boats took part, although only a fraction of the number which originally made the 40-mile crossing.

They arranged themselves into a box formation in rows of four and travelled slowly so the smaller ships could keep up.

The smallest of the "little ships" was Moonraker.

Owner Gerald Barlow, 53, said he had spent 10 years working on her so she could take part in the commemorative crossing.

"This boat is one of the little ships that went to Dunkirk so I felt I had to take her back," he said.

Veterans waiting on the Dunkirk dockside watched in pride as the occasion also marked the last official event of the Dunkirk Veterans' Association before it disbands.
Robert Timbrell
Robert Timbrell: Memories
Retired rear-Admiral Robert Timbrell, 80, of the Royal Canadian Navy - one of the original skippers from the 1940 evacuation - was on board HMS Somerset on Friday

He said the moment he first realised the enormity of the mission had never left him.

"There on the white sands of Dunkirk were 400,000 soldiers waiting to be rescued - it was the biggest impact, it hit you right there and then," he told the BBC.

The yacht he skippered, which helped to save 900 lives, was unable to reach Dover from Turkey because of poor weather.

The largest of the boats which did manage to reach the port was the 123-foot luxury yacht Atlantide.

The yacht, which was built in 1929, was used during the evacuation as a lifeboat, pulling ships stuck on the shore at Dunkirk back out to sea.

The oldest of the fleet is the barge Greta, which was built in 1892.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Robert Timbrell, retired Rear Admiral
"It was a very fortunate evacuation"
The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
"The Dunkirk spirit has been absorbed into the national character"
See also:

02 Jun 00 | UK
02 Jun 00 | Dunkirk
15 May 00 | UK
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