Page last updated at 09:07 GMT, Wednesday, 19 May 2010 10:07 UK

The men who defined the 'Dunkirk spirit'

By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Veterans of Dunkirk have been reunited, seven decades after the celebrated rescue operation and ahead of an official reconstruction of the Channel crossing later this month. But what made the 1940 evacuation mission so special?

Veterans Eric Roderick, Tom Cooke, Vic Viner, John Garrett, Robert Halliday pose at the Imperial War Museum
Some 338,000 British and French troops were rescued

Described by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as "a miracle of deliverance", the recovery of hundreds of thousands of stranded British and French soldiers from Dunkirk during World War II was no ordinary military operation.

The mass evacuation by the Royal Navy involved a still unknown number of amateur sailors who, for days, risked their lives alongside serving troops in a remarkable rag-tag flotilla of boats which helped ferry soldiers - trapped by Adolf Hitler's forces - back across the Channel.

And it was this courage and unity in the face of adversity of all those involved that has come to define what the British now proudly refer to as the "Dunkirk spirit".

'Revolver, ammunition, chocolate'

One of those marking the 70th anniversary at London's Imperial War Museum was Navy veteran Harold "Vic" Viner, now 93, from Dorking, Surrey, who learned he was to join the mission, known as Operation Dynamo, after returning from Shanghai.

"We dumped our kit, had something to eat and drink, picked up a revolver with 60 rounds of ammunition and 60 bars of chocolate," he recalls.

"We were then told to go to the parade ground and we got on buses and it was then we were told we were to go to Dunkirk to assist with the evacuation."

Dunkirk veteran Vic Viner
I was in the water with my tin helmet on and my trousers, but I had no top. It had been blown off
Dunkirk veteran Vic Viner

Mr Viner, who joined the Navy at the age of just 15 because there was "no room in the house", recalls the original idea was to use his ship's whaler and motorboat to travel inshore to pick up the trapped men.

"There were four of us on the whaler. We rowed it to the beach and made four journeys, but then we looked at each other - and we could see we were sweating blood."

But as the civilian "little ships" joined in, the rescue picked up pace.

"Our job then was, amid the chaos, to get the men on the boats. There were some chaps up to their neck in the water, trying to wade out to sea.

"I asked one sergeant what he was doing, and he said he was 'going home' - he thought he could just cross the water."

Mr Viner spent three days under constant bombardment saving the stranded troops.

"At one point I was in the water with my tin helmet on and my trousers, but I had no top. It had been blown off."

The Little Ships at Dunkirk painting - Norman Wilkinson (IWM)

Looking back, Mr Viner, who left the Navy in 1947 but retains the title of the longest-serving scout in the world, accepts the events of May and June 1940 were seen as a defeat.

"But for us to get 360,000 men out of there was a miracle. I am proud and humble to have been involved," he recalls with a tear in his eye, "to know that I was able to help."

Fellow veteran Eric Roderick, now 91, from Weybridge in Surrey, was just 20 when he was sent to help those stranded at Dunkirk.

The legal executive had been called up in January 1940 and, because of difficulties with his eyes, he had joined the Royal Army Service Corp.

After initial training at Bulford, Wiltshire, he was sent to Dover without any knowledge of what he was about to face.

"I didn't know where we were going," he recalls. "We got on this boat - not a ferry or anything like that - and the journey seemed to take a long time.

"Then in the distance, we saw some flames - and one of the men shouted 'That's Dunkirk!' It was ablaze."

'Doing my duty'

Mr Roderick helped distribute much-needed cartons of water to the stranded troops - but it soon became clear the situation was deteriorating and it become a case of "every man for himself".

"I managed to get on a boat that was full of bedraggled troops who had been on the beaches. I remember saying, 'Is there room for one more?', and they said, 'We can find room for a little one on the floor'.

"Bombs were being dropped left, right and centre."

Dunkirk veteran Eric Roderick
I just did my duty - what I was told to do
Veteran Eric Roderick

After surviving Dunkirk, Mr Roderick was not put off life in the forces and went on to work for the intelligence corps all over the Middle East.

But when he remembers his part in the evacuation, it is not pride he feels.

"I just did my duty - what I was told to do," he adds.

Yet, Nick Hewitt, historian at the Imperial War Museum, is keen to point out just how important the rescue was and the part played by those such as Mr Viner and Mr Roderick.

"Without Dunkirk, Britain wouldn't have had an Army and it's extremely questionable whether Britain could have fought the war," he explains.

Mr Hewitt gives the credit to the Royal Navy and Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who led the operation, but also to all the civilians who helped.

"They thought they would bring back 30-40,000. In the end they rescued 338,000 British and French troops. It's an extraordinary achievement."

And this pulling together of civilians and the military meant an event that could have been seen as a failure became, in fact, a key turning point in World War II.

"Dunkirk was a military defeat, but it was a symbolic victory," he adds.

Map showing Dunkirk rescue locations

To coincide with the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, the Imperial War Museum has opened its Explore History Centre, where the public can access parts of its collection of digitised photos, film, sound recordings, art, documents and books.

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