LONDON – LONDON (AP) — Dozens of World War II-era ships crossed the English Channel on Thursday to mark the 70th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation — an event that holds a special place of pride in the British memory.
Former troops saved in the rescue, Operation Dynamo, took part in the flotilla that re-enacted the time when Britain called upon every possible vessel to help save troops trapped on French shores by advancing Nazi forces during World War II. Among them was 93-year-old Lionel Tucker, who recalled his exhaustion upon reaching a boat called the Maid of Orleans.
"When I got on board I flopped down and went to sleep and never woke up until I got there and saw the white cliffs of Dover," he said.
The German army had swept through western Europe in spring of 1940, beating back both French and British forces. The advancing forces trapped the British soldiers on the beaches of the French city of Dunkirk, where shallow waters prevented ships from coming too close to shore.
After the appeal went out for smaller vessels, some 800 responded and ferried the soldiers to the larger vessels based in deeper waters.
German fighters and bombers launched attacks, but Panzer units were halted by Adolf Hitler. This gave British forces critical time to pull men off the beaches, and is seen as one of the first major German mistakes of the war.
Some 338,000 troops were rescued from the French beaches between May 27 and June 4, 1940.
Included in the flotilla Thursday were 50 of the original "little ships" — yachts, fishing boats and barges — involved in the evacuation.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the evacuation as a "miracle of deliverance," and it is an event — even 70 years later — that is seen as capturing Britain's national spirit of resilience.
"We can all be very proud of the 'little ships' of Dunkirk," Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement.