Some of you may have taken time out in the past couple of weeks to see the new movie, Dunkirk. The movie tells the story of the “Little Ships of Dunkirk” when about 850 private boats sailed from Ramsgate in England to the beaches of Dunkirk between May 26 and June 4 1940 as part of so called Operation Dynamo to rescue British, French and Belgian soldiers who were trapped on the beaches by the advancing German army. Because of the shallow waters, British naval craft were unable to approach the beaches, hence the desperate order to assemble a fleet of pleasure craft. Many were requisitioned and manned by the navy without their owners' permission but a few were volunteered on condition that their owners would sail them to Dunkirk. When they reached France, some of the boats acted as shuttles between the beaches and naval vessels while others carried hundreds of soldieors each back to Ramsgate under the make-shift protection of the Royal Air Force. The operation saved about 200,000 British, 130,000 French and 10,000 Belgian troops. Sadly, 60,000 troops could not be evacuated and were captured or killed.
One such “Little Ship” was the paddle steamer Medway Queen which somehow made seven round trips to Dunkirk, rescuing 7,000 men in the process and earning herself the nickname Heroine of Dunkirk. Although seriously damaged during the seventh crossing, she limped home and is still with us today.
Built by Ailsa Shipyard, in Troon, Scotland in 1924
Owned by the new Medway Steam Packet Company, based in Rochester on the River Medway, England
Returned to cruising after the war for the General Steam Navigation Co who had taken over the New Medway company
1966 - Saved from the breakers and opened as a marina clubhouse on the Isle of Wight
1984 - Returned to the Medway on a floating pontoon and berthed at Chatham
2006 – Dismantled for rebuilding
2009 - Completed hull with refurbished engine to await conditions for a tow to Gillingham
A major boost to saving Medway Queen from razor blades was received in 2006 when, after several failed attempts to obtain funding from the UK's Heritage Fund, a grant of just over GBP 1.86 m was awarded. The grant, alongside Medway Queen Preservation Society’s own funds allowed restoration to go ahead. The existing hull was dismantled with all usable parts put into storage and structural members reused where possible. In 2008 a contract was awarded to rebuild the hull in traditional riveted form after the resolution of problems arising from a conflict between the need for a "heritage" rebuild and the need to incorporate updated construction practices.
In May 1965 to mark the 25th anniversary of Operation Dynamo, a fleet of 43 of the original “Little Ships” returned to Dunkirk to commemorate the evacuation. It was subsequently decided that such a unique assembly should not be allowed to fade into obscurity and the “Association of Dunkirk Little Ships” was formed in 1966. The stated objective of the Association was to maintain the spirit of Dunkirk and to preserve the memory of the role of the Little Ships by forming an association of their present-day owners and of those closely associated. Still today, over 100 Little Ships are entitled to display a plaque marked “DUNKIRK 1940”. Every five years, supported by the RNLI and Royal Navy, they return under their own power to Dunkirk, a major undertaking considering that the average age of the craft is now 85 years. The Association plans to return to Dunkirk in May 2020 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Operation Dynamo with around 50 Little Ships expected to take part.
UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill initially described the situation in Dunkirk as a “colossal military disaster” but following the success of the evacuation revised his assessment as a “miracle of deliverance”. Medway Queen is today moored at Gillingham Pier in the County of Kent UK and is open for viewing on most Saturdays.
Ship of the Week contributed by Captain Stephen Brown, West Pacific Marine Ltd.