DISASTER or deliverance, triumph or humiliation, the actual

achievement of the Dunkirk evacuation has no parallel in the annals of

war. More than 330,000 British and French troops were plucked from under

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fire from the shattered harbour of Dunkirk and its beaches by naval

vessels and an armada of little ships -- that is history.

So reads the preface of a new book, The Ships that Saved an Army,

written by enthusiast Russell Plummer, a marine journalist from

Peterborough, who also edits Paddle Wheels, the official journal of the

Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, and contributes regularly to

publications such as Ships Monthly.

The timing of his book could hardly be more appropriate. This weekend,

a fleet of more than 60 of the original Little Ships is back at Dunkirk

to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the evacuation. Veterans from

Scotland are joining colleagues from all over the country in a moving

act of remembrance for those who did not survive.

Tomorrow a wreath will be dropped by helicopter into a circle of ships

off the Dunkirk evacuation beaches. A Spitfire and a Hurricane of the

Battle of Britain flight will fly past. HMS Alacrity, HMS Puncher and

HMS Trumpeter are due to be present along with yachts representing each

of the three services.

The Clyde will have its own flagship in the form of the Waverley, the

world's last sea-going paddle steamer, which has been given permission

to carry 150 passengers from Dover across the English Channel to within

a mile of the Dunkirk beaches. Her passengers are paying #75 a head for

the privilege under a charter arrangement with Major and Mrs Holt's

Battlefield Tours. Lt. Col. David Storrie, who recently retired from the

Royal Marines, will be on board to give a commentary and a band will be

entertaining with the ''hits of the 40s''.

Russell Plummer's research furnishes a unique record of the individual

ships and their contribution to the Dunkirk evacuation, codenamed

Operation Dynamo. Passenger ferries, cargo vessels, paddle steamers,

excursion ships, Dutch skoots, tugs, fishing boats, barges, small

pleasure cruisers and yachts all participated. Up to 1300 vessels set

sail in the early summer of 1940 and more than 100 are still afloat

today.

He writes: ''Fifty years on, Dunkirk still symbolises one of the

darkest, yet most glorious phases in Britain's military and maritime

history. So many families throughout the land had someone, or knew

someone, who was at Dunkirk, whether a member of the British

Expeditionary Force plucked from the beaches, or aboard one of the huge

fleet of ships, both naval and civilian, which crossed the English

Channel in the attempt to save an army.

''Just as organisations such as the Dunkirk Veterans' Association have

kept alive the bond of comradeship that existed between the men, the

ships themselves have not been forgotten, and the Association of Dunkirk

Little Ships is well established. It works to foster the spirit of those

who manned the vessels in the early summer of 1940.''

The signal officially starting Operation Dynamo was made by the

Admiralty at 6.57am on Sunday, May 26, 1940, following a sequence of

events triggered by the start of Germany's advance on the Low Countries.

The operation ended on Monday, June 3, when the old and battered

destroyer Shikari left Dunkirk's East Mole at 3.40am. By then, the

remarkable total of 338,226 men had been returned safely to British

shores but, of course, there were many casualties.

The loss of His Majesty's destroyers Grafton, Grenade and Wakeful was

announced on May 30. HM destroyers Basilisk, Keith and Havant were also

sunk by enemy action. Of more than 170 minor war vessels of the British

fleet engaged in the operation, 24 were lost. They included the paddle

minesweeper Waverley, predecessor of the present paddler which is paying

homage at Dunkirk tomorrow.

A total of 23 paddle steamers were officially recorded as taking part

in Operation Dynamo and most were Clyde-built. Russell Plummer's

research indicates that all but one of them appear to have crossed to

the French coast at least once and there is a strong probability that a

further four side-wheelers played at least some part in the evacuation.

A majority of the steamers had been requisitioned in the early days of

the war and commissioned by the Royal Navy as paddle minesweepers,

several hoisting the white ensign before the end of September, 1939.

Others followed in the remaining months of the year and at the beginning

of 1940. More than a dozen of them, including the old Waverley, had

served in a similar capacity during the 1914-1918 war.

The paddle minesweepers, representing all the major British peacetime

excursion fleets, were initially formed into five flotillas. Four of

them -- the 7th based at Granton on the Forth, 8th at North Shields,

11th at Greenock and 12th at Harwich -- each consisted of five steamers

and the 10th flotilla, based at Dover, of eight. Most were manned by RNR

and RNVR officers, among them one or two former excursion steamer

masters and, in other cases, peacetime skippers who went to war with

their vessels.

The old Waverley, built in 1899 at the former A. and J. Inglis

shipyard at Pointhouse on the Clyde (same birthplace as the present

paddler) had a spell on the English Channel before being based at

Harwich as leader of the 12th Flotilla and with responsibilities for

sweeping the east coast shipping lanes from Harwich as far north as

Great Yarmouth. Waverley and her flotilla were on a sweep when

instructed to put into Yarmouth and take provisions before sailing south

to rendezvous with a motor torpedo boat in the Thames estuary to collect

secret orders. These directed the flotilla to the beaches east of

Dunkirk.

Sadly missing from this weekend's commemorations is Captain John

Cameron, holder of the Distinguished Service Cross, who died at his home

in Glasgow in May, 1988, at the age of 81. He was on the bridge of the

old Waverley when she went down and spent several hours in the sea

before being rescued. A quiet, thoughtful man, he frequently reminisced

on the remarkable occasion and recalled that eventually the steamer had

between 800 and 900 men on board including many wounded.

In an earlier interview, he told me: ''Our shock orders at Yarmouth

were to proceed to the beaches of La Panne, outside Dunkirk, embark as

many troops as possible, and return to the nearest English port. We had

been getting snippets of news from time to time, but I am sure that the

civilian population of Britain had no idea of how near to a catastrophe

our country really was.''

Sailing under cover of darkness and without lights, the Waverley

dropped anchor offshore and it was only in the cold light of dawn of May

29 that the amazing scene unfolded of thousands of troops peppering the

beaches after many days of hard fighting and forced marches.

''When the troops saw us, a great cheer went up and one lad shouted,

'haw wullie, we're oan the auld Waverley gaun' tae Rothesay; we're

awright noo'. We sent our lifeboats ashore and things were going very

well when the first attack of enemy bombers began.''

Like most of the other paddlers, the Waverley was protected only by an

ancient 12-pounder gun mounted forward along with various lighter

weapons. For an estimated 150 men on the Waverley there was to be no

homecoming, ironically because of the difficulties of another Clyde

paddler, Eagle III, sailing in wartime as HMS Oriole. She had gone

ashore on the beach and Waverley spent about two hours trying to pull

her off with ropes and wires.

Back in the channel and left behind by the convoy, the old Waverley

suffered the full brunt of enemy wrath. A dozen Heinkels attacked the

ship and all the time the steamer kept up sustained fire with her

12-pounder, machine guns and even the rifles of rescued troops. It is

claimed that she shot down two enemy aircraft.

Eventually, three bombs struck in succession, the last jamming the

Waverley's rudder and putting her steering gear out of action. She went

down with her guns firing to the last and the White Ensign flying at the

gaff. The lives of many troops and crew were saved by peacetime buoyant

seats that floated free as the ship sank. These had been retained at the

insistence of Captain Cameron when Waverley was at the yard of her

Glasgow builders, Inglis, for fitting out the previous autumn.

The Eagle III was built in 1910 by Napier and Miller, of Dumbarton. On

reaching La Panne early on May 29, her skipper Lieutenant Edwin Davies

saw the problems being encountered by small boats working off the beach

and ran his vessel aground in 10ft of water. Although she was high and

dry for much of the day, when the tide turned an estimated 2000 men were

able to wade out to the steamer and cross her decks to board other

vessels and be ferried to larger ships.

Lieutenant Davies saw fit to advise the Admiralty of his actions and

sent his now famous signal: ''Deliberately grounded HMS Oriole Belgian

coast dawn on May 29 on own initiative, objective speedy evacuation of

troops. Refloated dusk same day, no apparent damage.'' The officially

recorded figure of men transported by the steamer was put at 2587, but a

rough tally kept by Davies produced numbers closer to 5000. She survived

the war only to be scrapped at Port Glasgow in 1946.

The Duchess of Fife, another renowned Clyde paddler, arrived off La

Panne at midnight and loaded troops from small boats before taking them

to Margate. The ship completed two further return trips without

suffering serious damage and landed a total of 1500 men. She later

returned to the Clyde and resumed service on the Cumbrae run. Displaced

by new tonnage during June, 1953, she was broken up at Port Glasgow and

her bell was presented to Millport, a community she served faithfully,

winter and summer, for so many years.

A 1924 product of the Inglis yard at Glasgow, the Marmion, sailed

direct from her Essex base to Dunkirk with Waverley, Duchess of Fife and

Oriole. She transported 713 men back to England. After Dunkirk, the

steamer returned to Harwich but was bombed during an air raid on the

port on April 9, 1941, sinking in shallow water. The wreck was raised,

but she was not worth repairing and was scrapped.

Another heroine of Dunkirk was undoubtedly the King George V,

officially classified as a personnel vessel. She was built in 1926 at

the renowned Denny yard at Dumbarton and was the first passenger steamer

to be fitted with high-pressure turbine machinery. While most excursion

services ceased immediately after the war started, the steamer continued

at Oban until September 14, 1939, and was then requisitioned as a

transport and based at Southampton.

From the spring of 1940, she took part in evacuations from Rotterdam,

Ostend, Boulogne and Calais, before becoming one of the earliest

visitors to Dunkirk. She made six crossings to and from the harbour,

loading around 700 troops each time and landing a total of 4300 men in

Dover.

Both King George V's skipper, Captain R. McLean, and Chief Engineer W.

McGregor were awarded the DSO and the bosun, D. McKinnon, received the

DSM. The steamer was subsequently overhauled by Dennys and resumed

MacBrayne cruises on the Clyde in 1946, going back to Oban in 1947 and

continuing there each summer until withdrawn after the 1974 season.

On a smaller scale, the Dunkirk veteran Skylark IX can now be found

berthed in the tranquil waters of Loch Lomond, where she is made

available every year by her owner, Mr John Sweeney, of Balloch, to the

Glasgow and West of Scotland Dunkirk Veterans' Association for a

remembrance service. The vessel was originally built in 1934 by J.

Bolson and Son, Poole, and operated in the Bournemouth area with a

certificate to carry 115 passengers.

Last week, the Glasgow and West of Scotland veterans held their own

parade at Balloch. This weekend, most will be at Dunkirk along with

countless others for the 50th anniversary. Thousands more will remember

silently at home. Winston Churchill warned the British people: ''Wars

are not won by evacuations.'' Russell Plummer says in his excellent

book: ''Without the little ships of Dunkirk, it is difficult to imagine

how the Second World War would not have been lost.''

The Ships that Saved an Army, by Russell Plummer, is published in

hardback by Patrick Stephens Ltd., Thorsons Publishing Group, Denington

Estate, Wellinborough, Northants. Price #17.99. Permission to use

extracts is acknowledged with thanks.