80th Anniversary of Dunkirk

Today (Tuesday 26 May) is the eightieth anniversary of Dunkirk, the evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk in northern France, as they were hemmed in by German troops.

By rights, Princess Freda (pictured here crossing the English Channel) should have been on a week long trip over to France and back to commemorate the evacuation, as she was there. Every five years the boat, now owned by Collier’s Launches and moored at Kew Bridge, has taken part in the crossing as part in the commemoration.

Although almost 192,000 Allied personnel, 144,000 of them British, were evacuated, the British Expeditionary Force lost 68,000 soldiers (dead, wounded, missing, or captured) during the Battle for France. Winston Churchill described it as a ‘colossal military disaster’, though somehow, perhaps because of the various film and television portrayals, it has entered our collective memory as some kind of victory.

In May 1940, Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, realised that his effort to protect France from German invasion had failed, and ordered some 338,000 British and Commonwealth troops to retreat to the port of Dunkirk, which was surrounded by marshes and old fortifications, and had one of the longest sand beaches in Europe.

A flotilla of  around 400 small boats from all over the south of England went over to help with the evacuation. They were used to ferry soldiers from shore out to the destroyers which were unable to come in close enough to shore to pick them up.

Images above: Collier family, Danny, John and John’s son Alex, an apprentice boatman, in the middle; Princess Freda full of passengers on the Thames, photograph by Tony Lodge

The Princess Freda was built on the Isle of Wight in 1926, and has spent most of her life ferrying passengers up and down the river Thames, operating for many years in the Hampton Court area. She had been built to sail in shallow waters and so was perfect for the job. Princess Freda was commanded by sub-lieutenant ES Foreman. At some point in the mission, Freda’s propeller failed and she had to be tugged back to Ramsgate.

Danny Collier and his brother bought the boat in 2001, and spent 18 months refitting her, stripping her back to her frame and building an oak and mahogany lined saloon, to transform her into a pleasure craft taking trips on the Thames. They run up river from Kew to Hampton Court and down river to Westminster, where they have two more boats moored.

Images above: Princess Freda leaving Ramsgate harbour in 2015; Michael Bentall and Garth Wright with Royal Naval Wren Lauren

In 2015 they sailed the boat to Dunkirk as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations and were joined on board by two Dunkirk veterans, 94-year-old Michael Bentall and 95-year-old Garth Wright.

Bentall, who had served with the 4th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment, travelled from Canada for the commemorations, which he described as “quite emotional really”. Wright, from Plymouth, said he thought he would never see the white cliffs of Dover again. “I remember everything as if it were yesterday,” he said.

“What an honour to be in their company” said Danny. The family also treasures the green beret presented to them by ex Royal Marine Corporal Shaun Kent on that trip as a gesture of friendship and thanks.

Two years later the film Dunkirk came out, written and directed by Christopher Nolan which brought home to later generations just how terrifying it must have been, with the rescue boats being continually strafed by the Luftwaffe and the sea ablaze with burning oil. After queuing patiently for hours to be taken off the beach, there was no guarantee you’d make it to the naval ships in deeper water.

This year Colliers launches have lain idle, unable to work becuase of the coronavirus, and the family has had to launch an appeal to crowd fund to survive the season. The company needs to raise a minimum of £25,000 to pay their overheads, such as licenses, tax and mooring rents.

If you would like to make a donation to keep them afloat, you can do so here.

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See also: Mayday – River Thames family business sinking

See also: Could this be the last season for Colliers boat trips?