Salute the little ships

We really are a stubborn bunch on this island, aren’t we? We just never know when we’re beaten and we’re determined not to be pushed around by bullies.

WE REALLY are a stubborn bunch on this island, aren’t we? We just never know when we’re beaten and we’re determined not to be pushed around by bullies.

A case in point was the evacuation of nearly 350,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army who were plucked from the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940 as the advancing German forces were on the point of winning a stunning and probably war-ending victory.

Operation Dynamo, as it was called, turned an horrific defeat into a building block for eventual victory against the Nazis – and much of it was achieved thanks to a number of small boats that were more used to pottering up and down the Thames than to fighting a desperate battle in the middle of a war zone.

It was an extraordinary feat – unbelievable with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight – and it is fantastic that show many of the so-called ‘Little Ships’ that took part in Operation Dynamo are still around today.

I was privileged on Sunday to tag along aboard one of those small craft – MB 278, an Admiralty Pinnace – as the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) took part in their annual veterans’ cruise between Kingston and Weybridge.

There were around 30 veterans of the actual evacuation from Dunkirk – all now well into their 80s and 90s – along with ex-servicemen from other theatres of the Second World War who were cheered by onlookers all the way from Kingston to Weybridge.

I watched as those veterans waved back and many of them were truly touched by the public’s reaction – and long may that remain the case.

To some, that cruise may have appeared just to be a pleasant jolly for a few ex-servicemen and some people who are wealthy enough to own historic old boats.

But, to me, it represented a lot more than that. It was keeping alive a tradition of being British – that bulldog spirit of never quitting even in the face of incredible odds. Of fighting on when many other nationalities would (and did) give up.

As one of the vets said to me: “It’s important that the younger generations know what we did – what we gave up – to safeguard the freedom they enjoy today.” Hear, hear.

IT’S lovely to have a bit more room for Riverwatch in its new home because it means I can use more of the great stories you send me.

I’m still receiving lots of input from people who learned to swim in the Thames.

My old mate Doug Millson – Doug the Ancient Angler to his friends – tells me that he learned to swim at the age of just three – when he fell into the river while out walking with his sister in 1930 close to D’Oyly Carte Island.

“I did the doggie paddle to get back to the bank,” says Doug, “but after that I spent a lot of time in my youth swimming in the Thames.”

Doug recalls there were bathing facilities at Weybridge – including changing huts, which cost you tuppence or threepence to hire. There was also an attendant with a pole, a rope and a tyre who taught dozens of kids to swim.

It obviously paid off for Doug. “I got a certificate for swimming three miles in the river,” he told me. “That was from Desborough Island all the way to Walton Rowing Club and back again.”

Doug also remembers that before it was known as D’Oyly Carte Island, the landmark was called Lady Mary’s Island.  Anybody out there know why?

THE other question I posed recently was whether anybody knew anything about navy motor torpedo boats that were built on our stretch of the Thames during the Second World War.

Boatbuilder Mike Dennett tells me he served his apprenticeship at Walton Yacht Works just downstream from Walton Bridge and that he understands they were turning out one 80-foot MTB there every two weeks during the latter stages of the war.

That’s backed up by Ruth Lewis from Shepperton who remembers walking with her dad on the riverbank opposite the yacht works and seeing two or three big blue and white boats moored up there.

“My dad said, in a very hushed voice, ‘they’re secret,’ “ she recalls.

Evidence seems to be mounting that MTBs were built in this area – does anyone have any photographs of them, I wonder?

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