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The little SHIPS return

PUBLISHED: 13:37 27 May 2010 | UPDATED: 11:44 23 August 2010

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

THE deputy mayor and son of a brave waterman who helped rescue soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk 70 years ago will recreate his epic journey today. Michael Wenban s father, Mick Wenban Senior, was one of the thousands enlisted as part of Winston Chur

PROUD: Michael with his father’s medal and badge.

THE deputy mayor and son of a brave waterman who helped rescue soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk 70 years ago will recreate his epic journey today.

Michael Wenban's father, Mick Wenban Senior, was one of the thousands enlisted as part of Winston Churchill's Operation Dynamo.

It became one of the most famous moments in the war, with about 338,000 troops evacuated from the beeches of Dunkirk, northern France, from May 26 to June 4, 1940. Now six volunteers from a Gravesend-based tug company will take the Svitzer Anglia to join a flotilla of 'Little Ships' in Ramsgate's Royal Harbour this morning as they leave for Dunkirk.

Michael Wenban, 65, of Whitehill Road, Gravesend, said: "Dad volunteered as did many but it was only over time that the country realised how important this was.

"These were ordinary men, he volunteered as did many others but they did not know what they were going in to, what would occur.

"Not even given a tin helmet they headed to Dunkirk to rescue those brave men from the beaches as the Germans advanced." With little knowledge of what lay ahead men left on tugs, pleasure cruisers and fishing boats as 700 'Little Ships' met at Dover for orders.

The Gravesend tug Challenge, captained by Mr Wenban, then took part in several daring missions to rescue surviving soldiers from the blood covered Dunkirk beaches. Gravesend-based tug Contest and Vincia was also deployed.

On the last night of the evacuation Challenge was one of the last craft to steam across the Channel to visit the beaches.

He explained how the tug Challenge was initially instructed to tug water barges, with vital water supply for troops. But it soon became clear this was a mass evacuation, a rescue mission.

"In retrospect I am very proud of what he did but that is what you did in those days, they were ordinary civilians asked to help and they did not hesitate.

"The war was horrendous with mass casualties and deaths we can hardly comprehend," he added.

Amazingly Mr Wenban was drafted in to the war effort as he stood on the Royal Terrace Pier, Gravesend, when he was asked to for a crew the Gravesend steam tug Challenge.

Warned his job could be 'getting troops out' he rushed home to grab a tooth brush, two shirts, said goodbye to his wife Dorothy and formed his team.

Once in Dover, under orders of Captain Parker, from Gravesend, they towed water barges to the boys trapped in Dunkirk.

After several missions assisting the Navy, and under fire from the Germans, Challenge also assisted the rescue of troops from a damaged destroyer.

It another mission they ferried massive ladders to Navy ships in the area to allow thousands of troops to clamber aboard to safety.

And when a returning destroyer ship rammed a cross channel ferry at the entrance to Dover Harbour he dived in to the oily water and rescued two men.

He later returned and became a major in the West Kent Home Guard as the country re-grouped and went on to win the war.

Mr Wenban became a member of the Gravesend Branch of the International 1940 Dunkirk Association and received a medal for his courage.

"From the stories my father told I became very proud of him and Gravesend's role in this historic mission.

"I naturally followed in my father's footsteps as a waterman," his son added.

*THE 70th anniversary of the Dunkirk Evacuation is to be marked with a special service next Sunday. (30)

St George's Church, in Gravesend, will mark the anniversary with a special service at 3pm on Sunday.

Mick Wenban, Deputy Mayor of Gravesham, is due to attend. Former soldiers taken off the beach at Dunkirk will also attend and speak about their memories.

The BBC documentary, titled Little Ships, presented by historian Dan Snow is also to be screened in June.

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