Dunkirk 'Little Ship' is lost in boatyard blaze

Dunkirk ‘Little Ship’ is lost in boatyard blaze: Historic vessel that took part in WWII evacuation is destroyed after huge inferno ripped through Grade II listed building on island in Thames

  • ‘Little Ship’ the Lady Gay caught alight as it waited on the slipway on Platt’s Eyot island in Hampton on Monday
  • Two Grade II-listed, timber-framed boathouses built in 1916 were also completely ravaged by the fire 
  • Restorations were just carried out on Lady Gay, with owner dubbing destruction ‘nothing short of tragedy’
  • Platt’s Eyot is home to 2 other ‘Little Ships’, Mary Irene and Elvin, but both were moved out of reach of flames

One of the Dunkirk ‘Little Ships’ that help evacuate allied troops in WWII has been destroyed in a ‘gigantic’ fire that tore through two historic Grade-II listed boathouses on the River Thames yesterday. 

The Lady Gay – which formed part of a fleet of boats in the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 – caught alight as it waited on the slipway on Platt’s Eyot island in Hampton on Monday.

Two Grade II-listed, timber-framed boathouses built in 1916 were also completely ravaged by the fire which began around 5pm.

Restorations had just been carried out on the Lady Gay – first built in 1934 for tobacco company chairman Lord Alfred Dunhill – with its current owner dubbing its destruction ‘nothing short of tragedy’.

Platt’s Eyot is also home to two other ‘Little Ships’, Mary Irene and Elvin, but both were moved out of reach of the encroaching flames.

The vessels were used in Operation Dynamo, an evacuation plan which saw private yachts and pleasure boats help military vessels bring around 338,000 British and French troops back to England across the Channel between May 27 and June 4, 1940.

One of the Dunkirk ‘Little Ships’ that help evacuate allied troops has been destroyed in a ‘gigantic’ fire that tore through two historic Grade-II listed boathouses on the River Thames yesterday

Two Grade II-listed, timber-framed boathouses (pictured) built in 1916 were also completely ravaged by the fire which began around 5pm 

A fire erupted at Platt’s Eyot on the River Thames, Hampton, yesterday with the London Fire Brigade rushing to the scene

The Lady Gay (file image) – which formed part of a fleet of boats in the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 – caught alight as it waited on the slipway on Platt’s Eyot island in Hampton on Monday

The vessels were used in Operation Dynamo (some boats, pictured), an evacuation plan which saw private yachts and pleasure boats help military vessels bring around 338,000 British and French troops back to England across the Channel between May 27 and June 4, 1940

Operation Dynamo and the ‘little ships’

TheDunkirk evacuation, dubbed Operation Dynamo, saw 338,000 troops rescuedfrom the beaches of northern France between May 27 and June 4, 1940. Itcame after the speed of the German advance through the Netherlands,Belgium, Luxembourg and France left nearly half a million British andFrench troops trapped there.

The rescue was led by the Royal Navy, which drafted in ships and boats of every size. Dunkirk is remembered for the safe evacuation of the Allied troops but things could have been very different.

British and French soldiers hadfailed to halt the German advance and retreated to the port in NorthernFrance, separated from the rest of the French army. Thetroops, who had fled without much of their heavy equipment, could havebeen been slaughtered, but the German troops were ordered to wait.

The decision gave a vital window of opportunity for British soldiers to be rescued across the Channel.

There would not have been enoughcapacity if only military ships had been used and the large craft wouldalso have struggled to get close to the beach in shallow water.

The solution was to use private yachts and pleasure boats when the call for an emergency evacuation was given on May 26 1940. Aten-day evacuation, named Operation Dynamo, brought around 338,000British and French troops back to England between May 27 and June 4,1940. The Royal Navy sent 220 light warships and 650 other vessels under a hail of bombs and artillery fire. Survivors described bodies floating in the water around them.

The London Fire Brigade confirmed a number of gas cylinders were involved in the blaze but were cooled and removed by firefighters ‘as some cylinders can explode.’

Some 15 fire engines and around 100 firefighters rushed to the scene to tackle the flames on Monday – as one man was treated at the scene by paramedics for smoke inhalation.

No criminal investigation has been launched. 

Veterans Cruise Organiser at the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships Ian C Gilbert told MyLondon: ‘I spoke to the owner this evening and he is absolutely devastated.

‘Once they are lost, they are lost forever and a piece of our history is also lost.’

He added: ‘Her loss is nothing short of tragedy for her dedicated owners and for history of this nation.’

Dramatic footage shows the fire raging over the Eyot, a Conservation Area, as plumes of black smoke pour into the sky near several small boats.    

Photographs later captured the aftermath as heavy rain poured down on the area, with the ashen remains of the boatyards seen cloaked in smoke.  

Aerial images show the metal skeleton of one gutted building standing close to the crumbled remains of its former neighbour, with boats still moored nearby.

The exact cause of the incident remains unclear.

The London Fire Brigade confirmed ‘some cylinders’ were involved in the blaze.

A spokesman said: ‘Fifteen fire engines and around 100 firefighters were called to a fire at two industrial units on Platt’s Eyot island in Richmond upon Thames.

‘Firefighters tackled a fire at two single-storey industrial units on the island, which were completely destroyed by the fire.  

‘The only access on to the island was via a footbridge, therefore firefighters have carried all of their equipment to the scene by hand.

‘A number of gas cylinders were involved in the fire, they were cooled and removed by firefighters as some cylinders can explode when exposed to heat. 

The Dunkirk evacuation  (pictured), dubbed Operation Dynamo, saw 338,000 troops rescued from the beaches of northern France between May 27 and June 4, 1940

Footage from the scene shows the blaze raging over the small island, with black smoke pouring into the sky near several small boats

Restorations had just been carried out on the Lady Gay – first built in 1934 for tobacco company chairman Lord Alfred Dunhill – with its current owner dubbing its destruction ‘nothing short of tragedy’. Pictured: The boats involved in the Dunkirk evacuation

‘Some of the nearby boats have been moved from the area as a precaution.

‘One man has been treated at the scene for smoke inhalation by London Ambulance Service crews.’  

He added that crews will remain at the scene throughout the evening to dampen down the area.  

Surrey Fire & Rescue Service was also in attendance, and said on Twitter: ‘Our Joint Fire Control received 20 calls to #Hampton Boat Sheds this evening. 

‘We are currently assisting @LondonFire at this incident. 

‘Nearby residents should close windows and doors.’    

On Twitter, eyewitness The Hamptonite said: ‘Police/fire moving people back. Lots of bangs and pops.  

‘The fire is a long way from the road, surrounded by river, but IT IS gigantic.’ 

Witnesses reported hearing explosions after a fire engulfed an industrial unit on Platt’s Eyot, an island on the River Thames, near Hampton, London, yesterday

Those living nearby were warned to close their windows after the blaze erupted at the Hampton Boat Sheds at around 5.14pm, with pillars of smoke seen across south west London

Onlookers view the terrifying blaze on Platt’s Eyot in Hampton, which destroyed two buildings

One man was treated at the scene by paramedics for smoke inhalation. Pictured: The scene

Locals have suggested the direction of strong winds saved a listed residential building on the island. Pictured: The blaze

The London Fire Brigade confirmed ‘some cyllinders’ were involved in the blaze

They later added the blaze was blowing in the direction of a ‘handful of small boats’, including a boat used in the 2017 Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk.      

Another post said: ‘The wind direction has saved the listed residential building on the far left.’ 

The blog later shared an image of the aftermath of the fire as heavy rain poured on the scene, writing: ‘The wind whipped it up… then the rain helped to douse.

‘The main work was done by @LondonFire.’ 

Another witness shared an image from further away from the fire in Hampton, with smoke seen billowing above the blaze. 

A third said: ‘Hampton fire on Platt’s Eyot. Boatyard on the eastern end already gutted.’ 

One witness shared an image from further away from the fire in Hampton, with smoke seen billowing above the blaze

Another shared an image of the aftermath of the fire as heavy rain poured on the scene, writing: ‘The wind whipped it up… then the rain helped to douse’

Evacuation of Dunkirk: How 338,000 Allied troops were saved in ‘miracle of deliverance’ after the German Blitzkreig saw Nazi forces sweep into France

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940 after Nazi Blitzkreig – ‘Lightning War’ – saw German forces sweep through Europe. 

 The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned.

Described as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.  

The Second World War began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but for a number of months there was little further action on land. 

But in early 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and then launched an offensive against Belgium and France in western Europe.

Hitler’s troops advanced rapidly, taking Paris – which they never achieved in the First World War – and moved towards the Channel.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned 

They reached the coast towards the end of May 1940, pinning back the Allied forces, including several hundred thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Military leaders quickly realised there was no way they would be able to stay on mainland Europe.

Operational command fell to Bertram Ramsay, a retired vice-admiral who was recalled to service in 1939. From a room deep in the cliffs at Dover, Ramsay and his staff pieced together Operation Dynamo, a daring rescue mission by the Royal Navy to get troops off the beaches around Dunkirk and back to Britain. 

On May 14, 1940 the call went out. The BBC made the announcement: ‘The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.’

Boats of all sorts were requisitioned – from those for hire on the Thames to pleasure yachts – and manned by naval personnel, though in some cases boats were taken over to Dunkirk by the owners themselves. 

They sailed from Dover, the closest point, to allow them the shortest crossing. On May 29, Operation Dynamo was put into action. 

When they got to Dunkirk they faced chaos. Soldiers were hiding in sand dunes from aerial attack, much of the town of Dunkirk had been reduced to ruins by the bombardment and the German forces were closing in.

Above them, RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were headed inland to attack the German fighter planes to head them off and protect the men on the beaches.

As the little ships arrived they were directed to different sectors. Many did not have radios, so the only methods of communication were by shouting to those on the beaches or by semaphore. 

Space was so tight, with decks crammed full, that soldiers could only carry their rifles. A huge amount of equipment, including aircraft, tanks and heavy guns, had to be left behind.

The little ships were meant to bring soldiers to the larger ships, but some ended up ferrying people all the way back to England. The evacuation lasted for several days.

Prime Minister Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,00 men, but by June 4 more than 300,000 had been saved.

The exact number was impossible to gauge – though 338,000 is an accepted estimate – but it is thought that over the week up to 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued – men who would return to fight in Europe and eventually help win the war.

But there were also heavy losses, with around 90,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner. A number of ships were also lost, through enemy action, running aground and breaking down. Despite this, the evacuation itself was regarded as a success and a great boost for morale.

In a famous speech to the House of Commons, Churchill praised the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ and resolved that Britain would fight on: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’ 

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