The Little Ships - Picturehouse Spotlight

The Little Ships

As Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk screens at Harbour Lights, Southampton, Harriet Whinkup takes a look at the city's influence on the poignant historical moment.

It is finally time for one of the biggest films of the year and at Harbour Lights we are thrilled to be showing it as Mr Nolan intended, on 35mm. As it is a Southampton exclusive we have jumped into the history of the little ships from our area who bobbed all the way to Dunkirk to help. And I am here to share. Ready?

In May 1940 the military situation was bad (that is a massive understatement) the allied troops were surrounded in a small area of Dunkirk. Most had made it to the beach, the sea on one side and the German troops on the other. Sort of like that song stuck in the middle with you but with the Luftwaffe, shelling and no way home.

The Bee
The Bee

This is when the military called on a fleet of civilian ships to help to save the day. There were six big players from the Solent who helped to save almost 1,000 soldiers. The Bee, The Hound, The MFH, The Murius, The Bat and The Chamois. All of these ships survived the adventure and were back at their normal jobs within a few days.

All sorts of ships went to Dunkirk, there were destroyers, lifeboats, pleasure craft and of course paddle steamers like The Gracie Fields. This lovely ship was built by Southampton based company, J. Thornycroft and Co. Ltd of Woolston. If you stand on the walkway to screen one and look out across the harbour, well my friend you’re looking at where The Gracie Fields was built.
She, the boat, was launched by Gracie Fields, the person and her namesake, in April 1936. From there she worked as an Isle Of Wight ferry amongst other things. During World War II she worked as a mine-sweep. She also answered the call to go to Dunkirk, after one successful trip she was hit by a bomb. Her crew were evacuated to the HMS Pangbourne but her rudder was too damaged and she sank on 30th May, 1940.

The Gracie Fields
The Gracie Fields

J.B. Priestly said this about her (again, the ship not the person) “She has paddled and churned away forever. But now look, this little paddle steamer like all her brave and battered sisters, is immortal. She’ll go sailing down the years in the epic of Dunkirk…”

There were obviously ships from all over the place answering the call to help. These are just the ones from the Solent. To read more, like an account from the engineer of The Bee, come and grab one of our little books on the little ships at Harbour Lights. And of course see Dunkirk on 35mm while you’re here!

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The Little Ships
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