I wrote this piece a few years ago, but it seems appropriate it publish it now, with all the talk about Dunkirk and the new film:
I was reading, just the other day, about the gathering of former Little Ships of Dunkirk at Ramsgate. I read with more interest than most since a) I was born in Ramsgate, and b) I love boats. I looked online and discovered a list of many of the known vessels that took part, and, in scanning it, a familiar name jumped out at me; the New Britannic.
She was built, I read, as a pleasure boat with a very shallow draft, specially designed to take trippers out to the Goodwin Sands. It was just this attribute that made her so useful at Dunkirk; her ability to go right inshore and pick up troops from the beach and ferry them out to waiting warships. She plied back and forth for three days and two nights, I learned, rescuing around 3,000 soldiers. A most remarkable feat for a boat able to carry only a small number of people at a time. It is hard to imagine the feelings of a soldier trapped in that awful place on seeing the friendly face of this steady, stable, south-coast pleasure boat with her reassuringly British name coming to the rescue. She must have seemed almost motherly.
After the war, the New Britannic resumed her old life, taking visitors out to the Goodwins, and that is when I met her. As a child, I went out on most of the local pleasure boats, and I clearly remember a trip on the New Britannic. Still steady, stable and unfussed, I can see her now, tied up at the harbour wall.
After that we went our separate ways, two Ramsgate natives, the boat and I, but our paths have since crossed – in different timelines. Both of us fetched up in Weymouth, strangely enough. Subsequently she moved on to the Scilly Isles, and seemed doomed to end her days there, mouldering away. But no, she was found, and towed back to the mainland, where she sank at her moorings. Again, she was rescued, and taken back to Kent by road in the end, to begin a long and painstaking period of restoration. The least that could be done, you could say, for a boat that had so thoroughly done her duty. Now she is back at Ramsgate enjoying a new life as a boat for the disabled, her kindly steadiness and stability paying off once again.
Will I, too, find my way back to Ramsgate one day? Who knows – perhaps. But if I ever do, there will be at least one friendly, motherly face awaiting me there – the New Britannic.
For more information see the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships