Coronavirus: Dunkirks little ship thats now struggling to stay afloat

Coronavirus: Dunkirks little ship thats now struggling to stay afloat

The Princess Freda was built on the Isle of Wight in 1926.
IAN BOYLE/Colliers Launches
The Princess Freda was built on the Isle of Wight in 1926.

It should have been the day that Danny Collier stepped aboard his boat, the Princess Freda, and touched off from Ramsgate harbour in the UK, as part of a flotilla bound for the French port of Dunkirk.

The event takes place every five years to mark the anniversary of Operation Dynamo, in May 1940, when hundreds of civilian ships sailed across the Channel to rescue British, Commonwealth and allied soldiers from the crosshairs of Hitler's army. The Princess Freda, a 94-year-old passenger vessel that took part in the evacuation, was part of this legendary effort.

Usually, on the morning of cast-off, smoke fills the harbour as the boats' engines roar into life, with each sailor listening carefully for instructions from their commodore.

But this year's flotilla has been postponed until 2021, due to coronavirus. Instead of sailing across the Channel in the sunshine, Collier will spend today at home in Isleworth, west London, wracked with anxiety that his historic Dunkirk boat might have to be dismantled and sold for scrap.

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Colliers Launches, the business he owns with his brother, John, is one of many passenger boat companies that has been thrown into financial uncertainty by the pandemic, which has deprived them of nearly all their leisure-seeking customers.

"I'll be absolutely gutted," says Collier, 62, whose company owns three other historic vessels - the Connaught, Queen Elizabeth and Clifton Castle. "Myself, my brother, and my dad put a lot of time and effort into getting these boats up to scratch. They're labours of love. We make the bulk of our money between April and September, so we worked hard in winter making sure the boats were fit for purpose. By March, we were ready to rock."

But the Government's lockdown measures, introduced on March 23, meant the effective cancellation of the passenger boating season, throwing into doubt the future of the UK's industry, which contributes about £203 million (NZ$405 million) to the economy each year, and employs 3000 people, according to British Marine.

"The timing is really tough," says Lesley Robinson, its chief executive. "It's nobody's fault, but passenger boat operations spend most of their money over the winter doing maintenance, getting ready for the season, and getting ready to recoup that income over the summer. Clearly, this year they can't recover that expenditure."

It is deeply sad for any boat company to have to sell its stock, but nautical enthusiasts are particularly worried about the prospect of the Princess Freda being dismantled and sold for scrap, given its role in the Dunkirk rescue.

"We're all great fans of Princess Freda," says Simon Palmer, Commodore of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, which organises the anniversary flotilla. "We all mourn the loss of any Dunkirk little ship, and sadly sometimes they die. But for a healthy boat to be scrapped is really, really sad."

In a bid, perhaps, to reignite the generosity of the Dunkirk spirit, Collier has now set up a crowdfunding page to save the business. They aim to raise £25,000 to cover their debts. So far, they have received about £9000 in donations.

The Princess Freda was built on the Isle of Wight in 1926, and has spent most of her life ferrying passengers up and down the Thames, operating for many years in the Hampton Court area. In May 1940, Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, realised that the Allies' effort to stem the tide of the German invasion of France had failed, and ordered his British and Commonwealth troops to retreat to the port of Dunkirk, which was surrounded by marshes and old fortifications, and had one of the longest sand beaches in Europe. There, soldiers were forced to shelter from a barrage of Luftwaffe bombs. With the larger Royal Navy ships unable to move into the shallow waters, the British government called for an army of small civilian boats to help evacuate the troops.

By the end of May, nearly 400 had answered the call, including the Princess Freda, which was built to sail in shallow waters and so was perfect for the job. It was commanded by sub-lieutenant ES Foreman, who used the boat to ferry soldiers from the beach to a British destroyer, as well as to a Dutch trawler called Betje. But, Collier says, at some point in the mission, Freda's propeller failed and she had to be towed back to Ramsgate.

His company bought Freda in 2001, and spent 18 months knocking her into shape, stripping her back to her frame and building an oak and mahogany-lined saloon, which has attracted many parties and corporate functions over the years. In 2012, Freda and Collier's other three ships took part in the Thames flotilla to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

In 2015, Collier sailed the boat to Dunkirk for the 75th-anniversary celebrations, along with his wife, Annita, and two daughters. They were joined on board by two veterans of Dunkirk, 94-year-old Michael Bentall and 95-year-old Garth Wright. Bentall, who had served with 4th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment, travelled from Canada for the commemorations, which he described as "quite emotional, really". Wright, from Plymouth, said he thought he would never see the white cliffs of Dover again. "I remember everything as if it were yesterday," he said at the time.

But the time for such jubilation may never come again. Collier says the next year will be fraught with financial danger, and the company might sink - even if their boats are allowed back on the water in July, under measures to ease lockdown.

"Social distancing is the issue here - even if you've got a bigger boat, gangways are still quite small, often less than 3ft," he explains. "On our little boat, we could probably only carry about 20 passengers [down from the usual 130]."

British Marine says that every passenger boat firm will find it "terribly hard to operate" under social distancing rules, which will force many captains to cut the number of passengers to a fifth of their usual size. Boats in some parts of the country are also still suffering damage from the floods in Yorkshire and the Midlands earlier this year. They have requested a £20 million government support package.

The evacuation of 338,000 soldiers from Dunkirk has been woven into Britain's national story and reproduced in countless works of art - most recently in the blockbuster film Dunkirk in 2017. As well as being a blow for those whose livelihoods depend on it, Palmer says, the dismantling of boats like the Princess Freda would also mean losing a fragment of our heritage.

"The youngest Dunkirk veterans are now around 98," he says. "When they pass over the bar, we hope that the Little Ships will remain a source of remembrance for years to come."

To make a donation to the Colliers' crowdfunding appeal, visit

The Telegraph, London

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