Old sailing ship's starring role

By Ted JeoryIT is more than 70 years old and normally spends its time taking tourists on sailing trips around the East Anglian coast.But an audience of millions will watch this week one of England's last remaining bawleys act out its part in the rescue that defined the spirit of a nation.

By Ted Jeory

IT is more than 70 years old and normally spends its time taking tourists on sailing trips around the East Anglian coast.

But an audience of millions will watch this week one of England's last remaining bawleys act out its part in the rescue that defined the spirit of a nation.

For the Brightlingsea-based Saxonia is one of the stars of the BBC's three-part blockbuster drama, Dunkirk, which begins on Wednesday.


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It tells the story of how one family, the Osbornes from Leigh-on-Sea, came to be involved in the historic evacuation of thousands of troops from French beaches in 1940.

The Saxonia was commissioned last autumn to take part in the series because it remains an authentic 1930s sailing ship.

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Its skipper, Cris Yarker, said: "The stunt shots at night were a bit tricky, but the professional attitude of the actors and film crew was fantastic – everything went smoothly."

The 10-day retreat from Dunkirk in May and June 1940 is considered one of the greatest maritime evacuations in history with 338,000 British and French troops saved from a relentless onslaught of German firepower.

The bulk of the troops crossed the channel in Royal and Merchant Navy ships, but a fleet of smaller, civilian craft played a crucial role, making repeated trips between the beaches and larger vessels waiting offshore, often under heavy bombardment and with no means of defence.

The BBC2 factual drama tells the story from the perspective of the decision-makers, soldiers, sailors and civilians caught up in the desperate struggle.

It is the result of an exhaustive research project that unearthed previously untold personal accounts of what happened. All the characters portrayed are real and all the events are taken from these first-hand accounts.

Co-writer, Neil McKay, said: "One of the reasons why it seemed so important to make the drama now is that the survivors of Dunkirk are in their 80s or older.

"In 10 or 15 years the people who went through this extraordinary experience may be gone and the opportunity will have been lost for ever.

"We hope the films will not just be gripping drama, but a fitting tribute to those who went through the experience of Dunkirk."

Where once the Saxonia earned its living fishing local waters for whitebait and shrimp, it now takes groups on day trips from Brightlingsea, Harwich, West Mersea and Maldon.

ted.jeory@eadt.co.uk

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