5 June 1940, BBC radio broadcast, London, United Kingdom
Here at Dunkirk is another English epic. And to my mind what was most characteristically English about it - so typical of us, so absurd and yet so grand and gallant that you hardly know whether to laugh or cry when you read about them - was the part played in the difficult and dangerous embarkation - not by the warships magnificent though they were - but by the little pleasure steamers. We've known them and laughed at them, these fussy little steamers, all of our lives. We have called them 'the shilling sicks'. We have watched them load and unload their crowds of holiday passengers - the gents full of high spirits and bottled beer, the ladies eating pork pies, the children sticky with peppermint rock. Sometimes they only went as far as the
next seaside resort. But the boldest of them might manage a Channel crossing to let everybody have a glimpse of Bologne. They were usually paddle steamers, making a great deal more fuss with all their churning than they made speed; and they were not proud for they let you see their works going round.
They liked to call themselves 'Queens' and 'Belles'; and even if they were new, there was always something old-fashioned, a Dickens touch, a mid-Victorian air about them. They seemed to belong to the same ridiculous holiday world as pierrots and piers, sand castle ham-
and-egg teas, palmists, automatic machines, and crowded, sweating promenades. But they were called out of that world - and let it be noted they were called out in good time and good order. Yes, these 'Brighton Belles' and 'Brighton Queens' left that innocent foolish world of theirs - to sail into the inferno, to defy bombs, shells, magnetic mines, torpedoes, machine-gun-fire - to rescue our soldiers.
Some of them, alas, will never return. Among those paddle steamers that will never return was one that I knew well, for it was the pride of our ferry service to the Isle of Wight, none other than the good ship 'Gracie Fields'. I tell you, we were proud of the 'Gracie Fields', for she was the glittering queen of our local line, and instead of taking an hour over her voyage, used to do it, churning like mad, in forty five minutes. And now never again will we board her at Cowes and go down into her dining saloon for a fine breakfast of bacon and eggs. She has paddled and churned away - for ever. But now - look - this little steamer,like all her brave and battered
sisters is immortal. She'll go sailing proudly down the years in the epic of Dunkirk.
And our grandchildren, when they learn how we began this War by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious.