One day, forty years after Dunkirk, the passenger launch Southsea Belle was on her daily scheduled service, taking a load of visitors round Portsmouth harbour's heritage area, as she has been doing ever since Maurice Pearce bought her in 1972. She takes her trippers from Warrior, the first of the 'iron-clad' warships to the submarines of the modern Royal Navy, pointing out all the sights along the way.
One of her passengers that day was more interested in the Southsea Belle than in the historic sights they passed. He recognised her as the Little Ship that brought him back from Dunkirk in 1940. At that time, she was called Folkestone Belle. She was carrying about l00 men and the crossing took 19 hours. He described certain features of the boat which had long been removed but were known to have been there at that time.
This was the first her owners knew of her involvement in the evacuation and it sparked a painstaking investigation, which led to the Naval Historical Branch of the Ministry of Defence, the Public Record Office, the Imperial War Museum and to Rear Admiral T.O.K. Spraggs, CB, BSc., ACGI, FIEE, whose father had been one of the owners when Folkestone Belle, then a ferry at Hayling Island, was requisitioned to go first to Ramsgate and then Dunkirk, in company with their other boat Tarpon. The last of the authorities to be consulted about the authenticity of Folkestone Belle's claim was the late John Knight, then Hon. Archivist of the ADLS. He found her mentioned by several of the authorities in his library and in one of the hand-written records of day-to-day movements of ships there was a note dated 2nd June 1940 recording that a destroyer dropped 5 drums of petrol on Folkestone Belle. This and other hastily scribbled mentions of her throughout the nine days amply corroborated the story that she was there and probably crossed more than once with the armada of rescuers.
Nowadays, Southsea Belle is an active member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships and often takes time off from earning her living to attend their reunions. Her sturdy construction of mahogany and elm on oak frames does not show her age. The old Gleniffer petrol engine, recalled by Rear Admiral Spraggs as "vicious to start", has long been replaced by a reliable Ford Sabre and her superstructure has been modified for easy access, comfortable seating and in her small wheelhouse she provides a little shelter for her skipper. Her new name may be a little confusing, but her Dunkirk flag now tells her story to all who sail in her.
Updated April 2018
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