Portsmouth veteran honours comrades on Dunkirk Anniversary

The Royal Navy remembers the 80th anniversary of the start of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of over 338,000 troops from Dunkirk. The occasion was marked by a wreath-laying ceremony for a 22-year veteran with an amazing story from the beaches.

Lawrence Churcher, 99, was joined at Portsmouth Naval Memorial by Lieutenant Calvin Shenton who organised the service as a friend of Mr Churcher, as well as a Padre and a Royal Marines bugler.

The pair were introduced by Age UK Portsmouth six months ago when Lt Shenton volunteered to take part in its Joining Forces befriending scheme for veterans.

Lt Shenton said: “I’d planned various activities ahead of Laurie turning 100 in August, and to mark the Dunkirk anniversary I had planned to take him for lunch in the Wardroom so he could talk to other officers, but those plans have had to change and that is where the idea of a wreath-laying came from.

“It’s great that we were able to celebrate the end of war recently but it’s important to remember today that 80 years ago 338,000 troops needed evacuation from France and there were five more years of hard work ahead of them.”

Portsmouth born and raised, Mr Churcher was in the crew of HMS Eagle at the start of the war, also serving on HMS Beaver. He had been landed in France during May to help get ammunition to the front lines and was posted to a railhead outside Dunkirk.

When he was ordered to pull back to the beaches, he began looking for the Hampshire Regiment, and remarkably his brothers Edward and George found him. They stayed together until reaching the UK on the same ship but were not reunited until the end of the war.

Now living in Porchester, he has returned to Dunkirk several times since the war and has a jar of sand from the beach.

Mr Churcher said: “When my brothers found me, I just felt relief. There were so many soldiers there and continuous aircraft dropping bombs and strafing us, I had so many things on my mind until I got on board of our ship. One fella leaned on my shoulder, gave a sigh of relief and said, ‘thank God we’ve got a navy’ and that sort of churned it up inside of me.

“I felt relief that the soldiers could come on those boats, there was all sorts there, practically rowing boats. We knew we had to get those soldiers back from Dunkirk.”

As well as a spell in London defusing mines dropped during the Blitz, Mr Churcher saw action in the Mediterranean, D-Day and ended the war in the Far East. His brothers’ battalion went on to serve in North Africa, Italy, Palestine and Greece.

The bugler marked a minute’s silence at 11am, after Lt Shenton laid a wreath on behalf of Mr Churcher at the foot of those plaques which bear the names of men who never returned from Dunkirk, and for whom there is no known grave.

Naval Regional Commander for the East of England, Commodore David Elford, said: “On behalf of the Royal Navy, it is my privilege to convey our sincere thanks and admiration to Mr Churcher as well as to all the veterans of Dunkirk.

“It is also appropriate to acknowledge all those who continue to care for the remaining ‘little ships’ which made that dangerous and historic voyage 80 years ago.”

HM Lord-Lieutenant of Hampshire, Nigel Atkinson, said, “I am delighted to have the opportunity to express my gratitude to Mr Churcher and to acknowledge the bravery of all those who served in honour of this country.

“On this 80th anniversary, I send my best wishes to Mr Churcher and will join him in remembering his brothers and all veterans of the Dunkirk evacuation.”

A Royal Navy frigate and several patrol boats were due to have sailed as escort for flotilla of those surviving boats, thought now to be fewer than 100, which made the perilous crossings in late May and early June 1940. However, those plans needed to be cancelled.