In May of 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops found themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The German forces had cut them off and surrounded them, leaving them trapped between their encroaching enemies and the sea. All hope seemed lost, until a fleet of over 800 civilian boats and ships were mobilized in a miraculous rescue effort to evacuate the stranded soldiers.
The civilian fleet was able to rescue around 338,000 trapped Allied soldiers from the hands of the advancing German forces. Over 7,000 were transported across the channel by a single vessel, the PS Medway Queen paddle steamer. The ship’s role in the historic rescue earned it the well-deserved nickname of the “Heroine of Dunkirk.” Its service was so well respected that when the person contracted to scrap the ship found out its history, he refused to finish the job.
One of 20 paddle steamers that participated in the evacuation, the Medway Queen made seven trips, more than any other small vessel. On its last trip, while alongside the dock in Dunkirk, one of the ship’s paddle boxes was badly damaged in a collision with a destroyer that had been displaced by the force of an explosion. Medway Queen limped home carrying 400 members of the French rearguard.
The ship wasn’t destined to be a wartime vessel. It was built in 1924 in Troon, Scotland, for use as a ferry. It served on the Medway and the Thames Estuary before being requisitioned in World War II as a minesweeper. However, it was the ship’s role in the Dunkirk evacuation that earned it a place in British maritime history.
After the war, the ship returned to civilian use until 1963, when it was due to be scrapped in Belgium. However, when the ship breaker heard that Medway Queen had taken part at Dunkirk, he refused to continue with the job. The ship was sold and used as a floating restaurant and nightclub on the Isle of Wight until it was replaced by a bigger vessel in 1970. Under private ownership, the hull started to leak and the ship sank in the River Medina in 1978, where it remained until it was recovered in 1984.
After nearly two decades, the ship was eventually restored to its former glory in 2013. Although mobile, Medway Queen is now tied up as a museum ship alongside Gillingham Pier. It’s the last remaining mobile estuary paddle steamer in the United Kingdom.