Angel of Dunkirk

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Documentary - Maritime History

Presented By: Chris Wisbey

Duration: 60 mins



Upon completion in April 1924 the sleek Medway Queen was launched into the River Clyde, Troon.  She measured 55 metres long and at its widest was 15 metres, she was registered to carry 980 passengers.  

She could safely operate in as little as two metres of water, cruising at around 13 knots. Her two huge side wheels turned seven paddles through an almost five metre diameter cycle.  Below decks there was a restaurant and teashop and two saloon bars and situated at the very midpoint of the vessel, the striking diagonally mounted steam engine. Medway Queen would spend most of the next 40 years on a regular summer schedule - crisscrossing the Medway and the Thames Estuary



 The Wake of the Steamers

The documentary Medway Queen - Angel of Dunkirk was shot throughout England and France and follows the fascinating story of this historic  paddle steamer.

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The county of Kent makes up the southern shore of the vast Thames Estuary, at Sheerness a broad passage appears, this is the entrance to Kent’s largest waterway – the Medway. Shallow and ever-changing, the Medway has always been an incredibly busy waterway.  These complex waters are steeped in British maritime history, at one time this confusion of deep streams and shallows was criss-crossed by some of the greatest ships the world had ever seen. 


Dunkirk in northern France is a summery retreat for holiday makers, but In 1940 Dunkirk became the gruesome backdrop of a pivotal moment of the Second World War as  Hitler’s war machine swept across western Europe, the 400,000 strong British Expeditionary Force was driven to retreat into Dunkirk’s dunes and wide beaches. The story of their rescue is still astonishing, Medway Queen played an historic role in that mission.

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Although it had its dangers, the most effective way to get troops onto large ships was that long Dunkirk jetty…
the East Mole.

Medway Queen pulled in here and successfully picked up troops on many of her return trips, it proved a far more efficient turn around.  But any protracted time spent on the Mole meant that the vessels and the troops were particularly vulnerable.


Winding its way through the heart of London, the River Thames is a surprisingly difficult river to read. It’s part of a dramatic tidal-way that requires great boating know how. 

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Dartmouth sits on the beautiful River Dart in the West Country of England

It's a place synonymous with anything to do with boats, it's also the home of the famed Dartmouth Naval College.  



The extreme tidal nature of many waters around Britain gave rise to the classic seaside pier.  They could stretch out into deeper waters so the steamers could deliver the summer crowds.

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The great pier at Southend stretches out at over 2 kilometres - it is 

the longest pleasure pier in the world. This grand old pier stands
as a historic reminder of the era
of the pleasure steamers. 


Perhaps Herne Bay sums up the fading of the piers best, as Britain’s second longest pleasure pier it boasts many drawcards.  Historic seaside buildings, a long beach front promenade, fair-ground rides and classic brightly painted bathing huts.  
But time has not been kind to the great pier at Herne Bay. In January 1978 a series of violent storms destroyed the pier neck. Now the once grand and exotic pier head sits rotting away, out on its own, cut off from the bay.

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In her heyday Medway Queen was part of a beautifully adapted breed of paddle steamers that were specifically built to operate in extreme tidal waters.  Their shallow draught was essential to getting in and out of the many piers that dot the tideway. The classic old paddle steamers became a much loved part of the sunny seaside holidays for many families.

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Built in 1946, the mighty Waverley steams out of her home port on the Clyde, she has become an extraordinary success. She is the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world.


Built in Dartmouth and launched in 1924 - Kingswear Castle is the last of her kind, this is the only coal fired paddle steamer left working in the UK.  Operated as a pleasure cruiser for 40 years she was lovingly restored by the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society and returned to service on the River Dart in 2002.

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The jagged remains of the Paddle Steamer Crested Eagle still haunts the wide beach at Zuydcoote, north of Dunkirk. On the 29th May 1940 the slowly turning steamer was fully ladened with 600 troops when a German dive bomber targeted her, she was hit, there was a blaze from stem to stern, 300 soldiers and crew died in that inferno.      


Built in Southampton in 1927 the paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth was a veteran of the Dunkirk evacuation. The ‘Lizzie’ has been partially restored and returned to Dunkirk Harbour serving as a floating bar and restaurant on a permanent static mooring.

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The Ryde was launched in 1937, she was decommissioned, in 1972 and took her place at a static mooring on the Isle of Wight, opening as the Ryde Queen Boatel offering 18 double cabin rooms and a large 60 seat restaurant and a function room.

Now the once mighty paddle steamer sits rotting on the shore of the River Medina. There were valiant attempts to rebuild her but rust and ruin won out - Ryde Queen has now collapsed in on itself. Any plans to save her have now been abandoned.  



Richard Halton_edited
Richard Halton_edited

Maritime Historian & Author Richard Halton is a much published author and maritime historian and has written and researched widely about Medway Queen. “People remember ships like the Medway Queen as the highlight of their holiday. I think she was loved.”

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John Kempton_edited
John Kempton_edited

Chair - Medway Queen Preservation Society John Kempton has been involved with the saving of Medway Queen for over 30 years. 'There is only literally one Medway Queen, one Medway Queen story.'

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Jude McGuire_edited
Jude McGuire_edited

Medway Workshop Co-Ordinator Jude McGuire manages the many passionate volunteers at the preservation societies workshop in Gillingham. 'There’s something about the Medway Queen that just gets under your skin. it’s just like a big family working on the ship to bring her back to life.'

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Richard Halton_edited
Richard Halton_edited

Maritime Historian & Author Richard Halton is a much published author and maritime historian and has written and researched widely about Medway Queen. “People remember ships like the Medway Queen as the highlight of their holiday. I think she was loved.”

press to zoom