British WWII warship ‘Keith’ is seen for the first time in 80 years: Scientists use sonar


It has been more than 80 years since the British destroyer HMS Keith sank during an operation described by Winston Churchill as a ‘miracle of deliverance’.

The 330ft-long vessel was among some 1,000 military, merchant, fishing and civilian ‘little ships’ that helped rescue 338,226 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.

It had just returned to the French coast having evacuated 992 soldiers to Dover when it was bombed by a German aircraft and sank to the bottom of the English Channel.

Now, almost nine decades on, the World War II warship has been seen again after scientists used sonar to create a 3D model of it lying on the sea bed.

It is all thanks to a project involving Historic England and Drassm — France’s Department of Underwater Archaeological Research.

Fascinating: It has been more than 80 years since the British destroyer HMS Keith sank while helping to rescue Allied troops from Dunkirk. But the World War II warship has now been seen again after scientists used sonar to create a 3D model of it lying on the sea bed (pictured)

Fascinating: It has been more than 80 years since the British destroyer HMS Keith sank while helping to rescue Allied troops from Dunkirk. But the World War II warship has now been seen again after scientists used sonar to create a 3D model of it lying on the sea bed (pictured)

HMS Keith (pictured) had just returned to the French coast having evacuated 992 soldiers to Dover when it was bombed by a German aircraft and sank to the bottom of the English Channel

HMS Keith (pictured) had just returned to the French coast having evacuated 992 soldiers to Dover when it was bombed by a German aircraft and sank to the bottom of the English Channel

WHAT HAPPENED TO HMS KEITH?

HMS Keith was among some 1,000 military, merchant, fishing and civilian ‘little ships’ that famously helped rescue 338,226 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.

It had just returned to the French coast having evacuated 992 soldiers to Dover when it was bombed by a German aircraft and sank to the bottom of the English Channel.

A bomb went down the 330ft-long (100 m) vessel’s aft funnel and exploded in a boiler room, starting a fire in the process.

All personnel were then ordered to abandon ship.

A total of 36 men were killed but eight officers and 123 crewmen were saved.

The aim was to search for undiscovered wrecks linked to Operation Dynamo, which was popularised in the 2017 Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk and involved the loss of 305 vessels and more than 30,000 troops.

Scientists managed to locate and study a total of 27 wrecks as part of their research.

Of these, the location of 12 of them had not been clear prior to the survey, while four were either destroyed or covered by sand so could not be found.

The experts think they may have also potentially discovered three more previously unknown vessels that are linked to the evacuation of Dunkirk. 

‘It’s very moving to see new details emerge from thirty shipwrecks linked to Operation Dynamo for the first time since the events at Dunkirk during the Second World War,’ said Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England.

‘The results give us a striking insight into our shared heritage that still lies beneath the waters off Dunkirk.’

The main tool used by the scientists was a multibeam echosounder which was mounted beneath the hull of the research ship André Malraux. 

It emits a fan of sound that is recorded as it bounces off the seabed, which then enables geophysicists to create a colourful 3D image of features such as shipwrecks.

How it works: A multibeam echosounder mounted beneath the hull of the research ship André Malraux helped to create the colourful 3D image

How it works: A multibeam echosounder mounted beneath the hull of the research ship André Malraux helped to create the colourful 3D image

It emits a fan of sound that is recorded as it bounces off the seabed, which then enables geophysicists to create a colourful 3D image of features such as shipwrecks

It emits a fan of sound that is recorded as it bounces off the seabed, which then enables geophysicists to create a colourful 3D image of features such as shipwrecks

Clever: Scientists managed to locate and study a total of 27 wrecks as part of their research

Clever: Scientists managed to locate and study a total of 27 wrecks as part of their research

Such is the level of detail produced by the sonar that scientists are then able to match features and dimensions of vessels to historic photographs

Such is the level of detail produced by the sonar that scientists are then able to match features and dimensions of vessels to historic photographs

Such is the level of detail that scientists are then able to match features and dimensions of vessels to historic photographs. 

For example, the davits from which lifeboats once hung helped to confirm that one particular wreck was the Normannia, which was sunk by an air attack on May 30. 

Many of the wrecks are in pretty good condition, the researchers said, but when compared to past surveys it is clear that HMS Keith’s hull has degraded in the last decade.

The use of the technology not only helped uncover highly detailed images of ships like HMS Keith, but also corrected the identities of two other wrecks.

It showed that previous identifications had confused the French auxiliary minesweepers Denis Papin and Moussaillon, which were sunk by air attacks on June 1, 1940.

For example, the davits from which lifeboats once hung helped to confirm that one particular wreck was the Normannia (pictured), which was sunk by an air attack on May 30

For example, the davits from which lifeboats once hung helped to confirm that one particular wreck was the Normannia (pictured), which was sunk by an air attack on May 30

The data also revealed that previous identifications had confused the French auxiliary minesweepers Denis Papin (pictured) and Moussaillon, which were sunk by air attacks on June 1, 1940

The data also revealed that previous identifications had confused the French auxiliary minesweepers Denis Papin (pictured) and Moussaillon, which were sunk by air attacks on June 1, 1940

Pictured is the dimensions of the French minesweeper Moussaillon, which was sunk in 1940

Pictured is the dimensions of the French minesweeper Moussaillon, which was sunk in 1940

The main tool used by the scientists was a multibeam echosounder which was mounted beneath the hull of the research ship André Malraux (pictured)

The main tool used by the scientists was a multibeam echosounder which was mounted beneath the hull of the research ship André Malraux (pictured)

The World War II wrecks were imaged in the waters off Dunkirk in France (pictured)

The World War II wrecks were imaged in the waters off Dunkirk in France (pictured)

Between May 27 and June 4, 1940, 338,226 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk by military, merchant and fishing vessels and civilian ‘little ships’.

The evacuation became necessary after Allied troops were encircled by Nazi forces which had swept through Europe and occupied France.  

More than 1,000 ships – flying British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Polish, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish flags – were involved in the nine days and nights of the evacuation.

In the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, Churchill – the new Prime Minister – gave what would become one of his most famous speeches.  

Between May 27 and June 4, 1940, 338,226 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk by military, merchant and fishing vessels and civilian 'little ships'

Between May 27 and June 4, 1940, 338,226 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk by military, merchant and fishing vessels and civilian ‘little ships’

Thousands of soldiers line up to be evacuated from Dunkirk at the end of May in 1940

Thousands of soldiers line up to be evacuated from Dunkirk at the end of May in 1940

Hospital Carrier St. David by the East Mole at Dunkirk. The vessel took troops back from Dunkirk but was sunk in 1944 off the coast of Lazio, Italy

Hospital Carrier St. David by the East Mole at Dunkirk. The vessel took troops back from Dunkirk but was sunk in 1944 off the coast of Lazio, Italy

Speaking of the Dunkirk evacuation, he described it as a ‘miracle of deliverance’. 

He added: ‘The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not harry their departure seriously. 

‘The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead. 

‘We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. 

‘Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.’

As he addressed the threat of an invasion of Britain, Churchill finished his speech with the words that are now known by millions everywhere.

He said: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…’

Evacuation of Dunkirk: How 338,000 Allied troops were saved in ‘miracle of deliverance’ after the German Blitzkreig saw Nazi forces sweep into France

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940 after Nazi Blitzkreig – ‘Lightning War’ – saw German forces sweep through Europe. 

 The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned.

Described as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.  

The Second World War began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but for a number of months there was little further action on land. 

But in early 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and then launched an offensive against Belgium and France in western Europe.

Hitler’s troops advanced rapidly, taking Paris – which they never achieved in the First World War – and moved towards the Channel.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned 

They reached the coast towards the end of May 1940, pinning back the Allied forces, including several hundred thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Military leaders quickly realised there was no way they would be able to stay on mainland Europe.

Operational command fell to Bertram Ramsay, a retired vice-admiral who was recalled to service in 1939. From a room deep in the cliffs at Dover, Ramsay and his staff pieced together Operation Dynamo, a daring rescue mission by the Royal Navy to get troops off the beaches around Dunkirk and back to Britain. 

On May 14, 1940 the call went out. The BBC made the announcement: ‘The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.’

Boats of all sorts were requisitioned – from those for hire on the Thames to pleasure yachts – and manned by naval personnel, though in some cases boats were taken over to Dunkirk by the owners themselves. 

They sailed from Dover, the closest point, to allow them the shortest crossing. On May 29, Operation Dynamo was put into action. 

When they got to Dunkirk they faced chaos. Soldiers were hiding in sand dunes from aerial attack, much of the town of Dunkirk had been reduced to ruins by the bombardment and the German forces were closing in.

Above them, RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were headed inland to attack the German fighter planes to head them off and protect the men on the beaches.

As the little ships arrived they were directed to different sectors. Many did not have radios, so the only methods of communication were by shouting to those on the beaches or by semaphore. 

Space was so tight, with decks crammed full, that soldiers could only carry their rifles. A huge amount of equipment, including aircraft, tanks and heavy guns, had to be left behind.

The little ships were meant to bring soldiers to the larger ships, but some ended up ferrying people all the way back to England. The evacuation lasted for several days.

Prime Minister Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,000 men, but by June 4 more than 300,000 had been saved.

The exact number was impossible to gauge – though 338,000 is an accepted estimate – but it is thought that over the week up to 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued – men who would return to fight in Europe and eventually help win the war.

But there were also heavy losses, with around 90,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner. A number of ships were also lost, through enemy action, running aground and breaking down. Despite this, the evacuation itself was regarded as a success and a great boost for morale.

In a famous speech to the House of Commons, Churchill praised the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ and resolved that Britain would fight on: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’ 



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