It was a fleet of fishing vessels and civilian yachts that sailed to the aid of Allied soldiers, stranded on the beaches of France in 1940 as the German army advanced.
Among them was a pleasure cruiser called the Regal Lady, which carried 1,200 men back to safety on British shores.
Now, resting in Scarborough harbour at the age of 91, she is fully restored to open as a floating Dunkirk museum.
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Owner Heath Samples, who once served as a skipper and then captain on the 84-ft boat, said he hopes it can serve as a poignant reminder of all that she has witnessed.
"Dunkirk was such a turning point in British history, and all our history," said Mr Samples, 52. "It was a time to be proud of, and all our lives benefited from that.
"But there aren't many Dunkirk little ships left. There were 800 that went across, now there are less than 80 of them left in existence.
"It's a privilege to have a piece of that history."
The evacuation of some 338,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in the Second World War was once hailed by Winston Churchill as a 'miracle of deliverance'.
Allied troops, having retreated to the beaches as German soldiers advanced, had found themselves a sitting target with nearly all their escape routes cut off.
While Navy destroyers and transporters were sent to their aid under Operation Dynamo, they were unable to get close to shore in the shallow waters.
Some 800 smaller vessels responded to a rallying call for support, with an armada of 'Little Ships' sailing across the channel to help ferry the troops.
The mission, which served as a turning point in the Allied war effort, captured the hearts of the British people and inspired the phrase 'Dunkirk spirit' in overcoming adversity.
The Regal Lady, built as a pleasure cruiser in Great Yarmouth in 1930, was originally known as the Oulton Belle and undertook three trips to Dunkirk in 1940.
She was later requisitioned by the Navy to the Clyde, as a tender to the vast cruise liners bringing in the American troops to take them to shore.
After the war she returned to life as a pleasure cruiser, first serving in Scarborough in 1954 and taking tourists out on the bay.
Mr Samples, who met his wife while she worked in its ticket box, would go on to captain the boat and bought it in 2019 as a business proposition to turn her into a floating museum.
Some 16 tonnes of steel have been removed, midships replaced, a new bar, cables and windows. As a museum, there are displays featuring dog tags from Dunkirk, gas masks, a camera from a spitfire, and a cinema showing reels of footage from the beaches.
The hope had been to open last year, but bar a brief spell in the summer, the Regal Lady is still waiting for her formal launch as a museum. Now fully restored, she is ready to welcome her first guests when restrictions allow.
It's been a "guilty pleasure", said Mr Samples, to restore a vessel he had first fallen for in 1988. The ambition was always as a business sale, he added, but hopefully not too soon.
"I've enjoyed the restoration as much as running a business," he said. "If it sold I would probably have to buy another Dunkirk Ship.
"It's been a real labour of love, it's absolutely a passion.
"She must have transported hundreds of thousands of people in her time.
"She has all the original bullheads, all the rivets and the wheel. It's amazing to think of all the soldiers and the troops that would have walked on this floor.
"We've tried to be respectful in the restoration.
"It resonates with me. These boats should be saved. They are a part of our fabric. It's a history that we should never forget."
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