Between May 27 and June 4, 1940, the Medway Queen made seven trips to the beaches of Dunkirk, rescuing 7000 soldiers and even shooting down three German planes.
As her name suggests, however, this was no purpose-built warship but a paddle steamer for pleasure cruises – one of the unlikely vessels that performed heroics during Operation Dynamo.
The Medway Queen’s Royal Navy Auxiliary Service woollen Blue Ensign, flown on those crossings was one of several lots of strong British interest offered by Bonhams (27.5/25% buyer’s premium) in New York in an online sale titled Conflicts of the 20th Century held from January 19-29.
Sold together with a string of bunting flags that were used on board the Medway Queen during the 10-year anniversary celebrations of Dunkirk, the lot was secured by a ‘private US flag buyer’ for $3800 (£2770) against an estimate of $800-1200.
Paddle steamer repurposed
The Medway Queen was built in Ailsa in Scotland in 1924, as a passenger paddle steamer for the New Medway Steam Packet Company. She was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in September 1939 and became a minesweeper.
With the announcement of Operation Dynamo she was fitted with a 12-pounder gun and two machine guns.
She continued in military service during the war. Due to be scrapped in 1963, she was rescued to become a nightclub. In 1985 the Medway Queen Preservation Society was formed, and she received a £1.8m National Lottery grant to restore the hull, which was completed in 2014.
She is the only surviving active estuary paddle steamer left in the UK (the Waverley is the last sea-going paddle steamer). A restoration plan is ongoing – see medwayqueen.co.uk.
Also sold at Bonhams NY was a Red Ensign flown from the stern of the freighter SS Aruluen on her trip to Dunkirk.
Due to the shallow waters, she had to stand off the beach at Dunkirk and a famous photograph of soldiers waiting in line hundreds of yards offshore was taken from her decks. Part of an interesting group related to Chief Officer Robert Turner of the Aruluen, the 2ft 9in x 5ft 11in (84cm x 1.85m) flag was offered with his Merchant Marine jacket. The lot sold dipped under estimate at $1200 (£875), also going to the flag collector.
The group included a letter by Turner’s sister Marjorie describing how Aruluen rescued more than 600 British and French troops. It noted: “For interest my brother Robert was lost when his ship, MV Underwood, was torpedoed by a German E-boat while in convoy on January 6, 1944.”
Both these Dunkirk lots came to auction provenanced to ‘The War Museum’. Bonhams specialist Tom Lamb explained: “He is a private collector in Massachusetts and he has been collecting for 60 years. He lends pieces out to museums.”
Early First World War aviation lots at Bonhams NY included a two-handled silver cup presented to Captain Leefe Robinson (1895-1918) of the Royal Flying Corps. He was only the second flyer to receive a Victoria Cross and the first to shoot down a German airship over British territory.
It was engraved Presented to Captain Flight Commander W Leefe Robinson VC in commemoration of his achievement on September 3rd 1916 from Charles F Wright and a few friends in Shoreditch.
The cup was offered together with a red and blue lithographed recruitment poster, depicting Rex Warneford (the first British pilot to shoot down a Zeppelin over Belgium in May 1915, also awarded the VC), inviting new recruits to the Sportsman Battalion, a pals unit of famous sporting personalities.
Robinson, now considered a celebrity pilot, spent much of the war in a desk job, so that he could attend RFC events. He died in December 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Warneford was killed in an air accident not long after his VC was awarded.
The cup was acquired by collector Norm Flayderman and sold in his Aviation History sale at Butterfields in November 2000, where it was bought by the vendor here. At Bonhams it sold for a mid-estimate $5500 (£4010).
Best-seller in the auction was a section of painted side fabric from the Nieuport 28 plane flown by Alan Winslow, the first American pilot in an American squadron to shoot down an enemy aircraft in the First World War.
The 94th Aero Squadron is the oldest unit in the USAF, organised in August 1917 at Kelly Field Texas, with two officers and 150 men. In September they left for training in England, and by April 1918 had been sent to the front at Toul in north-eastern France, their planes adorned with their new insignia representing the phrase, throwing one’s ‘Hat in the ring’.
On April 14 two pilots, who had yet to see combat, Douglas Campbell and Winslow, took off to hunt down two enemy aircraft in the vicinity, and somehow just minutes later they were back at base with two victories.
Winslow was shot down in July 1918 and ended up a POW until the end of the war.
This fabric, which went to a US private buyer on top estimate at $20,000 (£14,600), was taken by an unknown operative working in the aircraft disposal unit at Colum Bay, France, in late 1918- 19, and later sold with various plane insignia to a Californian antiques shop.
Six of these plane sides were bought by the vendor here.