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Family's 'closure' after divers find resting place of youngest Briton to die at Dunkirk

The final resting place of the youngest Briton to die during the evacuation of Dunkirk is thought to have been found by French divers.

John Edward Atkins, from Shamrock Road, Gravesend, was just 15 when he joined the armada of civilian vessels that raced over the Channel to help save the thousands of Belgian, British, and French troops who had been cut off and surrounded by German troops following the six-week long Battle of France in 1940.

John Atkins, third hand on the Lady Rosebery, who died during Operation Dynamo.
John Atkins, third hand on the Lady Rosebery, who died during Operation Dynamo.

The Gravesend boy had not long been employed on the Lady Rosebery, a Thames sailing barge, when the crew received a call to report to Dover to aid the evacuation effort.
“Dear Mum,” he wrote, in a letter to his mother Lillian. “We are under the Navy now, we are going to France today and might never come back. Don’t worry.”

John's letter turned out to be tragically prophetic. The barge left Dover being towed by the H.M. Tug St Fagan, along with other sailing barges the Pudge and Doris, and although John had been taken aboard the St Fagan for his own relative safety, the tug was sunk by a bomb or mine, along with the barges Lady Rosebery and Doris.

Captain of the St Fagan, Lieutenant Commander George Warner, later wrote to John's mother to say he would have sent John back ashore if he'd found out his age while they were at Dover, but that that the barges were already outside the harbour when they had taken them in tow.

“He was a very plucky youngster and seemed very keen to go,” he wrote in a lengthy letter, explaining the circumstances, which finished. "Although the loss of such a promising lad must be a very sad blow for you, I trust you will find some consolation in the knowledge that he was assisting in a very valuable job. Please accept the deepest sympathy of myself and his surviving ship mates in your sad loss.”

Almost 80 years on from those tragic events, French diver Bruno Pruvost, 55, believes he has located and recovered parts of the Lady Rosebery about a mile off the Dunkirk coast, after searching for the site for the last 13 years.

He believes he first located the site of the wreck in 2006, but was unable to confirm the sighting due to strong current and poor visibility. With the help of a magnetometer, which can detect metal on the sea-floor, he was able to locate the Lady Rosebery at a depth of 30 metres, and even managed to recover parts of the hull, a blue and white plate, a propeller, a phial of liquid, and bricks.

John Atkins' last letter to his mum.
John Atkins' last letter to his mum.

John's niece Sandra Wood, 72, said it brought a form of closure to John's family members, who had never forgotten his story.

"It's amazing," she said. "We never thought as a family that anything would ever be found.

"I was absolutely gobsmacked. I was very emotional about but it has brought some sort of closure to it now, after all these years."

Mrs Wood she had taken copies of pictures and articles about John to Fort Luton Museum in Chatham, which had established an online exhibit about him - which Mr Pruvost read.

"It spurred him on," she added. "They knew there were barges there but he said the story of me looking to keep John's memory alive spurred him on to find out more."

"He got in touch with the Fort to get into contact with me and for the last two months we've been in touch with Bruno - he's been sending lots of information.

"It's absolutely amazing that they're able to find something that you can touch. I just think it's incredible.
"He's always been there, even though he's not physically there - the picture of him with his dog was always on the mantelpiece."

John Atkins
John Atkins

"I can't tell you how it makes me feel - to me, to say he's a hero is probably too strong a word - he was taking after his dad."

Mrs Wood said she believes John had been trying to follow in the footsteps of his father - who had been injured repeatedly in the First World War but returned to combat after being treated at Netley Hospital in Southampton.

And while she said John's loss had a lasting impact on the family, she said they felt no anger towards those he'd sailed with.

"I don't think of it as an injustice," she said. "For me personally any war is a terrible waste of life, but war is part of our history and I'm just very proud that he volunteered to go - the family over the years have been so proud.

"He's got his name in the church at Milton and his name's at Tower Hill in London. At last it's some sort of closure, it's just a shame his siblings and parents weren't able to see it, but our sons and our grandchildren are all aware.

"It's just so wonderful that people are keeping his memory alive. I didn't know him but I was always brought up with his memory. My poor nan never got over losing him, even until the day she died."

Mrs Wood and her husband John are now planning to meet with Mr Pruvost next year, for what will be the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation.

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