THROUGHOUT its 160-year lifetime Red Funnel has been involved in some of the most monumental moments in British history.

As the early 1900s arrived so did Red Funnel’s involvement in the ominous story of RMS Titanic.

As the British passenger liner departed Southampton, six Red Funnel tugs – Albert Edward, Hercules, Vulcan, Ajax, Hector, and Neptune – guided her out of the Solent for her maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean – one she would never complete. 

The departure was not without drama.

As the 46,382-ton RMS Titanic moved out of the docks, the water displacement from her hull snapped the moorings of American Line's 17,550 liner, New York, which began to drift towards the White Star Lines’ vessel.

The Titanic at berth..

The Titanic at berth.

A collision was narrowly avoided as quick-moving Captain Gale of Red Funnel's tug, Vulcan, realised the danger and threw a line to New York and managed to sufficiently slow her drift all whilst under full steam.

RMS Titanic had arrived in Southampton a week before her fateful departure, just before midnight on April 3rd, 1912, and was guided by five Red Funnel tugs, Hercules, Vulcan, Ajax, Hector and Neptune, into berth 44 in the White Star dock, the berth from which RMS Olympic, her sister ship, had departed only hours earlier.

On arrival she only had a skeleton crew aboard and the rest were recruited from across Southampton.

Records show that of the 908 crew members aboard the RMS Titanic, 724 were from Southampton, and of the 685 crew members who perished when White Star Line's flagship sank, 549 were from the town.

In 1940 Red Funnel played an historic role in directly supporting the Dunkirk evacuations by rescuing almost 6,000 men from the beaches and harbour.

Military evacuation of Dunkirk during World War 2. Thousands of British and French troops wait on the dunes of Dunkirk beach for transport to England. May 26-June 4, 1940.; Shutterstock ID 251930563; Purchase Order: HERALD NEWS 19/5/19; Job: BATTLE OF

Normandy evacuation.

In total, more than 338,000 soldiers were rescued by a courageously assembled fleet which included more than 800 vessels in a mission known as ‘Operation Dynamo’.

Red Funnel is linked to eight ships that played a part in the rescue operation – Six that it owned and two that the Solent ferry company would later come to own shortly after the end of the Second World War.

The six vessels operated by Red Funnel during the Dunkirk evacuation were Princess Helena, Solent Queen, Princess Elizabeth, Gracie Fields, MV Vecta and Duchess of Cornwall. 

Emperor of India and Queen of Thanet, which would become Solent Queen, joined the fleet shortly after the end of the war.

Unfortunately, Gracie Fields never returned to the fleet and was sunk on her second visit to the beaches of northern France.

Gracie Fields

Red Funnel's Gracie Fields

In 2020, Red Funnel’s role in Dunkirk was remembered as part of the 80th anniversary since the rescue mission. 

The Solent ferry company was proudly presented with the Dunkirk Little Ships Association house flag, an emblem flown proudly by the vessels which took part in the heroic campaign in late May and early June 1940. 

Red Funnel’s presence at Dunkirk is even noted in award-winning director Christopher Nolan’s 2017 war blockbuster Dunkirk, which saw Princess Elizabeth make her filming debut in the evacuation scenes alongside Dunkirk’s east mole.

Though Nolan shows Princess Elizabeth embarking on her mission during daylight hours, she never did. Instead, she cleared Dunkirk harbour in complete darkness at 2.20am, a little over two hours after having arrived and returned at Dover and saved another 329 soldiers.

Captained by T/Lt Cecil John Carp, the Red Funnel vessel and her courageous crew rescued more than 1,500 soldiers from Dunkirk’s shoreline.

In 1958 Princess Elizabeth was withdrawn from service but this was not without a busy retirement.

Red Funnell - princess elizbeth

Red Funnell's Princess Elizbeth

She was sold to Torbay Steamers where she operated a service from Torquay, Bournemouth, and Weymouth and appeared in the 1962 Walt Disney film In Search of the Castaways.

As she neared the end of the 1965 season she was sold for scrap and travelled to a yard in Itchen, less than a mile from where she was launched in 1927.

Shortly after, in 1970, Princess Elizabeth was saved from scrap and was moored on the Thames below Tower Bridge and used as a floating restaurant.

In early 1988, Princess Elizabeth was used as an art gallery and was moved to the Seine at Pont Mirabeau, just outside Paris.

In perhaps the most poignant moment of her latter years, Princess Elizabeth was moved to Dunkirk harbour and was established as a tourism and conference centre.

Seventy-seven years after she had originally visited the harbour and under very different circumstances, Princess Elizabeth was moored up for the last time and opened as a restaurant – a somewhat quiet ending to her busy career as a passenger fleet.

Four years after Dunkirk, vessels in Red Funnel’s fleet would later play a central role in the invasion of Normandy, as part of D-Day or Operation Overlord as it was often called.

Another link to D-Day came to Red Funnel in 1950 when a 75ft square pontoon which had formed part of the Mulberry Harbour floating pierheads during the D-Day invasion were utilised at the Southampton vehicle ferry terminal.

Mulberry Harbour being built at Southampton docks..

Mulberry Harbour being built at Southampton docks.

Two 80 ft whale bridge spans of Mulberry Harbour stock linked the pontoon to the jetty at Southampton.

The bridge could take vehicles up to 40 tons and would allow the converted tank landing craft, Norris Castle (II), to ship or unload car and lorries directly over her ramp.

This whale roadway section and buffer pontoon from the Mulberry Harbour were Grade II listed in October 2017 by Historic England,

It was a tangible reminder of the part played by the Mulberry Harbour in the success of Operation Overlord and that it was one of only four known surviving examples of a Whale section in Britain and possibly the only surviving example of a buffer pontoon.

It acts as a reminder of the prominent role of Southampton in the preparation and launching of Overlord.

Many of the paddle steamers even returned to the fleet after the end of the Second World War, with the accolade of having shot down enemy bombers whilst on active service.

Despite what the name would suggest, Red Funnel’s fleet was not painted red until the mid-1930s.

Prior to this, Red Funnel ferries had a variety of liveries which included buff funnels, black hulls and red bottoms in 1899 and red funnels, black hulls and cream upperworks between 1932-1934.

As 1935 arrived, the Red Funnel fleet that we know today was born and the fleet was re-designed with black tops and red bottoms to help differentiate the company’s steamers from other vessels.

In 1969 the first Red Funnel logo was designed and applied to the new hydrofoils that were in the early stages of entering service.

Later in 1991, a new corporate identity was developed with the release of new Hi-Speed catamarans.

The final stage of that rebrand was in 1994 which involved the launch of the new ‘Raptor’ class ferries featuring black bottoms, red hulls, white upper decks with a grey side band and a black Red Funnel name and strapline.

More on Red Funnel in tomorrow's Daily Echo.