Northern Ireland

Medway Queen: Antiques Roadshow Detectives uncover Alfred Cook's Dunkirk exploits

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAlan Cook (right) brought his grandfather's medal to Antiques Roadshow expert Paul Atterbury

A County Down man has traced the remarkable story of his grandfather's World War Two exploits with the help of Antiques Roadshow experts.

When Alan Cook brought his grandfather's bravery medal to the Antiques Roadshow last year at Hillsborough Castle, the war stories were the stuff of family legend but he had little idea of what he was like as a person.

"We knew Alfred Cook was the captain of the Medway Queen at Dunkirk and that they'd saved 7,000 soldiers during the course of 10 days going back and forward," he said.

"It was a real story of endurance and heroism, and we knew that he'd won the Distinguished Service Cross, but that was as far as we could go."

The story captured the interest of the programme makers, who decided it was a case for the Antiques Roadshow Detectives, a spin-off programme that explores the intriguing stories behind family heirlooms.

Image caption Mr Cook brought along a wartime photograph of his grandfather to the Antiques Roadshow

The architect from Bangor said that the research gave him a whole new perspective on his grandfather, who died when Mr Cook was aged 13.

"I went along thinking I would find out about the history of what they did at Dunkirk and the heroism of that, but through that I found out much more about his personality than I'd ever come across," he said.

"My granddad was living in London, I'm in Northern Ireland so I'd only see him maybe once a year. He just came across as this tough guy, but I saw a totally different side to him."

Mr Cook said that since bringing the medal to the Antiques Roadshow, it has been an emotional journey.

"Their researchers were able to go into the National Archives and they took me to the inner sanctum of the Royal Naval College library," he said.

"It's a bit like the programme Who Do You Think You Are, only instead of the well-known personality it was me being taken on the journey."

Image caption The Medway Queen has been restored and is on display at Gillingham Pier on the River Medway

At the end of May 1940, at the government's request, thousands of boats set sail to rescue almost a quarter of a million Allied troops who had retreated from Hitler's forces onto the shores of Dunkirk in northern France. It was a time when Britain faced the possibility of defeat.

Mr Cook said his grandfather's ship, the Medway Queen, was dubbed "the Heroine of Dunkirk".

"She started out as a little paddle-steamer on the Thames but was converted to a minesweeper," he said.

"They were meant to do one trip across to Dunkirk in a flotilla of these paddle-steamers

"My granddad and his crew decided this wasn't enough because there was so much work to be done.

"They went back and forward seven times in 10 days to save these 7,000 soldiers - they were the last ship to leave Dunkirk as the Germans arrived."

Image caption Alfred Cook was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his role in the Dunkirk evacuation

Another clue that Mr Cook had was his father's MBE and his Lloyds Medal for Bravery at Sea, for an incident that happened later in WW2.

"He was in the Merchant Navy and his convoy was attacked by a pack of submarines - one night in October 1942, the ships were all sunk," he said.

"It turned out his convoy was a decoy diverted on a special course through the Bay of Biscay to take the submarines away from the north African landings convoys which were heading south.

"Coincidentally my grandfather was on one of those ships, so his son was sacrificed in a way so that he as captain of the Royal Ulstermen troop carrier could head for the north African troop landings.

"My dad went down with the ship and thought that this was the end of his life, but the ship was carrying bales of cotton that were floating in the sea and he found himself on the surface looking up at the stars.

"If that bale of cotton hadn't been there, I wouldn't be here today."

Antiques Roadshow Detectives: The Medway Queen was broadcast on BBC Two on Monday 20 April, and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.

Related Topics

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites