Pomp, parades and pride-filled tears marked the 50th anniversary of the "miracle" evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk's bullet-strafed and bloodied beaches at the start of World War II.

"Certainly God was with us during those dark days," a chaplain said Sunday, speaking of the dramatic rescue to some 5,000 veterans, most now in their 70s, who packed a solemn seaside service that capped the colorful commemoration.Just offshore, a helicopter from Britain's Royal Air Force gingerly lowered a wreath into a circle formed by 74 of the 700 original "little ships" that ferried trapped soldiers, mostly members of the British Expeditionary Force, across the English Channel to the safety of British ports.

The veterans sang "Abide With Me" and other hymns as three 1940-vintage British planes - a Lancaster, a Spitfire and a Hurricane, all built with Rolls-Royce engines - flew overhead. The service ended with a flyby by the Royal Air Force's crack Red Arrows, and two minutes of silence broken only by the breaking waves.

"I'm not a religious man, but I prayed the day I got off the beach," said Lawrence Tilley, 71, of Sandbath, England.

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Veterans of the nine-day evacuation, many frail, some gently sobbing, earlier paraded past Union Jack flags down Dunkirk's main street, buttons bursting and medals shimmering under clear skies. People leaned out apartment windows to applaud the elderly gentlemen, some of them Scotsmen in traditional kilts.

Ceremonies included speeches by British Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson and French officials, but the stars of the show were the old soldiers themselves, who eagerly swapped war stories ranging from the indisputably accurate to the real whopper.

The hugely successful 1940 evacuation from May 26 to June 4 became known as the "Miracle at Dunkirk," and is seen by historians as crucial to the Allies' eventual defeat of Hitler because so many men lived to fight another day.

"The time we spent on the beach was the most harrowing," said Edward Tredgett, 73, of Audlem, England. "I couldn't swim and I reached the point where I didn't think I was going to make it because of the air fire."

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