DOVER, England — Sixty years after a rag-tag British flotilla plucked 340,000 Allied soldiers from certain death or capture at Dunkirk, the small boats will set sail for France again this week to mark the epic event.

Recreating "Operation Dynamo" on a smaller scale than in 1940, nearly 60 vessels will make the short journey across the English Channel from the cliffs of Dover to the beaches of France with one of the original skippers.

"The main event is Sunday when the little ships will go out and circle off the beaches while the veterans have their service on the beaches," Rob Stokes of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships said.

"As the service plays 'Last Post' on the beaches, a Lancaster (bomber) will open its bomb-bay doors and drop 50,000 poppy petals across the little ships."

Under sunny skies, boat owners were preparing for the historic trip by buffing brass fittings to a blinding gleam, stringing up a rainbow of flags and reveling in memories.

Weather permitting, the makeshift armada will leave Dover for Dunkirk just after dawn Thursday or Friday.

Dubbed the "great tide of small vessels" by British wartime leader Winston Churchill, hundreds of pleasure craft, fishing boats and tugs braved German fire for 10 days to ferry stranded soldiers from the beaches to navy ships in deeper waters.

Whether pragmatic withdrawal or heroic escape, the hurried evacuation undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of British and French troops pinned down by the Nazi advance.

Over the years, the fearlessness of the rescuers and the bravery of the soldiers remains etched on the British psyche.

But Britain's Royal Navy sailed into controversy this week with a new book dismissing the idea that civilians played a major role in the pullout.

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In his book, "The Evacuation of Dunkirk," Jock Gardner says figures show that 230,446 soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk harbor and 98,790 from the beaches—most in requisitioned civilian boats crewed by the navy and reservists.

"Clearly from the angle of human interest, the mythical interpretation has an appeal," Gardner wrote. "But now, some 60 years after the event, it is time for more factual material to become clearly visible."

David Knowles, whose "Escape from Catastrophe" is also out this week, criticized the navy's attempts to "airbrush civilians out of history" and said that no accurate records were kept.

"They were loading 2,000 people an hour," he said. "The whole place was in chaos. They had no time to count."

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