The Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark
Royal Navy flagship the HMS Bulwark arrives in the port of GibraltarGetty

A record number of 4,243 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean over the past 24 hours, with the British navy helping hundreds ashore.

Hundreds of migrants were rescued by the HMS Bulwark, the Royal Navy flagship, on Saturday (30 May), as part of the enlarged European Union search and rescue operation at sea.

The ship carried 741 people – including dozens of young children – ashore in the coastal city of Taranto, in southern Italy.

Twenty-two separate operations were coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard from its rescue service in Rome.

The migrants attempting to make the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean were picked up from small, dangerous boats and dinghies off the Libyan coast.

Seventeen dead bodies were found on one of the dinghies.

HMS Bulwark rescued more than 300 migrants packed into an overloaded wooden boat, intercepting it in waters north of Libya and dispatching five landing craft to assist.

The ship's commanding officer, Captain Nick Cooke-Priest, said he was sure the migrants would have died without help, adding that some of the children were "horrifyingly young".

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: "HMS Bulwark and her crew have once again saved hundreds of lives in the Mediterranean migrant crisis, offering medical assistance, food, water and dry clothes to those in need.

"A wider political solution is required to this crisis, but that does not detract from today's rescue at sea."

The EU rescue mission is the latest in an ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

At least 1,826 migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

According to estimates by the United Nations, at least 40,000 people have tried to cross the Mediterranean from January to late April of this year.

Many of the migrants have been traced back to the conflict and poverty stricken nations of Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia.