May 2020 was the 80 years anniversary since troops of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated from Dunkirk, fleeing from the Germans as they advanced across Europe. Operation Dynamo as it was called, saw 338,000 men picked up from the harbours and beaches of Dunkirk and taken back to England in a hastily assembled flotilla which ranged from naval destroyers to fishing boats and pleasure craft. Dunkirk today is a thriving town, with many visitors looking to see the sites of what Churchill described as ‘a miracle of deliverance’.
DUNKIRK'S DARK PAST
When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, the British sent troops from the BEF, British Expeditionary Force, under the command of Lord Gort, to France where they assembled along the Belgian-French border. Here they remained until the 9th May 1940, mostly digging field defences or on rotation to serve on the Maginot Line in what has become known as the ‘Phoney War’.
The Maginot Line was an impressive fortification that ran along French borders with Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg in an attempt to prevent the Germans invading. There were weaknesses however, including the Ardennes Forest, which French Commanders had believed to be impenetrable. It was not, and it was through the forest that the Germans attacked. On the 10th May they invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and on the 12th May they invaded France.
By the 19th May, the British discovered that the French flanks had weakened and they had no reserves, so they immediately started planning withdrawal of all their troops. Gort chose Dunkirk (Dunqkerque in French), as it had good port facilities and a 10 mile stretch of beach on which to assemble the troops. Planning began on 20th May and it was Churchill who suggested assembling small vessels to join naval ships in collecting troops. The BEF continued engagements with the enemy but they were trapped along with the remains of the Belgian Army and three of the French armies.
The evacuation was planned by Admiral Ramsay at Dover Castle, and on the 26th May he ordered the start of Operation Dynamo, named after the room it was planned in – the dynamo (electricity) room. Ramsay and Churchill thought they’d only have time to extract about 30000 of their troops but luckily Hitler delayed the advance of his panzer regiments by three days, worried about marshy ground in the area and waiting for reinforcements.
This order gave the troops time to set up a perimeter around the area, with the order to ‘fight to the last man and the last round’. The troops retreating up the corridor were told 'it's every man for himself - make for Dunkirk’. The soldiers on the perimeter knew they were forfeiting their own chances of escape, and contemporary reports say they approached it stoically. Most were killed or captured, with many being shot by the Germans once they had been taken as prisoners of war, although some did manage to be evacuated at the end.
For the troops waiting on the beaches and harbour, they may have avoided tank attacks but the Luftwaffe bombardment was fierce, with troops coming under heavy fire. The harbour became blocked by sunken ships, shallow waters meant they had to use smaller boats to take them to larger boats and there was a huge amount of death and destruction. In total, 700 boats took part in the evacuation, most commanded by naval officers but many by civilians. The smallest boat to take part was the Tamzine, an 18ft fishing boat which is now in the Imperial War Museum.
Read a first hand account of Dunkirk from John Hamilton, a speaker at the Chalke Valley History Festival.
VISITING DUNKIRK TODAY
When staying recently in Calais for a week's holiday, we took a day trip to Dunkirk to see what remained of the biggest evacuation of World War II. It's an easy place to get to, albeit with a slightly complicated road system, so have Google Maps on standby for when the SatNav gets confused!
DUNKIRK WAR MUSEUM
Our first port of call was the Dunkirk War Museum, located in Bastion 32, a 19th century fortification which was the Headquarters for French and Allied forces during the Battle of Dunkirk and the evacuation. It was with some relief that we finally drove into the large, free car park, able to get off the baffling roads and explore the museum.
It is a fabulous museum, with a huge amount of artefacts all really well presented, and clear information boards in English that really helps to tell the story and increase the understanding of the events that happened there.
The Museum starts with the background of the city, from before the war to the actual evacuation and beyond. Dunkirk was a prosperous city in the 1920s, until the economic crash of the 1930s, with the information boards explaining the rise of Hitler and why the French were slow to rearm.
A 12 minute film, which plays alternately in French then English, shows footage from the evacuation, which really brings it all to life and puts the exhibits in context. After this, you can wander through the various rooms to see all of the artefacts. Many of these were from the huge amount of items left behind after the evacuation, and some have been found at sea, slowly rising from the seabeds over the years.
What is particularly interesting is how it tells a lot about the evacuation from the French point of view. The French were rescued after the English had gone, and as the Germans advanced closer and closer, the evacuation became far more dangerous and turbulent, with the ports so full of shipwrecked boats that it was almost impassable. Over 130,000 French soldiers were rescued after the BEF had gone, taken to Dover with many of them repatriated to Cherbourg within a day to keep fighting, eventually being captured or demobilised in the Armistice of 22nd June.
It's an excellent museum, clearly very popular as it was full of people, many of them English, and I highly recommend a visit.
Just opposite the museum is a new monument to the events of 1940, with a huge hourglass called 'Le Sablier', which was constructed in 2017. The hourglass is to represent the trickle of men leaving the coast of France, as well as a reversal of fortune, with defeat turning into victory. Right behind this is what is left of the fortress, once so huge but gradually destroyed over the years until just this tiny area remains.
A walk across the large bridge will take you to the where the action all took place - the Dunkirk beach. It is a huge golden sandy beach, sadly marred by a huge industrial complex right on the water's edge. There are some dunes still here, although not many, and it is very hard to equate this place with the events that happened here 80 years ago. Families are sunbathing, splashing in the water, wandering up and down the concrete promenade which is full of cafes, bars and ice cream shops. The blue sea stretches into the distance and it just feels impossible to imagine the horrors experienced by all those that were here.
OPERATION DYNAMO MEMORIAL
The Memorial to the Allies, just before you get to the beach, is made from cobblestones from the original harbour quayside and was created in 1962 to commemorate the courage of the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and held off the German advance long enough so that others could escape - the men on the perimeter.
The memorial reads 'The glorious memory of the pilots, sailors and soldiers of the French Army and their Allies who sacrificed themselves in the Battle of Dunkirk, May June 1940'.
PRINCESS ELIZABETH PADDLE STEAMER
We drove back into the main part of town, on a mission to find the Princess Elizabeth paddle steamer. Built in the late 1920s as pleasure craft travelling between Southampton and Cowes, she was transformed into a minesweeper for World War II. She took part in Operation Dynamo, evacuating 1673 soldiers in four journeys back and forth, including 500 French soldiers. After the war she went through various incarnations as a casino, restaurant and pub in England, before returning to Dunkirk in 1999. Now a floating restaurant, we were keen to climb aboard for tea - it describes itself as Restaurant/Tea Room. Sadly, one look at the menus outside sent us fleeing, as tea did not appear to be an option, but meals starting at €20 per course, did. Unwilling to pay over €100, we reluctantly went to the MacDonalds which is opposite.
It does look like a wonderful ship though, and if you have the time and money, I would guess that it is a great place for a meal.
Our final destination in the town of Dunkirk itself was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial to all who died at Dunkirk, and many of their graves. A little way out of town, we found the huge town cemetery, which has French World War I graves, local graves in the wonderful flamboyant French style, and then the English section.
Unveiled in 1957, the memorial is a small but dignified building, with an avenue of stone pylons leading away from it, all of them carved with the names of those who have no known grave. Next to it, there are countless graves of the ones who were able to be buried, and walking up and down the rows, seeing how they all died within a week of each other, really helped to bring home the horrors of the evacuation.
Next to the World War II graves lie the graves of all of the World War I soldiers who died at Dunkirk. It is really quite heart breaking, and shows just how contested this area of land has been in the last century alone.
The beaches of Bray-Dunes and Zuydcoote still have shipwrecks that are visible at low tide. The Crested Eagle at Zuydcoote. Photograph ©️ Mike Bennett
We visited two further Operation Dynamo beaches, Zuydcoote and Bray-Dunes, which are a short drive away from Dunkirk, to try to see the famous shipwrecks on the beaches. Although I thought I had cleverly checked the tide times on Google, as they are only visible at low tide, I had clearly been misinformed, and when we arrived, the beaches were at full tide and our luck was out. What we got instead was more golden sandy beaches and typical seaside activities. Great for sunworshippers, not so good for us.
If you do go to visit the wreck of the Crested Eagle, which was wrecked during Operation Dynamo, then I think this is the best website to use to check tide times, and I wish I had used it instead of just relying on Google.
One place I really wanted to get to, but we had run out of time, was the site of the Wormhoudt Massacre. Thirty minutes drive south, Wormhoudt is near the Belgian border. In May 1940, as the BEF were retreating towards Dunkirk, two British Infantry divisions were holding the road to delay the German advance, to give their comrades the chance to leave. After fierce fighting and running out of ammunition, the British surrendered in expectation of being captured and taken as prisoners of war. Instead, they were forced into a barn and shot in cold blood. 90 men were killed, with a few survivors who played dead and who were later able to tell people about the massacre.
A replica barn has now been built as a lasting memorial, and a small museum opened for visitors.
HOW TO GET TO DUNKIRK
Situated on the coast, and on the French/Belgian border, Dunkirk is an easy place to get to. It can be included as part of a road trip around northern France, or as a day trip if staying in the Pas-de-Calais region. It is also accessible as a day trip from the capitals, with a train from Brussels taking two hours, or three from Paris.
Ferries go directly from Dover to Dunkirk with DFDS, who have regular sailings on their fleet. The journey only lasts for two hours and is an enjoyable way to travel, with restaurants, shops, and great views. If you book Priority Boarding then the travel time can be reduced as you will be one of the first off the ferry, maximising your time in Dunkirk.
IS IT WORTH VISITING DUNKIRK?
My short answer to this is yes, it is definitely worth visiting for a weekend, but do your planning carefully if you want to see the shipwrecks, or if you plan to use public transport rather than driving. If I were visiting again, I would find a central hotel for a night, then spread the places out over a two day visit and include the local art museums and churches as well.
Visiting Dunkirk is really an essential for anyone with an interest in war history, and feels like a fitting tribute and a way to keep the memory alive of the events, and the men who sacrificed so much.