75 years since the historic evacuation, Peter Madeley explores Dunkirk.
It ranks as the largest evacuation effort in military history, ensuring the passage of hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers to safety on British soil.
Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, some 338,226 troops were rescued from Dunkirk harbour and its surrounding beaches by a hastily assembled fleet of more than 900 ships.
Among them were 700 ‘little ships’ – private vessels manned by naval officers and volunteers – that sailed from Ramsgate to perform a crucial role in the rescue. I visited the French port of Dunkirk as it prepares to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the evacuation – codenamed Operation Dynamo. The town itself was ravaged during the conflict, with around 90 per cent of its buildings destroyed during the German occupation which lasted from June 4, 1940 to May 9, 1945.
It’s my first trip to what is very much a typical working class northern French town, built around the docks that have played such a major role in its history. The large scale rebuilding job gives it a modern look, but step away from the bustling shops and busy bars of its central area and the impact of wartime events can still be seen in much of Dunkirk and its environs.
Ten kilometres to the north-east lies the remnants of the Crested Eagle on Zuydcoote beach near Malo les Bains. The paddle steamer was bombed on May 29, 1940, shortly after departing from Dunkirk’s eastern pier on its way back to Dover with around 600 men on board.
Many of the men were killed in the fire, while others were gunned down by the Germans or drowned as they tried to reach the shore. It is estimated that 300 men lost their lives.
A ceremony to commemorate the victims of the Crested Eagle will be held at Zuydcoote beach on Sunday at 10am.
Around 20km outside Dunkirk lies La Plaine au Bois near Wormhoudt and Esquelbecq. It is the scene of one of the most horrific massacres of the war. On May 28, 1940, 100 British troops – many of them from the West Midlands – were herded into a tiny barn by an elite squad of the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler regiment. They were allowed one final cigarette before two grenades were lobbed into the barn and it was peppered with machine gun fire. There were few survivors lying among the bodies of the dead troops, and many of them were yanked out by German soldiers and shot in the back of the head.
Today the site cuts a sombre setting. Surrounded by lush fields and country roads it is almost too peaceful to imagine the horrors that went on there. The barn has been rebuilt to its exact specifications and now acts as a memorial to those lost in the slaughter. A memorial at the barn reads poignantly: “Let us forgive. But never forget.”
Back across the flat-as-a-pancake French countryside is the 19th century Fort des Dunes in Leffrinckoucke. Situated around 6km from Dunkirk, the sprawling 50,000sq m site was bombed by the Germans in 1940 and subsequently occupied by Nazi forces. It hosts a new exhibition from June 2 to September 19 which uses a vast archive of photographs to tell the story of its role as an important strategic hold during the conflict.
Once I pass through its gated entrance it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer size of the landscape ahead. A soldiers’ barracks built into the dunes leads on to a seemingly endless collection of walkways and partly hidden buildings. From its highest point the site offers a stunning panoramic view of Dunkirk’s coastline.
The newly renovated Musee Portuaire de Dunkerque, situated in a 19th century warehouse at 9 qaui de la Citadelle is also well worth a visit. The museum is set to host an exhibition until November 15 entitled Four years, eleven months, five days – a nod to the exact duration of the German occupation of Dunkirk.
Another attraction open during the commemorations is the Battle of Dunkirk Museum, Memorial de Souvenir, which tells the story of Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of the allied soldiers. The memorial houses a rich collection of weapons, uniforms, models, photos and maps of military operations. The fate of the town’s civilians during a period when they were trapped, surrounded and eventually placed under house arrest is charted using sculpture, photography and music. Undoubtedly the centrepiece of the commemorations is what promises to be a stunning return of more than 50 ships to the port of Dunkirk which was due to begin yesterday and ends on Monday. The convoy has been organised by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.
It promises to be a sight that is not to be missed.
- Peter Madeley stayed at All Suites Apart Hotel, 59140 Dunkirk. Rooms from 53 euros per night. Visit www.allsuites-appartho tel.com/ He travelled with the DFDS car ferry service between Dover and Dunkirk. Prices start at £39 each way.
- The Dunkirk Tourist Board is offering a special weekend break between June 2 and September 20. Prices start at 69 euro. For details visit ot-dunkerque.fr/en
- For the wider Nord-Pas de Calais region visit tourisme-nord.fr or call +33 (0)3 20 57 59 59.