Dunkirk – in War & Peace

16-19 April 2018

After spending a morning trying to sort our travel insurance which we hadn’t realised had expired, we were late setting off for the Eurotunnel and lack of familiarity with our new satnav led us to believe we knew better – foolish of us and made worse by lack of a UK atlas which added a good 40 minutes to the journey to Folkestone. But we got there in the end and the sun came out which we took as a good omen for our travels. The Eurotunnels train deposited us in France just after 5pm – which of course was now 6pm, a little matter we had forgotten about in our plans. We headed north through Dunkirk to Malo-Les-Bains and ‘Camping La Licorne’ where we found the gates closed against late arrivals. A friendly camper walking his dog suggested we try the bar and sure enough, they opened up for us and showed us to a pitch. We sighed with relief and settled in. 

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The morning brought bright sunshine and birdsong. We cycled out of the back gate onto the path through the sand-dunes and headed towards Dunkirk port. On the broad promenade we saw our first Dunkirk commemoration pillar – there are 30 Operation Dynamo pillars throughout the town creating a “path of remembrance” of the events of 26 May-4 June 1940. The biggest military evacuation in history, Operation Dynamo rescued nearly 340,000 allied soldiers and has been described as “an unimaginable success at the heart of a humiliating defeat” but it cost the lives of over 8,000 British and 1,200 allied troops. Learning more about this was why we were stopping at Dukirk.

Equipped with maps and leaflets from Tourist Information we headed via some of the pillars to remains of the old defense structure Bastion 32 which now houses the Battle of Dunkirk & Operation Dynamo Museum. A 12-minute film of old black & white footage showed the rapid German advance which trapped allied troops in the “Dunkirk pocket” and the subsequent evacuation, codename Operation Dynamo, run by the British. We heard for the first time of the friciton and distrust between the French and the British at the time, and of ‘ill-discipline’ by some of the allied troops. The rest of the museum was a large collection of objects, military items, models and documents with panels explaining in more detail the build up, the 1940 operation, the impact of the war on the civilian population and the Battle of Dunkirk when the occupied town was laid seige to in 1944 by first the Canadians then the Czechs in before the German’s finally surrendered at the end of the war. By that time nearly 90% of the town had been destroyed, with the docks completely wiped out. It’s a very interesting and evocative museum.

Following the trail of the pillars of remembrance we cycled out past Bastion 28 and along the famous Mole (jetty) where ships moored to take on board the 200,000 British who queued in long, exposed lines for their escape. The final wooden section is now missing but it was easy, out there, to imagine the port in flames, the beaches stretching up to Bray-Dunes covered in men and German fighter planes coming in for the attack. 

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After a quick lunch, we headed out to the cemetery where, on parking the bikes, Kate realised that her nice new, bi-focal glasses, the ones that allow her to see properly, had fallen out of her pocket.  A feeling of deja vu. We retraced our route twice but eventually had to give up on finding them.  Back at the cemetery we located the British Memorial where the gravestones of 810 British soldiers who fell in WW1 & WW2 stand alongside large columns of Portland stone engraved with the names of over 4,500 of the Brisitsh Expeditionary Force who fell in 1940 and have no known grave. Many were from Royal Army Service Corps and the Pioneer Corps, support units who were lost when their ships went down.  We walked solemnly amongst the beautifully tended memorials in warm sunshine, reading every name. A reflective end to the day’s explorations. 

Next day more glorious sunshine and higher temperatures for our cycle ride 8 miles up the coast to Bray-Dunes for more Operation Dynamo experiences. Good cycle paths took us through Zuydcoote, past its pretty war cemetery, to the vast beaches of Bray-Dunes close to the Belgian border. We looked out across the huge expanse of golden sands exposed by the low tide which, between here and Zuydcoote, were used for the evacuation of British Expeditionary Force and French & Belgian troops who had to wade out nearly a mile through the shallow waters to be picked up, at the mercy of German fighters and shelling.

The tide was far enough out for us to see what was left of 2 paddleship steamers, the Devonia and the Crested Eagle, both hit by German bombs. We walked out to what was left of the Devonia.

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On a lovely sunny day with people out walking or sunbathing, it was difficult to imagine. We walked out to the bones of the Devonia, then in past an old fortification

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and up into the dunes where men had sheltered from the German attack hoping for escape. The dunes are pockmarked with bomb-holes which have been re-claimed by nature and are now part of a protected habitat sheltering instead of men some rare flora and fauna in a peacepul, wind-protected strip along the coast.

Back on the main street we cycled past the many places offering moules frites before finally settling on one with a table in the sun. The moules were plentiful and excellent and the sun got so hot Danny had to move into the shade! 

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On the return journey we hoped to find signs for the huge sanitorium that once treated 10,000 men during the events of 1940. No luck – and we later found out it is still in use and visible in the photos we took on the beach. Outside Leffrincoucke we visited the Fort des Dunes, built in 1880 following the Franco-Prussian war. It played an important role in 1940 as the HQ of the French 12th Motorized Infantry Division who fought so bravely in the defence of Dunkirk during the evacuation – we saw a memorial to them at Bray-Dunes.

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Work is still being done to make this a site of remembrance but it was still worth the visit. Seeming to form a part of the dunes it actually rises to the highest point for miles giving a 360 view of the surrounding countryside.

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We stood on the spot where General Janssen of the 12th was killed by a German bomb and we read about the 8 resisance fighters who were executed there in September 1944. An impressively large display model with audio explained the troop movements and evacuation of 1940. 

On the way back to the site we cycled along the promenade between Leffrincoucke and Malo-Les Bains which was buzzing with people enjoying the spring sunshine, some hardy souls even going in for a swim. We decided it was warm enough to christen the BBQ for 2018 and ate the only slightly charred results before the dropping temperatures drove Kate indoors.  

The lovely weather accompanied us on our last day in Dunkirk as we cycled along the promenade to finish the path of remembrance.  Starting at the docks, sympathetically redeveloped with a University and apartments where warehouses once stood, we found a memorial and went over to translate – it was to the victims of asbestos which of course made us think of dad.

We headed into the town past the two distinctive old towers that appear in all the old photos – one the church and the other now housing Tourist Information – to the Place de Jean Bart. At the centre a statue of the man himself which also managed to survive the ravages of war although almost everything around him was flattened. Today there are some very pretty plantings of spring bulbs around his statue.

Born in 1650 Jean was the son of a fisherman/privateer. After serving in the Dutch navy he became a French privateer when hostilities broke out with the Dutch and became a scourge of both the Dutch and the British. He served with such distinction he became a General and was later given a title, something almost unheard of for a commoner in France at that time. He also had time to procreate 14 children! This much celebrated son of Dunkirk gives his name to many sea scout groups as well as, oddly,  a shoe polish and a tobacco.

Back to the docks and a good view of the steam paddle boat Caroline which made 4 crossings during operation Dynamo taking nearly 1700 troops to safety in England. It was then used as a minesweeper and after the war continued to sail until ending up as a casino for a while before being bought by Dunkirk as part of it’s memorial to Operation Dynamo.  Further on the large, 3-masted sailing boat, the “Duchesse Anne,” moored next to an old lighthouse boat and pilot boat, all 3 belonging to the Maritime museum situated in a restored warehouse behind them. And our last pillar on the path of remembrance. 

We had hoped to visit the 3 boats but the museum advised these are only open on Sundays so we contented ourselves with a couple of hours  examining the museum’s fascinating temporary exhibition on the history of container shipping in general & Dunkirk in particular, followed by the equally interesting and more extensive permanent exhibition detailing the history of Dunkirk from 1600’s to present day. With excellent models, paintings, films and photos we were kept very happy, and learned what an important port Dunkirk had been throughout the ages and how it had changed and evolved with the times.

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One of the 3D models of Dunkirk docks

We emerged, blinking, into the sunlight and cycled back along a promenade heaving with people  – the French holidays start this weekend and people were clearly starting early. It inspired us to spend an hour on the beach ourselves after our return to the campsite and we lay on our mats and enjoyed the novelty of subathing on a beach in Europe in April. Bruges tomorrow.