The popularity of the recent film ‘Dunkirk’ has generated renewed interest in northern France. Stuart Render reports on a region that resonates with wartime history
To an older generation the very mention of the phrase ‘Dunkirk spirit’ is likely to evoke wartime memories, the meaning relating to the importance of standing fast and pulling together at times of adversity. The phrase came to be used following the evacuation of more than 338,000 British soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches during the Second World War. And, in 2017, the release of a Hollywood feature film brought the story of the evacuation to a new, younger audience.
In the French coastal town of Dunkirk, the events that took place during May and June 1940, when the retreating British Expeditionary Force found itself cut off and at the mercy of the rapidly advancing German forces, have left an indelible mark. For a visitor wanting to find out more, a good starting point is the Dunkirk War Museum. Located in the original bunker headquarters used by the French and Allied forces during the Battle of Dunkirk, the museum houses a fascinating collection of weapons, uniforms, models, photos and maps of military operations. A 12-minute video, in English, sets the scene.
‘Operation Dynamo’ was the largest evacuation effort in military history. Crucial to the success of the mission was the fleet of ‘little ships’, the 700 or so privately-owned pleasure boats, fishing boats and other vessels that had been requisitioned by the British government to head across the English Channel and rescue the stranded soldiers.
The Dunkirk War Museum corrects one of the popular myths of Operation Dynamo, explaining that the majority of the little ships were piloted by members of the Royal Navy and not, as is often believed, by their owners. Only a small handful of fishing boats, vessels that were used to being at sea, and one or two other vessels, were piloted in this way.
Visitors to the museum also learn that because of the shallow waters near to the beach, the little ships were primarily used to transfer soldiers from the beach to the larger Royal Navy ships anchored further out to sea. Only a very few of the little ships carried soldiers all the way back to England.
Moored in the centre of Dunkirk’s modern marina complex, close to the town centre, is the British paddle steamer ‘Princess Elizabeth’. Dating from 1927 she was one of the fleet of little ships and is reported to have saved 1,673 soldiers, making the perilous journey four times. Today, she’s a floating restaurant offering groups an unusual dining opportunity.
The scars of battle
Six kilometres along the coast from Dunkirk, in the village of Leffrinckoucke, is the Fort des Dunes. The buildings of this 19th century fortification, completed in 1880 to protect Dunkirk and its port from any attack from the east, are built under the coastal sand dunes. A tour of the many underground tunnels and outside areas reveals the scars of the battle of 1940 and the German occupation. There are several permanent exhibitions that complete the story. Be warned though, there are many steps and relatively steep inclines to negotiate.
Some 19 kilometres south of Dunkirk, just outside the village of Esquelbecq, is La Plaine au Bois, the site of a massacre of 80 British soldiers that took place on 28 May 1940. The story is truly horrific. The soldiers, attempting to hold back the advancing German army, found themselves up against members of the Regiment SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the Führer’s personal bodyguards. After a heroic struggle the British soldiers had to surrender. They were taken prisoner and imprisoned in a small barn, expecting to be treated according to the Geneva Convention. However, the Germans, unable to tolerate the resistance shown by the British, assassinated them. Today, a reconstruction of the barn acts as a memorial, with the whole interior covered with memorial poppies, wreaths and messages.
Get me there
Ferry operator DFDS offers sailings from Dover to Dunkirk, the journey taking around 90 minutes (see dfdsseaways.co.uk). Dunkirk is an attractive option for either an overnight stop-off on the route east or south, or as a base from which to spend longer exploring the region.
Further inland, the historic city of Lille, the ‘capital’ of the region, offers magnificent architecture, excellent shopping, memorable walking tours and a range of quality accommodation to suit all budgets. 2019 sees ‘Eldorado’, a city-wide festival delivered by ‘Lille 3000’, an organisation set up in the aftermath of Lille’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2004.
For more information on the region visit:
A tank called Deborah
Situated near the junction of the A2 and A26 autoroutes at Cambrai, and a short distance from the main A1 to Paris, is something rather special, a unique part of wartime history – and she goes by the name of Deborah…
On 20 November 1917, nearly 500 British tanks engaged with the German forces in the Battle of Cambrai. In 1998 one of the tanks was unearthed from the battleground. Today, Deborah, the name originally given to the tank because she was part of ‘D’ Company, is the centrepiece of the Cambrai Tank 1917 centre.
This remarkable visitor attraction opened in March this year in the village of Flesquieres, just south of the town of Cambrai. Visitors are shown a film that sets the scene, before descending six metres to discover ‘Deborah’, displayed in a concrete bunker. The purpose-built building, the exterior designed to look like a tank, adjoins the Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery where the tank’s crew are buried. If you’re in the area, try and find time to go and visit Deborah. It’s an experience unlike any other!