In many ways, Dunkirk is similar to towns in Kent, just somewhere you pass through without stopping and taking in some of the scenery and history etc.
The northern part of France and Belgium have both seen many horrific events in the past 100 years. In WW1 the area was a mass of Battlefields joined together by trenches where men lived in the most awlful conditions fighting for their Countries beliefs at that time.
In early 1940, Allied Troops were making their stand in this area, but by the end of May had been pushed further and further back towards the Coast. The only answer was to retreat and rebuild.
In London and Dover, ‘Operation Dynamo’ was put into action. The only answer was to mass all the troops in one area and be rescued.
The British Navy just didn’t have the capacity or the location to do it themselves, so the Government requisitioned as many small boats from the Southern parts of England to sail accross the English Channel and save what ended up as around 300,000 troops.
Between 700 and 900 boats made the journey accross between 26th.May and 4th.June. Most were small vessels such as Trawlers, Fishing Boats, Pleasure Craft and even rowing boats (see right). Many made the journey more than once. They didn’t have to, they did because that was the spirit of the Nation at that time.
Over 200 of these were sunk and many Volunteers made the ultimate sacrifice and lost their life.
As the troops massed on the Beach, they were constantly bombarded by enemy aircraft. They were sitting targets. The French held the Germans back for quite some time, but the ‘machine’ was an efficient one and it was simply a matter of time before they would have to surrender which made the evacuation even more urgent.
By 4th. June, the beach was cleared and although still too many, the casualty toll was just over 2,500. In Parliament, Sir Winston Churchill rightly called it a miracle and it was on the 4th.June when he made his famous speech “We shall fight them on the beaches….”. The Allied troops were doing just that. Britain ‘battened down the hatches’, defended and went into the summer of The Battle of Britain.
Where we walked
We decided to have a look on return from some ‘cheap shopping’ in Adenkurke on the Belgium border. Taking the N1 canal road back, after about 20 minutes, turned right to the small town of Leffrinckoucke. Parking the car by the French Cemetary.
I was under the impression that the beach more or less appeared, but it’s actually quite a long walk. You go along sandy pathways winding their way through dunes. It’s one of those walks where you think it’s round the next bend or over the dune, but it’s not and this makes you wonder how all those men got there carrying all their personal equipment and other machinery etc.
Upon reaching the beach, the first impression is realising the vast scale of it. The beach stretches off in either direction with no end in sight. All along are derelict Bunkers and other buildings which were either bombarded or have simply fallen apart through the weather.
The view goes on for miles, we saw about 6 other people the whole time we were there.
Along the tops of the dunes are some forts. Watching the movies, you think it’s just a Fort, but behind them is a labrinth of living quarters, tunnels and other buildings which were obviously storage places.
All of this has now evolved into the landscape and it would seem, quite rightly I believe, left to form it’s own destiny, but a reminder of times many wish to forget.
To imagine so many people, over 4 times the amount of a Wembley Stadium packed house, stranded there is quite amazing and how so many escaped is visually unbelievable.
It’s also easy to think ‘why didn’t they follow us over’? They had the power, the technology and it’s only a 30 mile sea crossing.
Maybe all that happened sent out a story of the Allies determination, spirit and grit. Who knows.
The War Memorial
After the beach, we drove back onto the Canal Road and headed towards Dunkerque town. Just before you get into the town, the Cemetary is on the left side of the Road.
Although a part of the Town Cemetary, the graves are set in their own area and walking around reading the headstones is very emotional. Many are unknown servicemen, some are ‘Deck Hands’ off the little boats who came over, some we saw we in their mid teens..
Through the sadness though comes good, little wooden crosses are scattered around with messages written on them. Many by descendants who didn’t know their Grandparent, great Grandparent etc., but had made the journey just to say ‘they remembered’ - and proud.
All in all, this is a short visit well worth while. Afterwards we drove along to Cite Europ, a huge complex of commercialism and gadgetry if you like. You can’t help but think ‘this is what they gave their lives for’ and also what they would think about it all.
The fact is that although commercialism is not always nice, we have the freedom to be like that. We can take it or leave it.
That, for me, was what it was all about. May we never forget them.
Dunkirk is a 30 minute drive from Calais taking the A16. For Leffrinckoucke, turn off at Junction 34, go along the D4 (about one mile) and turn right onto the N1 canal road. Take the first turning left and follow the signs to the Dunes,
See also ‘A Day Trip to France’ on the main website