Partly to see Christopher Nolan’s epic film of the same name as the city, and also to learn more about Operation Dynamo, Anna Hyman headed across the Channel - to Dunkirk.
Dunkirk the film
Christopher Nolan’s powerful blockbuster film Dunkirk opens with a young man running down a street desperately making for the beaches and a possible escape from the German army closing in on the Allied troops in May 1940.
That street in the film, actually the Rue Belle Rade, exists; the Mole jutting out to sea exists; the beach really is the beach at Dunkirk and Malo les Bains from where the original evacuation took place; two of the planes really were Spitfires; and some of the little boats shown in the film really had rescued the troops in 1940. The Allied troops were frequently soaked to the skin, so too were the actors, so much so that several of them had to be treated for hypothermia.
There is no story line as such. The film is about an hour in the life of a spitfire pilot, and a week for the little boats and a day for the men on the beaches. The film lasts just under two hours and was as a film-buff friend tells me, made ‘in camera’. The noise, as it must have been for the Allied troops, is terrifyingly deafening. It pulls no punches; it is about fighting for survival. Just watching it was exhausting - we thought it a triumph.
Dunkirk today is France’s third largest port and lies just 40km or thereabouts from Dover, a comfortable two hour ferry crossing with DFDS Ferries.
The Port Museum
To learn more about the history of Dunkirk we visited the fascinating Port Museum (Musee Portuaire Dunkerque) housed in an old tobacco warehouse on the Quai de la Citadelle.
Opposite it the elegant training ship, the tall ship Duchesse Anne, one of three ships moored alongside the quay and also open to the public.
In the museum we learnt how, way back in the 7th century, there was a fishing community, a community which built their church on one of the dunes hence the name Dunkirk or Dunkerque – the church on the dunes.
Gradually the fishing village expanded. Partly because of its strategic location The museum tells of how Dunkirk was fought over by Spain, England, France and the Netherlands and in the 18th century was the haunt of pirates and privateers. The port grew rapidly, but during the two world wars it suffered badly. In fact it was virtually destroyed in WWII.
In search of Operation Dynamo
Fascinating as the history of Dunkirk is we were also there to discover what happened in Dunkirk during the period in May-June 1940 known as Operation Dynamo.
It was hard to believe as we walked beside the glorious long sandy beach at Malo les Bains with its lively seafront esplanade and excellent restaurants that only 77 years ago it was the scene of death and terror. For it was on the Dunkirk beaches that Allied troops congregated waiting, praying that they would get safely back to English shores. In fact, over 380,000 of them were evacuated.
Dunkirk War Museum
The old fortifications date back to 1847 to the days when France needed to strengthen its coastal defences. Today, in Bastion 32, which served as headquarters for French and Allied troops during Operation Dynamo and the Battle of Dunkirk a museum has opened. You can’t miss it outside the entrance stands a frighteningly large gun.
In the museum tunnels visitors can learn more about the incredible story of May – June 1940. Fascinating exhibits include photos and maps; the propeller and part of a plane salvaged from the sea; uniforms; ammunition; vehicles; and poignant personal effects.
Operation Dynamo Flying Experience: the beaches from 800’
We also saw the evacuation beaches from above, some 800’, thanks to a thrilling 20 minute flight in a light aircraft, just big enough for three passengers and pilot.
Not only did we have a bird’s eye view of the beaches but also of the Fort des Dunes, built into and almost camouflaged by the famous dunes, and the Zuydcoote Military Hospital. I don’t think any of us realised as our pilot asked permission to enter Belgium air space just how close Dunkirk is to the border – a mere 10km.
Unfortunately, our flight coincided with high tide so we missed the drama of seeing the shipwrecks (visible at low tide) close to Zuydcoote and the Bray-Dunes. Nevertheless the flight was pretty exciting as our pilot banked the plane over the East Mole where so much of the action both in the film and in real life took place.
How lovely it was to see far below us carefree families enjoying that glorious sandy beach. The flight costs €120 for up to 3 persons and is bookable through Dunkirk Tourism.
The Fort des Dunes
It has been said that some 42million bricks were used to make the Fort des Dunes. We didn’t attempt to count them. The fort was originally built into the Leffrinckoucke dunes in 1878 and is a fascinating example of military architecture.
The climb up and onto the grassy roofs of the buildings is a bit steep in places, but the views over the countryside are lovely, and the wildlife and vegetation that have made the sandy soil home a joy.
Apart from the occasional ventilation shaft the buildings blend almost seemlessly into the scenery it is hard to know they are there, and to realise that they were capable of housing over 450 men. The fort comes with its own internal road, its own water supply, a splendid bakery with two ovens, accommodation and an infirmary, to say nothing of a massive ammunition store.
A sobering moment came when we spotted on a wall the poignant memorial to seven resistance workers who had been captured and executed on 4 September 1944. fort-des-dunes.fr/en
La Plaine au Bois
We experienced another sobering moment in the pretty village of Esquelbecq. In a small room on the 1st floor above the tourist board is a tiny museum which tells the story of a World War II massacre which took place 28 May 1940.
British and French soldiers had been deployed to delay the advancing Germany army long enough to give their comrades a chance to reach the Dunkirk beaches. Outnumbered, and after hours of fighting, the few surviving men surrendered. They were herded across a field and into a small barn where the majority died as a result of the grenades thrown in by SS soldiers.
The barn has been reconstructed. The meadow landscaped into a peaceful, beautifully tended, memorial ground where 40 oak trees and 80 copper beaches representing the 80 victims now grow.
Each 28 May the men’s courage and sacrifice continues to be remembered with gratitude by the local communities.
Hence the museum with videos of three of the survivors (now deceased) and exhibits which include poignant, personal items – found on site, donated by families, the regiments involved. It is a museum that pays tribute to the sacrifice and bravery of men who didn’t return home, and the part they played in Operation Dynamo.
Our reflective mood lightened when we called in at the Thiriez brewery close to Esquelbecq owned by Daniel Thiriez. Beer had been brewed before on this site but not for some 60 years, but in 1996 production was again under way. Today there is a range of beer available – traditional, special and biological (organic). And very good they are too.
The beer is brewed in the traditional way using water, barley or wheat malt, hops, yeast and from time to time maybe some spices. No additives or artificial colourings are used. Fermented in stainless steel tanks without the use of filtration or pasteurization the beer is bottle conditioned. Next door to the small brewplant is a relaxed, casual and very popular tasting room.
Restaurants and Hotel
L’Edito: a restaurant conveniently close to our hotel with some lovely views out over the harbour. Nice service. I very much enjoyed the escalope of salmon in a lemon sauce served with rice. €15.40. restaurant-ledito-dunkerque.fr
Princess Elizabeth: a terrific evening in the gastronomic restaurant of the paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth moored at Quai de l'Estacade. Delightful service and excellent cooking. €39.45. princesselizabeth.eu See our review here.
La Cocotte: We had lunch at La Cocotte on the sea front at Malo les Bains , a cosy, popular restaurant facing the sea where Christopher Nolan had lunch during the shooting of ‘Dunkirk ’. We don’t know whether he chose one of the restaurant’s delicious, rustic speciality cocotte dishes. If he did, I hope he enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed mine – a hearty combination of goats cheese, potato, onion and bacon served in its own casserole. €14.20. lacocottedk.fr
Comme vous Voulez: Also on the sea front of Malo les Bains. Helpful staff who checked with chef about the ingredients used in a dish when we thought there might be an allergy problem. We ate from the three-course €26.50 menu. I chose the light option of parma ham, perfectly ripe melon and port followed by sea bream in a butter sauce with summer veg, and a simple, but perfect fresh fruit platter. comme-vous-voulez.com
Hotel Borel: hotelborel.fr/en
DFDS Ferries: All ships in the modern fleet feature a premium lounge, which can be booked for an additional £12 per person each way. The lounge provides a quiet space with free newspapers, fresh fruit, pastries and petit-fours, soft drinks and a glass of Prosecco upon arrival.
Autumn short break fares start from £35 for day return travel on the Dover-Dunkirk and Dover-Calais routes, from £59 for a 3-day return and from £69 for a 5-day return for a car and up to nine people. Book now for travel up to 13 December. (Exclusions apply on 21 October and 29 October due to the school half-term holidays). dfds.co.uk