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World War II Operation Dynamo shipwrecks and sites in Dunkirk
Significant sites associated with Operation Dynamo bear testimony to the dreadful evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk in May and June 1940. You’ll need a car to reach some of them.
They range from the wrecks of wartime ships on the Zuydcoote beach to the chilling site where British soldiers from the Royal Warwickshire and Cheshire Regiments and the Royal Artillery were slaughtered in cold blood.
In 2015 on the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo a whole flotilla of little ships took part in a massive re-enactment in honour of the event.Continue to 2 of 4 below.
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Wrecked Operation Dynamo ships on the Beach at Zuydcoote outside Dunkirk
Zuydcoote Beach and Wrecked Ships
Start along the coast north of Dunkirk at Zuydcoote. Park in the car park and go first to the Information hut where you’ll find brochures and maps. Make sure you go at low tide. Check with the Dunkirk Tourist Office first. Also check with them if Bruno Provost or another guide is at the information post and whether you can book a tour. It's well worth it; the local experts bring the whole story to life.
Walk across the huge expanse of sand out to where the water laps around the wreck of the Crested Eagle. Originally an English paddle steamer built in 1925, she once plied her trade between London and Ramsgate, equipped with telescopic funnels to sail under London’s bridges. Fitted with anti-aircraft equipment, which must have looked pretty odd on a paddle steamer, she arrived on May 28, 1940 at Dunkirk’s Eastern pier to take part in Operation Dynamo's evacuation.
600 soldiers scrambled onboard and she set off for England. Passing Malo les Bains, a Stuka began bombing her. The captain ran the ship aground off Zuydcoote beach. It was a doomed effort; most of those on board were either burnt to death in the molten metal, or machine-gunned by the planes overhead, or drowned in the sea. The wreck itself was later plundered by German soldiers for its wood and metal, in fact for anything that might be useful to them, then left on the beach.
The story became familiar in France with the film Weekend at Zuydcoote, starring a young Jean Paul Belmondo.
Today the Crested Eagle lies in the sand, its recognizable features covered in sea anemones, mussels and rust.
The Other Shipwrecks on the Beach
There are 5 other wrecks visible on this piece of the coastline. The Devonia lies to the east, opposite the slipway in Bray-Dunes. Built in 1905, she was converted into a minesweeper in 1939, arrived in Dunkirk for Dynamo but was damaged by a bomb on May 30.
The other 3 are not relevant to the war, but are worth walking out to. The Vonette, the next wreck along from the Crested Eagle towards Bray Dunes was a wooden 3-masted schooner. On her way from Lison to Gravelines, loaded with salt, she was caught up in a storm and keeled over.
There’s a wreck of a wooden barge just behind the Crested Eagle and another on the beach towards Leffrinckoucke.
The Sanatorium during the War
From the beach, turn around towards Dunkirk and you see the Sanatorium that started as a hospital and then became a military hospital in both World War I and World War II. At the outbreak of war in 1939 the place was emptied of families with children, leaving 420 patients. Part of it remained a sanatorium; the other part became a military hospital. The first wounded arrived on May 10 after the invasion of Belgium and the five operating theaters worked around the clock. From May 20, more than 600 wounded soldiers came here daily and the hospital treated over 10,000 wounded. With the approach of the Germans came a bombardment of the hospital; many died and were buried in the dunes, in a small area near the hospital and elsewhere. From June 4 onwards, the Germans took over the hospital and evacuated all the rest of the wounded.
At the end of the war, the hospital was stripped of anything useful and of building materials. 25 years later, it was completely rebuilt and appeared in the Belmondo film, A Weekend at Zuydcoote. Today it is a hospital for civilians.
Dunkerque Tourist Office
4 Place Charles Valentin
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 66 79 21
More about Operation Dynamo
Getting to Dunkirk
I travelled from Dover to Dunkirk with DFDS Seaways. They have regular sailings daily throughout the year for cars and passengers. The trip takes 2 hours are fares start from £39.
More information on Getting to France by Ferry from the UKContinue to 3 of 4 below.
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The Fort des Dunes at Leffrinckoucke outside Dunkirk.
The Fort des Dunes
A little further along the coast towards Dunkirk you’ll come to the Fort des Dunes at Leffrinckoucke. Hidden by the dunes, the massive fortress was built in 1878 to protect Dunkirk and the port from attack from the East after the disasterous defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
A Whole Village
You get no idea of the scale of the fort when you walk through the main gateway. It covers 50,000 square meters and could house 451 men in underground barracks. There were wood burning stoves, an air supply system; an artillery magazine, a bakery, underground water tank and a well, kitchens, an abbatoir, a larder, infirmary washrooms and a stable. There was also a very large powder magazine.
But this fort, though impressive, was obsolete before it was finished with changes in weapons and munitions. From 1880 to 1940 the fort was used as a barrack block and practice area for firing practice. By the outbreak of World War II, it was the barracks for the 12th Motorized Infantry division under General Janssen.
Operation Dynamo and the Fort
During Operation Dynamo, the fort was heavily bombed, killing over 100 men and destroying much of what was left of the structure. It was taken over by the Germans and became part of the Atlantic Wall. It was used by the German army for storage though some defensive elements were added: a blockhouse with a machine gun was built to overlook the Furnes-Dunkirk railway line; a radar mast was installed, and at the top of the fort, a heavy machine gun placed in concrete.
On September 1944 it was used as a prison when 8 Resistance fighters were arrested. All were shot in the north ditch and buried in a trench at the foot of the wall.
It became an internment center for around 3,700 German prisoners of war who spent their time clearing mines along the beaches but then fell into complete disuse. It was finally bought by the coastal authorities with the town of Leffrinckoucke now running the site.
Today it’s a peaceful place to wander through, down passageways, into the former barracks and up to the top for a view over Dunkirk to the sea. The barrack blocks house various different permanent exhibitions, explaining the story behind the fort from its earliest days, the story of the Resistance fighters, and the evacuation through a huge wall-mounted model.
Fort des Dunes
Rue du 2 Juin 40
Open Jun 2-Sept 20
Admission adult €3; 17 to 18 years €1.50; with audioguide adult €4; 17-18 years €2.
Dunkerque Tourist Office
4 Place Charles Valentin
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 66 79 21
More about Operation DynamoContinue to 4 of 4 below.
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La Plaine au Bois at Esquelbecq
You’ll need a car to get to the most chilling monument of Operation Dynamo. Park in the car park and walk along a small pathway. There’s rolling countryside to your right then ahead of you is a small hut behind a tree. It doesn’t look much and you get no sense of what it’s about until you turn left and look in. The walls are covered with wreaths of fading poppies from all kinds of organizations, from Scouts to the regiments that took part in one of the bloodiest encounters of the operation.
The Bloody Story of Essquelbecq
British soldiers from the Royal Warwickshire and Cheshire Regiments and the Royal Artillery were ordered to delay the advance of the German troops on Dunkirk as Operation Dynamo began in May 1940. They needed to hold the Germans for around 5 hours at Wormhout. After 9 hours of fighting, the British surrendered, were taken prisoner and 110 of them, including one Frenchman, were marched to Esquelbecq and herded into a cramped cowshed. Many of them were wounded; all of them totally exhausted.
They had been captured by soldiers from the 1st SS Leibstandarte Division, Hitler’s personal bodyguard under the command of Wilhem Mohnk. He gave the order that no prisoners were to be taken, and told the soldiers to throw hand grenades into the barn, then machine-gun the trapped soldiers.
Just after the grenades exploded the Germans stood back from the blast and two British soldiers ran out of the barn towards a small pond. Captain Lynn-Allen was killed by an SS officer; Bert Evans took a bullet in the neck and fell into the dark mud and was presumed dead.
The German went back to the shed to finish the job. Any soldiers left alive were taken out in groups of 5 and shot, their bodies left on the ground. 15 of them weren't killed and managed to survive with help from locals then regular German soldiers who took them prisoner.
As night fell, the Germans left and Bert Evans crawled to the nearest farm, despite having one arm almost torn off by the initial grenade. He was takin in by the Bollengier family, then German soldiers who took him to a hospital. He was repatriated in 1943.
In 1948 a group of British soldiers returned to the field of the massacre and the site was classified as a memorial. In 1972 British soldiers began to create the barn you see today and in 2001 Bert Evans returned to officially open the site.
The Rest of the Site
The barn is to one side of the site; just beyond that is a line of beech trees leading to the pond that was recreated after the war. To the middle of the site a path leads past a statue and a monument to the soldiers and civilians who died during World War II in Flanders. It commemorates the 300 Allied and French soldiers and civilians who died that day; prisoners; resistance fighters and the civilians who suffered during 1562 days of the occupation of Dunkirk.
At the end, climb the steps to a small viewing post, built from earth taken from the pond site. At the top there’s an orientation table showing the positions of the British soldiers and the Waffen SS. And in the distance you can see Cassel, one of the few high points in this flat landscape that stretches towards nearby Belgium.
The victims of the massacre are buried in the Commonwealth Military Cemetery in Esquelbecq and the local cemeteries of Wormhout and Ledringhem.
Book a guided tour from the local tourist offices; it's well worth it and just 2 euros.
Esquelbeck Tourist Office
9 Place Alphonse Bergerot
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 62 88 57
Wormhout Tourist Office
60 Place du General de Gaulle
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 62 81 23
More about Operation Dynamo