The planned mass evacuation of May 1940, known as Operation Dynamo, was both a disaster and a triumph. With the Germans bombing Dunkirk and the nearby beaches from May 18, the flotilla of vessels—including the immensely courageous crews of the 336 Little Ships—managed the excavation of 338,226 allied soldiers, including 123,069 French and 16,816 Belgian soldiers.
There are a significant number of sites in and around Dunkirk that are important to the evacuation operation and it is possible for enthusiasts to visit these places to trace historical events. You can walk to some of these places, but you will probably need a car or some form of transport to get to the Dynamo Museum on the Digue des Bains and to the Military Cemetery.
Everything in Dunkirk circles around Jean Bart, the famous French privateer who saved the French from starvation in 1694 by capturing 130 ships full of wheat. His statue stands in the eponymous central Place, the heart of Dunkirk. The statue was not hit during the massive German attacks in May and June 1940 and remained intact during further destruction in the German occupation to the end of the war. It’s a good place for shopping with individual food shops, and it’s also near the Centre Marine which has 23 shops.
Getting There and Tourism Resources
You can travel to France from the UK by ferry. DFDS Seaways have regular sailings daily throughout the year for cars and passengers. The trip takes two hours.
The Dunkirk tourism office is a good place to learn about special events and get more information.
Dunkerque Tourist Office
4 Place Charles Valenti
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 66 79 21
Bassin de Commerce
From Place Jean Bart, it’s a short stroll to the Bassin du Commerce, which suffered during the bombing raids, although the port went on unloading munitions as it could. It was also used to evacuate the British troops, attracting serious German pounding.
The British paddle steamer, the Princess Elisabeth was built in 1927 for the Southampton to Cowes run. In 1939, she was taken over by the Admiralty and converted into a minesweeper. A year later, she was sent to Dunkirk to help clear the mines in the channel off the beaches. She survived, though other ships, including the Brighton Belle, the Devonia, and Gracie Fields were sunk.
All the minesweepers were then used to take the soldiers off the shore for the duration of the evacuation, the Princess Elisabeth making 4 journeys and rescuing 1,673 soldiers.
After the war she became an excursion boat again, then a floating casino, then a restaurant on the Thames in London. In 1988, bought by a French company, she made her way to the Seine just outside Paris. She arrived in Dunkirk in 1999 and today is used for exhibitions and events.
Walk along the Quaie des Hollandais through Place du Minck, along rue Leughenaer to the Colonne de la Victoire in Place de la Victoire. Turn left along rue des Chantiers de France, past the sculpture garden and the modern art museum up to the bunkers that line Bastion 32.
The Operation Dynamo Museum
The Operation Dynamo Museum (Mémorial du Souvenir) is a small museum devoted to the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo. This is one of the most interesting places to visit. Start with the 15-minute film whose jerky black-and-white sequences put you right into the heart of the action.
Photographs, lots of informative maps showing the movement of the war, unformed models, Vichy propaganda, a motorbike which is rare as the majority were taken to the Eastern front and blown up or abandoned, a flag used during the evacuation, and a whole lot more. Everything is in French and English and it’s manned by an enthusiastic group of volunteers who will happily answer any questions you might have. At the end, there’s a large plaque to the Czechs who liberated the town on May 9, 1945, making Dunkirk the last town to be set free.
From here take the Pont Lefol onto rue Marcel Sailly and turn left to the western end of the Digue des Alliés, the long stretch of seafront that goes all the way to Malo-les-Bains for the next memorial.
Memorial to the Allies
The Mémorial des Alliés (Memorial to the Allies) is made from paving stones from the harbor quayside. It commemorates the courage of the Allied troops during the Dynamo operation.
The Dunkirk Cemetery is along the roué de Furnes, to the south of the town. Two stone pillars guard the entrance to the Dunkirk Memorial, the entrance to the British War Graves section, opened in 1957 by the Queen Mother. There are 4,506 soldiers of the British Army and 6 from the Indian Army from 110 different units commemorated here, including those who died in captivity and those captured during Operation Dynamo and have no known grave.
The Cemetery has also 793 World War II burials, and also Czech, Norwegian and Polish war graves.