If you are like me (& many Americans), you have probably never heard of Dunkirk, France. That is, until you started seeing all of the previews for the movie coming out this week bearing the name. When I saw the first part of the preview, I was sure it was for a movie on Normandy. When I watched a little more, I realized I had no idea what they were talking about!
So, on a recent trip to Brugge, I decided to make a detour to Dunkirk and learn about this (soon to be much more famous) city. I am not a historian, so I won’t go too deeply into the history but I will touch on what I learned.
While the Operation Dynamo, the “Battle of Dunkirk,” or “Miracle at Dunkirk,” was certainly a battle to survive, what it really was, was an evacuation of epic proportions. Over 400,000 men of the British and French armies were surrounded and trapped by the oncoming Germans in 1940. This was a whole year before them bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US involvement which is why it is only barely touched on in our own war history, but essentially most of the British Army was trapped on this beach and if they had been lost, the war may have taken a very different turn for the Allied forces.
Because the beaches along the city are shallow, the Naval boats were too large and they needed mostly small fishing boats in order to get in close enough to rescue the troops. The Operation lasted 8 days and while many lost their lives, the Operation was ultimately a success, when thankfully, Germany pulled back their ground troops, convinced that their air power alone would take the beach. In an unbelievable joint effort, 338,000 men were evacuated in what was the largest military evacuation in history. British civilians responded en masse with everything from private yachts, motor launches, lifeboats, paddle steamers and barges to help rescue these men. The tenacity, courage, and resilience of those involved in this operation became known as “Dunkirk Spirit” and the phrase has since become part of the language used to toast people who pull together in a time of adversity.
There are several museums in Dunkirk but unfortunately for me, the Operation Dynamo museum was closed for construction and renovation as they are doubling it in size. It should be reopened now though – in time to take in all the newly interested tourists. The museum is located in Bastion 32 which served as the headquarters for the French and Allied forces during the Battle of Dunkirk.
Walking along the outside of the museum, they have the flags of all the countries involved, Britain, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Poland. From there it is a short walk to the beach itself. The day we were there was overcast, windy, and the sand was blowing so aggressively that the beach was almost empty. It’s hard to imagine how it could have felt to have been on that beach over 75 years ago but I certainly tried to picture it. It was still incredible to see, especially after learning more about the history of the city and the operation.
Unable to visit the Operation Dynamo museum, we headed to the Musée Portuaire instead, a museum located in a 19th Century tobacco warehouse & dedicated to Dunkirk’s sea faring history. It was nice to learn a little bit about this city but if you only pick one museum, I would go to the Operation Dynamo/War museum. From there, walk down to the monuments and then the beach. The town is quaint and can easily be seen in a day trip but find a nice spot on the water for lunch or dinner before you head out.
I am very excited to see the movie when it comes out July 21 and think it is still so crazy that I was able to stand on the same beach where that history was made.
Will you be heading to the movies to see Dunkirk? Already seen it? Comment below!