Dunkirk or Dunkerque?
To many of us Dunkirk means the evacuation of the British army in 1940 from the French beaches and our famous ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ attitude. To the French, Dunkerque means a city on the border with Belgium with wide, safe sandy beaches and a huge commercial port. But since the release of Christopher Nolan’s epic film ‘Dunkirk’, shot almost entirely on location in Dunkirk, the French are re-examining their World War Two history.
Dunkirk in 1940
The defeat of the Allied Forces in 1940, the evacuation and subsequent conquest of France by Germany is a sad and frequently neglected part of France’s history. The story of the rescue of nearly 400,000 British and French troops in May and June 1940 is not generally taught in French schools so it came as a revelation when the film was released . Only when 1300 locals were recruited as extras and war -time set were constructed on the beaches and around the harbour was the great event reconsidered. Now the enterprising tourist board has set up displays of the film locations and explanations of what happened to educate locals and visitors.
The film Dunkirk
The film, released on 19th July received universal acclaim from the critics and is tipped to become the biggest hit of 2017. The meticulous recreation of weapons, uniforms and bombing raids, the use of real warships and aerial scenes of dog fights between Spitfires and German aircraft make this a must-see film. The story of how the troops were evacuated from the beaches and harbour mole by 1000 vessels including the fleet of ‘Little Ships’ which sailed across The Channel and the desperate situation on the beaches between 26th May and 4th June has been told many times. But Churchill admitted that it was a disaster for Great Britain. Most of our army had safely returned but without weapons. All our tanks and other armoured vehicles and over 60,000 other vehicles were left behind, vast stockpiles of stores were destroyed, nearly 200 aircraft defending the evacuation were shot down, some 200 vessels sunk and 60,000 soldiers killed, wounded or captured.
The film is gripping and very noisy and it tells the story from land, sea and air. The enterprising tourist board, knowing only too well that a film can generate a great deal of interest for visitors, is offering tours on foot, by boat and by air to get a close and first hand impression of what happened 77 years ago. The biggest thrill is to take a 15 minute flight at 1000 feet over the beaches in a four seater plane. Not only does the flight from a nearby airfield put the evacuation into perspective but it’s probably the cheapest flight you’ll ever find: just €120 or about £35 for each of the three passengers.
What to see in Dunkirk
Other historical sites include the ‘Dynamo Museum’ with relics from 1940 and the occupation and clear explanations, images and models of the evacuation. The Fortress of the Dunes dating from the Franco -Prussian War and the nearby war cemetery provide added interest.
But Dunkirk has always offered much more than military history. The tourist authorities hope that we’ll stop in their city for a short break instead of driving off the DFDS ferry from Dover and joining the motorways to head south to the sun. The clean sandy beaches are perfect for children and provide sporting and leisure activities for everyone. The Maritime Museum and modern art gallery are well worth a visit and the restaurants along the sea front offer terrific food and locally brewed beers – and of course wines at very reasonable prices. La Cocotte restaurant by the beach has typical northern dishes and was a popular place for the film’s cast. Comme Vous Voulez also on the sea front is another gourmet restaurant worth trying; or for a lively harbour side spot try L’Edito. But for a really great dinner visit the former rescue ship the old paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth moored in the harbour. She saved countless soldiers and starred in the film.
DFDS has 24 daily crossing between Dover and Dunkirk
By travel and military history writer Doug Goodman