Dunkirk spirit: 80 years since Operation Dynamo

PUBLISHED: 12:17 04 May 2020

A scene from the filming of Christopher Nolans 2017 movie Dunkirk

A scene from the filming of Christopher Nolans 2017 movie Dunkirk

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May 2020 marks 80 years since Operation Dynamo and the anniversary is being remembered on both sides of the Channel

It’s official, the people of Dunkirk are loons. Here at the very tip of France’s hexagon, within spitting distance of the Kent coast and touching the Belgian border, I was immersing myself with the locals in the biggest, loudest, craziest carnival you’ve ever clapped eyes on.

With girls in outlandish pirate guise – and rosy-cheeked fellas looking pretty darn comfortable in wig ‘n’ tights – the Flemish folks weren’t just out, they were out out.

And boy, do they have some stamina. Back then, on Shrove Tuesday, squished as I was at a ‘rigodon’ event (think town-square scrum, boogying brass band, swaying throngs and people singing from overhanging balconies), I was impressed to learn that carnival capers last three months, peak partying involving balls, processions and all manner of quirky rituals.

There was a key moment when the mayor threw herrings from the town hall balcony (shrink-wrapped) and another when, without a cue, the crowd knelt in unison mid-song (for the record, I followed suit – it wouldn’t have done to stick out like a buttoned-up Brit) before crooning a local anthem a capella.

The beaches of Dunkirk are today a very different haven of beauty and tranquility (photo: C Bonte)The beaches of Dunkirk are today a very different haven of beauty and tranquility (photo: C Bonte)

Carnaval de Dunkerque is a time-honoured tradition, with the Dunkerquois locals up to their high-jinks for 300 years or so, ever since fisherfolk first thought it might be nice to have a bit of a knees-up before prolonged trips out to sea. It was a good thing, I now reflect, that none of us knew what was coming...

Carnival time in Dunkirk sees bizarre ritual such as the mayor throwing herrings from the town hall balconyCarnival time in Dunkirk sees bizarre ritual such as the mayor throwing herrings from the town hall balcony

Let’s face it, it’s not what we generally associate with Dunkirk. Chances are you’re far more likely to conjure in your mind’s eye images of the famous Second World War evacuation – codename Operation Dynamo – which took place here between 26 May and 4 June 4 1940. During those crucial days 338,226 British and Allied forces were successfully rescued from the harbour and beaches, against all the odds.

Standing here, looking out to the ‘mole’ pier where it all happened, I feel the frisson and consider once more the most extraordinary and seemingly implausible aspect of the whole story; that this avoidance of annihilation, or surrender at best, was achieved because a sea of ‘Little Ships’ took world matters in their own hands as they headed across the Channel on the rescue mission. It’s as mind-blowingly emotive today as it was in 1940.

Dunkirk's colourful art-deco villas (photo: Laurence Baillieul)Dunkirk's colourful art-deco villas (photo: Laurence Baillieul)

May 2020 marks 80 years since Operation Dynamo and although the planned commemorative events – including a convoy of around 77 of the original Little Ships – have had to be put on hold until 2021, the extra time we now find on our plate is the ideal hour to properly recall this most pivotal point in history and engage the younger generations while we’re at it.

One of the most instant and powerful ways to do so is to watch Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk – electrifying from the opening sequence when the German message ‘You’re surrounded’ falls from the sky on floating paper into soldiers’ hands.

Living alongside the events of the famous Dunkirk evacuation is just part of everyday life for the locals here. Against the contemporary backdrop of white sands, beach huts and colourful art-deco villas, Operation Dynamo is present in more tangible ways than you might think.

The wreck of the Crested Eagle in nearby Zuydcoote is still visible at low-tide. It suffered fatal bombing during the evacuation (photo: Bruno Pruvost)The wreck of the Crested Eagle in nearby Zuydcoote is still visible at low-tide. It suffered fatal bombing during the evacuation (photo: Bruno Pruvost)

Dunkirk locals out walking still periodically happen upon some evidence of the evacuation protruding mysteriously from the sands, and when I hear a local commenting that “… [their] teenage neighbour could open a museum with everything he’s found on this coast”, I have a hunch that this magnificent, sweeping coastline provides a rich stomping ground for all local kids with an imagination. Indeed, Bruno Pruvost, a local diver has spent a lifetime captivated by the wrecks here, one such being the Crested Eagle in nearby Zuydcoote, visible at low tide with all 91 metres of its barnacled paddle-steamer carcass lying peacefully in the sand following fatal bombing during the evacuation. Some wrecks aren’t visible of course, and in fact have taken Bruno years to locate, one such is the wreck of the Lady Rosebery.

Dunkirk is France's third-ranking portDunkirk is France's third-ranking port

This Thames barge was the vessel that carried 15-year-old John Atkins to Dunkirk, where he tragically became Operation Dynamo’s youngest victim. The cook and third mate, who is thought to have volunteered to go on the rescue mission, had only days before written to family back home in Gravesend with the simple message ‘Dear Mum. We have come under the navey [sic] now, we are going th [sic] to France today and [sic] we might never come back. Don’t worry. John.’ It’s both poignant and uplifting to hear that John’s relatives back in Chatham keep his memory firmly alive, no doubt with plans to join the postponed commemorative Little Ships convoy in 2021. That’s the (Dunkirk) spirit.

Add Dunkirk to the bucket list

Get there: DFDS offers a direct service from Dover to Dunkirk, or take the tunnel from Folkestone to Calais with Eurotunnel. Dunkirk is only 27 miles from Calais.

Visit: The Dunkerque-1940-Operation-Dynamo-Museum. The items on display and the short film clarify and light up not only the soldiers’ stories but the civilians’ too.

Reserve: A guided tour in advance from the Tourist Office. Ask for Emmanuel!

Walk: The dunes in nearby Zuydcoote and Leffrinckoucke and the mirrored bunkhouse on Leffrinckoucke beach, mysteriously the work of local artist ‘Anonyme’.

Get wet!: There’s only one thing better than being by the sea, and that’s being in the sea. A form of wetsuited walking in groups (‘Longe-Cote’) was invented here and has taken the rest of the French coast by storm too.

Little Ships: postponed, not forgotten

“It was with great sadness that we slowly realised that the 2020 return was not going to take place, said one of the Little Ships’ owners, Mark and Penny Webb, whose boat Firefly lives at Swale Marina near Faversham.

We recognised (having taken part in the last return) that being part of it really seemed to revive the best in most people.

It occurs to us that everybody who has anything to do with these old boats secretly likes to think that if the events of 1940 were to happen again, that it would be them, off to try and help.

So, come the end of May, we hope that, as we always do, we will be able to go and see Firefly and think of all those whose lives she has enriched (or even saved) since 1923, war heroes, and normal people like us. We might even take fish and chips, and a pint of varnish for the old girl, if we can get it!”

For details of postponed events, see the Association of Little Ships, adls.org.uk and Dunkirk Tourist Board, dunkirk-tourism.com

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