81st anniversary return to Dunkirk

  • History & culture
  • France
  • 7 min read
81st anniversary return to Dunkirk

Rachel Ifans shares her itinerary as she plans a historical deep dive with a trip to Dunkirk to join the Operation Dynamo commemorations.

Dunkirkians are getting ready (again!) to mark the unforgettable events that took place on their beaches in 1940. With special commemorative events and permanent museums and relics lined up, it’s the perfect time to go back in time and re-live those extraordinary days.

Operation Dynamo – The Dunkirk Evacuation

It may be 81 years now (Coronavirus halted plans for the 80th commemorations during 2020) since Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of Dunkirk, but the echoes of that day can still be heard there today.

Dunkirk 81 years on

Thanks to Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, Dunkirk has recently found itself in the spotlight again, but it’s not just big-screen fame that ensures the war stays front of mind.

The tides keep shifting Dunkirk’s sands, making the beaches a treasure trove as much for eagle-eyed kids who wield metal detectors and add relics to their collections, as they are for walkers, who are sometimes lucky enough to spot aircraft remains at low tide on a stretch of beach they’ve walked many times before.

Actors dressed as WWII soldiers fight on a Dunkirk beach. A big explosion creates a cloud of sand on the beach

For Dunkirkians, the war forms their history, current story and identity - little wonder, then, that the commemorations which take place this May are set to be so special.

Events to commemorate the 81st Anniversary

Commemoration events will take place on 29th, 30th and 31st May 2021. Dates and times of individual events are still to be confirmed at the time of writing.

Top of your list should be the Little Ships commemorative fleet, which sails from Ramsgate and docks in the old port (Bassin de Commerce) of Dunkirk later the same day. The fleet sails to remember the contribution of private boats during Operation Dynamo; it’s moving to imagine over 700 southerners casting off from the shores of Kent in their pleasure boats, yachts, fishing boats and lifeboats to help the evacuation attempt in Dunkirk that day.

Expect to hear stories like the one about John Atkins, a Kent boy of just 15 years old, who insisted, against his mother’s advice, on joining the Dunkirk evacuation efforts aboard the Lady Roseberry, which fell to wreck off the coast nearby, making him the youngest victim of Operation Dynamo.

An aerial view of Dunkirk dock

At the time of writing, 88 Little Ships are expected to sail (there were over 700 at the time), escorted by three Royal Navy patrol boats, one RNLI ship, and a Royal Navy frigate and welcomed by a fanfare of bands and bagpipe chorus on the French dock.

British Memorial, Route de Furnes, Dunkirk

There will be a ceremony to pay homage to the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force who died on the continent in 1939-1940. Taking place at the British Memorial on Route de Furnes, this ceremony is the big one for visiting Brits.

Quai des Hollandais and the Allied Monument

If you love a gathering, there are two more ceremonies: the official one to mark the anniversary of the miracle of Dunkirk at the Allied Monument on Esplanade Georges Cavrois in Dunkirk, and a religious service on the Quai des Hollandais.

Zuydcoote Beach 

On Zuydcoote Beach, there will be a special ceremony to unveil a sculpture to remember the Crested Eagle paddle ship that went down with 300 men on board. Local hero, diver and Operation Dynamo enthusiast Bruno Pruvost has cut the inox sculptures, designed by local kids, by hand and they’ll be erected in front of dignitaries, locals and war nerds alike.

Looking out to sea from the pale sand dunes of Zuydcoote beach

Bray-Dunes, Salle Dany Boon

Other events include an Operation Dynamo exhibition at Bray-Dunes, which includes photos, uniforms, vehicles and weapons. There’s also a march from Arras to Dunkirk planned when around 250 replica-costumed men will make the 120km trek on foot and in vehicles just as British soldiers did in 1940 to construct the jetty which enabled so many to escape.

Dates for events should be checked on the tourist office website because, rather like the sands off the Dunkirkian coast, they’re always shifting.

A weekend with a wartime flavour

Aside from planned commemorations, there’s plenty to do in and around Dunkirk all year round.

Operation Dynamo – The Dunkirk Evacuation

Operation Dynamo is also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, and the feat seems as miraculous today as it did in 1940. For a week in the early summer of that year, over 300,000 allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk to escape being trapped by advancing German soldiers.

It is still the biggest military evacuation in history and the Operation Dynamo Museum (open Feb to Nov and Christmas) does a great job of bringing it life in 2021. The museum is on the site of an old fort; it was built in 1874 so keen history buffs and mathematicians will no doubt spot that the building itself had nothing to do with Dynamo.

That aside, it’s well worth a visit; it’s been expanded recently and a film, several uniformed mannequins and lots of war paraphernalia combine to tell the story of the historic event in an engaging way.

The front entrance of the Operation Dynamo museum. Which is housed in a an ancient red-brick fort on the docks in Dunkirk

It refreshes your perhaps sketchy knowledge of Dynamo and it gives a new perspective too. Dynamo is a British thing; we count the evacuation as a victorious turning point but for the French it was a different story. Of the 54,000 soldiers who were evacuated during those few days, thousands of them were French. Welcomed, fed and cared for in Kent by British families, they then had to return to northern France where they were soon captured by the Germans anyway. The museum is great at bringing the French and Belgian viewpoints into focus for British people.

The shipwrecks

There are six wrecks along this stretch of coast and each of them has a fascinating tale to tell. Take the Crested Eagle at Zuydcoote – visible at low tide and still revealing stories today. A corpse was discovered a few feet from the wreckage not long ago, when the shifted sandbanks revealed a boot and a stench that shocked locals.

Taking a tour of the wrecks with diver Bruno Pruvost or Dunkirk tourist office’s Emmanuel Clement is highly recommended; both are experts who will bring the wrecks alive whatever your age or historical knowledge.

Fort des Dunes, Chemin du Fort Leffrinckoucke

This is a new museum in Leffrinckoucke which opened in April 2020. It’s a large 19th century fort and small museum, and tells its history in a beautifully simple but moving way, including the battles of 1940 and the German occupation. It’s not the kind of museum that’s stuffed with objets de la guerre; rather than using paraphernalia, it focuses on storytelling and the smart use of technology to bring it to life.

Talking of dunes, don’t miss the chance to admire the Dunes de Flandre, which are soon to win Grands Sites de France status, a label that protects fragile sites while allowing visitors to explore and enjoy them. And a final tip – the blockhaus on Leffrinckoucke beach is a must. A blinding jewel that looks like a blinged-up meteorite sits wonkily on the beach, its mirrored surface encouraging us to take a look at ourselves and examine what we’ve learnt from the atrocities of the two World Wars.

Don’t mention the war!

When your kids have had enough of your history holiday, and are starting to raise their eyebrows at anything war-related, give them a treat.

1. Longe-cote. A pastime from northern France that involves donning a wetsuit and striding out to sea on a watery, wading walk. The cold water has to come up above the organs (it invigorates them) and you have to stride for upwards of an hour through waist-high water to get your daily exercise.

A group of people walk in the sea in a group, wearing wetsuits and wading at waist depth

2. Shrimp fishing. Kids love it as it’s pretty easy to bag a catch with the cumbersome wooden framed nets – not enough to feed a family perhaps, but fun for an hour. Join a group from the tourist office.

3. An artisan ice cream. The Cornet d’Amour is an ice cream parlour par excellence, a family business run by flavour fanatics. The main shop is in the centre of the Malo Les Bains seafront promenade.

4. The Calais Dragon. A giant stalking beast created by the geniuses at La Machine. Definitely worth a detour on the way back to LeShuttle.

Start your journey to Dunkirk with LeShuttle

Dunkirk is under an hour’s drive from Calais so if you book your tunnel crossing for mid-afternoon, you’ll have time to check into your accommodation and still get to the beach at Malo Les Bains to see the sunset. Go full northern-France vibe and grab a takeaway from a nearby seafront friterie or an ice cream from The Cornet d’Amour

About the author: Rachel Ifans

I am a journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects but always returning to my first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents, I have spent my life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as I can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging my children round all six sides of l'Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to my husband about moving there.

To read more from Rachel, click here.

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