The Dunkirk Evacuation – Dunkirk Beach & Harbour

You up for a stroll?  Well, see those flags over there?  They’re our first stop.

Breezy, eh?

As you will have gathered from the title of the post, we are in Dunkirk (Dunkerque), this memorial ‘to the glorious memory of the sailors and soldiers of the French and Allied armies who sacrificed themselves in the Battle of Dunkirk May June 1940.’

Now I can’t really relate the whole Dunkirk story here, because life’s too short, and this post would be far too long, and chances are you probably have some idea of what happened, so if you really want to know what occurred in more detail I would suggest a good book – and there are many to choose from.

I will, however, give you the relevant stats towards the end of the post.  Lucky you.

Suffice to say that the Germans invaded Belgium, Luxembourg & the Netherlands on 10th May 1940, sweeping across France towards Abbeville and the Channel coast, which they reached by 21st May, trapping most of the British Expeditionary Force and many French troops in the ever-shrinking pocket around Dunkirk,…

…emphasised on these German leaflets urging surrender that were dropped on the retreating British & French troops.

The dunes at Dunkirk.  And beyond, the sea.  The evacuation of troops from the beaches and harbour at Dunkirk effectively began on Monday 27th May 1940, and would continue until Tuesday 4th June.

We are actually part of a four-man reconnaissance party (the other two already way ahead, as you can see), our mission, to find somewhere near the Eastern Mole for the coach to park, while the others check out the Dunkirk museum (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I’d rather be in the field than in the museum.  Just my preference.), and return unharmed.  And as we have some distance to cover and limited time, we’d better get going.

Looks a lovely day, does it not?  What you can’t see from these pictures is the wind, no longer breezy, but up here positively boisterous!  Nor can you feel the sand within the wind.  And for that, be thankful.

So this is the beach, and right now my head is bent to the wind, somewhat precluding the taking of pictures for the moment…

…but we willl return a little later along the beach itself, where hopefully it will prove a bit more sheltered than up on the sea wall (it did).

This, however, is our destination.  The Eastern Mole stretches out to sea directly in front of us,…

…with the lighthouse of the Western Mole beyond.  But you can actually see that clearer…

…from up here.  The bush across the water on the far right…

…can be seen here on the far left, the sea wall we have just walked stretching across the picture…

…as far as the closest buildings in the right background and the memorial we saw earlier.  A fair old trek in the teeth of that wind, I promise you.  The huge grassy mound we have now ascended…

…is known as Bastion 28, one of a number of 19th Century fortifications to be found around the town,…

…and this is a small metal pillbox,…

…with some artistic installation involving an aluminium funnel fixed to the top,…

…and some pretend stuff being disgorged from the gun embrasures.  Hm.

Looks like a good field of fire down to the harbour from here.  Whether this is a French or German pillbox, I really don’t know.

Incidentally, if you are wondering whether the recce mission was successful, indeed it was, and we scuttled back along the beach, picked up the rest of the party, embussed, and found ourselves back here in about five minutes.  However, one of the great things about cyberspace is that it allows me to change reality; thus our return along the beach actually took place before these photos up on Bastion 28 were taken, and yet here we are, the return journey along the beach still to come!

Did you really think, should you ever have thought about it, that my individual cemetery tours follow the exact order in which the pictures were taken?  I think not.  There has been many an occasion when, for example, a clockwise walk around a cemetery becomes an anti-clockwise post here in the world of theBigNote.  ‘Cos if that makes more sense, then that’s what you get!

Above & below: General, not specifically evacuation, information boards.

Landward view from Bastion 28.  And more modern art, and no, I am not anti-modern art in any way at all.  Providing it’s good.  Applies to any art, surely?

Plan of Dunkirk harbour dated 29th May 1940, with various ships berthed at the Eastern Mole taking on troops.  The aerial view shows Bastion 28, our current location, in red, and Bastion 32, which we shall visit later, in yellow, with the memorial we saw at the start of the post in green.  In reality, our whole sea wall walk was from yellow to red via green, and back again.

Wrecked ships and vehicles after the evacuation.

A similar view today.  In the centre of this picture…

…is a German bunker,…

…this one definitively part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall (see last post).

Crumbling iron girders…

…provided a souvenir for the cabinet.

Banksy comes to Dunkirk?

View looking along the Eastern Mole (above & below),…

…these photos (above & below) of men queueing whilst awaiting evacuation all taken from ships docked at the far end, looking back towards land.

View of the harbour entrance with smoke billowing from burning oil tanks ashore.

Later Allied raid on Dunkirk, Bastion 28 and the start of the Eastern Mole in the bottom left quarter, wrecked ships still in the channel just beneath the shell bursts (and elsewhere).

Time to leave the Mole…

…and began our return trip along the beach.

If you explore here, be careful.  You may find, as we did, that the dunes cannot hide everything that took place eighty-odd years ago,…

…just bury much of it temporarily, I suppose,…

…storms over the years, perhaps, on occasions uncovering relics of the past.

After the evacuation.  British dead, in the foreground, with abandoned & wrecked vehicles littering the beach beyond as far as the eye can see,…

…and the same scene today.  The following quotes, from three different individuals, give a taste of the reality here eighty two years ago; ‘The din was infernal. The 5.9 batteries shelled ceaselessly and brilliantly. To the whistle of shells overhead was added the scream of falling bombs. Even the sky was full of noise – anti-aircraft shells, machine-gun fire, the snarl of falling planes, the angry hornet noise of dive bombers. One could not speak normally at any time against the roar of it and the noise of our own engines. We all developed ‘Dunkirk throat,’ a sore hoarseness that was the hallmark of those who had been there. Yet through all the noise I will always remember the voices of the young subalterns as they sent their men aboard, and I will remember, too, the astonishing discipline of the men. They had fought through three weeks of retreat, always falling back without orders, often without support. Transport had failed. They had gone sleepless. They had been without food and water. Yet they kept ranks as they came down the beaches, and they obeyed commands.’

‘Obviously the main job was to get out to the boats, because when we finally decided to come down out of the sand dunes, you’ve got to remember that we’re running across the beach and you’re jumping over blokes, you know, that are no longer with us, and dodging and diving because they’re coming down machine-gunning you and everything else. You’re trying to keep an eye on [one plane] while there’s another one coming that way……like the Red Arrows. Anyway, as I say, that was my feeling. To come down and find some way across. Because we certainly couldn’t have swam it. They [the boats] were too far out for that, for me anyway. Some of them did. They just stripped off and got away and good luck to them. But the other thing is that they [the enemy planes] were diving down, machine-gunning the boats and everything else, and bombing the ships you were trying to get to. You might get halfway there and there’s no ship there, because it’s been bombed.’

‘I was standing on the beach looking across at England when I heard a voice say ‘Are you coming? It’s your last chance.’ I saw a sort of fishing boat that was picking up stragglers and I boarded it and lay back with my hands dangling in the water. I fell asleep and the next thing I knew I was at Dover.’

Recross this bridge,…

…and we are back roughly where we started.  Just out of shot on our left…

…is another memorial,…

…beyond which…

…is another of the bastions, this time Bastion 32.

Poppy sculpture,…

…and a bunker,…

…although its entrance is no longer in evidence.

As the Dunkirkians like to put art on their bunkers,…

…this time we have a spaceman, fallen,…

…and this is how I know.

This memorial apparently has something to do with turning defeat into victory.

As promised, here are all the details.

Last look back at a burning Dunkirk for soldiers on their way home.  We’ll visit some of those who didn’t make it next post.

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14 Responses to The Dunkirk Evacuation – Dunkirk Beach & Harbour

  1. Alan Bond says:

    Thank you Magic. Although I was born probably less than 40 miles away I have never visited Dunkirk. That is something I must put right it had some significant for my dad. Despite visiting many cemeteries he only had 2 photos in his collection of war graves. His Uncle from WW1 in Etaples and a Norfolk Regiment WO in Dunkirk. He always said that he should have been there except for a training course that saw him transferred from Norfolks to Sherwood Foresters. The WO was killed on my birthday 8 years before I was born. 27th May 1940

    • Magicfingers says:

      Apparently, were I a crow, it would be 118 miles to Dunkirk. Even so, it was my first visit (though I quite possibly went there as a kid with my parents, but too young to remember). And yet another interesting personal story – for which many thanks as always – we shall take a look at the cemetery in the next – and final WWII – post.

  2. Joseph Orgar says:

    My uncle Dan was one of the boys that was there, and made it home.


  3. Barry Carlson says:

    A fascinating post.

    I first visited Dunkirk on 4 January 1960 as a cadet on M.V. “Cornwall” (Federal Steam Navigation Co.) while enroute from Auckland, N.Z. to Hull. The ship was carrying a full cargo of refrigerated lamb/mutton of which around 2000 tons was destined for France.

    The scenery evident from your current photographs was somewhat different; the moles were still scarred from the bombing and shelling of the war, and the buildings in the town were mostly still pockmarked in a similar fashion.

    We departed 24 hours later for Hull, but the memories of Dunkirk have remained.

    Barry Carlson

  4. MrBob says:

    I was over there a few weeks ago to watch the Tour de France stage which looped from Dunkirk to Calais via St Omer. Unfortunately I was with a couple of non-history fans so couldn’t explore as much as you, but I did pass the mole, the museum, the memorial and the beach. I quite liked the town and it was only half an hour from the ferry so I’ll head back after a bit more reading.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Well I wish I’d been there. Never owned a bike in my life, but TdF fanatic since the Indurain days (went down to Canterbury whatever year it was that the tour started over here).

  5. Margaret Draycott says:

    One of the most astonishing stories from our history, I never fail to marvel at the tenacity of those young men who stood for days under such intense bombardment to get onboard a ship. I know they had nowhere else to go but it still took immense courage. Been a nice change these ww2 posts.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Well that’s most kind. I must say I am very pleased I have now been to Dunkirk and other places we visited on the trip.

  6. nicholas Kilner says:

    Really excellent post MF! a thoroughly fascinating look at the beaches and a most enjoyable read.
    Somewhere along there are a series of WW1 tunnels, dug (if memory serves) by the 1st Australian tunnelling Coy. Ive got photos somewhere of the entrances in the dunes. Must have been hellish difficult to dig.
    As for the art work, hm

  7. Brett Liggins says:

    We plan on leaving France tomorrow and spending the day at Dunkirk. I was in the Royal Navy and to be honest I’m a little nervous about my emotional response. Thank you for my pre visit briefing. God bless and to all those brave men and women, sleep well.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Brett, apologies for the slightly late response – have been festivaling (!) this weekend. Thanks for your nice comments, and I do hope that this post was of help, and that the experience was worthwhile for you. God bless them indeed.

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