Travelogue: Dunkirk Giving history a place in the sun

The unusually chilly winds in May piercing through the calmness of this sleepy port town tucked in northern France cloaks the troubled aspects of its history.

The remnants of Operation Dynamo, evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II, brought alive in Christopher Nolan’s much acclaimed film ‘Dunkirk’, are now tourist attractions in this lazy, easy-going township.

Princess Elizabeth, the paddle steamer of British origin in which more than 1,600 of 336,000 soldiers crossed over to Dover across the English Channel in 1940, is now a busy restaurant permanently berthed at Qual de Hull offering the best of wines and cocktails.

Added attractions are several old ships tied up on the quayside including the majestic full-rigged Duchesse Anne, the last remaining triple-masted vessels under the French flag which is now part of Musee portuaire or the Port Museum.

Princess Elizabeth

A little more about Princess Elizabeth. Standing apart in the clutter of numerous sail boats meant for pleasure and adventure is Princess Elizabeth, shining in the warm yellow light at dusk. Built at Northam to serve as a minesweeper in World War II, it came in handy in Dunkirk where it made four trips to ferry the soldiers out of the war zone in France. Before being brought to Dunkirk as a floating restaurant and bar, Princess Elizabeth was in London. The ship was awarded the ‘Dunkirk 1940’ military cross as well.

Dunkirk can be reached from Paris in around three hours using either motorway A1 or A16 with the former being shorter in distance but the latter likely to be traffic-free. It is closer to Brussels as a journey by road from the Belgian capital takes only around two hours.

The free-flowing motorway meanders through the picturesque French countryside offering lush green scenic view playing hide and seek with the rapidly changing weather oscillating quickly between sunshine and rain.

With a population of a little over 1,00,000, Dunkirk’s landscape of new buildings merging with old blocks looks mostly deserted.

As one local pointed out that on a bright sunny day there are more people on the beaches, where Hitler’s march was halted, than in the city.

Travel guides will tell one that port visits are a must when in Dunkirk. It is the third biggest ports of France catering to the big industrial activities facing the North Sea. One can take a boat ride from Place du Minck, near the Dunkirk townhall.

The bustling port city is an industrial hub with the ArcelorMittal steel plant spread over an area seven kilometres long and three kilometres wide that employs more than 3,000 workers. It caters to the energy needs of France as Gravelines Nuclear Power Station, the sixth largest in the world, located just 20 kilometres from Dunkerque.

The city’s own heating network relies on ArcelorMittal’s steel plant which supplies its waste energy to Dunkirk local administration through a grid that helps in fighting harsh winters. It has a largest LNG terminal and high energy consumers like Rio Tinto, Glencore Manganese and Befesa Valera.

Paying tribute to the industrial spirit of the town is the bronze statue of Jean-Baptiste Trystram standing tall near the city centre. With one hand placed on the plan of Dunkirk and other in the pocket, resting below him is a statue of a woman holding a torch, representing the city. The statue is as old as 1911 but during the Second World War the Germans ordered it to be melted down which could not be done as they were told that it was not made of bronze. It was resurrected in 1972 but has been in the current form only since 2000.

German occupation

The city’s landscape bears the testimony of the German occupation. It was the month of May in 1940 when thousands of British, French and Belgian troops were left stranded in and around the port city pushed to the sea by the invading German forces.

What followed was one of the biggest military evacuations in the world history led by vice admiral Bertram Ramsay of the Royal Navy who from Dover Castle carried out the ejection of troops from the battlefield. By the first half of May, German forces had trapped the Allied forces in northern France and quickly took over Boulogne and Calais before heading for the last bastion of Dunkirk.

The Allied forces fortified the small port town even as the Germans continued their assaults from land, air and sea. The main dock was rendered useless leaving beaches and breakwater the only getaway points.

With strafing German aircraft and the pounding ground troops, the Allied forces began the rescue arranging ships to ferry more than 300,000 men.

With the waters not deep enough to berth big ships, the soldiers were taken out in small boats to the sea which became the cornerstone of Operation Dynamo.

When the operation was over, it is reported that more than 230,000 were transported from the breakwater and another around 100,000 from the beaches.

Within three weeks of the evacuation, Dunkirk had fallen to the Germans. For long, the Germans and the Allied forces argued if it was a victory or defeat at Dukirk. For Hitler, it was the last town to have fallen. The Allied forces had pulled out some sort of a miracle by evacuating so many troops who would otherwise have been massacred.

The beaches of Dunkirk even today evoke the memories of the 1940s when ships sailed against time to pull out thousands of troops who would otherwise have perished in the war. It has Belle Epoque buildings along with bars and cafes. One can find war leftovers, like pieces of canon, placed on the streets as souvenirs of the troubled times.

Yet, for the massive evacuation effort that was put into operation, more than 4,500 troops died during Operation Dynamo and these names are inscribed on the Dunkirk Memorial. While beaches are associated with sun, sand and pleasure, it is hard to escape history on the sand ways of Dunkirk. The locals might have overcome the past in thronging the beaches for pleasure. For an occasional visitor, though, the images of the evacuation re-created by Christopher Nolan have become a reference point for the World War.

Every spot reminds one of the mammoth operation which comes alive even by stepping on the sand. The town is mostly calm and there are hardly people on the streets but cafes and bars are packed. Dunkirk comes alive in the first half of the year during the carnival which is said to be the noisiest in France.

Colourfully dressed revellers throng the streets between January and March. It is a tradition that started with locals celebrating with their families before setting off on a long fishing season in the sea. The climax is three days of madness beginning on a Sunday and ending on Wednesday – Trois Joye-uses, three joyful days.

Gautam Datt