Just about a year ago I won a return ferry crossing to France at my son’s school summer fair–and on Friday we finally got around to using it. Our crossing was with DFDS Seaways from Dover to Dunkirk, a calm, relaxing two hour cruise across the Channel with the lucky addition of travel in the VIP lounge.
As we left on the 29th of May, you may think, “Oh, what a lovely time to go—it’s summer, sunny and warm.” Yeah, right. I’m still operating under the delusion that May is summer—my DNA tells me it should be summer, but the reality is far different. I forget that this is Northern Europe I’m dealing with and still can’t believe how cold it can be at the end of May. I checked the weather forecast before we left, and knew it was going to be in the low 60s and there was a good chance of rain, but oh boy. We were not prepared for what Mother Nature did to us.
We arrived in Dunkirk at 11 on Friday morning and zipped off to the town to visit the memorial museum to the Dunkirk evacuations, as well as the Dunkirk beaches. It was windy, cloudy and cold, but we set all of that aside for a lovely lunch of French crepes. We walked along the beach, where the sand blew into us like sleet—stinging our eyes, our faces, coating our scalps with a fine layer, blowing down our coats and shirts. This—what felt like gale force winds to us wimps—was not what we had in mind. More on this later.
After taking the requisite photos, we visited the memorial museum—the counterpart to the “Operation Dynamo” exhibit in Dover at Dover Castle, which we’d visited 2 years ago. For those of you who don’t know, 75 years ago, at the very time of our visit, British, French and Belgian military troops were surrounded by German forces who were advancing on Dunkirk. The Allies fled to Dunkirk in the hopes of being transported across the Channel by boat to safety in England. It was the most successful military rescue operation of all time, but was also, in a sense, a military disaster because it represented a crushing defeat for the Allies. At the beginning of May, 1940, the Germans launched an offensive against the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg that would eventually spread to France. It was rapid and devastating, but the evacuation was nothing short of a miracle,
The evacuation was directed by the Brit’s Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay and overseen by Winston Churchill. The Vice Admiral and his counterparts estimated they would only have 48 hours to rescue as many men as possible from Dunkirk before the Nazis arrived, and, knowing they didn’t have enough warships at their command to maximize their rescue effort, they drafted every British working and pleasure craft they could find—yachts, fishing vessels, dinghies, merchant ships—no matter how small, they needed every one. They ended up with over 800 boats manned by military personnel and ordinary citizens doing what they could for their country. The evacuation began on the 26th of May and lasted 9 days, until the 4th of June. Tens of thousands of lives were lost and the British troops had to abandon most of their military equipment and many of their warships and aircraft were destroyed in the bombing. Wreckage of some of the boats used in the operation remains in the water at various points along the coast.
When you visit the museum in Dunkirk you see photos of orderly British troops queuing on the beaches, awaiting rescue, even while they were being strafed by German planes, never knowing if they would make it home. It was hell on that beach, as it is on battlefields everywhere. As the anticipated two days of rescue operations stretched to a miraculous nine, 338,226 troops were rescued, including Belgian and French forces who had fled to the coastal town. Over 40,000 French troops were left behind and captured by the Germans. The Belgian and French soldiers who were lucky enough to be evacuated to England were given a few weeks respite from the fighting before being sent back to the front and almost certain death or imprisonment by the Germans.
On the last day of Operation Dynamo, Churchill made his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, warning Britain that “Wars are not won by evacuations.” It was one of many speeches he made that pulled the nation together in support of the military operation and the “won’t give up” spirit many associate with the era in Britain.
Sobering, isn’t it? Unimaginable. It’s hard to believe that such a beautiful place could be the scene of so much devastation. The town of Dunkirk itself was decimated during the operation, with 80% of it destroyed, then captured by the Germans. Dunkirk was one of the last towns liberated in France at the end of the war and suffered much during those years.
After the museum, we decided to drive a few miles down the road to see the shipwrecks of Zuydcoote—where many of the ships damaged in the operation were abandoned, and the remains of many are visible today at low tide. It wasn’t quite low tide when we went, and we should have done as our son suggested and gone to the hotel instead. We took a few photos of still submerged ships while the whipping winds continued to blow stinging sand into our faces before it began to hail. And then rain—torrential rain. And though we did our best to run against the force of the wind and rain, through wet sand, we were soaked through to our undergarments, covered in sand, and none too happy.
We walked into our hotel 20 minutes later positively dripping water and shedding sand. We are light packers and had only the jeans we were wearing, no change of shoes, no change of coat. After hot showers where we each shed a bucketful of sand (and to the person who had to clean our rooms after we left, we are truly sorry), we did our best to dry our clothes to an acceptable standard with a hairdryer before we went out to eat that night.
Let’s just say it was a damp evening. Our son has no desire to go on a beach ever again, and though we’ve started to laugh about the situation, it will be funnier in a few weeks time.
Saturday, luckily, proved to be a cold but dry day and we are none the worse for wear, especially after some lovely French pastries and good strong coffee for these expat parents. And we’re grateful: the wind and rain we experienced for a few moments Friday afternoon were nothing compared to what those nearly half a million soldiers endured on those same beaches 75 years ago.