Dunkirk!

July 15, 2017

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In preparation for Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film, Dunkirk, it seems appropriate to take a deeper look into the town, itself. A town that, but 77 years ago, was home to both one of the most horrendous wartime atrocities that British soldiers bore witness to, as well as one of the most uplifting feats of British patriotism, spirit and comradery.

In May 1940, nearly 400,000 men found themselves stranded after becoming surrounding by a swarm of German soldiers. Conquering Calais, the Nazis then moved to defeat the final British and French soldiers that had retreated to Dunkirk.

Receiving a telephone call from French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, Winston Churchill was told that the battle was lost. If these 400,000 men were lost, also, it may mean the end of the war and surrender to the Nazi army.

However, Churchill refused defeat. In a commendable demonstration of indefatigable British spirit, Churchill launched Operation Dynamo, commissioning as many ships as possible to turn to the shores of Dunkirk, already blackened with gunpowder and death, to bring back our boys.

In an effort that took 9 days, 338,000 men were rescued in the greatest military evacuation in history. It is these heroic men and women, not only soldiers and officials, but also the regular citizens who used their own boats, that Christopher Nolan celebrates in the upcoming movie.

Dunkirk’s military history is still very much alive, even without the Hollywood set brought along by cast and crew. Though the tides have washed the bloodshed from the sandy beaches, the memory of the war continues to permeate through this Northern French town. Shipwrecks and former bunkers, now sunken into the sand, still remain on Dunkirk’s lengthy coastline. Barbed wire entanglements and observation posts, too, serve as a reminder to this awful period in our recent past.

Malo les Bains’ pier stretches out into the English Channel and acted as an iconic landmark in the movie, as was the beach itself. Both of which are accessible to the public, so you can really get a feel for not only the setting of the film, but of the real event, too.

As well as the beach, Dunkirk is rich in museums and historical areas for you to visit that also act as a tribute to Operation Dynamo. Dunkirk War Museum is just a short walk from the pier. Reopening on 16 July, just in time for the release of the movie, the museum will have doubled in size. Exhibitions, artefacts and movies will make the museum one of the most genuine places to visit for a taste of Operation Dynamo. The location, Bastion 32, even served as the allied headquarters during the Operation.

Fort des Dunes is another paramount stop. Though initially built in the late 19th century, this impressive fortification was used by the allied troops to process soldiers. Nature and structure meet here as the overgrown walls and eerie tunnels create an incredibly atmospheric walk.

Another historical location is the British Cemetery, a poignant homage to the 4528 British soldiers, as well as 6 soldiers of the Indian army, whose graves are unknown. The graceful grounds, with the fertile, green grass and alabaster monuments, is a truly beautiful way to salute these men.

For guided tours, you can take the Operation Dynamo boat tour, which allows you to sail across the same seas that saw the evacuation of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers nearly 80 years ago. There is also the Dynamo Tour, a 2 hour long venture, either by coach or in your own vehicle, that makes sure to stop at the most important sites of Operation Dynamo, as well as taking you through the different settings used in the film. Alternatively, stretch your legs on the walking tour, following the path of your favourite actors and discovering where upon the Malo Les Bains the film was shot.

For a rather different tour, take the Operation Dynamo Flying Experience and put yourself in the position of the RAF pilots that faced the Luftwaffe and their heavy artillery. You’ll be flown over some of the key sites for Operation Dynamo including the evacuation beaches and military hospital. There is also a Movie Exhibition featuring the costumes and sets used in the Dunkirk film that is free to visit.

The Princess Elizabeth paddle steamer, built in 1927, took part in several evacuations during Operation Dynamo, therefore placing itself as a key historical piece in the story of Dunkirk. It is also used in the film. It is now available as an eatery, serving food prepared by a Michelin-starred chef. For an authentic experience, book a table here and enjoy the cuisine which is a combination of local flavours with a British flair.

Simply 2 hours away by ferry, Dunkirk is easily accessible from Dover, whether you’d like to go for the day, or prefer to stay longer. Follow the 21 mile route taken by the ships of Operation Dynamo on our ferry as you sail to Dunkirk and steep yourself in the overwhelming history that exists in this unassuming town.

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