‘Dynamo’ movie powers Dunkirk’s summer appeal

July 19, 2017



Dunkirk becomes the focus of attention from cross-channel tourists this summer with the launch of a blockbuster film marking World War II’s Operation Dynamo.

Popularly called ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’, the operation (May 26-June 4 1940) snatched an unlikely victory by saving more than 300,000 British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops from annihilation as German divisions advanced on the French port.

They escaped aboard a hastily assembled flotilla of 861 vessels, ranging from Royal Navy ships to requisitioned ferries and small pleasure craft.

Of these 243 were sunk, including six British and three French destroyers, but it meant that for every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, just one was left to become a prisoner of war.

The drama is re-told by ‘Dunkirk’, released on July 21, a film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, whose credits include the ‘Batman’ trilogy, ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Inception’.

The acclaimed British filmmaker’s crew turned the clock back nearly 80 years for the production, crowding the city with extras in wartime garb and using many vintage vehicles.

The city’s famous long beach, from which many Allied soldiers waded out into shoulder-depth water to await rescue, were used to film the action, complete with authentic detonations and low-level strafing and bombing by aircraft – Nolan is said to have avoided computer-generated imagery as much as possible.

Real-life 1940 scars remain too: wrecked vessels, blockhouses, and many a bullet or cannon-scarred building.

But the modern-day charm of the French port shines through and apparently worked its magic on Christopher Nolan himself: local tourist officers say he stayed on at weekends during the shooting, often strolling on the wide and historic beach and visiting local attractions.

*Dunkirk can be accessed via a two-hour crossing from Dover aboard modern DFDS ferries with excellent facilities. There are up to 24 sailings daily and cars, caravans, motorhomes, motorbikes or bicycles can all be accommodated.


Paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth - Dunkirk


‘Operation Dynamo’ or The Miracle of Dunkirk

Did you know?

The evacuation inspired Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, to write one of his most famous speeches, the “We shall fight on the beaches…” rallying cry made to the House of Commons following the success of Dynamo.

By the end of Day 1 of Operation Dynamo, just 7,669 Allied troops had been evacuated, but the motley fleet of rescue ships quickly warmed to its task: by the final day, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued by nearly 900 vessels. Even as ships and boats turned for home, their ordeal wasn’t over: the rescue flotilla faced threats from shore batteries, minefields, running aground and the harrying Luftwaffe.

Despite evocative images of long lines of soldiers wading out from the Dunkirk beaches to be rescued, most of the troops (239,555) boarded via the beleaguered harbour and its protective mole.

Most of the so-called ‘Little ships of Dunkirk’ – fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats – acted as ferries taking men from the beaches out to larger vessels. Others made a perilous and heavily laden journey back to their original departure port of Ramsgate.

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships was founded in 1965 by the owners of surviving vessels used for the evacuation and organizes a memorial crossing of Little Ships to Dunkirk every five years, escorted by the Royal Navy – the next will mark the 80th anniversary in 2020. These survivors are entitled to wear the ‘Dunkirk Jack’ a flag featuring the St George’s Cross (England Flag) and the arms of Dunkirk.

Fearing their tanks would be bogged down in the low-lying area around Dunkirk, German generals halted their advancing troops on May 22 1940 – a move condoned by Adolf Hitler – and left it to the Luftwaffe to bomb the retreating Allied force into submission. It allowed a valuable breathing space, contributing to the success of Dynamo. Hitler dismissed the successful evacuation, believing that British troops would never again set foot on the Continent, but most lived to fight another day and Dunkirk is now regarded as one of the turning points of WWII.


Duchesse Anne tallship - Dunkirk


Spotlight on Dunkirk

Dunkirk is France’s most northerly major settlement – just six miles from the Belgian border – and the country’s third largest port, after Le Havre and Marseilles.

Its local name, Dunkerque, comes from the Flemish for ‘church in the dunes’ and it has a modern-day population of around 91,500. For a long time, the city and surrounding area was fought over by Spain, the Netherlands, England and France.

This was finally resolved when Britain’s Charles II sold it to France in 1662. The French promptly turned it into a formidable fortress port and, later, home to French commerce raiders or corsairs such as Dunkirk’s most famous son, the swashbuckling Jean Bart.

Local cuisine has a Flemish influence, one of the most popular dishes being coq à la bière – chicken in a creamy beer sauce.

Dunkirk is also a great base for an activity holiday, with hiking, cycling, kayaking, and sand yachting being key attractions. The recently renovated 27-hole golf course is a magnet for keen golfers, with nine new and highly original holes, inspired by Dunkirk’s military fortifications.

And shopping also draws British tourists, with excellent wine and beer options in many local supermarkets, notably the Pidou Superstore next to the port – a perfect stopping-off point before boarding the DFDS ferry for home.


See the sites

Malo les Bains – to the east of the port, Dunkirk’s long and magnificent sandy beach and its promenade shrug off the memories of 77 years ago, to become a fine stroll to and from the cafés and restaurants of the Digue des Alliés. The western end has a memorial commemorating those caught up in the evacuation and the vessels lost in the operation.

Dunkirk War Museum – close to the beach pier, the museum has gathered a rich collection of weapons, aircraft, and other militaria. Visitors can also join the ‘Dynamo Tour’ guided coach tour visiting the key Operation Dynamo sites, coloured by some anecdotes from the making of the film. For more information: www.dynamo-dunkerque.com

St Éloi Belfry – now a World Heritage Site, the church of St Éloi was founded in the 7th century by Saint Eloi, but the current building has 16th, 18th and 19th century origins. Its major claim to fame is a white marble slab marking the tomb of Jean Bart. A climb to the top of the belfry is rewarded by panoramic views of the city – backdrop to both the wartime battle and the making of the movie.

Dunkirk Port Museum – housed within a former tobacco warehouse, this quayside museum features an interactive exhibition on the spectacular growth of Dunkirk from 17th century fishing village to major industrialised port. It also has an impressive collection of professional ship models, ranging from an 18th century schooner, to modern vessels.

Several vintage vessels are moored alongside the museum, the star being a superb three-master tall ship, the Duchesse Anne – formerly a German training ship. Her companions are the Lightship Sandettie and barge Guilde. For more information: www.museeportuaire.com

Princess Elizabeth – moored in the harbour, this grand looking paddle steamer was a heroine of the evacuation, making four crossings to England and rescuing 1,673 soldiers of various nationalities.


Dunkirk port - modern architecture

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