If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s epic thriller Dunkirk, you know a bit about the story of the Battle of Dunkirk, and how pleasure boats and other civilian ships came to the rescue of British and French soldiers surrounded by the German military in 1940, during World War II at the French coast.
The exact number of “Littles Ships” that participated in what was called “Operation Dynamo” is not known, but an estimate puts it somewhere between 1,176 an 1,588. Not only British civilians risked their lives navigating the beaches of Dunkirk, but also Belgian, French and Dutch citizens. But these civilian boats were only a part of the story.
Visiting the Museum Dunkerque 1940 Operation Dynamo will give you more insight into these days that made history.
Altogether, between May 27th and throughout June 4th of 1940, almost 340,000 soldiers were evacuated, about a third from the beaches, the rest from the harbor of Dunkirk.
The museum, located close to the beach and the harbor, gives an excellent overview over what happened during the days preceding the evacuation, and afterwards, with charts, models, and artefacts. Here, you can read about the mistrust among the Allies, about tactical mistakes that gave the Germans a huge advantage, and the decision to secretly evacuate first the British, and finally the French soldiers, too, from a besieged city. The latter received a warm welcome in England, only to be sent back to France almost immediately, where they ended up captured or demobilised, following the armistice of June 22nd.
And you will hear about the “spirit of Dunkirk”: How a major defeat and retreat became a victory in the public eye in Britain, and helped to muster the courage and determination to fight Nazi Germany.
The war, however, should go on for five more years, and Dunkirk was not liberated until May 9th, 1945, its port and the city in ruins.
The Museum reopened in 2017 after some major renovation, but will be closed for the winter after November 11th. It will open some time in spring of 2019, after more remodeling.
If you want to have a cup of tea on board of one of the “Little Ships” – I highly recommend visiting the “Princess Elizabeth”. The Paddle Steamer is moored in Dunkirk Harbor and a Restaurant and Tearoom.