Less reliant than Boulogne-sur-Mer or Calais on the cross-channel ferry trade, Dunkerque is the liveliest of the three big Channel ports, a university town with an appealing, boat-filled inner harbour, the Bassin du Commerce. It was from the shores of Malo-les-Bains, an attractive beachfront suburb, that the evacuation of Allied troops took place in 1940. Dunkerque remains France’s third largest port and a massive industrial centre, its oil refineries and steelworks producing a quarter of the total French output. Devastated during World War II, central Dunkerque is largely the brick-built product of postwar reconstruction, slightly more ambitious and stylish than the rebuild of Calais or Boulogne-sur-Mer. But among the 1950s architecture, you come across some delightful Art Nouveau-style villas with curving forms and balconies.
Among the few buildings of any significance that survived World War II (or were rebuilt afterwards) are the tall medieval brick belfry, the town’s chief landmark; the impressive, bullet-ridden fifteenth-century church of St-Éloi opposite, to which the belfry belonged; and, a few blocks north of the church on place Charles-Valentin, the early twentieth-century Hôtel de Ville, a giant Flemish fancy to rival that of Calais.Read More
Malo-les-Bains is a pleasant nineteenth-century seaside suburb on the east side of Dunkerque, from whose vast sandy beach the Allied troops embarked in 1940. Digue des Alliés is the urban end of an extensive beachfront promenade lined with cafés and restaurants, though things are rather nicer further east along Digue de Mer, away from Dunkerque’s industrial side. Much of the promenade’s attractive architecture survived wartime destruction; there’s more fin-de-siècle charm a few blocks inland, along avenue Faidherbe and its continuation avenue Kléber, and around leafy place Turenne with its dainty old-fashioned bandstand.
The tiny hilltop town of Cassel is just 30km southeast of Dunkerque. Hills are rare in Flanders, so Cassel was fought over from Roman times onwards. It was supposedly to the top of Cassel’s hill that the “Grand Old Duke of York” marched his ten thousand men in 1793, though, as implied in the nursery rhyme, he failed to take the town. In more recent history, during World War I, Marshal Foch spent some of the “most distressing hours” of his life here.
The town was originally a Flemish-speaking community – until use of the language was suppressed by the authorities – and it still boasts a very Flemish Grand’Place, lined with some magnificent mansions, from which narrow cobbled streets fan out to the ramparts.
Dunkerque’s 1940 evacuation
Dunkerque’s 1940 evacuation
The evacuation of 350,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkerque from May 27 to June 4, 1940, has become legendary, concealing the fact that the Allies, through their own incompetence, almost lost their entire armed forces in the first weeks of the war.
The German army had taken just ten days to reach the English Channel and could easily have cut off the Allied armies. Hitler, unable to believe the ease with which he had overcome a numerically superior enemy, ordered his generals to halt their advance, giving Allied forces trapped in the Pas-de-Calais time to organize Operation Dynamo, the largest wartime evacuation ever undertaken. Initially it was hoped that around 10,000 men would be saved, but thanks to low-lying cloud and more than 1750 vessels – including pleasure cruisers, fishing boats and river ferries – 140,000 French and more than 200,000 British soldiers were successfully shipped back to England. The heroism of the boatmen and the relief at saving so many British soldiers were the cause of national celebration.
In France, however, the ratio of British to French evacuees caused bitter resentment, since Churchill had promised that the two sides would go bras dessus, bras dessous (“arm in arm”). Meanwhile, the British media played up the “remarkable discipline” of the troops as they waited to embark, the “victory” of the RAF over the Luftwaffe and the “disintegration” of the French army all around. In fact, there was widespread indiscipline in the early stages as men fought for places on board; the battle for the skies was evenly matched; and the French fought long and hard to cover the whole operation, some 150,000 of them remaining behind to become prisoners of war. In addition, the Allies lost seven destroyers and 177 fighter planes and were forced to abandon more than 60,000 vehicles. After 1940, Dunkerque remained occupied by Germans until the bitter end of the war. It was the last French town to be liberated in 1945.