In May and June of 1940, Dunkirk was the scene of a major turning point in history. During the Second World War, the famous Operation Dynamo succeeded in evacuating more than 338,000 soldiers to England, in only nine days.
The relative calm of the “Phoney War” period that followed the 1939 declaration of war between Britain and Germany suddenly ended on 10th May 1940, when Germany launched an attack on Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. In the space of just a few days, the German army had pushed through and the allies were retreating towards the North. Fearing that its troops would be trapped, and judging the battle to be lost, Britain decided to evacuate the troops retreating on Dunkirk by sea. Admiral Ramsay led the evacuation, which the British called ‘Operation Dynamo’.
England sent over everything and anything that could float: warships, commercial vessels, fishing boats, sailing boats, barges and “little ships” that had never before been more than a few miles off the coast. Under continual aerial attack, more than 340,000 allied soldiers, including 120,000 French and a few thousand Belgian soldiers were evacuated through Dunkirk, and about a third of the soldiers left from the beaches. 40,000 soldiers were left behind and taken prisoner. Most of them belonged to the divisions in charge of slowing down Germany’s advance, a crucial element in the operation’s success.
This glorious moment in the Second World War has inspired many filmmakers and writers. As early as 1949, Robert Merle published “Weekend at Zuydcoote” which won the Prix Goncourt. Henri Verneuil took this novel as the inspiration for his 1964 film, “Weekend at Dunkirk”, and there’s a new film by Christopher Nolan, released in 2017, called “Dunkirk”.
More than a century later, you can hunt down the traces of this unique episode in history at a great number of sites and exhibitions.