Next year in May 2020 it will be 80 years since troops of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated from Dunkirk, fleeing from the Germans as they advanced across Europe. Operation Dynamo, as it was called, saw 338,000 men picked up from the harbours and beaches of Dunkirk and taken back to England in a hastily assembled flotilla which ranged from naval destroyers to fishing boats and pleasure craft. Here, Sarah recounts the experiences of John Hamilton, an anti-aircraft gunner who was trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. This is followed by her account of what there is in Dunkirk today for visitors looking to see the sites of what Churchill described as ‘a miracle of deliverance’.

The brick memorial on Dunkirk beach to the Allies in Operation Dynamo.
The memorial to the Allied soldiers who sacrificed their lives so that the others could evacuate Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo, 1940.

Dunkirk's Dark Past

Black and white photo of rows of troops standing on deck of a ship with lots of gun turrets.

Troops of the BEF on a destroyer arriving at a British port on 1st June 1940.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, the British sent troops from the BEF, British Expeditionary Force, under the command of Lord Gort, to France where they assembled along the Belgian-French border. Here they remained until the 9th May 1940, mostly digging field defences or on rotation to serve on the Maginot Line in what has become known as the ‘Phoney War’.

The Maginot Line was an impressive fortification that ran along French borders with Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg in an attempt to prevent the Germans invading. There were weaknesses however, including the Ardennes Forest, which French Commanders had believed to be impenetrable. It was not, and it was through the forest that the Germans attacked. On the 10th May they invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and on the 12th May they invaded France.

A black and white drawing of a cross section of the fortifications of the Maginot Line.

A cross-section of the Maginot Line.

By the 19th May, the British discovered that the French flanks had weakened and they had no reserves, so they immediately started planning withdrawal of all their troops. Gort chose Dunkirk (Dunqkerque in French), as it had good port facilities and a 10 mile stretch of beach on which to assemble the troops. Planning began on 20th May and it was Churchill who suggested assembling small vessels to join naval ships in collecting troops. The BEF continued engagements with the enemy but they were trapped along with the remains of the Belgian Army and three of the French armies.

The evacuation was planned by Admiral Ramsay at Dover Castle, and on the 26th May he ordered the start of Operation Dynamo, named after the room it was planned in – the dynamo (electricity) room. Ramsay and Churchill thought they’d only have time to extract about 30000 of their troops but luckily Hitler delayed the advance of his panzer regiments by three days, worried about marshy ground in the area and waiting for reinforcements.

A statue of Admiral Ramsay in front of Dover Castle.

This statue of Admiral Ramsay stands in front Dover Castle looking towards Dunkirk, right next to the tunnels where Operation Dynamo was planned.

This order gave the troops time to set up a perimeter around the area, with the order to ‘fight to the last man and the last round’. The troops retreating up the corridor were told 'it's every man for himself - make for Dunkirk’. The soldiers on the perimeter knew they were forfeiting their own chances of escape, and contemporary reports say they approached it stoically. Most were killed or captured, with many being shot by the Germans once they had been taken as prisoners of war, although some did manage to be evacuated at the end.

For the troops waiting on the beaches and harbour, they may have avoided tank attacks but the Luftwaffe bombardment was fierce, with troops coming under heavy fire. The harbour became blocked by sunken ships, shallow waters meant they had to use smaller boats to take them to larger boats and there was a huge amount of death and destruction. In total, 700 boats took part in the evacuation, most commanded by naval officers but many by civilians. The smallest boat to take part was the Tamzine, an 18ft fishing boat which is now in the Imperial War Museum.

A Dunkirk Veteran's Account

John Hamilton was one of the speakers at this year’s Chalke Valley History Festival and astonishingly, it was his debut as a public speaker. Why had no one found him before? At 101 years old, totally sound in mind and body, he was an inspiring and engaging speaker. Andrew Cumming, who introduced us to this amazing man, told us he had met John in the gym, where John works out for two hours for five days a week. John added that exercise was indeed the key to his good health: he had given up golf at 88 and reluctantly, squash, on the advice of his doctor – who happened to be his opponent in the game.

Three men on a stage with a sign behind saying John Hamilton at Chalke Valley History Festival.

John Hamilton being introduced by historian James Holland at the Chalke Valley History Festival.

His early life seems horrific to contemporary eyes. With parents working abroad he was sent to live with a stranger in Weston-super-Mare at the age of 4, on to board at a prep school, and subsequently to Clifton where he suffered fagging and bullying. A friend of the family found him a job as a junior clerk in a London shipbroker’s office: work he clearly found tedious and unfulfilling. Acutely aware of events in Germany, he joined a TA Anti-Aircraft regiment, and twelve days after the outbreak of war, found himself sleeping on a palliasse in a farmhouse in northern France.

He then proceeded to tell us of his experience of Dunkirk with the pragmatism, modesty and composure which seems common to so many veterans of the wars and continues to impress and move those of us who were not there, and could not know the extent of the horror they experienced.

A model of ruined houses.

A model of ruined Dunkirk, in the Dunkirk Museum in France.

From October 1939 to May 1940 there was “nothing to do” as they sat idly but with apprehension through the Phoney War period. On 10 May 1940 the Germans threw the full force of Blitzkrieg at the French attacking through the Ardennes. As the French army fell back, Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, made the decision to evacuate the troops. “Calais had fallen to the Jerries,” John said, “the only place left was Dunkirk.”

His unit was ordered to Dunkirk. The roads were so crowded with fleeing civilians, troops on the move and abandoned equipment that it took two days to reach the sand dunes near Dunkirk. (In this context he poured scorn on the recent 2017 film Dunkirk which showed the town to have intact streets and standing houses when he knew personally that Dunkirk was utterly devastated by the time the BEF arrived. He recommends the 1958 film instead which he said was much closer to the truth).

When they got there, they set up their guns. Attacked by Stukas, which he described as a terrifying gun plane which dives from 5000 feet at 370mph, with the only chance to hit it is when it finally flattens out. In the chaos that followed John was proud to say that his unit were able to shoot down three Stukas, but he knew they were helpless against such overwhelming force.

Black and white image of soldiers lying in sand dunes.

The soldiers had to wait in the sand dunes often under intense fire from the Luftwaffe.

The queue to get to the water's edge was half a mile long and he recalled watching the panic and struggle as men on the beach fought to get on a mere handful of lifeboats dispatched from a ship, many of them drowning in the attempt. Later arrivals who tried to jump the queue were forced back by an officer who drew his revolver and threatened to shoot. The sand dunes, he explained, were a safer place to be than on the open beaches.

To enable the evacuation, a perimeter had been established, 25 miles long and 8 miles deep. “My God,” he said, “they sacrificed everything.” Although the evacuating troops had to contend with bombers, they did not have to worry about short range weapons, thanks to this fighting perimeter.

He remembered a padre coming to his unit as they sat waiting fearfully. “Would you boys like a service?” he asked them. So they prayed fervently for all those defending the perimeter, saving the lives of those on the dunes and beaches by enabling the evacuation to take place, men who in the end suffered the most – some through being taken prisoner but most through their deaths. Together they sang ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’. In a loud clear voice, John recited verbatim the first verse of this hymn for us, words that so evidently resonated with him 79 years after he sang it on the beaches of Dunkirk.

A painting of Dunkirk showing men in small boats and explosions.

The famous painting 'Withdrawal from Dunkirk' by C.E. Cundall is kept at the Imperial War Museum in London.

At the water’s edge he volunteered to carry wounded men on stretchers to the breakwater. He recreated for us the terror of the Stukas with their 250lb bomb load screeching down at them at 370mph. “God, it was frightening”, he said, wiping his hand across his face as if an attempt to, even now, to erase the memory. He narrowly avoided the fate of others who were buried in sand nearby as a bomb hit, and was able to board a trawler which took them out to HMS Whitehall waiting at sea. This destroyer took them to Dover from where they boarded a train for Aberystwyth. Ten days rest was all that was allowed after this traumatic experience before he found himself recalled to duty.

He seemed quite startled as the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation. But it was a fitting tribute to him, and to those who both lived and died in one of the most remarkable events of British history.

A black and white photo of a young man in soldiers uniform when in the Middle East.

A photo of John Hamilton taken in the 1950s while he was stationned abroad.

Visiting Dunkirk Today

This year my family and I were in Calais for a week's holiday, and had a day trip to Dunkirk to see what remained of the biggest evacuation of World War II. It's an easy place to get to, albeit with a slightly complicated road system. So have Google Maps on standby for when the SatNav gets confused!

Dunkirk War Museum

Our first port of call was the Dunkirk War Museum, located in Bastion 32, a 19th century fortification which was the Headquarters for French and Allied forces during the Battle of Dunkirk and the evacuation. It was with some relief that we finally drove into the large, free car park, able to get off the baffling roads and explore the museum.

The outside of the Dynamo Museum at Dunquerque.

Musée Dunkerque 1940 is in a 19th century fortress by the sea.

It is a fabulous museum, with a huge amount of artefacts all really well presented, and clear information boards in English that really helps to tell the story and increase the understanding of the events that happened there.

The Museum starts with the background of the city, from before the war to the actual evacuation and beyond. Dunkirk was a prosperous city in the 1920s, until the economic crash of the 1930s, with the information boards explaining the rise of Hitler and why the French were slow to rearm.

People looking at displays inside the Dynamo Museum in Dunkirk.

The museum has a wealth of artefacts on display, many of which were found on the beaches after the evacuation.

A 12 minute film, which plays alternately in French then English, shows footage from the evacuation, which really brings it all to life and puts the exhibits in context. After this, you can wander through the various rooms to see all of the artefacts. Many of these were from the huge amount of items left behind after the evacuation, and some have been found at sea, slowly rising from the seabeds over the years.

A car loaded with belongings with a mattress on top.

in 1940, millions of French fled in what is known as the L'Exode, sometimes so quickly that they left uneaten meals on their tables.

Plane engines in a museum.

Plane engines found on Dunkirk's beaches. Items are still being uncovered to this day.

What is particularly interesting is how it tells a lot about the evacuation from the French point of view. The French were rescued after the English had gone, and as the Germans advanced closer and closer, the evacuation became far more dangerous and turbulent, with the ports so full of shipwrecked boats that it was almost impassable. Over 130,000 French soldiers were rescued after the BEF had gone, taken to Dover with many of them repatriated to Cherbourg within a day to keep fighting, eventually being captured or demobilised in the Armistice of 22nd June.

A family walking across the beach at Dunkirk.

Dunkirk beach today is a place for families, picnics and seagulls.

It's an excellent museum, clearly very popular as it was full of people, many of them English, and I highly recommend a visit.

Just opposite the museum is a new monument to the events of 1940, with a huge hourglass called 'Le Sablier', which was constructed in 2017. The hourglass is to represent the trickle of men leaving the coast of France, as well as a reversal of fortune, with defeat turning into victory. Right behind this is what is left of the fortress, once so huge but gradually destroyed over the years until just this tiny area remains.

Dunkirk Beaches

A walk across the large bridge will take you to the where the action all took place - the Dunkirk beach. It is a huge golden sandy beach, sadly marred by a huge industrial complex right on the water's edge. There are some dunes still here, although not many, and it is very hard to equate this place with the events that happened here 80 years ago. Families are sunbathing, splashing in the water, wandering up and down the concrete promenade which is full of cafes, bars and ice cream shops. The blue sea stretches into the distance and it just feels impossible to imagine the horrors experienced by all those that were here.

The stone memorial to Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk.

The Operation Dynamo Memorial is to 'The glorious memory of the pilots, sailors and soldiers of the French Army and their Allies who sacrificed themselves in the Battle of Dunkirk, May June 1940'.

Operation Dynamo Memorial

The Memorial to the Allies, just before you get to the beach, is made from cobblestones from the original harbour quayside and was created in 1962 to comemorate the courage of the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and held off the German advance long enough so that others could escape - the men on the perimeter that John Hamilton talked about.

A paddle steamer at dock in front of a tall building.

The Princess Elizabeth did four trips between Dunkirk and England during the evacuation.

Princess Elizabeth Paddle Steamer

We drove back into the main part of town, on a mission to find the Princess Elizabeth paddle steamer. Built in the late 1920s as pleasure craft travelling between Southampton and Cowes, she was transformed into a minesweeper for World War II. She took part in Operation Dynamo, evacuating 1673 soldiers in four journeys back and forth, including 500 French soldiers. After the war she went through various incarnations as a casino, restaurant and pub in England, before returning to Dunkirk in 1999. Now a floating restaurant, we were keen to climb aboard for tea - it describes itself as Restaurant/Tea Room. Sadly, one look at the menus outside sent us fleeing, as tea did not appear to be an option, but meals starting at €20 per course, did. Unwilling to pay over €100, we reluctantly went to the MacDonalds which is opposite.

It does look like a wonderful ship though, and if you have the time and money, I would guess that it is a great place for a meal.

Dunkirk Memorial

The Memorial to the men who died at Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo.

The CWGC Memorial to the soldiers of Dunkirk is in the main town cemetery.

Our final destination in the town of Dunkirk itself was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial to all who died at Dunkirk, and many of their graves. A little way out of town, we found the huge town cemetery, which has French World War I graves, local graves in the wonderful flamboyant French style, and then the English section.

Unveiled in 1957, the memorial is a small but dignified building, with an avenue of stone pylons leading away from it, all of them carved with the names of those who have no known grave. Next to it, there are countless graves of the ones who were able to be buried, and walking up and down the rows, seeing how they all died within a week of each other, really helped to bring home the horrors of the evacuation.

Next to the World War II graves lie the graves of all of the World War I soldiers who died at Dunkirk. It is really quite heart breaking, and shows just how contested this area of land has been in the last century alone.

Outside Dunkirk

A golden sandy beach with families on it.
A golden sandy beach with a shipwreck on it, The Crested Eagle.

The beaches of Bray-Dunes and Zuydcoote still have shipwrecks that are visible at low tide. The Crested Eagle at Zuydcoote. Photograph ©️ Mike Bennett

We visited two further Operation Dynamo beaches, Zuydcoote and Bray-Dunes, which are a short drive away from Dunkirk, to try to see the famous shipwrecks on the beaches. Although I thought I had cleverly checked the tide times on Google, as they are only visible at low tide, I had clearly been misinformed, and when we arrived, the beaches were at full tide and our luck was out. What we got instead was more golden sandy beaches and typical seaside activities. Great for sunworshippers, not so good for us.

If you do go to visit the wreck of the Crested Eagle, which was wrecked during Operation Dynamo, then I think this is the best website to use to check tide times, and I wish I had used it instead of just relying on Google.

Wormhoudt Memorial

One place I really wanted to get to, but we had run out of time, was the site of the Wormhoudt Massacre. Thirty minutes drive south, Wormhoudt is near the Belgian border. In May 1940, as the BEF were retreating towards Dunkirk, two British Infantry divisions were holding the road to delay the German advance, to give their comrades the chance to leave. After fierce fighting and running out of ammunition, the British surrendered in expectation of being captured and taken as prisoners of war. Instead, they were forced into a barn and shot in cold blood. 90 men were killed, with a few survivors who played dead and who were later able to tell people about the massacre.

A replica barn has now been built as a lasting memorial, and a small museum opened for visitors.

How to Get to Dunkirk

Situated on the coast, and on the French/Belgian border, Dunkirk is an easy place to get to. It can be included as part of a road trip around northern France, or as a day trip if staying in the Pas-de-Calais region. It is also accessible as a day trip from the capitals, with a train from Brussels taking two hours, or three from Paris.

Ferries go directly from Dover to Dunkirk with DFDS, who have regular sailings on their fleet. The journey only lasts for two hours and is an enjoyable way to travel, with restaurants, shops, and great views. If you book Priority Boarding then the travel time can be reduced as you will be one of the first off the ferry, maximising your time in Dunkirk.

Is it worth visiting Dunkirk?

My short answer to this is yes, it is definitley worth visiting for a weekend, but do your planning carefully if you want to see the shipwrecks, or if you plan to use public transport rather than driving. If I were visiting again, I would find a central hotel for a night, then spread the places out over a two day visit and include the local art museums and churches as well.

Dunkirk has quite a few hotels to choose from (see a full list here). They are mostly fairly business like and basic, but if you are looking for something a bit different, then Les Pièces du Puzzle looks good and comes with a hot tub to make the evenings that bit more special. There are some lovely looking hotels out of town if you are happy to drive - Hostellerie Saint Louis is 12 miles away in a country manor house with a restaurant.

Visiting Dunkirk is really an essential for anyone with an interest in war history, and feels like a fitting tribute and a way to keep the memory alive of the events, and the men who sacrificed so much.