Tim Hughes heads across the Channel to explore the reminders of Operation Dynamo - and visits a wartime site with a terrible history, now transformed into a place of education

We all know the story... it’s a tale of near annihilation turned into a miraculous tale of survival; of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

In the darkest days of the war, and in the face of overwhelming German military might, the British Expeditionary Force and our French and Belgian allies were pushed into the northernmost corner of France, at the port of Dunkirk.

The nation looked on as we faced what Winston Churchill described as “a colossal military disaster”, with “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” trapped on the shores of the English Channel, as the plucky French fought to hold back seven advancing German divisions.

Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, more than 338,000 soldiers were rescued from the beaches by the Royal Navy, and more than 800 ‘little ships’ – a raggle-taggle armada of fishing boats, yachts, barges, merchant vessels and pleasure cruisers, which ferried the men to the destroyers and commercial boats offshore.

The ‘miracle’ occupies a place at the very heart of British identity – a living example of what can be achieved if we all pull together.

The release of film director Christopher Nolan’s box office smash Dunkirk has once again thrust its name into the public consciousness.

But while the French port is synonymous with the events of spring 1940, there is little sign of those events in the town itself.

If we visit Dunkirk (Dunkerque to its inhabitants) at all, it is usually to drive off a ferry and head south. But to do so is a missed opportunity to explore a town with a fascinating history.

Occupied by the Dutch and Spanish – during which time it gave birth to the feared Dunkirkers: privateers in the pay of the Spanish crown – it has a rich maritime past today brought to life in the Musée Portuaire, or Harbour Museum, which covers fascinating collections on land and afloat along with a 19th century lighthouse which recently opened to the public.

The town itself is attractive and, considering it was practically flattened during the Second World War, boasts a sprinkling of pretty churches and proud Flemish architecture – topped by its impressive Town Hall, its ornate, top-heavy belfry, reminiscent of that at Calais, a landmark for miles around.

The Oxford Times:

But while today’s Dunkirkers are proud of its nautical heritage, there are precious few reminders of those weeks in 1940.

While the key sites of the Normandy landings are celebrated tourist sites, bristling with monuments and museums, there is little here to remind the casual visitor of the heroism – French and British – which has scored its name into history.

A small group of volunteers are determined to keep those memories and the stories of those who served here, alive.

The Dunkerque 1940 Museum – or Mémorial du Souvenir – is staffed by volunteers who were mere children at the time of the evacuation.

The museum, guarded by period artillery pieces, occupies vaults in the 19th century coastal fortifications, which served as the HQ for French and Allied forces during the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo.

Within there are weapons and equipment salvaged from the beach, maps, pictures and scale models of the operation. But best of all are the stories told by the volunteers – men who are still grateful for the miracle that took place here – and in awe of the bravery of those who lost their lives or were plucked from certain death by their heroic rescuers.

The details

DON’T MISS: The Dunkerque 1940 Museum: a volunteer-run treasure trove of relics from the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo. dynamo-dunkerque.com

VISIT: Musée Portuaire, with its collection of boats.

museeportuaire.com

INFORMATION: For more on the Nord-Pas de Calais region, go to northernfrance-tourism.com

The Oxford Times:

La Coupole: Under the dome

Deep in the heart of the rolling French countryside of the Pas de Calais, just outside the sleepy town of Saint-Omer lies a dark reminder of far less peaceful times.

Nestled in a forest, inside a hollowed-out hill is a structure which today commands awe and fear– a sinister reminder of France and Britain’s darkest days.

Rising above the trees like something from a James Bond film, is a vast concrete structure which once housed a German launch site for the dreaded V2 rockets aimed at London.

Called simply La Coupole (‘the dome’) this huge bunker was built with slave labour by the Todt Organisation from 1943-1944.

Despite being heavily bombed by the Allies, and abandoned during the summer of 1944 after the Normandy landings, the structure remains intact – preserved as a memorial to those who suffered and died in its construction and as an education centre to teach younger generations of what happened in this corner of France in both world wars. Films of liberation over the Nazis are projected onto the inside of the domed roof – which seems satisfyingly appropriate – and examples and replicas of the V1 and V2 rockets, atomic bombs and other weapons are suspended within the cavernous space.

It’s not all gloom though. La Coupole is also an education centre with an adjacent planetarium and one of the best 3D cinemas in the world.

The Oxford Times:

We took a voyage around the solar system on an engrossing 3D film which seemed so real, it was irresistable to reach out and try and touch the stars, satellites and asteroids which came whizzing over our shoulders – cue much gasping and dodging of heads.

It was uncannily real.

The transformation of La Coupole is the ultimate expression of the triumph of good over evil.

If you are passing by on your journey through France from Calais or Dunkerque, it is well worth a detour – if not a trip in its own right.

Musée Bunker – La Coupole

Centre d’Histoire et Planétarium 3D

Rue André Clabaux

CS 40284

62570 Wizernes, France

Tel: +33 (0)321 12 27 27

lacoupole@lacoupole.com

More information from: northernfrance-tourism.com