Dunkirk may be infamous for Operation Dynamo during the Second World War, but it has so much more to offer. From enjoying the view of the city from the Dunkirk Belfry that was once a part of the Saint-Éloi Church to the gorgeous boats lining the ports, there are many things to explore. My personal favorite was the Port Museum with its ships.
City Walk Port Museum The Ships Operation Dynamo Museum
Looking from Jean Bart Square towards Town Hall (with its tower in the background), there is the belfry on the left and the Saint-Éloi Church on the right. The belfry now houses the tourist center. I suggest going to the tourist center first to go up the tower and get your bearings. After you are oriented a little, you will be better able to plan your day!
Dunkirk's belfry, built in around 1450, was originally the bell tower of the neighboring church. As was customary in Flemish cities, a belfry was built to be able to survey the city from up high and warn if there was a fire or enemy threat.
Later, as Dunkirk suffered many losses during the two world wars, there is a war memorial built into the side of the belfry. Originally intended for the First World War, it was built in 1923. The soldier's gun, hat and bag lay next to his coffin, with an inscription above reading "Never forget" (or more literally 'Remember"). Above the lying soldier and his stuff is the city's coat of arms. Finally, at the top is a high relief sculpture of two women: the left representing justice and the right liberty.
At the top of the elevator, you come out at the bell level. There are fifty bells, which are all still in operation and ring every 15 minutes. (I suggest timing your visit right so that you don't end up near the bells when they ring. They are loud. Trust me.) The largest of the bells, weighing 5 tons, is named Jean Bart but more on him later. These bells are not original though as they were often melted down during times of war.
There is also an enclosed box from where the bells can be played manually.
After the roughly 60 steps, looking north, you can see the town hall with its belfry. To the right of the image (under one of the cranes), you can barely make out a significantly smaller tower named Leughenaer. If you walk long enough in this direction, you will get to the Netherlands.
Towards the west is the Port museum with its two ports. Deep in the far left is the steel manufacturing industry of Dunkrik. On the right is the lighthouse of Dunkirk.
180-degree view from west to north. Halfway between the town hall belfry and the lighthouse, towards the ocean, there is an example of the modern houses built after Dunkirk was flattened due to the Second World War.
Jean Bart square at southeast.
Church Saint-Éloi was originally built in 1440, along with the belfry, but it has gone through many changes.
Originally, Dunkirk's belfry was the entrance to Saint-Éloi Church.
After the fire of 1585, the part that connected the bell-tower to the church collapsed. The remains were however left to connect the bell-tower to the church until 1782.
In 1782, the remains are removed in order to redo the facade of the church. Today's Rue Clemenceau is the road that resulted from clearing the remains and it is the road that separates the church and the tower.
Remains of the Church after the First World War
The devastation of the Church after the Second World War. The bell tower was one of the few buildings that remained unharmed after the Second World War. It is often referred to in reference to the city's spirit of resistance.
The inside of the Church Saint-Éloi
Jean Barts body is located under the Church.
Jean Bart was found during excavations and was reburied in 1928 under the choir of the church. This is the tombstone made by Philippe Caffieri.
Beautiful stained-glass windows at the back of the church
This statue of Jean Bart was inaugurated on September 7th, 1845. To learn more about this character, head over to the "Port Museum" tab.
Fun fact: While almost the entire city was flattened during the Second World War, this statue remained intact, again showcasing the city's will to resist.
Built in 1901 in Flemish Renaissance style, Dunkirk's town hall was designed by Louis Marie Cordonnier. (Yes, this is the same man that built the Chamber of Commerce and the Opera in Lille as well as the Peace Palace in the Hague.) The town hall features the city's second belfry, measuring 75 meters tall. At the cross-section of the belfry and the roof line, Louis XIV's equestrian statue makes reference to the moment when the city became French in 1662. The rest of the statues on the facade are of prominent counts of the time.
You can take a peak on the inside during working hours, where you can see the stained-glass window of Jean Bart's return to the city after the struggle at Texel.
The Tour of Leughenaer is the city's oldest building. It served as a watch tower at the time.
Leughenaer actually means liar in old Flemish. The building was likely named the lying tower as many ships mistook it for a light house and ended up stuck in the sand.
The Chapel of the Notre Dame des Dunes was built to protect the sailors of the city.
Erected in 1893, the Victory Column celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the city's victory against the English in the Battle of Hondschoote.
Around the Museum of Modern Art of Dunkirk, visible in the back, there is a nice little park with a pond.
Fun little statues lurk around the corners of the park.
A self-taught man, Jean-Baptiste Trystram found great success as a merchant. Later he entered politics in order to promote the city's economy.
King Louis XIV bought Dunkirk from England in 1662. Realizing Dunkirk's strategic placement, Louis XIV hired Vauban to update the city's fortifications.
During war periods, fishermen took to privateering. The job of a privateer is to take control of any enemy ship. Then the new owner could sell off all of the goods on board for profit, half of which would later be shared with the king. This was great for fisherman who had boats that they could not use during turbulent war time for fishing. It was also great for the king who found an alternative way to pay for the war as well as a creative means of weakening the enemy economically. Jean Bart was one of the most successful privateers and is today the hero of the town of Dunkirk.
With its smaller size, this type of ship could be used in tandem with a privateering ship to keep the latter from being taken. Due to its small size, this ship could navigate around the enemy easily and used its dozen cannons to weaken the enemy ship.
Thanks to Vauban's fortifications, this attack on Dunkirk in 1695 by the British and the Dutch was a complete failure for the attackers. Many other attacks failed as well. Keeping this port and fortifications intact was key to the privateering efforts.
In 1712, the city was however taken by the British. The treaty of Utrecht was then signed, specifying that the French could keep their city as long as all of the fortifications were destroyed.
Other fisherman took to whale hunting in the North Sea. This practice ended in the mid-1800s.
This is an example of the type of boat used to hunt whales.
From the mid-1800s, some fishermen started fishing for herring. Once captured, the fish would be cleaned, cut and salted directly on the boat. Fishing herring proved to be a very hard job; one that was done better by the Dutch, who took the lead in the practice.
In the mid-1800s, Dunkirk built a larger port to encourage business. When the Dunkirk-Paris railroad was built in 1850, trade really took off for the city.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the steam engine ship was invented. This gave sailors the independence to be able to travel anywhere at any time instead of having to wait on the wind to push them in the right direction.
This model is of a ship built in 1852.
In the late 19th century, farmers were looking for ways to improve crop yields. Discovering that sodium nitrate could be used as a fertilizer, the farmers' demand for the product increased. As a result, many sailors went down to Chile to trade coal bought in England for the sodium nitrate desired in northern France.
Various inventions of the mid-19th century helped dockers deal with the increased traffic to the ports.
Recently, in the late 20th century, the steel industry developed in Dunkirk. Today, it is the main activity of and the largest employer for the region.
For the steel industry, the central port, in yellow, was dug to be able to serve the larger ships. (The eastern port, in orange, was the one built in the mid-19th century to handle the extra traffic due to the Dunkirk-Paris railway. The historic port is the one created even before the city was French.)
This is a model of the sand dunes that are present under the surface of the water near Dunkirk. As larger ships started heading towards the Dunkirk ports, many of them got caught in these dunes. In order to help these ships navigate the dunes, light ships were stationed out at sea. Go over to "The Ships" tab to learn more about one of those light ships.
Part of the Port Museum, there are a couple guided tours per day (in French) that are done of the two ships.
Located just outside the Port Museum of Dunkirk, the
has been part of the Museum since 1998 (and officially opened to the public in 2001). Originally built by the Germans in 1901, the ship was used as a travelling naval school for boys until 1932, when it became stationary due to the decreased number of enrollments. The travelling naval school, then called
, took place in two sessions: one in the summer around Iceland and another in the winter around the equator. The 15-year-old boys would either take one year of school to become a sailor or two years to become an officer. There were 190 students on this boat during the sessions and they would follow a strict routine thanks to the powerful sound of this bell, original to this ship.
When the Germans lost the Second World War, they had to pay reparations to the Allies. This ship was included in the reparations payment to the United Kingdom. It was however neglected for many years and was thus in very poor condition when the city of Dunkirk purchased it in 1981. Because the restauration was extensive and because the museum wanted to reproduce it to the way it was before the war, the process took about 20 years.
The small building in the middle of the deck is the kitchen. There were two cooks that prepared 600 meals per day for all of the students. Given the large amount of food that needed to be prepared and the lack of fresh food available, the food was not very nutritious and the students (like many sailors) were not in great health.
This green capstan was used to crank up the 6-ton anchor. There were often up to ten students needed to spin the capstan and pull the anchor up.
Under the upper front deck is located the mechanical anchor crank. Under the deck are also located the four bathrooms and the two showers (for all of the 190 students!)
To prevent flooding the spaces under the deck, all doors had high sills. Sailors had to be very careful not to trip!
Yet another high door sill. This door could also be closed and sealed in case of flooding. Can you see what the boys are doing in the picture on the far end?
It's laundry day! The sail cables served double duty as laundry lines.
The large open spaces in the room before and in this room served as both a cafeteria and a dormitory. Every night the tables would be hoisted up to the ceiling and the hammocks would be placed on the hooks. The hammocks were typically a lot higher and closer to the ceiling, as they would swing less when they had less rope.
A typical day for a sailor student consisted of class (think history, math, science, etc.) in the morning and naval studies in the afternoon. On calm days however, the students would get some time off. They would either play board or card games or they would learn how to play an instrument. Playing an instrument was rather important as a sailor as that would mean a higher salary in the future.
The sub-officers benefited from a little more comfort, having their own room with a bed and a dresser. Another important difference is the fact that the officer quarters were lined with wood. This not only made for a more elegant space but it also preserved some of the warmth in the room.
The officers were given even more luxury; they had a room with a bed, a dresser and a DESK!
While the beds may seem small, there was a good reason for this (besides the fact that there is not a lot of space on a ship). When not on a hammock, sailors slept in a ball tucked away in one of the corners of the bed so as to not fall off when there were a lot of waves.
The ship's captain had the largest quarters of all. He had a bedroom, a living room and a personal bathroom! In addition, right next to his space were two guest rooms and a meeting room.
The captain's luxurious bathroom
The meeting room with direct access from the captain's room. This was also likely where the officers would eat. They were more spoiled than the students as they would get salted meat, canned vegetables and alcohol for their meals.
This boat was driven by a double wheel. Depending on the intensity of the weather conditions, anywhere from 4 to 10 students were needed to command the ship.
Can you guess to who's room this safety boat is closest to? The captain's of course! While captains are technically the last ones to leave the boat, who will notice in the commotion?
It is also interesting to note that the officers' and captain's quarters are located at the back of the ship because there is a lot less turbulence at the back.
Next door to the
Duchesse Anne is the Sandettie, built in 1947 at Le Havre. With its distinct bright red color, the Sandettie was easily recognizable as a lightship. It served to announce the edge of a sand dune in order to help ships avoid getting stuck. Because it was very important for these ships to stay in one particular location, they had 13-ton anchors. That is twice the size of that of the Duchesse Anne even though this ship is half the other's size!
Lightships were recognizable by day due to the red color and by night due to the beacon at the top. The light from this beacon could reach up to 46km!
To prevent excessive movement from the light of the beacon, a weight system was put in place to ensure that the light was always vertical even if the boat was tilting in this and that direction.
The crewmen aboard lightships tended to be older sailors in their forties who had already had a career travelling the world and wanted now to be more of a family man. These sailors traded in a higher pay for more steady working days, less strenuous working hours and a more reliable paycheck.
Work on lightships consisted of two teams that took turns taking 15-day shifts. Unfortunately, if bad weather came on the day when the shifts need to switch, the sailors would have to simply wait until the bad weather passes to switch (and the loss in days was not made up later).
On the bright side though, because of the 15-day shifts, the sailors had access to fresh food and only used the canned goods if the fifteen days were extended due to bad weather.
Under the ship's deck, there is a room with a lot of technology. This technology was used power the massive beacon on top. It was also used to maintain the ship; it was quite common for a lightship to go two years before being brought into land to be maintained.
One of the two batteries used to power the beacon. They made lots of noise at night and did not make sleeping very easy.
The chief maintenance man's room
The roughly 15-people crew could each call their family once a week on Sundays.
Operation Dynamo is an interesting, small museum explaining the causes and consequences of the events that happened in May 1940. It is strictly about that event and not the Second World War as a whole.
The Operation Dynamo Museum in Dunkirk was built in the 32nd bastion, which was used by Allies officers during the Second World War to wait for the rescue ships to arrive.
These couple of rooms are all that are left of the city's fortifications. They were mostly intact until the late 20th century, when most were destroyed to extend the shipyard. This one survived as it was part of the fortification wall for the Museum of Modern Arts garden.
An example of the people and equipment that were present at Operation Dynamo
The start of the war was very hectic on both sides. In Germany, the leaders claimed that the war would only last a couple months, at which point they will be victorious. The Allies on the other hand did not want to believe that they had to fight yet another war so soon after the devastating First World War. As a result, they tended to downplay the importance of Hitler's aggression. The war did come though and caught many people off guard. So off guard that many families left in such a hast that they didn't even finish the meals they were eating. Additionally, many of the vehicles were actually abandoned on the roads as the roads proved to be a very slow mode of transport during a time when everyone was evacuating and when the soldiers were marching in.
Spitfire plans were used to fend off German bomber plans during the Dunkirk evacuations. This is the engine of one such plane.
Motorcycles were preferred during the battles in northern France as they facilitated movement through a very chaotic situation.
A couple more salvaged plane engines. Counter-strike airplanes were a key in the evacuation plan as the Allies were sitting ducks on the beaches waiting for the rescue ships to arrive.
An example of the artillery used during the battle
A memorial to Georges Guynemer, a war hero who died during the First World War, stands in front of the Operation Dynamo Museum. He was used as an inspiration to the French people after the war.