The 80th anniversary of Operation Dynamo
To mark the 80th anniversary of Operation Dynamo, the Fort des Dunes and the national military cemetery of Leffrinckoucke reveal an exceptional site, completely restored; a unique witness of the Battle of Dunkirk, whose memory occupies a central place in British and French collective memory.
The evacuation of the British and French armies from Dunkirk is one of the darkest chapters in the military defeat of 1940.
On 10 May 1940, German troops crossed the border into the Netherlands, Belgium and the Ardennes. Three days later, the front gave way at Sedan. The British Expeditionary Force, the French First Army and the Belgian army entrenched themselves in a narrow corridor between Lille and Dunkirk. By 24 May, there were 400 000 soldiers trapped there, hoping to be evacuated to England.
Between 28 May and 4 June 1940, Operation Dynamo requisitioned every single British civilian and military vessel as part of a major repatriation operation. On 31 May, the Lille garrison surrendered. To conduct the final operations, the commander of the 12th Motorised Infantry Division (DIM), General Janssen, installed his command post in the old Fort des Dunes. On 2 and 3 June, between 150 and 200 soldiers, General Janssen included, died in the fort. But the bombardments by the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe were unable to prevent the transit of ships between Dunkirk and Dover. The losses inflicted were heavy, but the ports and beaches were steadily emptied. By 4 June, the last defenders of Dunkirk stopped fighting.
Operation Dynamo succeeded in evacuating nearly 340 000 men – a third of them French – to England, leading Winston Churchill to describe it as a “success”, despite the loss of 55 000 men (20 000 of them killed during the rescue operation and 35 000 taken prisoner).
Stone heritage that bears witness to Operation Dynamo
Located in the commune of Leffrinckoucke, the Fort des Dunes, part of the late 19th-century Séré de Rivières system of fortifications, had the job of protecting the port of Dunkirk by blocking any attempt at invasion overland from the east. Built in sandstone brick and rising to a height of 27 metres, the fort covers an area of five hectares and is concealed among the high dunes of the North Sea coast. During Operation Dynamo, it was an obvious choice for the command post of the 12th DIM. Four years later, on 6 September 1944, eight Dunkirk resistance fighters would be executed by firing squad in its moat.
After the war, the fort, owned by the Ministry of Defence, enjoyed varying fortunes until it was finally bought by the town of Leffrinckoucke in 1998.
A short distance from the Fort des Dunes, the national military cemetery of Leffrinckoucke contains the bodies of soldiers killed during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and part of the French forces that took refuge in the Dunkirk pocket between 28 May and 4 June 1940.
It holds nearly 190 individual graves, including 167 Frenchmen. A monument and ossuary contains the remains of 19 unknown French soldiers and six unknown Czechs.
General Janssen is also buried in the cemetery. At the entrance to the fort is a plaque in memory of the commander of the 12th DIM and the men who died with him in June 1940.
Becoming part of the region’s remembrance tourism offering
A superb example of 19th-century military architecture, the Fort des Dunes has now taken on the role of interpretation centre to aid understanding of the Second World War fighting.
In view of the site’s major historical interest, in preparation for the 2020 commemorative year the town of Leffrinckoucke decided to undertake a renovation project and in 2017 began approaching a number of institutions. The Ministry of the Armed Forces, conscious of its importance to the development of remembrance tourism, was quick to sign up to the project and encourage the local community to get involved.
The new museum officially opened in February 2020, with 600 m² of permanent exhibitions installed in the troop barracks. Having no collections, it was decided for the focus to be on the site and its history. The new display is laid out across six rooms and includes lots of immersive audiovisual devices, scale models and text panels. The following themes are covered: Flanders as a strategic territory through the centuries; the challenges of the Séré de Rivières system of fortifications; the functioning of a military barracks; the fort during the Second World War, and in particular Operation Dynamo told through the eyewitness accounts of civilians and soldiers; the German occupation and the Dunkirk Resistance; and lastly, the Fort des Dunes from 1945 to the present, showing the transformation of a military site into a remembrance site in the heart of a preserved environment.
Forgotten for several decades, today there is renewed interest in the Battle of Dunkirk, bolstered by the success of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, which came out in 2017. This is reflected by the growing numbers of visitors to remembrance sites in the area, with 15 000 people visiting the Fort des Dunes in 2019 (compared to approximately 10 500 in 2017 and 2018).
Today, the town of Leffrinckoucke plans to include the Musérial du Fort des Dunes, both a cultural heritage and a remembrance site, in the Hauts-de-France region’s remembrance tourism offering. The geographical location and historical interest of the Fort des Dunes mean its potential goes beyond the local community to attracting international visitors, as part of a remembrance trail taking in French and foreign remembrance sites across the region. For this reason, Leffrinckoucke has a particular interest in Dunkirk’s application for the dunes of Flanders to be awarded the “Grand Site de France” label.
As part of its remembrance tourism development policy, the Ministry of the Armed Forces is fully committed to the commune of Leffrinckoucke and supportive of its efforts to promote the museum. Among other things, the museum is a member of the Museums and Memorials of Contemporary Conflicts (MMCC) network, run by the Directorate for Heritage, Remembrance and Archives (DPMA).
Lastly, in addition to its support for the Fort des Dunes renovation project, in preparation for the 2020 commemorations and to honour the soldiers who died in Operation Dynamo, in 2019 the Ministry of the Armed Forces had the national cemetery completely restored.
The Fort des Dunes and the national cemetery of Leffrinckoucke today constitute a completely redesigned and restored remembrance heritage complex presenting a history which is key to the region’s identity.
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