Dunkirk 1940 Museum
A small, old-fashioned museum about (mainly) the exceptional, large-scale evacuation operation which rescued some 340,000 British
and French soldiers who had become trapped in the port city of Dunkirk in the wake of the May 1940 invasion of France
by Nazi Germany
More background info:
The Battle of Dunkirk was one of the first large-scale engagements of British and French troops with the invading military of the Third Reich
. The encircled Allies eventually managed to evacuate the majority of their stranded troops between 26 May and 4 June 1940, but had to leave most of their hardware behind.
At the beginning of the war, France
had been confident that its Maginot Line
, a system of heavily fortified fortresses, bunkers and artillery positions that were constructed in the 1930s along most of the country’s eastern border, would be sufficient to fend off a German attack. However, the line did not extend along the Belgian border towards the coast on the English Channel, and it was significantly more weakly fortified in the wooded hills of the Ardennes, which the French had regarded as unsuitable as a route for invading forces.
started its attack on the western front from 10 May 1940 by invading the Netherlands
(as well as Luxembourg), which was expected by the French and the British Expeditionary Force
– a large military contingent sent in by Britain to France immediately after WWII
had broken out and both the UK and France had declared war on Germany), so the Allies amassed their forces in the north to fight back such an attack there.
Yet Germany also performed a surprise move by simultaneously attacking through the Ardennes
, the weakest point on the fortified border but through difficult terrain, using highly mobile armoured units that then moved quickly to cut through France
north-westwards towards the coast, thus cutting off the supply lines for the Allied troops and separating them from the rest of France’s army. So the BEF effectively got trapped in a pocket in and around the port city of Dunkirk (‘Dunkerque’ in French, ‘Dünkirchen’ in German).
This move with tanks formations continuing to rush forward with hardly a break, opening up a long vulnerable flank, was, as we now know, decisively fuelled by the stimulating and sleep-supressing drugs
used by the Germans (‘Pervitin
’ being the most common one – see also under German Museum of Technology
). So the so-called “Blitzkrieg
” wasn’t just the result of high mobility and ingenious strategy (let alone “heroic bravado”), it was only possible through the help of artificial amphetamines!
The strategy of performing a lower-rate attack from the Netherlands and a fast, cut-through one from the south, has become known as “Sichelschnitt
” (literally ‘sickle cut’), though that had not been its official German designation. But as a fitting metaphor it stuck. Alternatively it is also known as the “Manstein Plan
” after the general who first presented the idea to Hitler
(though it hadn’t originally been his own).
Anyway, BEF and French troops in the north of France
by this move with little chance of victory in any subsequent battle. Hence the plan to evacuate across the Channel to England was devised – something that the Germans apparently had thought a tricky and hence unlikely move.
A much-debated change in strategy on the German part was the “Halt Order
” on 23/24 May, when the Wehrmacht stopped their advance, thus giving the encircled Allied troops more time to prepare their evacuation. Why the German advance was halted may have had to do with concerns about the marshy, boggy terrain being unsuitable for heavy tanks and that they should rather consolidate the new front-line to prepare for a possible counter-attack. But Hitler
’s discontent with his generals’ bold push forward, apparently sometimes on their own initiative (and fuelled by those drugs), may also have played a role. Another factor was that Hermann Göring himself apparently suggested using the Luftwaffe
(‘air force’), which he was the head of, to attack the trapped Allied forces from the air instead. And so it happened.
Hitler reversed the “Halt Order” on 26 May, however, and told his units to resume their advance, but this was further delayed by more than another half day, and by then the Allied forces had been able to set up defences of Dunkirk and its vital harbour, and started the evacuation. This was code-named “Operation Dynamo”.
and merchant navy ships
as well as countless small boats
, such as pleasure yachts and fishing boats was assembled, and despite chaotic conditions, and under increasing attack by the Luftwaffe, thousands upon thousands of troops were embarked on this fleet and taken to safety in England
. Many had to wade to their boats from Dunkirk’s huge beach
, while others embarked at the long breakwaters of the harbour called “East Mole “ and “West Mole”.
The vessels ferrying the Allied troops across the Channel also came under attack by the Luftwaffe as well as U-boats, and others hit mines and were sunk that way. Of the total of the 700 to 1,000 ships
and boats used in the evacuation (sources vary in the exact figures given), well over 200
. But still, as many as nearly 340,000 troops
. The losses
on the Allied side stood at 68,000
men. And a similar number of vehicles
had to be left behind
, together with large amounts of supplies, inevitably to fall into German hands The evacuation ended on 4 June 1940 with a final contingent of French soldiers being rescued and on 5 June Germany
declared victory at Dunkirk.
Whether the evacuation was a victory or an embarrassment for either side, or a mixture or both, has since been much discussed, but as far as the saving of lives was concerned on the Allied side it was certainly a success
, despite one that came at high costs, not least for Dunkirk itself, which was more or less completely destroyed in the battle. But it could have been so much worse without the concerted effort to evacuate. Hence the Battle of Dunkirk is widely regarded as one of the most significant ones of the earlier stages of WWII
Today, several memorials in rebuilt Dunkirk commemorate the battle and the evacuation, and at the section of the 19th century fortifications that was used by the Allies as a command HQ during the Battle of Dunkirk, namely the casemates of Bastion 32, a topical museum was set up, whose contents are described below. The full official title of the museum in French is “Musée Dunkerque 1940 – Bataille de Dunkerque Mai-Juin 1940 – Opération Dynamo”. Instead of the first part, the alternative “Memorial du Souvenir” is also used. The title of this chapter is thus just a handy simplification.
What there is to see: This is a rather old-school kind of museum. Those who enjoy looking at lots of amassed original artefacts as well as models, dioramas, charts and such like will certainly enjoy this exhibition. Personally, I found it a bit over-crammed, too full of military minutiae. I struggled to keep my concentration up, to be frank. But there is definitely lots to see.
Amongst the largest exhibits are a motorcycle with a sidecar, a couple of tank turrets, artillery pieces and naval guns, a Wehrmacht fuel drum, a sea mine as well as various plane engines and twisted propellers. In addition there are life-size mock-ups with dummies in uniforms (some of them with very cheap looking false beards and tashes) as well as scale models of various ships and planes and three larger dioramas: one of the harbour of Dunkirk during the evacuation, another of the evacuation from the beaches, and one of Dunkirk’s almost totally destroyed cityscape after the battle.
The walls are covered with photos, paintings, battle maps, charts and documents, some of them original (including in German), newspaper cuttings, posters and so forth, and the various glass cabinets are stuffed chock-full of smaller objects such as handguns, helmets, medals, daggers, communications gear, personal items, crockery and what not.
Thematically, the exhibition covers a bit of the prehistory
, i.e. WW1
and its aftermath, explaining why the lust for war in France
was low after the high level of destruction experienced in the north of the country during the endless artillery and trench warfare, which in turn led to the construction of the Maginot Line in the inter-war years.
Another topic is the sending in of the British Expeditionary Force
(BEF), and its digging in between September 1939 and April 1940, reminiscent of the WW1 trenches. This was the so-called “Phoney War
” with little to no direct engagement of the two sides, while Germany
was taking over Poland
in the east.
But then the exhibition moves on into the beginning of WWII
in the west, with the German invasion
of the Benelux countries, and of course the “Sichelschnitt” and “Halt Order” (see above
!) getting detailed attention.
The Battle of Dunkirk is naturally the main thematic thread here, and covers the air attacks by the Luftwaffe as well as ground defences, but the main focus is on the naval operations and the evacuations from the harbour and the beaches of Dunkirk. In addition to stationary images and artefacts, etc., there is also a screen playing some historical film footage.
In the naval section one element that is especially picked out is the sinking of the “Mona’s Queen”, originally a passenger ship serving as a ferry to/from the Isle of Man, which was involved in Operation Dynamo. She took over 1,300 BEF soldiers to safety on the first day of the evacuations, but on her way back with supplies of drinking water she hit a magnetic mine and quickly sank, taking 24 seamen with her (32 were rescued). The museum has the wheel of the “Mona’s Queen” and a large wooden Isle of Man Celtic emblem also salvaged from the wreck. Objects found on other wrecks fill yet more glass display cabinets. The working of sea mines is explained in an adjacent section, and yet another screen plays more video material.
In one corner there is a special memorial
dedicated to fighters from Czechoslovakia
who were involved in the liberation of Dunkirk in 1944/45, with a list of names.
The section about the location of the museum, in one part of the fortifications of Dunkirk built in the second half of the 19th century, concludes the indoor exhibition.
Outside, a large (presumably) anti-aircraft gun
is on open-air display
, looking newly painted when I was there in August 2016, and flagpoles fly the French
flags as well as the EU’s.
All in all, as interesting as the story of Operation Dynamo may be in principle, I found the museum a little too military-specialist for my liking. Despite some quotes from veterans here and there, I found the personal side of the story a bit lacking. And the mass of artefacts and battle charts and so on seemed a bit too much to take in to me. But in a way, the old-fashionedness of the museum also has its charming aspects, it has to be conceded.
at Courtines du Bastion, 32 Rue des Chantiers de France, 59140 Dunkerque, France
– housed in an old bastion from the 19th century, less than a mile north of the heart of the city centre and just a stone’s throw from the main beach.
Access and costs: fairly easy to reach, no longer quite so cheap as it used to be.
Details: If you’re staying in the area or the city centre, it’s walkable; even from the main train station, which is about half an hour’s walk away. Otherwise having your own means of transport makes it easiest to get to the museum. There’s a large car park just opposite the museum. The A16 motorway passes Dunkirk just to the south of the city, but for fiddling through to the museum, you’d really need to have GPS/SatNav help.
Opening times: daily except Tuesdays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but note there is a seasonal period of closure roughly between mid-November to mid-February.
Admission: The latest figures I’ve found (in 2020) stated 8 EUR for a regular ticket, youngsters between 10 and 18 only 5 EUR, under 10-year-olds free, and there are also group reductions. When I was there in 2016, the regular ticket price was only 5 EUR, so it’s gone up a fair bit since then.
I also read that the museum was closed for renovations recently, so there may come more changes when it reopens again.
Time required: one to two hours, depending a bit on how familiar you already are with the subject matter and/or how deep your interest in the minutiae of WWII and its battles and hardware goes.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Just outside the museum is a panel that informs you that this is just one of 14 points along a ‘path of remembrance’ called “L’esprit de Dunkerque” or ‘The Dunkirk Spirit’, so there’s more to see related to Operation Dynamo, including memorial monuments and old bunkers. You can also see a couple of shipwrecks of vessels that were lost during the evacuation, by now largely sunk into the sand, but bits still poke out and are visible at low tide.
See also under France
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Dunkirk may not be the prettiest city in France
, but it does have a few landmarks and attractions, including the big Hôtel de Ville (city hall) and, for those who like them: beaches, beginning just north of the museum and stretching out eastwards. And right behind the Dunkirk 1940 museum is a large museum of modern art called LAAC (for “Lieu d’Art et Action Contemporaine”), which also features an open-air sculpture park
- Dunkirk 01 - in the old rampards
- Dunkirk 02 - inside
- Dunkirk 03 - bent airplane parts
- Dunkirk 04 - destruction
- Dunkirk 05 - diorama of the operation
- Dunkirk 06 - war-wear and flags
- Dunkirk 07 - hipster dummy
- Dunkirk 08 - more war gear
- Dunkirk 09 - big gun
- Dunkirk 10 - marine section
- Dunkirk 11 - sea mine
- Dunkirk 12 - German navy fuel barrel
- Dunkirk 13 - wireless sets
- Dunkirk 14 - it was more than just a bike ride
- Dunkirk 15 - plaque outside
- Dunkirk 16 - big green gun outside