One of the most climactic moments of the Second World War was the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and elements of the French and Belgian armies from Dunkirk, on France’s north-west coast, in late May and early June 1940. What has been descried as “the Miracle of Dunkirk” saw 338,000 men plucked from almost certain capture by an extraordinary naval operation carried out by more than eight hundred vessels of every conceivable size, of which two hundred forty were lost and a further forty-five damaged.
Now a new Franco-British venture—pioneered by Drassm, the French Department of Underwater Archaeological Research, and the British organization Historic England—will attempt to map all the shipwrecks, with divers being sent down to make a comprehensive geophysical survey.
When the call went out from the British Admiralty for civilians to volunteer to help the Army get home after its defeat by the Wehrmacht, Operation Dynamo saw hundreds of “small boats” sail across the English Channel from private moorings and river estuaries. Over the next eleven days, these volunteers heroically ferried troops from the beaches to the larger Royal Navy vessels, often under Stuka dive-bombing by the Luftwaffe, and thereby saved the Army to fight another day, and eventually return to the Continent in Operation Overlord in 1944.
But it took a vast toll, as will doubtless be emphasized once this mapping venture is complete. “We are honoured to have been invited by the French marine heritage agency, Drassm, to join their investigation of ships sunk in those desperate days,” Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, has said. “These wrecks are a physical legacy to Operation Dynamo and all those it affected, including many who did not reach safety.”
The survey will both examine the thirty-seven wrecks that are already known about, and search for others that are so far undiscovered. The latest technology such as multibeam echosounders, side-scan sonars, and magnetometers will be employed to find more vessels, the great majority of which were British. “The vessels range in role from military activities,” Dr Antony Firth, head of marine strategy at Historic England, says, “but also a wide range of utility vessels, pleasure craft, fishing vessels and so on.” A new Dunkirk memorial is planned, in conjunction with the excellent Dunkirk War Museum.
This welcome news has come at the same time that the cemeteries and monuments of the Western Front of World War One have finally been awarded world heritage status by the United Nations. Back in 2018, the centenary of the end of the Great War (as it is known in Britain), the bids by Belgium and France for UNESCO status were unaccountably rejected. Thankfully, that decision has now been reversed, and one hundred thirty-nine sites—ninety-six in France, forty-three in Belgium, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers are buried—have now had their proper heritage status confirmed. “This decision honours the memory of those who fell during the First World War fighting for peace and freedom,” says Hadja Lahbib, the Belgian foreign minister. “Their legacy lives on.”
The battlefields of Flanders, the Ypres Salient, Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Verdun, and Pozières will now be fully protected, as well as the Menin Gate in Ypres, which commemorates the fifty-four thousand soldiers of the British Empire who have no known grave. Traffic is stopped at 8pm every evening at the Gate, and a bugler plays the Last Post. It is a ceremony that never fails to send tingles down the spines of attendees.