Tour of Dunkirk

Our tour of Dunkirk, Cassel and the V1 and V2 bases in May concentrated on the Battle of Cassel (one of four battles fought there over the years). We studied the 1940 battle, where the Ox & Bucks and Gloucesters fought such a gallant rearguard action, sacrificing themselves in the process. We went on to the nearby and fascinating V1 site outside Hazebrouck, and the V2 site of La Coupole. Hazebrock is intact despite almost nightly bomber raids before and after D-Day, and partial destruction in WW1.

We inspected the famous mole at Dunkirk, and the Fort des Dunes, now a rather slick museum. A bit preachy perhaps. The new Dunkirk War Museum, located in Bastion 32 (the 1940 Allied HQ) is informative, and contains fabulous material although it – and a film at the Fort des Dunes – continue to tell a story of English perfidy, of the French being abandoned. But it is clear that the French PM, Reynaud, discussed the proposed evacuation with Churchill in London some days before the start of the withdrawal. Reynaud failed to inform his generals.

Cassel is a beautiful cobbled hilltop town, immortalised by the official WW1 artist, Orpen, where Foch and Gen Plumer had their HQs, and where Haig and King George V stayed. At the Hotel du Sauvage in the picturesque main square (unchanged), French and English commanders planned the defence of the Dunkirk perimeter, until an air raid forced their hurried departure. You can dine in the very room where they spread their maps. There was no mention of ‘evacuation’, only withdrawal.

Two sites stood out perhaps. The site of the Wormhout massacre of over 80 Warwicks by the SS, where we were guided by the local historian who has made this tragic episode his life’s work; and the Cresswell Bunker north of Cassel, where Lt. Cresswell’s 13 men held out for critical days, although surrounded. The local tourist board opened the bunker and allowed us to see the terrifying claustrophobia of the place.

Controversy continues about Dunkirk but one should not forget, in all the talk about French capitulation, that only stiff French resistance at Lille and at the perimeter made evacuation possible. And that 90,000 Frenchmen were killed in the Battle of France.

Photo: Cassel in 1912, not much changed today.