29 June 2017

CWGC marks 60th anniversary of Dunkirk Memorial

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the unveiling of the CWGC Dunkirk Memorial at Dunkirk Town Cemetery by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, on 29 June 1957.

 

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, unveiled the memorial on 29 June 1957

The memorial, designed by Philip Hepworth – the Commission’s principal architect for France after the Second World War – commemorates more than 4,500 members of the land forces who died during the Dunkirk Evacuation and have no known grave.

Codenamed Operation Dynamo, the campaign became one of the most remarkable episodes of the Second World War, and is now depicted in new film, Dunkirk, set to be released on 21 July.

Operation Dynamo

In September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Within weeks, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had deployed to France, taking up defensive positions along the border with Belgium.

After a period of relative quiet, German forces launched a devastating attack through neutral Holland and Belgium and into France. Despite desperate attempts to stem the tide, German forces broke through, and within just 10 days had reached the coast – effectively cutting the French and British forces in half. With the BEF in such a perilous position, the decision was taken to evacuate.

The Royal Navy began the evacuation of Dunkirk late on 26 May. So great was the task that a makeshift fleet of civilian ships – what became known as the “little ships” – was sent to assist.

While soldiers fought tenaciously to hold back advancing German troops, the Royal Air Force (RAF) battled to protect the vulnerable ships and the soldiers waiting at the harbour and on the beaches.

Oil painting by Norman Wilkinson showing the little ships assisting in the evacuation. IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 6007)

By the time Dunkirk fell on 4 June, more than 338,000 men had been rescued including 140,000 Allied soldiers. Many British and Allied forces fought on in France and troops continued to be evacuated from the western coast until the day of the French surrender on 25 June.

The missing and the dead

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said Dunkirk was "a miracle of deliverance" but it came at terrible cost. By 4 June, about 200 vessels had been sunk and RAF Fighter Command had lost more than 100 aircraft.

Losses among ground units were even higher. More than 68,000 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. With thousands of men separated from their units in the confusion of the fighting and the withdrawal, it later proved impossible to establish exactly where or when many died. Some were buried where they fell by comrades at roadsides or in fields and their graves later lost. Others did not find their final resting place until long after the fighting was over.

The Dunkirk Memorial and other commemorations

The Dunkirk Memorial was completed some 17 years after the events. The names of the dead are engraved on a series of rectangular columns on either side of a broad avenue which leads to a shrine containing the memorial registers. At the back of the shrine, facing the entrance, a window of engraved glass designed by John Hutton shows scenes from the evacuation.

Unlike later campaigns, the nature of the fighting in 1940 left few dedicated war cemeteries. Thousands of burials were made in communal cemeteries and churchyards across northern France and Belgium and – as the front swept over the old First World War battlefields – many graves were added to the existing cemeteries from that conflict. Graves can be found via the Find War Dead section on this site.

Those sailors lost at sea during the evacuation are commemorated on naval memorials in the UK at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth, while the airmen are remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.

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