Home   Maidstone   News   Article

The real stories behind Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk and how to uncover them on a weekend break.

By Mary Graham

1. Head out on a walking tour to discover the film set

Dunkirk opens with a young British soldier running for his life down a residential street only just evading enemy fire, before finding himself on the famous beaches where 338,000 allied soldiers are waiting to be rescued.

Rue Belle Rade during filming.

The street is called Rue Belle Rade and recogniseable as the tense location in the opening scenes.

Rue Belle Rade today, just off Dunkirk seafront.

A walking tour doesn’t just reveal the key places, it gives an insight into the sheer logistics of the production. Rue Belle Rade was commandeered for filming in May 2016, with Nolan and a 500-strong crew responsible for 1,500 extras on the beach at Malo Les Bains.

Many actors ended up with hypothermia as good weather turned foul as the action turned to the sea rescues. The famous East Mole (harbour wall) where Kenneth Branagh oversees thousands of tired troops hoping to get on a boat is also reached on this tour.

One hour walking tour in English and French runs until August 27, six euros per person. Click here

2. Take off for spectacular views

A stunning panaroma of Dunkirk's beaches and the harbour in the distance.

There’s possibly nothing more thrilling than a light aircraft ride - especially one offering a similar panorama to that witnessed by our heroic Spitfire pilots. A 20-minute flight shows the scale of the beaches and the East Mole, which proved so crucial to Operation Dynamo succeeding. You also zoom over the Fort des Dunes in nearby Leffrinckouke which came under heavy German fire and the Zuydcoote military hospital.

Dunkirk beach was transformed with thousands of extras and factories were made to look on fire for the film.

At low tide, Zuydcoote is the site of several wartime shipwrecks. As the pilot radios to warn Belgian airspace we’re heading for their territory you’re reminded of how close Dunkirk is to the border - and how terrifying it must have been when word reached the allies of the German advance through Belgium. The flight is not as expensive as you might think - 120 Euros for up to three people.

More at www.aeroclub-dunkerque.com

3. Find out how Operation Dynamo fits into Dunkirk’s wider military history.

Fort des Dunes military fort.

In the same way the evacuation on the Dunkirk beaches was never the original plan for the British Expeditionary Force, you don’t need to venture far to find other events in history rarely turn out as expected. The Fort des Dunes was built in 1878 to protect Dunkirk’s Eastern flank and the railway to Belgium from enemy attacks. With a battery sunk underground and firing towers poking up at ground level, all bases were covered to prevent it from attack. As soon as it was built artillery advances meant it was not capable of withstanding the destructive power of new weapons. And in June 1940 following bombing attacks straight after Operation Dynamo (May 27-June 4, 1940) it fell into German hands. A tour reveals the areas men slept in, the crater left by enemy shelling and how the Germans set about strengthening the vaults with reinforced concrete to serve their needs. Also worth a visit to show how Dunkirk’s port developed and how fortifications changed over the centuries is the Port Museum in the town centre.

Fort des Dunes, Leffrinckoucke https://fort-des-dunes.fr/en/ Port Museum, www.museeportuaire.com

4. Eat in the same restaurant Christopher Nolan and Mark Rylance did during filming

Christopher Nolan (picture on the left) and Mark Rylance (left) with staff at La Cocotte restaurant.

The director is fondly regarded for plumping to use the natural features of Dunkirk during 26 weeks of recreating Operation Dynamo eschewing using studios or another town. One of the places proudly boasting its connections with Nolan is the La Cocotte restaurant on the seafront.

La Cocotte restaurant at Dunkirk seafront.

Nolan and one of his leading actors visited the cosy bistro to get a taste of the gastronomy of the region. And that gastronomy includes pots of delicious casserole mixes, featuring sauteed potatoes, with a choice of seafood, bacon and goats cheese, or Maroilles, a speciality cheese from northern France.

La Cocotte, digue de Mer 55, http://www.lacocottedk.fr/

5. Head into the countryside for the horrific story not portrayed in the film

A group understands the horrors during a tour of the memorial at La Plaine au Bois, Esquelbecq.

Two hours in the cinema will never tell you everything around Operation Dynamo and nor should it. In Esquelbecq, around half-an-hour from Dunkirk, just 100 British soldiers were given orders to delay the German advance to the coast to help the evacuation. After nine hours of fighting the British surrendered - tragically not to regular German army soldiers, but into the hands of an SS unit. After being made to walk through the countryside, the prisoners were herded into a barn and killed - first by grenades being thrown under the canopy, then by firing. Just two people survived - one by pretending he was dead in a nearby pond until he could crawl for help. A poignant reminder of these tragic events of 28 May 1940 has been created at the spot, La Plaine au Bois, by villagers who decided the episode should never be forgotten. A recreation of the barn has been constructed as a memorial, and a memorial mound inaugurated in 2004.


6. Visit a cemetery to get a sense of the true cost of war

Rows of graves line the British Cemetery.

One of the most poignant and thought-provoking sights has to be the immaculate rows of war graves. The British cemetery just outside of the town centre, is the resting place for hundreds of men who fought in the First and Second World Wars. It also features a memorial created in 1957 to commemorate 4,528 soldiers of the British ground forces and six men of the Indian army who do not have a known grave. One of the best ways of combining a visit to the nearby cemeteries with places giving a true sense of the war is by a Dynamo coach tour covering Dunkirk to Zuydcoote with a guide uncovering the history of each site.

British Cemetery, Route de Furnes, Dunkirk /Dynamo Tour, from € 18 per person. Regular tours run until August 26, advance booking required, see https://tinyurl.com/dunktour

7. Have dinner on board a paddle steamer involved in the evacuation

The veal main course from the 1940s menu on board the Princess Elizabeth.

The Princess Elizabeth, built in 1927, helped save 1,673 allied soldiers during four crossings in May 1940 and also features in Nolan’s Dunkirk.

The Princess Elizabeth paddle steamer in a scene from the film. She is now a gastronomic restaurant.

Today she is a floating restaurant, moored up in Dunkirk’s marina and on board is a Michelin star chef preparing refined local cuisine with a British touch. Diners can choose from a regular menu, or a special four-course menu with a nod to the 1940s, which featured mackerel goujons, veal, a lemon tart and a cheese dish. Look out for the afternoon tea lounge on the lower deck.

Menu 1940 changes regularly, from 39.45 euros. Princess Elizabeth, Bassin de la Marine, https://tinyurl.com/elizsteamer

8. The full story is contained at the Dunkirk War Museum

A display at the Dunkirk War Museum.

One of the most comprehensive collections of information and artefacts on Operation Dynamo is housed at the war museum, located in fortifications built to defend the France’s coastline in 1874. Arms and military equipment, some of it abandoned during the operation are on show, while display boards and pictures give a detailed timeline of how key events and battles unfolded.

A scene from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk as troops wait for a rescue from the East Mole of the harbour

You come away with a better sense of how the war played out in May 1940, leading France and Britain to deploy vastly different tactics.

Dunkirk War Museum, https://tinyurl.com/dynamomus

9. Refuelling and refreshment

Comme Vous Voulez restaurant.

Good food and drink is easy to come by in France, but some recommendations for meals during a short break include Comme vous Voulez, a gastronomic restaurant overlooking the seafront and beach, serving quality meat, fish and seafood dishes.

Dunkirk marina and L'Edito restaurant in the foreground.

For a funky venue, try L’Edito, housed on a pontoon in the marina. A varied menu offers mussels, Thai dishes and steak plus the northern French speciality Le Welsh, a stodgy cheese on toast, often with additions such as ham, mustard or beer.

A lovely scene as Daniel Thiriez pours beer at his brewery.

Talking of beer, if you find yourself in Esquelbecq, seek out the Thiriez brewery offering real ale across the spectrum of strengths and colours. It was founded in 1996 by Daniel Thiriez who took over buildings used as a farmhouse brewery until 1945. As well as tours, you can have tastings in a rustic micropub where the pace of life slows nicely.

Comme vous Voulez: https://comme-vous-voulez.com / L’Edito: https://www.restaurant-ledito-dunkerque.fr / Thiriez Brewery: http://www.brasseriethiriez.com

10. The need to know details

DFDS offers several crossings to Dunkirk, with a journey time of around two hours.

Get there with DFDS which offers several ferry crossings a day between Dover and Dunkirk, with a journey time of just two hours. A modern fleet operates on the Dover-Dunkirk route and the French port is around a half an hour drive from the town and its attractions.

Prices for a car and up to nine people with DFDS start at £39 each way. Latest offers and timetables can be found at www.dfds.co.uk

A good sightseeing base is the four-star Hotel Borel, close to the war museum, beaches, marina and town - http://www.hotelborel.fr/en/

Mary was a guest of DFDS for two days in Dunkirk.

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More