Wednesday, 8 June 2011

What does the 'Dunkirk spirit' mean today?

A reflection on what the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ means in 2011, with a fair bit of personal knowledge and experience thrown in for good measure.

What does the ‘spirit of Dunkirk’ mean today? It’s a question that Matthew Cain tried to answer in his film for Wednesday night’s Channel 4 News, but in which he sadly failed to capture the true significance of the event itself. The inspiration for the report was English Heritage’s excellent new ‘Operation Dynamo‘ experience, which opens to the public in the underground tunnels at Dover Castle the end of this week. It tells the story of this fabled milestone in the Second World War, and I was lucky enough to be able to preview it at the weekend.

Operation Dynamo was in fact the codename given to the evacuation of some 338,000 British, French and Belgian troops from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 26 May and the early hours of 3 June 1940. The troops had been cut off by the advancing German army during the Battle of Dunkirk in the Second World War. And the operation to remove these troops from what Winston Churchill called a ‘a colossal military disaster’ was planned deep within the chalk cliffs underneath Dover Castle in Kent. Headed by Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the operation infamous for the ‘little ships’ – a flotilla of 700 merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft and lifeboats which brought the soldiers across the English Channel.

Why do I know all this? My first job after leaving university was in visitor operations at Dover Castle, and a big part of my role was to undertake guided tours through these very tunnels. It’s a place close to my heart, not least because it was a very enjoyable first career job. The castle has played a very important role in British history over 2000 years, due to its strategic importance on the south east coast. They didn’t call it the ‘key to England’ for nothing. Historical tracts aside, I can also remember the naïve but jaw-dropping questions of American cruise-ship tourists from the two years I worked down there. And, seven years since leaving the castle, I still know a lot of the staff. It’s the sort of place people don’t want to leave, and for good reason. Who wants to work in an office when you can explore a magnificent historic site all day long? 

The problem with becoming so emotionally attached to somewhere like Dover Castle is that you become quite defensive of it. In fact, I love the place.

But the problem with becoming so emotionally attached to somewhere like Dover Castle is that you become quite defensive of it. In fact, I love the place. I found myself annoyed by Cain’s report’s with its confusing references to the ‘new museum’. It implied that the tunnels themselves were some sort of fabricated entity without a back story. Yes, Operation Dynamo relies very much on audio-visual technology, as do many museums and attractions to provide effects, show films or present graphics. It’s the best solution to EH’s dilemma on how best to present the story of Dunkirk. As the curators used to tell us, it’s not easy preserving authentic artefacts and exhibits deep underground, even though the extensive air-filtration system hasn’t been switched off since 1942.

And although Cain’s film did acknowledge the significance of the tunnels as part of the Dunkirk story, it didn’t appreciate the full story. The tunnels have existed as an underground army barracks during the wars against Napoleon, as well as a field hospital and joint command centre. The complex even served as a rudimentary nuclear bunker up until 1984 when the Home Office finally decommissioned them (many of the files are still classified on this particular era). There’s even an abandoned BBC studio down there, but that’s a story for another time. Dunkirk may well have been the Dover tunnels’ finest hour, but it was just part of a long story stretching back nearly 200 years.

But I speak not as a flag-waving zealot for the castle’s role in past military ‘glories’ but as someone who’s been fascinated by the social history of places like this. Cold, damp, dark, over-heated and dusty, it can’t have been fun for the uniformed services working down there. Each member of staff was assigned to their own individual area and under strict instructions not to talk to anyone not on their section. There were representatives of the Army, Air Force, Navy – including the Women’s’ Royal Naval Service in the plotting rooms (of which I had the pleasure to meet a long-retired representative of once), as well as Post Office technicians and some civilians. And despite the military environment, in a strange sort of way, it encouraged some sort of egalitarian values and a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’, long before our current government attempted to hijack the expression. Many of the people who worked there were just ordinary people from the surrounding area, with families of their own, not forgetting an large absent male population away fighting on the front line. 

The spirit of Dunkirk is a parable for ordinary people enduring challenging circumstances or tragedy and coming out the other side

The spirit of Dunkirk is undoubtedly part of our national psyche – a parable for ordinary people enduring challenging circumstances or tragedy and coming out the other side. And if anything’s truly representative of Dunkirk, it’s the ordinary soldiers themselves and the people who helped bring them home from the challenging confines of the Dover tunnels. Whether the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ really does exist 71 years on, I don’t know for sure. But it’s as part of our culture as sliced bread, red telephone boxes and queueing for just about everything. And if you want to learn just a little bit about who we are as a nation, you’ll learn a little bit about our shared history in this quite unusual setting. It’s something you won’t get through a website or sanitised TV documentary.

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