Lille to Dunkirk, Late May 1940

On Saturday morning, 21 January 2017, Roger flew into Brussels airport from Canberra. He picked up Russell at 08:00 on the northern outskirts of the city, at Zellik, Russell having flown in from Brno via Prague the night before. We then drove the autoroute to Lille – 130km / 1h30m incl. a quick breakfast.

We were doing what we could to follow the trail described in Tony's 2006 piece, 'A Dunkirk Hero(??) Remembers'. To put it in the context of WWII, here's the timeline between April and June 1940. There's a wide variety of sources on the evacuation, including that at Wikipedia, this one at an enthusiast's site, and plenty of images.

The Location of 2BPFC

Tony served in 2nd Base Petrol Filling Company (2BPFC), part of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) 1940-46. Tony's notes said that the unit was based in the Lille railway yards, west of the city at Marais de Lomme (literally the morass/swamp).

Roger was a transport platoon commander in an RAASC company in Sydney in 1969-72. His finely-honed map and aerial-image reading skills identified an area a few hundred metres long on the south-eastern side that offered exactly what was required: road and rail access to a flat area where supply services could be run. In the satellite-image below, it's the area north-west of Rue de l'Egalité. (You don't have to believe any of this, but it'll do for a working theory).

There are almost no pre-war buildings in the immediate area, because the bombing raids by the Germans, followed by the destruction of infrastructure and supplies by the withdrawing Brits, followed by the bombing raids by the Allies, had ensured that little was repairable. These days the accessible parts are an uninspiring light industrial area; but then that's exactly what a sensible post-war town planner would have zoned it for.

The Billet

We then started driving west, re-constructing where the convoy took him. To my astonishment, I spotted a building that fitted Tony's description of where he was billetted. In the satellite-image below, it's in the south-west, on the corner of Rue de l'Egalité and Rue du Rivage.

He described it as "a large hall over an estaminet (café)". The building I was looking at was pre-war (1880-1910, by the look of it), and far enough away from the railyards to be in an area where a (small) proportion of the buildings were pre-war, but within walking-distance or short truck-ride from where the platoon worked. And it's a quite unusual layout for a cafe. I'll back that one.

Click on any thumbnail to see the image.

The railway yards The Estaminet

The Escape from Lille

We then drove up to the road that we figured the convoy had used. It was hard to identify the village where the gunfire caused them to change direction.

On the other hand, a few km short of Armentieres, there was plenty of choice of farming land and barns, which is where they spent the day hiding from the marauding Luftwaffe - and where Tony wrecked his knee. (It was lucky that they didn't go into the town and impose themselves on the locals, because the Germans chose that day to hit the town and set it ablaze).

We then drove through Armentieres, and north over the Belgian border. The first village is Le Bizet. It's probably nothing to do with the composer, although it's spelt just the same. But it's unlikely that Tony, jammed inside the back of a 2-ton lorry with a lot of other soldiers, would have seen the sign.

We wandered westwards through what's now pleasant country just north of the border, then crossed back south into France. There are too many country-roads for even the drivers to re-construct the path taken during a night-drive escaping from a vicious and far more powerful enemy.

There are also plenty of places in the flat landscape east of Dunquerque that the Brits may have used as a marshalling-point, and where they congregated the vehicles with the intention of setting the lot ablaze, to deny Jerry the pleasure of using them.

Marais de Lomme to Armentieres Marais de Lomme to Dunkirk

The Dunkirk Dunes and Beach

Approaching Dunkirk was tricker than I'd anticipated, because there are several canals, in country which I think was reclaimed from the sea and marshes many centuries ago. But we were pretty confident that their arrival-point behind the dunes was of the order of 1-3km north of the centre of Dunkirk. That's where the long, long beach backed by sand-dunes, which runs all the way down from Ostende, finally ends at the sizable working harbour.

It was low tide, and the beach was very wide, 150-200m. It was a glorious Saturday afternoon. Okay it was about 1 degree, but the sun was shining, and scores of people were out walking their dogs and flying kites - though not doing much swimming.

The sand was only very gently-sloped for the first 200m from the dunes, but it looked like the sand-level dropped more steeply from a bit further out. So a queue of men to get into small boats to be ferried out to larger ones would have been a long way out into the water at high tide, but a bit less long at low-tide.

Map of Dunkirk The Satellite View ... ... and closer up
The Dunes The Beach, looking ... ... west to the Port

The East Mole

The breakwater / mole / hard that Tony eventually got out from is on the western end, protecting the entrance to the harbour from storms driven by the prevailing northerlies off the North Sea. It's long.

We walked the mile or so of it that's open to public use. The next section of maybe 600m is a lower wall flanked on the open side by large interlocking cast-concrete shapes, something like what's used in Botany Bay on the sea-facing walls of the container terminal. The concrete pieces appear to be post-war, and I suspect that in 1940 this section was loose, large rocks. There was apparently a wooden extension on the seaward end back then, but it's long gone.

Unfortunately, the Battle of Dunkirk Museum, which is just across the canal, was closed for extensions when we were there.

The whole Mole The last part of it ... ... closed to the public Looking back Eastwards

Prettymuch all of Tony's tale is consistent with the landscape as we see it today. As Russell said, the visit was less sombre than it might have been, with sunshine, and people out and about, using the beach. I suspect Tony wouldn't have been greatly fussed about going back there himself, but would have been happy that his son and grandson did.

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Created: 4 February 2017; Last Amended: 4 February 2017