City and most northerly seaport of France, in Nord département, at the entrance to the Strait of Dover; population (2005 est) 69,400. Its harbour is one of the foremost in France and it stands at the junction of four canals, giving it communication with the rest of France and with Belgium; there is a ferry service to Ramsgate in England. Industries include oil refining, fishing, and the manufacture of textiles, machinery, and soap.
History The building of a church here by St Eloi in the 7th century was said to be the founding of Dunkirk (‘Church of the Dunes’). The town was initially developed by fishermen. It was sacked by the English in 1388 and in 1658 was taken by Cromwell, but was sold to Louis XIV by Charles II in 1662 for 5 million francs. Louis fortified the harbour and Dunkirk assumed great strategic importance. During World War I Dunkirk became a base for British aircraft, mainly to deal with German air raids on England. The words ville héroique sert d'exemple à toute la nation (‘a heroic town that serves as an example to the whole nation’) were added to the arms of the town in 1917. The port has been greatly enlarged since 1965 and a major industrial complex has been established.
The evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II The seaborne evacuation of Allied troops May–June 1940 (known as Operation Dynamo), after the ill-fated campaign on the Western Front in that year, was a much-needed boost to morale, particularly in Britain. A motley ‘fleet’ of over 1,000 ships, from warships down to private yachts, was assembled and sailed to Dunkirk. It was anticipated that perhaps 45,000 troops could be rescued before the Germans took the town. In the event, the Germans, thinking that the British troops penned inside Dunkirk could be safely left there, turned to complete their occupation of northern France. This leeway proved vital, giving the British time to evacuate many more troops (just over 338,000 Allied troops) than had been believed possible and averting a potential disaster for the Allied effort.
The town, Flemish in appearance, suffered severely in both world wars, in particular during World War II. Extensive rebuilding occurred in the 1950s. The most notable of the town's existing older buildings are the fine 15th-century belfry and the church of St Eloi, parts of which date back to 1590. Features include the Port Museum, Musée des Beaux Arts, aquarium, and planetarium. In 1992 the University of the Littoral was opened.