DUNKIRK: Shattered by bomb impacts, the 100-metre-long British destroyer “Keith” has been lying at the bottom of the Dunkirk channel since its sinking in 1940.
It went down during Operation Dynamo, when hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were rescued by sea from the advancing Germans.
Now the World War II warship appears in brightly coloured 3D, vertical slice by vertical slice, on the screen of Mark James, a geophysicist from Historic England. James has joined a group of archaeologists taking stock of the traces of the battle still lurking under the waves.
A British government agency, Historic England has joined the search for wrecks dating to the Dunkirk evacuation run by France’s DRASSM, which is in charge of underwater archaeology. Firing sound waves down to the seabed, a multibeam sonar “allows us to create a really nice 3D model of the seabed and any wrecks and debris,” he said.
“It’s quite an emotional feeling seeing somebody’s wreck come up on the screen,” he added. “You kind of realise the human sacrifice that was made.” Although a large ship, the “Keith” is set to “disappear bit by bit”, said Cecile Sauvage, an archaeologist with DRASSM who is one of those leading the search launched on Sept 25. Surveying the wrecks now will allow both countries to “preserve the memory of these ships and the human history behind these wrecks”, she added.
Brought to the big screen in an acclaimed 2017 film by Christopher Nolan, Operation Dynamo ran from May 26 to June 4, 1940. Encircled in northern France by Nazi German forces, the Allies threw everything into a mass evacuation.
Over those nine days, 338,220 soldiers — mostly British, but also 123,000 French and 16,800 Belgians — were evacuated on all kinds of vessels, cramming into military ships, fishing trawlers, ferries and tugboats. The shortest route from Dunkirk to safe harbour across the English Channel in Dover is 60 kilometres. But that path was within range of German guns already in place at Calais.
Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2023