He may be the country’s greatest war hero, but most Canadians had never heard of James Campbell Clouston.
The onetime McGill engineering student played a decisive role in one of the most remarkable events of the Second World War: Operation Dynamo — the 1940 evacuation of more than 338,000 British and Allied troops from the beach at Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Dunkirk, which recently garnered eight Academy Award nominations, rekindled interest in this epic event, and in the essential role that a Canadian played in the dramatic rescue.
The massive evacuation seemed doomed to fail. Since the waters off the beach were too shallow for warships, a flotilla of some 700 civilian boats was put into service. In the film, a blonde Kenneth Branagh portrays Commander Bolton, the Royal Navy officer tasked with overseeing the operation. But the piermaster on the eastern breakwater at Dunkirk was actually a dark-haired Canadian whose purposeful leadership and engineer’s approach to solving problems helped save the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
After working around the clock for five days, an exhausted Clouston was sent back to England. But a day later, he volunteered to return to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation of French troops. His boat was attacked by German bombers and he was killed.
“Commander Clouston was an essential character in the Dunkirk evacuation, but because he died before the operation ended, his role is poorly documented,” says Jeffrey Street, an Ottawa-based war historian who is writing a book about Clouston.
Last summer, Street helped organize an elaborate ceremony at the Lachine Canal Historic Site (Clouston was born near the canal), attended by family members, Canadian Armed Forces senior officers and local dignitaries, where Clouston was officially commemorated as a Hometown Hero.