Long overdue celebrations – The Dunkirk champagne
To most, this month’s highlight may seem slightly unusual at first glance. An old and slightly battered bottle of champagne would not usually become associated with a military museum. The fascinating story behind this particular bottle of unopened champagne however, certainly gives it a firm place within our museum.
1940 saw the British Expeditionary Force in mainland Europe rapidly falling back to the beaches of Dunkirk. Amongst these men was 21 year old Ivan Shakespeare of Long Eaton, Derbyshire. At this early stage of the war, Ivan was serving with the Notts & Derby Regiment and tasked with destroying anything of use to the Germans and buy more time for the evacuation on the beaches.
At river and canal crossings Ivan’s unit was tasked with destroying barges and such like, and it was at this point Ivan chanced across our monthly highlight, which he kept for the rest of his life. This bottle of champagne was found lying in one such barge, and was swiftly removed before Ivan completed his task with the help of a hand grenade.
The night before Dunkirk fell, Ivan managed to safely board a vessel bound for home. After saying goodbye to his old regiment, Ivan was transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps where he served with the Desert Rats in North Africa and Italy before joining the 11th Hussars, where he became a troop sergeant in the struggle to liberate Europe. His new troop commander Charles Sivewright recalled in his memoirs – “Having re-equipped after our tragic disaster on 6th September 1944 5th troop had a new troop sergeant, Sgt Shakespeare. He came from Nottingham and was a young man of energy and ability, we were all certain that he would be a success.” During his time with the regiment, he lost 3 vehicles to enemy panzerfausts or mines, but escaped each unharmed. Ivan made it to Berlin with the 11th Hussars where he remained until he was eventually returned to the UK for discharge back to civilian life. After the war Ivan resided in Nottingham and returned to his life as a tobacconist, eventually becoming the manager of Josiah Brown tobacconists in Nottingham.
The bottle of champagne now shows various signs of its age and wear, we certainly wouldn’t fancy drinking it! It’s a Lanson Demi Sec (medium dry) bottle dating from at least 1940, but apart from that our knowledge is very limited. If any reader out there is able to add anything else about the bottle then we’d love to hear from them!