The Wizernes Bunker Complex – La Coupole

So, we have a huge concrete dome structure up on a hill which, whatever its purpose, doesn’t look quite right, does it?

And a tunnel beneath.  Ominous, I think,…

…more than ominous with the railway tracks disappearing into the darkness.  I don’t much like that image.

Although the tracks are long gone, the darkness beyond remains.

The dome up on the hill…

…is marked on this aerial photograph, which also explains where we are.  Wizernes is, apparently, 117 miles from London (and, for your information, just south of Saint Omer, itself around twenty miles south of the Channel coast).

This doesn’t look right, either,…

…and a close-up of the entrance from the previous black & white photo shows that it hasn’t looked right for a very long time.

This massive crack in the ceiling at the tunnel entrance shouldn’t be here, either.  Thank heavens for the chicken wire.  We’ll all be okay.

Once inside, the tunnel appears to go on for ever,…

…with huge alcoves on either side, some empty,…

…and some not,…

…this time machine, disguised as a 26-ton diesel-powered electric generator, capable of providing power for the whole complex (now you know).

The last time we saw some of these was down in Arras, when we explored La Carrière Wellington,…

…but this doesn’t feel like that, there’s no sense of achievement here, just a sense of forlorn hope.  Or is that no hope?

The main tunnel continues onwards, beyond the gates at the end, but we are siphoned off to the right at that point, and maybe this is the time to explain exactly what’s going on here.

In 1943 the Todt Organisation, responsible for the Nazi’s major building works, was tasked with the construction of nine enormous facilities (‘special constructions’ – ‘sonderbauten’ in German) in France for the deployment of the new German rocket-powered aerial weapons.  Five of these facilities were to be in the Pas-de-Calais, although the Germans had already abandoned one site – at Éperlecques, eight miles to the north of here, due to an air raid by one hundred & eighty seven B-17s – when, in August 1943, construction began (above) on a V2 launching site at an abandoned quarry here at Wizernes,…

…where the rockets could be safely stored in underground tunnels and prepared for firing, all protected by a massive concrete dome (3D plan of the intended Wizernes complex above, cross-section of the dome below).

Skilled German specialists and forced labour, working under camouflage, initially built the dome – five metres thick and weighing 55,000 tons – before extracting the earth beneath, creating seven stories above what became the ground floor.  The labour force consisted mainly of Russian prisoners – men & women – brought here, from camps in the east, to work and to die.

And they worked and they died, and others took their places, and the work went on, endlessly, day & night, malnourished men & women toiling in the dark,…

…although in the end all their work would be in vain, many of these tunnels, as we get closer to the centre of the complex, clearly unfinished.

Here’s a plan of the intended Wizernes site, the main tunnel entrance by which we entered marked in red (eventually leading, the map tells us, to an unloading station where arriving V2s could be unloaded and from there transported to the underground storage facilities),…

…and here’s a model of the complex as it was intended to operate.  The entrance to the main tunnel is just visible on the far left, the two massive openings in the hillside, each fifty five feet high – Gretchen, with model V2, on the left, Gustav on the right (see close-up diagram below) – intended to be used alternately to roll out the V2s for launching.

In the end, the tide of war ensured that none of the nine ‘sonderbauten’ were ever completed, much less actually became operational.

Allied bombing raids on Wizernes began in March 1944 and continued throughout April with little effect on the complex, construction work continuing unhindered beneath the dome.  This aerial shot of the complex was taken on 26th March 1944, the dome down in the bottom right (find the arrow),…

…and (above & below), sections of the same map on the left, compared with later shots of the same area on the right.

More than 3,000 tons of bombs would be dropped on the site in raids over the next few months, and although the surrounding area suffered considerably, the dome itself remained intact.  And the work in the tunnels beneath it continued.

And our journey continues too, along a narrower tunnel, hand-cut into the chalk,…

…past other small tunnels, some hardly started,…

…some leading who knows where, all excavated by hand,…

…following the arrows until, eventually, a lift takes us up into the dome itself,…

…where a hanging V2 rocket, the point of all this madness, greets us on entry.

There’s a hanging bomb too, although thankfully, just a life-sized model.  Actually, not just any bomb, but the Little Boy atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945.

Beneath our feet, we are flanked by V1s (above & below), but I think these are models once again.

Beyond the V2,…

…its power unit,…

…an extraordinary-looking contraption to a non-engineer like me.

V1,…

…which, you may or may not know, stands for ‘Vergeltungswaffe Eins’,…

…which means ‘Reprisal Weapon One’.

The V2 – guess what that stands for – with the vast ceiling of the dome above.  I believe that this particular V2 is what might be called a mish-mash – some parts are original, some replica.

Underside of the second V1.

Fragment of a V2 combustion chamber that landed near Antwerp during the winter of 1944-1945.  My father used to tell me about hearing the V1s going over his head towards the bridges at Antwerp when he was in the Ardennes with the Americans during the Battle of the Bulge.  V2s too, by the looks of it (this fragment was found during construction work in 2003).

Photo showing the mass production of the A4 rocket that powered the V2 in the Mittelwerk underground factory in Thurangia in Germany, from where they would be transported to their destinations.  Note these rockets are already camouflaged, just like the V2 in the museum, presumably for their rail or road journey to their launch sites.

V2 transportation carriage.

Other stuff.

Workers’ clothes,…

…and identity patches.

German MG 34 machine gun.

Men of the 2nd Bn. Royal Norfolk Regiment in a pre-war photograph.  How many of these men…

…are pictured in this shocking photo (above, in situ in the museum, and below) taken by an unknown German soldier of British corpses lying in a field at Le Paradis, some eighteen miles west of Lille (and actually only three miles or so from La Gorgue, an area we have explored in past posts).

On 27th May 1940, ninety seven officers and men, mainly of the 2nd Bn. Royal Norfolk Regiment, their ammunition gone and by now cut off from the troops heading for Dunkirk and the Channel coast, surrendered to men of the S.S. Totenkopf Regiment.  Disarmed and marched to this farm, the men were machine-gunned and those who survived bayoneted, the corpses left for two days before the Germans ordered the local villagers to bury them where they lay.

Farm roof now repaired, villagers tend the mass grave.

In May 1942 the bodies were ordered to be exhumed and reburied in individual graves in Le Paradis churchyard, now Le Paradis War Cemetery.  There were, however, two men who escaped the killings, and it would be their testimony, at a 1948 war trial, that would see the commander of 2nd Bn. S.S. Totenkopf Regiment, Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein (inset), hanged on 28th January 1949.  The hangman, Ted Roper, said the following, ‘He was very pompous and unrepentant to the end and when asked his religion, snarled ‘atheist’. Accordingly he was not given the usual attendance of a minister. As I led him to the scaffold after securing his arms, he stared hard at me and made a noise in his throat as if to spit. I was too quick however and bundled him unceremoniously on the trap door. He disappeared shouting “Gott strafe…” but was too late to get out the last word which was presumably ‘England’.’  So the man in charge of the murderers at Wourmhoudt, as we saw last post, lived to be 90, and the man in charge of the murderers at Le Paradis was hanged.  Such are the vagaries of war and peace.

I am unsure of the date of the picture on the left, but on the right, the farmer performs post-war bullet removal from the farm wall.

Back in the museum, this coffin-shaped box, made by Paul Vion, a deportee from the Pas-de-Calais, contains ashes & fragments of bone from the crematorium in Mauthausen concentration camp.

Execution posts (above & following).

This memorial room remembers the men and women of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region who were deported or executed during the years under German & Vichy occupation,…

…the names of almost 8,000 men, women & children, displayed on a moving screen,…

…along with photographs of 732 of them on the surrounding walls.

And after all that, there’s space stuff too, should that be your type of thing.

Making our way back towards the entrance, now back in the main railway tunnel,…

…there’s an alcove I didn’t show you earlier…

…dedicated to the 872 political prisoners and members of the Resistance who, on 1st September 1944, were piled into the last train – thirteen cattle trucks – to leave France for the concentration camps during World War II.

Known forevermore as the ‘Train de Loos’, only 284 of the deportees would return after the war.

At the end of another massive alcove, exhibits from Allied bombers shot down on raids over Wizernes.

Hercules engine from a Handley Page Halifax shot down on 8th August 1944.

Evidently, between December 1943 & August 1944, the Allies lost 200 aircraft during attacks on V1 & V2 sites in the Pas-de-Calais area.

Another empty alcove,…

…and our visit is nearly over,…

…as another group arrives.

Machine gun embrasure or letter box?

Barnes Wallis-designed Tallboy bombs, the largest bomb available to the R.A.F.  On 17th July 1944 a dozen of these were dropped on Wizernes,…

…blocking most of the tunnel entrances, one Tallboy (they were referred to as ‘Earthquake’ bombs), which landed near the main tunnel entrance, I would imagine causing the huge crack in the roof above the entrance where we once again find ourselves, others bursting beneath the dome, creating a landslide that caused the supporting buttresses of the dome to shift.

Shot showing the dome after an earlier, less successful, attack using Tallboy bombs on 6th July 1944,…

…as is this aerial shot, the dome bottom left.

The structures may have remained intact, not so the hillside, as these post-raid photos (above & below) taken by the R.A.F. on low-level reconnaissance flights show.  In the shot above, the main tunnel entrance is marked as number ‘4’, number ‘2’ is the head of the ventilation shaft that still stands on the hill next to the dome, with the dome itself, or some of it, top right.

In this picture, presumably taken later than the previous one, even the tunnel entrance is difficult to pinpoint, the surrounding devastation practically total.  But the dome still stands.

Eventually, at the end of July, a few weeks before operations had originally been scheduled to start, Hitler ordered the facilities to be abandoned (above, a section of the never-actually-installed bomb-proof tunnel entrance doors).  The future of the V2 would, from now on, lie exclusively with mobile launch equipment.

Leaving the complex,…

…and looking back, the collapse of the hillside now fairly obvious.

And it was those massive wonky buttresses that made the place look not quite right when we arrived,…

…but just try to imagine the force required to shift them!

And pity the workers inside who simply had to endure.

Shot taken from a departing British aircraft showing the devastation after the Allied bombing raids, although the dome, visible in the left middle distance, remains intact.

Late in 1944, the British enter Wizernes to inspect the complex.

This small memorial…

…remembers all those men & women who died here during the site’s construction and beneath the Allied bombardments.

Oh, the stories I could tell you – this gentleman once had a Bronze Star pinned to his chest by none other than General Norman Schwarzkopf, whom you doubtless remember from a more recent conflict.

The La Coupole visitor centre.  As in cupola.  As in dome.  I suppose that sounds better than the Bauvorhaben 21, Schotterwerk Nord West Visitor Centre, that being the German code name for the complex.

Well worth a visit, I’d say, despite, and because of, its despicable past.  No hurry though.  I doubt if it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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8 Responses to The Wizernes Bunker Complex – La Coupole

  1. Morag L Sutherland says:

    Comprehensive as always. My understanding from our visit was the science and scientists behind V1 and V2 went to USA and developed space exploration rockets. Hence the section at La Coupole

    • Magicfingers says:

      I am sure you are correct. The museum was good in parts, but the V1s are models, as is the atomic bomb – I do have a slight problem with models in museums (what’s the point?), but anyway, there was enough to keep me busy, as you have seen in this post.

  2. Nick Kilner says:

    A great post, really interesting, what a place! I’ve driven past the site on many an occasion, but never made the time to stop in. I really must in future.

  3. Jon T says:

    What an extraordinary place and a fascinating and terrible story. Now I am wondering if we could squeeze in a visit there on the way back from the Somme in a couple of weeks time !

  4. sendergreen says:

    In these pursuits, I’ve developed a visceral reaction to German words beginning with “Sonder …”. And, to S.S. Hstf ‘s. So very few faced justice in this world. Strange this perpetrator would identify to the hangman as an atheist, then reference “Gott strafe” (God punish) ….literally in his last… first two thirds of a ironic curse.

    Sad query. The regime’s war construction projects ran on a deliberate policy of mass mortality of slave labour. Was there any identified place of remembrance for the many slave labourers that I’d assume would have been buried near the site ?

    • Magicfingers says:

      Yes, me too!! The only answer to your question that I can give is the small black memorial near the end of this post – I don’t know of another but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

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