Mimoyecques V-3 base
More background info:
The V-3, so named in accordance with the existing V-1 flying bomb and V-2 ballistic missile
dubbed “Vergeltungswaffen” (‘retaliation weapons’), hence the V, though all were really just sheer terror weapons aimed mainly at the civilian population of England
, and in particular London
. The V-3 was not a missile but a special type of supergun. The design goes back to an American
idea from the 19th century for a multi-charge gun, by which subsidiary propellant charges lined up along the gun barrel were fired in sequence as the projectile passed through in order to increase the muzzle velocity of the projectile and hence its range. The American prototypes never delivered the intended results and were given up. Similar designs were also developed in France, and a French version of a multi-charge gun was envisioned after WW1
, but that never even reached a prototype stage.
However, after the 1940 invasion of France by Nazi Germany
, the design plans for this supergun fell into German hands where they attracted the attention of the artillery engineer August Cönders. He managed to produce a small-calibre prototype that yielded promising results. The company that Cönders worked at then approached the Third Reich
’s Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer, proposing a battery of such multi-charge guns large enough to be able to fire at London at very high rates from near the coast of the Pas-de-Calais region.
When Adolf Hitler
was presented with the idea by Speer he apparently was all enthusiastic about the fiendish concept of showering London with shells from such a gun. Without delay the design and construction of the Mimoyecques site was begun in the second half of 1943. The site for the guns had been selected by a fortification specialist from the Wehrmacht, namely at a chalk hill in the Landrethun-le-Nord commune. Chalk had the advantage of being easily dug out making tunnelling quick, but it was stable enough to allow for large tunnels to house the gun barrels, railway access tunnels and support structures deep underground, thus being (so it was hoped) bomb-proof. The site is ca. 95 miles (150 km) south-east of London, i.e. within the range of up to 165 km promised by Cönders.
To achieve such a range, a muzzle velocity of the projectiles of ca. 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) per second was required. To make this possible it was calculated that the gun barrels had to be very long indeed, well over a hundred metres. That also meant they had to be fixed. Initially it was envisioned that two batteries of such guns were to be constructed each consisting of five bundles of five gun barrels each, i.e. a total of 50. The barrels were to be installed inside inclined shafts, or drifts, at a 50 degree angle with a system of horizontal support tunnels at different underground levels, including a railway tunnel for bringing in supplies of shells. The tops of the guns’ muzzles would be protected by being set into massive steel plates and a huge concrete plate several metres thick to stabilize the entire structure at the top level of the hill. The gun barrels would reach a depth of over 100 metres (350 feet) below the surface. The different levels would be connected by lifts.
Thousands of workers, the majority skilled workers from Germany
employed by top industrial companies, set about work at the site, supported by a contingent of slave labourers … as usual in such large-scale Nazi projects (cf. La Coupole
or Bunker Valentin
). And as so many of the Nazis
’ special projects it was overseen by the Organisation Todt. The code-name for the site was “Bauvorhaben 711” (‘building project 711’) or simply “Wiese” (‘meadow’) .
At the same time, Cönders had constructed a prototype of the planned multi-charge gun, itself now code-named “Hochdruckpumpe” (‘high pressure pump’) in order to disguise its real nature, of the intended calibre of 5.9 inches (150mm) at a test site in Germany
. But he encountered serious problems with the design. A full-size gun barrel of almost 500 feet in length (150m) was then constructed at another test site on the island of Wolin not far from Peenemünde
The main problem was the suitable design of the projectile intended for the supergun. Initial tests fell well short of the envisioned muzzle velocity (by over a third). Test firings from Wolin over the Baltic Sea in May–July 1944 at least achieved a range of almost 60 miles (95 km), still short of the required distance, but on the last test the gun barrel burst and became unusable.
The fate of the Mimoyecques site wasn’t any better. Vague intelligence from France and aerial reconnaissance alerted the Allies to suspiciously intense construction works – and even though they had no idea about the V-3 design, they realized that this was probably another part of the V-base system in the area (together with the V-2 bases at what’s now known as La Coupole
and Blockhaus d'Éperlecques
, plus a couple of V-1 firing facilities). It was erroneously presumed that the Mimoyecques site was to become a missile launching site, though. In any case, from November 1943 onwards Allied planes flew a series of bombing missions targeting the site and the railway lines leading to it, causing much damage on the surface and hence delay to the construction efforts, though the underground work was not affected.
Meanwhile, production of a special type of shell for the V-3, called “Sprenggranate 4481” (‘explosive shell 4481’) was begun in Germany
. These shells would have weighed ca. 100 kg and carried only a small explosive charge (in the region of 25kg), which couldn’t have caused much physical damage, yet at a planned firing rate of one every six seconds each from several bundles of guns these could have continually showered London with so many hundreds of small projectiles as to make the city unliveable in, so the V-3, had it ever worked as anticipated by Hitler
, could indeed have had a much more devastating effect than the V1 or V2
However, an RAF
attack on 6 July 1944 involved super-heavy “Tallboy” ground penetration bombs, one of which did bore itself deep into the site. Its explosion caused a massive crater and made some of the underground tunnels collapse, burying several workers inside, tragically also including slave labourers (though not the many hundreds as some sources claim).
After that attack the construction plans were further scaled down by the Germans (the second V-3 site had already been given up altogether, halving the envisioned capacity), to now just one cluster of 5 barrels in a single one of the drifts; and as the firing rate was also to be drastically reduced the whole purpose of the installation became doubtful.
But even these plans were short-lived anyway, as the Allies were rapidly approaching eastwards following the D-Day landings
in Normandy. And so, before the month was out, construction work at Mimoyecques was halted altogether, though the Allies kept bombing the place. It is indeed sometimes claimed that it may be the most heavily bombed single site of the war.
The Germans abandoned Mimoyecques and the whole area in early September 1944, and shortly after the site was captured by Canadian
troops. An investigation into the various V-bases was then launched by the British. It took them a while to work out the true nature of the V-3 project, but once it filtered through to British prime minister Winston Churchill
he ordered the site to be further demolished while British troops were there to ensure it could no longer pose a threat to London.
The Royal Engineers dutifully got to work in May 1945 and in two operations detonated 35 tonnes of explosives inside the tunnels, eventually making both entrances to the main tunnel collapse, blocking access to the underground site. Apparently, Charles de Gaulle was unhappy about the fact that this was done without any consultation with the French, though you have to wonder on what grounds he could have objected to the V-3-base’s destructions had he been asked about it.
After the war, the Mimoyecques site simply lay abandoned, though it was allegedly possible to enter the underground system by clambering down one of the diagonal gun-barrel drifts (which would presumably have been a case of illegal “urbexing
In the late 1960s one end of the collapsed railway tunnel was removed to reinstate access to the now shorter underground tunnel and side chambers, which were then utilized for growing mushrooms. This ended again in the 1970s, but in 1984 the “Forteresse de Mimoyecques” society was founded, which then turned the site into a memorial. In 2008 this first incarnation of the museum closed and the site was sold on.
In 2010, the management of the site was taken over by the nearby La Coupole
and the new museum commodification
you see today was installed. Also in 2010 a surviving specimen of the massive steel plates intended to protect the V-3 muzzles was rediscovered at a nearby quarry, where it had found other uses. It was reacquired by the museum and transported to near the entrance of the Mimoyecques site where it now serves as an open-air exhibit.
The fate of the principle of the multi-charge gun wasn’t completely sealed through the failure of the early tests and the loss of the Mimoyecques site. In 1945, the Germans used a shortened version of such a gun, installed above ground to fire its shells at the city of Luxemburg. But that had no effect on the course of the war. After WWII
the remains of the guns were scrapped, and the idea shelved and almost forgotten (although the USA
did some further tests).
However, a version of the idea resurfaced once again many decades later, namely in Iraq, where then dictator Saddam Hussein commissioned three superguns from Canadian armaments engineer Gerald Bull. His original ambition had been to construct a “space gun” for launching satellites into space cheaply, by replacing the heavy and expensive first stages of rockets with a launch through an oversized gun barrel. But when he failed to get any funding for, or even interest in, his supergun project, he ended up working for Saddam Hussein, at first on conventional artillery during the Iran-Iraq war. But in 1988 he was asked by the dictator to build the “Project Babylon” supergun. This would have consisted of a 350 mm (13.88 inches) calibre prototype and two 1,000 mm (40 inch) calibre “Big Babylon” gun barrels, each 156 metres (512 feet) long, mounted stationary and at an angle inside a hillside (like at Mimoyecques!), capable of launching a 600 kg projectile over a distance of a thousand kilometres (more than 600 miles).
It all came to an end when Bull was assassinated in Brussels in 1990 (by whom remains unknown, though the Israeli secret service Mossad was alleged as a possible perpetrator, given that Israel
was under threat by Iraq). Iraq shortly after invaded Kuwait leading to the first US
-led Gulf War, and with that Western co-operation with Saddam Hussein ended. The parts for the Babylon guns already built, in Europe, were seized and put into storage, some even became museum exhibits, e.g. at the IWM Duxford branch
What there is to see: Once you’ve obtained your ticket from the hut outside the access tunnel, you can study the text-and-image panels at the hut and at some points around outdoors before entering the tunnel itself. Take note especially of the photos of the ruined landscape at the top of the drifts, with its relics of the massive concrete fortifications that were supposed to protect the tops of the gun barrels. These ruins are not regularly accessible for the general public, though photos suggest that there must at times have been tours including these remnants. But the Mimoyecques website says nothing about this.
Note that today’s tunnel entrance is not the original, which was destroyed at the end of WWII
, and was located 30 metres further south; the current entrance
was created when the tunnels were made accessible again in more recent years.
Inside the tunnel, it’s a strange and somewhat eerie atmosphere. It’s quite damp so a misty haze forms creating a spooky light effect. Lighting is sparse anyway, just a few neon tubes along the tunnels plus individual lights illuminating the various information panels mounted to the tunnel walls.
These are mostly traditional text-and-image panels explaining the history of the site, its planned function, the development, tests and Allied bombing raids – see above! – and also the larger context of the V-weapons
project as well as the Atlantic Wall
. One panel also tells the story of the Iraqi supergun of the “Babylon Project” (see above
). In addition there’s also some information about the tunnels’ contemporary other function, namely as a safe place for various (including rare) species of bats to hibernate in during the winter (when the museum is closed – see below
All texts are in four languages: French, English, German and Dutch. There’s also one screen on to which an animated film is projected that describes the multi-charge gun principle and how it would have been applied at the planned V-3 base of Mimoyecques.
The main tunnel would have been the railway tunnel intended for bringing in the shells and other supplies, and you can still see the tracks in the initial part of the tunnel, though further in the floor has been raised by an extra soil layer. Parts of the unloading platforms can still be seen in one stretch of the tunnel, however. You can also peek into various side tunnels, which are mostly pitch-black dark (so bringing a good, powerful torch is a good idea!). In some tunnels, pieces of equipment can still be seen, some trolley cars, machine parts and early on, a huge diesel engine.
The circuit through the tunnel system is prescribed and some parts are closed-off to visitors, but you can peek in. You also see some damaged parts
, including collapsed tunnels and one part of the walls is pockmarked as if from a bomb or shell explosion (maybe this could have been from one of the Tallboy bombs used in the attacks on the site on 6 July 1944 – see above
At the end of a smaller tunnel, branching off the main one, you get to what is possibly the highlight of the site: a reconstructed section of a single V-3 barrel, only four sections long, I’d estimate ca. 50 feet (15m) in total length, so only a fraction of what the full length original would have been, but still. You can clearly see the four pairs of subsidiary charge attachments on both sides of the main barrel, here attached at a ca. 45 degrees angle pointing in the direction of the muzzle, whereas historic images of the test guns had the subsidiary chargers attached at right angles. The top of the barrel ends in rubble – i.e. the drift it would have reached up to the surface in has collapsed.
You can also see another, only partly collapsed drift
, with a bit of light filtering through from the surface above. So this may have been the drift through which it used to be possible to clamber down here from the topside ruins (see above
Inside the tunnels are also a number of memorial monuments
. A simple tomb-stone-like one commemorates the pilot of a plane lost in an attempted attack on Mimoyeques, and one with a prominent name: Joseph P. Kennedy
Jr., elder brother of John F. Kennedy, the later 35th president of the USA
Another memorial commemorates yet more aircraft lost during bombing raids on Mimoyecques, and another is dedicated to the victims
of the these tunnels, i.e. especially the slave workers the Nazis
had used for forced labour at this site.
Finally you make your way back towards the light at the end of the tunnel and exit the tunnel entrance again. Outside take note of the big steel plate on your left with five round holes in it. This was one of the protective steel slabs originally to be installed at the top of the gun barrels, but after the war it was used for other purposes at a nearby quarry before it was rediscovered and brought back here.
Where the access road to the car park branches off from the main road there’s also a rusty, broken piece of artillery (of the conventional sort) and another plaque.
All in all
, this is perhaps the the most intriguing of all the V-weapons
sites, as it is so unique; the only V-3 base ever attempted. The dark and dank atmosphere inside the tunnels adds to the mystique, and even though the commodification
here is far less elaborate and high-tech compared to the mother institution La Coupole
that this site is a branch of (in terms of management), it makes up for that through the eerie atmosphere in the underground system. A must-see place when touring the area!
a few miles inland from the French coast on the English Channel, roughly halfway between Calais to the north and Boulogne-sur-Mer to the south, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track; not too overpriced.
Details: To get to this site you have to have your own means of transport, either a (hire) car or possibly a bike, if you’re travelling light and slow in the region. But there are no public transport options.
Coming from Calais you can take the A16 motorway, leaving it at exit 38. At the end of the slip road turn left and then second left. This road takes you back across the motorway by an underpass. Keep going on this road until you come to a T-junction, where you should turn right. A good hundred yards onwards signs guide you to the site’s car park to the right.
Coming from the south from the direction of Boulogne-sur-Mer you have to leave the motorway at exit 36; at the end of the slip road turn right, this takes you to a roundabout, where you have to take the third exit into Avenue de l’Europe. This eventually takes you parallel to the motorway again. Stay on this side of the motorway and keep going (you’re now on the D249), until you come to the sign for the Mimoyecques V-3 site, which is on your left.
Tickets have to be bought in a little hut outside the main tunnel entrance.
Admission: 6.50 EUR (some concessions apply)
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but only seasonally, roughly from mid-April to mid-October (check their website for exact dates). In the winter season the underground site is out of bounds as it serves as a hibernation cavern for some rare species of bats.
When going there in the summer, it’s a good idea to bring an extra layer of clothing and a hat of sorts, as it is markedly cooler inside the tunnels than outside.
Time required: about an hour.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
First and foremost the other V-bases of the Pas-de-Calais region have to be mentioned here, especially the two highly commodified
-launching sites, La Coupole
and Blockhaus d'Éperlecques
. Of the V1-launch sites only the bunker structure at Siracourt is still visible, but only from the outside.
And outside France, there is one more site associated with the V-3 supergun, namely on the island of Wolin, now in Poland
, the site where the test shots with a full-scale prototype V-3 were undertaken (see above
). The gun has disappeared, but you can see the concrete supports for it on a wooded hillside, and at the bottom is a small museum inside a former storage bunker associated with the test site (possibly for storing projectiles). It’s a private museum south of the town now called Międzyzdroje. It’s open only seasonally between May and October (daily 10 a.m. to 6/8 p.m.) and a small admission fee is charged. Location: [53.9004, 14.4377
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
nothing much in the immediate vicinity, but the coastline of northern France
is only ca. five miles (8 km) away.
- Mimoyecques 01 - tunnel entrance
- Mimoyecques 02 - inside
- Mimoyecques 03 - old equipment
- Mimoyecques 04 - old engine
- Mimoyecques 05 - side tunnel
- Mimoyecques 06 - information panels
- Mimoyecques 07 - diagram of the V-3 set-up
- Mimoyecques 08 - model of the V-3 gun at La Coupole
- Mimoyecques 09 - replica section of a V-3 gun on site
- Mimoyecques 10 - memorial stone
- Mimoyecques 11 - individual memorial stone
- Mimoyecques 12 - general memorial
- Mimoyecques 13 - hole and collapse
- Mimoyecques 14 - in winter this is a bat cave
- Mimoyecques 15 - light at the end of the tunnel
- Mimoyecques 16 - rusty wreck of a gun outside
- Mimoyecques 17 - steel plate for protecting the V-3 muzzles