This is one of the most massive relics that Nazi Germany
left in France
during its occupation of the country in WWII
: a gigantic concrete dome under which an assembly hall for V2 missiles
was hidden and a warren of underground tunnels for delivery, fuel production, storage, maintenance and so forth. No missiles were actually fired from here because the site remained unfinished, was bombed by the Allies and eventually captured and made unusable. After many decades of lying derelict and abandoned the site was turned into the present museum and memorial in 1997. An absolute must-see in the Pas-de-Calais region.
More background info:
When the V2 missile
(aka ‘A4’), developed and tested at Peenemünde
, became operational and went into serial production, especially at the underground site of Mittelbau-Dora
decided to use the new “wonder weapon” to attack England
, in particular London
, on a massive scale. Given the inaccuracy of the missile it was a sheer terror weapon, indiscriminately causing destruction and killing mostly civilians. Somehow it was hoped that this would turn around the fortunes of the Third Reich
, which had already begun losing the war on the Eastern Front. In total some 6,500 V2s were built.
To step up this campaign of firing missiles at London, special bases were constructed from March 1943 in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France
. The sites near Saint-Omer were chosen because of their location close to a railway line (for bringing in the missiles and other supplies) and set back from the coastline enough to ensure that they would not come under attack from British commandos, but were still within the V2
’s range to reach London
, ca. 125 miles (200 km) to the north-west.
After another V2 launch complex to the north of Saint-Omer, now known under the name Blockhaus d’Éperlecques
, was bombed by the Allies in August 1943, it was decided to convert storage facilities at an old quarry at d'Helfaut-Wizernes into a bomb-proof launch base protected by a massive concrete dome over 16 feet (5m) thick, and more than 230 feet (70m) in diameter. The code-name of the project was “Bauvorhaben 21” (‘building project 21’), or, alternatively, “Schotterwerk Nordwest (‘gravel works north-west’).
Under the gigantic concrete dome, an octagonal assembly hall, over 130 feet (40m) in diameter and almost 110 feet (33m) high, would be located, where the missiles would be put in an upright position, the warheads assembled and the missiles fuelled up. They’d then be rolled out to two open-air launch pads just outside the dome to be fired at Britain
in quick succession (at least a dozen a day). Inside the chalk hillside would be a large system of bomb-proof tunnels to house storage facilities for the missiles brought in by train from Germany
, as well as an on-site liquid oxygen production facility. The latter was required because liquid oxygen is prone to rapid evaporation, so it couldn’t be shipped in from afar. There were also to be workshops, generators, a hospital and living quarters, all underground.
Construction was co-ordinated by the Organisation Todt and began some time in August/September 1943 and involved both skilled German workers as well as forced labourers either from France
or (mostly) Soviet POW
s, together a workforce of around 1,300. About a million tons of concrete were poured and miles of tunnels dug.
Allied reconnaissance spotted the building activity but it took them a while to realize what the nature of the site under construction would be. So it wasn’t until March 1944, when the concrete dome was already completed, that they began bombing the site. In total, it was attacked in 16 air raids and even though the concrete dome survived unscathed, super-heavy “Tallboy” bombs destroyed the two launch pads and made the sides of the ex-quarry and some of the dome’s buttresses unstable and blocked access to one of the railway tunnels. The whole area around the site was turned into a moonscape of craters and there were also some civilian casualties in the nearby settlements. In July 1944, all construction efforts were halted and the site basically given up.
Meanwhile the Allies had successfully landed in Normandy – see D-Day
– and were advancing eastwards. So the Germans abandoned the site and it was captured in September 1944. It was inspected by British engineers and only then the scale of the base became clear. In fact, its dimensions suggested it could have handled missiles much larger than the V2
, possibly even the projected A10 “Amerikarakete” (‘America missile’) intended to attack the USA
(that would have made it the world’s first ICBM
, but it too couldn’t be completed before the end of the war).
On the orders of Winston Churchill
the site was then further damaged by the use of explosives to ensure it would remain unusable (e.g. in case it came under control of the Soviets
). The assembly hall and railway tunnel entrances were sealed up and the site abandoned again.
For decades the old quarry site with its concrete dome and the underground tunnels lay derelict and unused, but in the mid-1980s the first plans were drawn up to convert the site into a tourist attraction. Work to make the site safe began in 1993, some unfinished tunnels were concreted, a lift was installed inside the dome and an all-new visitor centre and car park were constructed outside. Now called “La Coupole” (meaning simply ‘the dome’ in French), the site opened to the general public as a “Centre d’Histoire” (so a ‘history centre’ rather than a ‘museum’) in 1997. As an add-on, a new planetarium was also opened adjacent to the visitor centre in 2012.
What there is to see:
quite a lot – so come with sufficient time
on your hands.
Inside the visitor centre
, the first object on display I spotted was a rare prototype
of a version of a manned V1 flying bomb
hanging from the ceiling. As an info panel explained, these were to be piloted by SS
volunteers “sacrificing” themselves in the mission, an idea no doubt inspired by the Kamikaze
planes of Japan
(see also Yushukan
). The German piloted V1 version was called “Reichenberg”.
Once you’ve bought your ticket you then proceed through a back door – where a sign admonishes visitors to be respectful and remain silent throughout their visit. A short path outside, from where you get the best view of the giant dome
above the main core of the site, then leads towards the entrance
of one of the tunnel
s leading into the hillside
. This particular tunnel is one of the former railway tunnels that would have brought in the V2 missiles
by train from Germany
. The rail tracks have been removed, though, but its original purpose explains why this tunnel is so wide and high.
Along the main tunnel and inside some of the side chambers
are additional museum exhibition sections
, including ones about the First World War
, also involving some trench reconstructions, even though this site itself doesn’t actually have anything to do with that conflict at all. But it’s probably intended to provide some sort of context or prelude.
Some sections are also about WWII
, e.g. about the role of tanks, the development of radar technology and cryptology – see Bletchley Park
. An interactive screen provides more background info, e.g. about the pioneering cryptologist Alan Turing.
In a side chamber is a special memorial
to the victims of the “Train de Loos
”, a final deportation of some 870 captured men from the prison of Loos, mostly French Resistance fighters, that departed as late as 1 September 1944, when the Allies were already very close. Two thirds of these men did not survive the concentration camps
they were sent to (mainly Sachsenhausen
Another side chamber still has one of the original diesel generators, a big and brooding rusty hulk, and deeper into the underground systems unfinished tunnels and tunnelling equipment can be seen as well as tunnels dynamited by the British after the capture of the site in September 1944.
Inside a tunnel leading off from the main railway one there follows an intro about the La Coupole site
, its construction illustrated by various plans and charts, as well as covering the bombing of the site by the Allies (see above
Eventually you get to the lift that then takes visitors up into the interior of the giant concrete dome, where most of the museum exhibition proper is located.
This main exhibition part is on two levels, which you can do in either order in theory, but I started with the upper level, called “Rex”, which is the part more specifically about the V-weapons, their development and deployment in the special constructions like La Coupole, and their legacy after WWII.
Introducing the subject is a 20-minute film
called “Les Armes Secrète de Hitler” (or ‘New German Weapons’ in English) about Peenemünde
and the Nazis
’ missile development programme. Amongst the life-size displays
are a genuine V2
(without its engine), and separately a V2-engine together with a 3D animation video of its workings. A V1
flying bomb also hangs from the ceiling.
Possibly the most illuminating part is the large scale model of the La Coupole site, partially cut open to show the inside of the missile assembly hall underneath the dome so you get a good idea of how the whole missile base was intended to work. There’s also a short extra film about the “Sonderbauten” (‘special constructions’) in general, of which La Coupole is only one example.
A side section I found when I was there (in late August 2016) but which may have been only a temporary add-on exhibition
(as the La Coupole website does not mention it) was about the medical
side of war, with a focus on WW1
in particular, including the advances made in the area of prosthetics and the role played by pioneering scientist Marie Curie, especially in the field of X-rays.
One section in the permanent main exhibition is about Los Alamos
and the development of nuclear weapons
, although it’s not entirely clear how that relates to the context of the V-weapons, but never mind. A replica of the Hiroshima
bomb “Little Boy” is the most significant artefact on display here.
The topic of the actual use of
against cities like London
and Antwerp is also covered, as is that of aerial reconnaissance (with an interactive touch-screen table) and a 4-minute film about the Mittelbau-Dora
site and its construction.
A set of scale models of various rockets of the Space Age, and a life-size replica of the Soviet Sputnik-1, serve as an introduction to the topic of the legacy of Peenemünde and the V-weapons and their chief designer Wernher von Braun. Again, this is complemented by a film: “the conquest of space” (22 minutes).
The darkest legacy
connected with the V-weapons, the brutal concentration camp
and underground factory of Mittelbau-Dora
, is given its own separate section, featuring grim drawings by an inmate, photo material from inside the V2
-production facility and some artefacts such as one of those iconic striped camp jackets and trousers.
The second, lower level
of the main exhibition space is called “Cinéac
” and is about the broader context of WWII
, beginning with the invasion
by Nazi Germany
in May 1940, introduced by another short film (17 minutes), plus an additional one about the evacuations of Dunkirk
. Topics such as resistance
but also collaboration
are touched upon too, as is that of war crimes
, the Organisation Todt
and the construction of the Atlantic Wall
. Several more short films complement the objects on display, the largest of which is a car used by the resistance, various communications gear, a reconstruction of a typical shop of the era as well as that of the execution wall
at the citadel in Lille. This is offset by the more uplifting topic of liberation
from July 1944.
However, the darkest part is, again, reserved for last: “Deportations
”, introduced by yet another film (20 minutes). Probably the darkest exhibit here is a coffin-shaped container with ashes and bone fragments from the crematorium of the concentration camp
. There’s also an interactive booth with computer workstations that can be used to trace the fate of deported victims.
You then go back down to the ground level and yet more tunnels eventually take you to the exit and back to the visitor centre. There you can also take a look at the large range of items on offer in the museum shop. There’s also the option of visiting the on-site planetarium (for an extra fee), but I deemed that too off-topic for the La Coupole site and gave it a miss, also because I had been to a couple of planetariums before and didn’t feel the need for yet another such show.
All in all
, of all the WWII
-related sites in northern France
, this is probably the best. Not only is the giant concrete dome a totally unique and visually impressive sight to behold, so are the underground tunnels and chambers and the exhibitions inside are well laid-out and highly informative. All texts and labels, incidentally, are in four languages: French, English, Dutch and German. The translations are generally fine, despite the odd clumsy detail or slight mistake.
Location: between the villages of Wizernes to the north and Helfaut to the south, some 3 miles (5 km) south of Saint-Omer in the Pas-de-Calais region in northern France.
Access and costs: Easy enough to find, at least by car; not too expensive for what you get.
Getting to La Coupole is easiest if you have your own (hired) vehicle; the site and its car park are directly by the D210 road south-east of Wizernes; it’s a roughly 45-minute drive from Calais or Dunkirk
to the north, or about an hour from Lille to the south-east. Access by public transport is limited to the “Mouvéo” shuttle service that runs Mondays to Saturdays, e.g. from the train station of Saint-Omer.
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m, except in July and August when the site opens and closes an hour later; closed altogether from 6 to 19 January and on 11 April, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Admission: 10 EUR (some concessions apply), a combination ticket for both the history centre and the planetarium costs 15 EUR.
Use of an audio guide is included in the ticket price.
Time required: La Coupole’s website recommends two and a half hours, but you could easily spend more time here if you want to read and watch everything. I spent over three and a half hours at the site in total (and without going to the planetarium).
Combinations with other dark destinations: Closest and most thematically fitting, the two other V-bases in the Pas-de-Calais region deserve attention:
Le Blockhaus d’Éperlecques
is another V2
-launching site that was never completed and whose ruins are now home to a private open-air museum of sorts. This is located to the north of Saint-Omer closer to the small town of Watten than to its namesake village.
The V3-site of Mimoyecques
, which is run by the La Coupole management, is further north still, closer to the coast just south-west of Calais, but well worth a combination visit too.
The coast itself features some more WWII
relics belonging to the system of fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall
, and at Dunkirk there’s a museum
about the evacuation of British troops in 1940.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
not much in the immediate vicinity, and this northern corner of France is not famous for natural beauty and uplifting scenery; it’s rather reputed as being aptly described by the phrase “it’s grim up north” – due to lots of disused industry and closed coal mines and general decline and poverty, compared to more affluent parts of France
However, the coast isn’t too far, nor are cities like Arras to the south, which is quite agreeable, and across the nearby border with Belgium
the splendours of places like Ghent and Bruges beckon. And even Paris
is only a ca. three-hour drive away.
- La Coupole 01 - big concrete dome
- La Coupole 02 - tunnel entrance
- La Coupole 03 - going in
- La Coupole 04 - exhibition inside the access tunnel
- La Coupole 05 - World War One
- La Coupole 06 - trenches
- La Coupole 07 - big engine
- La Coupole 08 - tunnelling gear
- La Coupole 09 - yet more unfinished tunnels
- La Coupole 10 - going deeper
- La Coupole 11 - main exhibition inside the dome
- La Coupole 12 - V-1
- La Coupole 13 - V-2
- La Coupole 14 - V-2 engine
- La Coupole 15 - model of the site
- La Coupole 16 - V-2 mass production
- La Coupole 17 - infrastructure
- La Coupole 18 - model of an Atlantic Wall coastal gun
- La Coupole 19 - medical section
- La Coupole 20 - prostheses
- La Coupole 21 - armband worn by Irene Curie
- La Coupole 22 - Little Boy replica
- La Coupole 23 - rocket science
- La Coupole 24 - Saturn V, Sputnik and Ariane
- La Coupole 25 - also a V-2 legacy
- La Coupole 26 - concentration camp inmate clothes
- La Coupole 27 - war effort
- La Coupole 28 - towards liberation
- La Coupole 29 - by car
- La Coupole 30 - prison cell door lock
- La Coupole 31 - Swiss NEMA machine standing in for an Enigma
- La Coupole 32 - bones and scorched earth
- La Coupole 33 - tunnelling back out
- La Coupole 34 - looking up the internal bunker structure
- La Coupole 35 - damp tunnel
- La Coupole 36 - exiting
- La Coupole 37 - shop in the visitor centre
- La Coupole 38 - rare manned V-1 version