Le Blockhaus d’Éperlecques
This bunker and open-air museum was originally constructed as one of the V-weapons
bases by Nazi Germany
in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France
and was intended to fire V2-missiles at London
and southern England
as sheer terror bombings. It never went operational, however, as it was heavily bombed by the Allies and seriously damaged before it was completed. The site is now run as a private museum.
“Blockhaus” is a German loan word in French meaning as much as ‘bunker’ (see also Atlantic Wall
and cf. St-Laurent du Maroni
), and indeed it’s a huge concrete monster of a bunker. The place name is taken from a nearby village, although the site is actually closer to the small town of Watten, and hence an alternative name for the site is simply ‘Bunker Watten’. Internally, the project was code-named “Kraftwerk Nord-West” (‘north-west power plant’) to conceal its real purpose.
It was part of a larger plan to utilize the new V1 and V2 weapons
designed at the Peenemünde
research and test site to fire a constant stream of missiles at London
and other targets in Britain
(in the vain hope that this showering with pure terror weapons would make Britain abandon its war effort). To this end, several sites in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France were picked that were within the missile’s range from London, but set back from the coast to avoid attacks by British commandos.
Construction of the bunker near Watten began in March 1943 and was overseen by the Organisation Todt and involved a large workforce including many forced labourers from France
, Eastern Europe and also Spain
(former Republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War
who had fled to France, but became political prisoners after the German invasion in 1940). As so often, working and living conditions for these forced labourers were extremely harsh and many did not survive this regime.
The bunker was to include a bomb-proof railway station for the delivery of missiles and supplies from production sites in Germany
, (such as Mittelbau-Dora
) and was also to have its own liquid oxygen plant on site, to reduce loss of this volatile fuel to evaporation. The site was intended to store up to 100 missiles at a time and launch as many as 36 a day.
However, the site was heavily bombed by the Allies, even though they did not yet understand the true purpose of the missile base – just the sheer amount of effort on the part of the Germans and the size of the bunker made it a worthwhile target, the Allies reckoned. A first attack was quickly planned in order to hit the bunker before the concrete had fully set. And indeed the first raid at the end of August 1943 severely damaged the reinforced train station beyond repair. Unfortunately, many of the forced labourers were also killed in the attack.
The bunker had thus been taken out of action before it could be used as a launch site, but parts could still be utilized as a liquid oxygen production plant. Efforts for constructing another production line and launch site for V2 missiles
were redirected at another site further south – see La Coupole
! At the same time mobile launchers were used to fire V2s at Britain
, which were less prone to aerial attack, but also less efficient.
The ‘Blockhaus’ suffered further bombardment and the train lines leading to it were systematically destroyed. Eventually a super-heavy Tallboy bomb penetrated the 5m-thick roof of the bunker, bringing part of it down and destroying the interior. The Germans effectively gave up the site from July 1944, and abandoned it altogether shortly before Canadian
troops captured it in early September 1944. Despite subsequent inspection, its true nature as a would-be V2
-missile launch base was still not fully understood, although the fuel-production part was acknowledged. The Watten site had initially been mistaken as a possible V1-launch facility, like the bunker at Siracourt further north-west.
The Blockhaus d'Éperlecques was used by the USAF
in early 1945 as a test bed for the newly designed “Disney” bomb, a special partly self-propelled heavy bomb designed to penetrate very solid fortifications such as at this bunker. It did embed itself in the concrete but the test was inconclusive (in fact the bomb remained in place until 2009, when it was removed). And anyway, the war was almost over by that point.
After the war, the Watten site was briefly considered for re-use by the military but such plans were then given up and the bunker ruin lay abandoned, on land reverted to private ownership, for almost three decades. It was first opened to the public in 1973. In the mid-1980s it was assigned historical monument status by France
and went into new ownership. It was developed into an open-air collection of military objects around the bunker ruin and is still privately run.
What there is to see:
Quite a lot, as far as objects and structures are concerned, but the commodification
is unusual in style, and rather amateurish in parts, and often lacking in detailed background information. The text panels in four languages (French, English, Dutch and German) are often idiosyncratic in that they are written in the first person, frequently quite emotive, and at least the English and German texts are full of little spelling and grammar mistakes, but usually not to the degree of rendering the texts totally incomprehensible. Just don’t expect to learn an awful lot in detail.
The visit begin
s in the house where you also obtain your admission ticket. In the hall are a life-size military motorbike and a large glass display case with various plane models
as well as scale mock-ups of a V1
launch ramp, a V2
mobile launcher and, most importantly perhaps, a scale model of the Blockhaus d'Éperlecques itself.
The circuit through the site then begins behind a door into the open air, where a sign informs visitors that the place doesn’t see itself as a museum but as a “history park”. OK, though it does feel like an open-air museum really.
Another idiosyncrasy are the so-called ‘sound points’, where you press a button (one for each of the four languages on offer) to start an audio track then played via outdoor loudspeakers. Four more languages, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, are covered by the alternative of an audio-guide instead. To be frank, I would have preferred that for all the languages on offer, rather than the open-air speakers. In terms of the soundscape created by these installation, this is really a very, well, … weird place.
There’s a prescribed circuit through the site that first leads past some huts in the area that would have been the forced labourers’ camp
. From there a path leads into the forest and past various WWII
-era objects on open-air display
, such as pieces of artillery
, anti-aircraft guns
, radar aerials
and, perhaps most incongruously, a German midget submarine
of the “Biber” (‘beaver’) type, a single-pilot mini-sub designed to deliver two torpedoes in coastal defence efforts.
are also on display together with a large panel about the Atlantic Wall
, and another panel tells the story of the wooden bombs
dropped by the RAF
, namely onto wooden mock-up fighter planes that the Germans set up to fool the enemy’s reconnaissance into believing they had more hardware than was actually the case. But the trick didn’t work and to demonstrate this they bombed the mock planes with mock bombs on which was written “wood for wood”.
Two very large panels explain the different sections and inner workings of both the V1 and the V2
, and then you finally get to the bunker
, the heart of the whole site.
The circuit leads first past the eastern side to take you to the rear of the bunker site, which is facing north. This is the part that was most heavily damaged by Allied bombings. And indeed much of this part of the bunker complex is just a mess of broken and twisted concrete and steel. You can also glimpse into the bunker at some points and see that the bottom levels are flooded with water.
To the side of the main bunker complex is also a smaller bunker, probably some ancillary building in front of which a number of old fuel drums and bent plane propellers are on display.
At the rear, at what would have become the bomb-proof (so it had been hoped) railway station for the unloading of missiles, an intact crane is still standing. Looking over the complex a detailed chart explains that the central part would have been the liquid oxygen storage facility, and beyond, in the tallest part of the massive bunker would have been the oxygen production pant as well as the warhead assembly and missile testing halls with the openings through which the missiles were to be taken to the two launch pads.
On the edge of the roof you can see the damage
one of the super-heavy Tallboy bomb
s dropped on the site (see above
). Walking around the bunker now on the western side you can see more bomb damage to the roof and outer walls.
At the south-western corner of the bunker are yet more open-air displays
, including another German WWII
-era armoured vehicle, an anti-aircraft gun, and, most importantly, an original V1-launch ramp
with a V1
balanced towards the end as if about to fly off into the sky. Also in this part a deep, water-filled and overgrown crater is marked as having been caused by another Tallboy bomb.
You can also enter the interior of the main bunker
, where there are more displays and info panels. This includes a French passenger car on the upper level – how it got there and why remains a mystery, though. To the right is one of the two high passageways through which the V2s
would have been moved towards their launch pad, but the planned door through which they would have passed is not in place, instead the gap was filled with concrete like the rest of the bunker’s outer walls, presumably after it was decided not to use the bunker for its originally intended purpose as a launch base. Nevertheless a 2D mock-up of a V2 rocket
is attached to the rear wall, atmospherically reflected in the flooded lower levels of the bunker in front of it. There’s also a screen that explains the intended inner workings of the site.
And from the ceiling a replica Tallboy bomb is hanging upside down (as if in free fall) and another large panel provides information about it.
Deeper into the bunker more displays
include a bomb-loading vehicle, a replica of a “Disney” bomb (see above
), some heavy lifting equipment, and in one part is a row of benches where visitors can sit down and watch a film about the V-weapons
projected on to a wall.
the circuit continues with picking up another side topic, namely the deportations
of French Jews and resistance fighters to concentration camps
, including via the transit camp of the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen
. The largest exhibit here is a couple of deportation train rail cars, of the cattle car
type. One can be entered and once inside you’re invited to press a big red button to start a kind of simulation. Little metal footprints set into the floor indicate how densely people would have been packed into these carriages.
Along the way back towards the exit you pass a single-person bunker salvaged from a railway station and a sign points out an electric cable’s ceramic isolator on a tree which would have witnessed 35,000 deportations from 1943 – how that could have been possible is not explained and I found it highly doubtful. Whether it has “seen” the claimed one million visitors since the museum began, I cannot say. But that’s probably possible.
Back outside the exit there are a few more exhibits such as another big gun as well as a model V2. In the meantime, so the Blockhaus website indicates, a full-size V2
rocket (probably a replica) has been added next to the V1-ramp by the main bunker.
All in all
, I found this the weakest of the three V-bases that have been turned into historical memorials. The enormous bunker is surely very impressive visually (size does matter!), as are some of the displays, especially that original V1 launch ramp, but otherwise, and especially in terms of commodification
and interpretation, this site is a very far cry from its rival La Coupole
, and it also lacks the exoticness of the Mimoyecques
site. Yet if you have time for all three, it is still a valuable addition, just come with lowered expectations, especially if you’ve been to the other two first.
ca. 1.2 miles (1.9 km) west of Watten, and a good 6 miles (10 km) north of Saint-Omer, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten path, but not hard to find; not cheap, but OK.
Details: Getting to the site is easiest by car, coming from the nearest trunk road, the D300, at the roundabout at Bleue Maison take the third exit if coming from the south, or the first exit when coming from the north, into Rue de Bleue Maison and head west. After a few hundred yards turn right into Rue des Sarts, which eventually bends right and ends at the site’s car park. It’s also signposted, so easy to find.
If you’re without a vehicle of your own, you could alternatively get a train to the station Watten Eperlecques and walk from there, which takes about half an hour. On exiting the station turn left into Rue de la Gare and head west along the banks of the La Paclose River, then turn into Rue de Bassemstraete; at the T-junction at the end of this road turn left into Rue du Fort Vesques and stay on this until you get to the Blockhaus site.
Opening times: daily from March to October, closed the rest of the year; in March from 2 to 5 p.m., in April, May, June and September from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., in July and August from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and in October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: 10 EUR (students with ID: 7.50, children up to 14 years old: 6.50)
Time required: one to two hours
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Most obviously, the other site that was intended to become a V2-missile
launch base has to be emphasized here: La Coupole
, south of Saint-Omer. This site has also been developed into a large memorial and museum, and is significantly better designed and state of the art.
Also linked to La Coupole is its branch at Mimoyecques
, which was to be a V3-launch site
but was also never completed. It’s now a unique underground site, only seasonally open and rougher in design, but well worth seeing.
The V1-bunker ruin at Siracourt, on the other hand, can only bee seen from the outside, as it is sealed and on private land.
Also in the region and related to WWII
is the museum
about the 1940 evacuations of British and French troops that had been encircled by the German invaders.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
not much in the immediate vicinity, but see under La Coupole
- Eperlecques 01 - approach path
- Eperlecques 01b - old gun
- Eperlecques 01c - mini submarine
- Eperlecques 02 - main bunker
- Eperlecques 03 - side bunker
- Eperlecques 04 - rear of the bunker
- Eperlecques 05 - bomb damage
- Eperlecques 06 - seen from the other side
- Eperlecques 07 - old crane
- Eperlecques 08 - side of the bunker
- Eperlecques 09 - bomb scarring
- Eperlecques 10 - V-1 ramp and anti-aircraft gun
- Eperlecques 11 - V-1
- Eperlecques 12 - ramp from the rear
- Eperlecques 13 - V1 about to lift off
- Eperlecques 14 - mangled
- Eperlecques 15 - inside the main bunker
- Eperlecques 16 - no idea how or why that car got up there
- Eperlecques 17 - V-2 impression
- Eperlecques 18 - V-2 reflection
- Eperlecques 19 - V-2 film
- Eperlecques 20 - extra exhibits
- Eperlecques 21 - heavy lifting equipment
- Eperlecques 22 - bunker-breaking bomb
- Eperlecques 23 - Tallboy
- Eperlecques 24 - Tallboy bomb crater
- Eperlecques 25 - deportation train
- Eperlecques 26 - simulator start button
- Eperlecques 27 - how densely packed deportees would have been standing
- Eperlecques 28 - model V2
- Eperlecques 29 - disabled gun by the entrance
- Eperlecques 30 - inside the visitor centre lobbly