Hitler’s Wonder Weapons in Northern France

Following the end of the Battle of Britain, mainly fought in the air in summer-fall 1940, the plans of the Axis for an invasion of Britain were halted and progressively updated and reconfigured. The successful invasion of Holland, Belgium and Northern France had led to a stabilization of the border of the Axis territory on the Atlantic coast of Europe earlier in 1940. Since then and until the counter-invasion by the Allied troops in June 1944, the military command of Germany decided for the fortification of the coast with the Atlantic Wall, a series of naval gun batteries, ammo storages, barracks, radar stations, command and communication centers, and everything else that was needed to detect and contrast an attack from the West, both from the sea and from the air.

But the coast of the Atlantic was not considered only as a border line to be defended. Some large-caliber cannons of the Atlantic Wall built in the region of Calais on the narrowest sector of the English Channel, were capable of hitting targets on British mainland. Furthermore, many port towns on the cost of France were converted into military ports from where the Kriegsmarine operated regularly with various material, including the famed underwater U-Boot forces, running offensive missions against all sorts of Allied ships in various sectors of the North Sea and the Atlantic ocean. Airbases were routinely operated in the regions of Northern France, Belgium and Holland both for bombing raids over Britain and later for fighting missions in defense of the occupied and the innermost territories of the Reich from the Allied bombing runs. With the help of the US, these began to systematically target the Axis in 1943, operating from Britain.

Finally, the newest and most advanced conventionally armed weapons of WWII started to be operated from the coastal area in 1944 by the German armed forces. The famous ‘Retaliation Weapons’, or ‘Vergeltungswaffen’ in German – from which the famous abbreviation ‘V’ of the V-1, V-2 and V-3 – suffered from limited range, and so had to be launched from close enough to their intended target – Britain, by design. Today some relics of the launch sites and some buildings connected with the deployment of such ordnance can be visited when touring the area of the Pas-de-Calais, the northernmost province of France.

The following photographs, taken in summer 2016, portray four notable sites of the kind in that region.

Sights

V-1 – Ardouval

Since 1943 new weapons enriched the arsenal of the German armed forces. The famous V-1, manufactured as Fieseler-103, reached operational readiness and began to be deployed that year. This relatively simple, subsonic, air-breathing – i.e. non-rocket-propelled – flying bomb, while not very accurate, could be deadly against large target cities like London. Its limited range forced deployment in the occupied territories closest to Britain.

Many launch bases were prepared in Northern France, from where Southern England was well within range. The V-1 was used only after the D-Day – the first registered operative launch was on June 13th, 1944, against Britain. By the end of Summer 1944 the Allied had pushed the Germans roughly back to the region of the Ardennes in Northeastern France, on the border with Belgium. Consequently, all bases in Northwestern France were silenced. Later in the war, V-1 were still launched against liberated Belgium and central England, from more inland and further north bases by the retreating German forces. Total launched V-1 were actually in the order of the tens of thousands.

The Ardouval site is possibly the only V-1 site officially opened to the public in France. It is an open-air museum with no fences, so it is open h24 every day of the year. The site was severely hit before by Allied air raids before it could enter service, so no flying bomb was ever launched from it. Actually, the bomb craters can be clearly spotted in the trees all around. Going far from the paved walkways is not advised due to danger of unexploded ordnance.

The installation is rather extensive, and traces of some original buildings and service roads remain to this day. Among them a concrete water basin, a generator building, a building with a concrete arch for aligning navigation instruments prior to the launch.

Two curved trails from the V-1 body storage to the operational buildings and launch ramp can be spotted. The launch ramp was reconstructed, but just besides you can see the launch observation bunker, with a slot for visual checking the launch from very close to the lower end of the inclined ramp.

Barely recognizable ruins of other buildings can be spotted as well. Touring the place is not complicated, thanks to an explanatory panel close to the parking. It is advisable to take a picture of it with your phone, to be sure to see everything the site has to offer. Time required is about 45 min.

Getting there and moving around

The site of Ardouval (Val Ygot) is located close to the town of Ardouval and Pommeréval. It can be easily reached by car from the latter, less than 2 miles from the town center, driving west on the D99. Large free parking on site.

V-2 – Watten & Wizernes

Much more advanced than V-1, the V-2 was the first operational rocket in the world. Invented by the team of Wernher von Braun and tested in Peenemünde, on the border between today’s Germany and Poland, this liquid-propelled rocket came in the latest stage of WWII. The production totalled around 5000 units, and about 3100 were actually launched during the war, basically only from mobile launch platforms. Targets were mainly Belgium and Britain, but the first successful launch took place against Paris in September 1944. As for the V-1, range was among the weaknesses of the design, so that a deployment close to the Atlantic coast was necessary for targeting Britain from mainland Europe.

Mobile gantries were well designed and allowed a relatively fast re-deployment, a critical feature in the last stage of the war when the frontline was moving eastward at fast pace. Despite that, Hitler’s personal preference was with huge, autonomous, fixed launch bases, for which design and construction work began soon after the occupation of Northern France.

Two sites were created. The first was close to Watten, in the forest of Eperlecques – about 40 miles from the coast to the south-east of Calais – and was codenamed ‘Kraftwerk Nordwest’. Work on this monstrous bunker – probably the largest you will ever see from this age – started in early 1943 in a forest, at ground level and with little natural defences.

This installation was designed for the assembly of V-2 rockets arriving by train, and for supplying them with oxygen prepared in place in a dedicated branch of this bunker-factory. The intended role of this installation was the creation of a ‘rocket revolver’, capable of launching rockets at a frequency of 1.5 per hour, 24 hours a day. The Allies did not overlook the potential strategic relevance of the site and bombed it repeatedly. During a raid carried out by US forces in summer 1943 the site still under construction was seriously damaged. Since then it was decided to turn it into a liquid oxygen production factory for supplying other launch sites. Soon after the disembarkment, the place was finally abandoned after being hit by Tallboy bombs by the British. After capture in September 1944 it was decided to further demolish it by testing several new ordnance against a target so hard to crack.

The site is open as a regular museum, which can be visited on self-guided tours. A trail in the trees leads you to the main bunker, the tallest part of which can be entered. A V-2 mockup allows you to appreciate the proportions of the building. Some of the tunnels can be seen from the outside.

Also in place are a V-1 launch ramp, cannons and vehicles. Time required for visiting may vary between about 30 minutes to more than 1 hour depending on your level of interest.

The second site was built starting mid-1943 close to Wizernes, and not far from the previous site in Watten. This was codenamed ‘Schotterwerk Nordwest’, and it was intended for the same basic scope of the other, but it had also to be built to avoid heavy damage from air-dropped bombs. The location was extremely favorable, making use of a former quarry, with tunneling in the body of a U-shaped hill. A distinctive feature still remaining today is the concrete dome covering part of the site. The place was stricken with usual and Tallboy bombs after the D-Day. This caused the collapse of the entrances to the tunnel system, and of the side of the hill. The dome moved and banked to on side, but notably it did not break apart.

The place is open as a major documentation center. Besides the usual IMAX theatre in a building close to the parking, you can visit on a self-guided tour both the tunnels in the side of the hill and the area below the concrete dome – it can be incredibly hot and suffocating there, where it’s cold in the tunnels. You can find here much information about the history of the site and more in general of the deployment of the V-1 and V-2 in the area. A complete visit without the IMAX may take 45 minute to 1.5 hours depending on your interests.

Getting there and moving around

Both sites are easily reachable by car. The site of Watten is located is about two miles west of the town. You can reach it driving west on the D207 from the crossing between D207 and D300. A road called Rue des Sarts takes to the right after about .6 mile. The local name of the place is ‘Le Blockhaus d’Eperlecques’.

The site of Wizernes is located on the D210 about 1 mile south of Wizernes. The local name is ‘La Coupole’ – the Dome’.

Both sites are clearly signed.

V-3 – Mimoyecques

The hatred against the indomitable British enemy reached a pinnacle with the deployment of the V-3, reportedly Hitler’s favorite, a supercannon capable of shelling London from a distance of around 100 miles. The installation in Mimoyecques, close to Cap-Gris-Nez, about 8 miles southwest of Calais, was single-targeted against the ‘symbol town’ of London, for the cannon could not be oriented – it was built inside a hill and pointed upwards in a fixed attitude. The design was based on the older idea of multiple-charged shells, i.e. shells which were accelerated gradually to a very high target speed while running along an exceptionally long (430 ft) barrel. The site in Mimoyecques, codenamed ‘Bauvorhaben 711’, by design accommodated 25 such barrels, allowing the battery to shoot at the very high rate of 10 shells per minute, all the day round. The tunnel was designed to allow a train entering it.

Work on the site began in summer 1943, but the site never reached completion and was severely hit in summer 1944 by Allied bombing raids. President Kennedy’s elder brother reportedly died in an accident on one of them. It is noteworthy that the novelty and originality of the design disoriented Allied intelligence, who did not understand the role of the installation before capture in September 1944.

The concept of supercannons, albeit never provedly succesful from an operational viewpoint, was destined to emerge again in recent history, with a similar installation proposed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and designed with the help of a Canadian company – its manager being reportedly killed by the Mossad to hamper realization.

Together with the other ‘V sites’, Mimoyecques was almost completely demolished in order to avoid any further strategic use. It is reported that Winston Churchill in person pushed for this, to the aim of preventing the yet-to-be-established government of France from any action against Britain – some speculate that what the Prime Minister likely feared was the establishment of Communist rule in France.

This is site is not so famous as the V-2 sites, and not similarly ‘institutional’, yet there are opening times. You can go on a self-guided tour of the tunnels, where you can find many explanatory panels, as well as a reconstruction of one of the barrels. It’s always too warm for me, but I must say this time it was incredibly cold inside… The visit may take 30-45 minutes. Guided tours are available in French.

On the outside, just besides the tunnel entrance you can find a steel plate once on top of the site armouring the outlets of the barrels. The concrete construction on top of the place lies on a private property. I could only take one pic before being forced to withdraw…

 Getting there and moving around

The area is very nice, with the lovely Cap-Gris-Nez and Cap-Blanc-Nez a few miles away. The site can be reached on the D249 between the small towns of Bainghen and Landretun-le-Nord. Large free parking on site.

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