A few miles from the city of Soissons, and precisely in the municipality of Margival in the northern French countryside, southeast of the region of the Somme – where the fierce offensive of the British and their Allies took place in 1916 – lies a very little advertised and almost unknown item of great interest for war historians.
It was here, not far from where young Hitler fought for the Kaiser in WWI, that the occupation forces of Nazi Germany started building their headquarters in 1942. The place, not far north from Paris and at a similar distance from the coasts of Normandy and the narrowest section of the Channel, was probably selected also for the existence of a long railway tunnel, with an entrance hidden in a small but deep valley – of use for hiding the special armored train Hitler used to travel over the occupied regions of the Third Reich.
Being intended for acting as a major directional center where the Führer himself should be in charge, the military installation was designed with all that was necessary for leading the German offensive and directing operations on a potential western front, and with some comfort for the top figures of the German government. Similarly to other bases destined to host the Führer, the fort in Margival received a picturesque name – ‘Wolfsschlucht II’ or ‘Wolf’s canyon II’.
The fact that soon after the D-Day operations and the real opening of a western front for Germany the region fell under Allied control meant that the installation was used intensively for only about three months in the summer of 1944 – it had began to be used more considerably from the first months of 1944, when an invasion from the sea began to be seen by the Nazi high command as likely.
Hitler reportedly visited the place only in one occasion and for 1-2 days in June 1944, soon after the successful landing of the Allies in Normandy, electing to concentrate personally on the Eastern front and leaving the command of operations to other generals. General Model resided in the installation in August 1944. Soon after the area was lost to the Allies.
But the history of the place was not over. The bunkers, barracks and service buildings had been constructed by the German paramilitary Todt organization with good care and had survived the war basically undamaged. They were used by the French Army until 1955 before being selected for quartering NATO forces until 1968. Then control was given back to the French Army, who abandoned the place with the end of the Cold War in the early Nineties.
Since then the place has been left deserted and has fallen into oblivion. Only in recent years a local society of enthusiasts has begun a lengthy but precious restoration work, which by now has interested only a limited part of the huge area of this military installation.
Due to the extensive use by western forces in the Cold War period, much of the few remaining interiors date from more recently than WWII. On the other hand, the buildings and their disposition are original from the German master plan.
The following photographs were taken during an exploration of the site in August 2016.
Getting there and moving around
Wolfsschlucht II has three main gates, one to the south in Margival, leaving the D537 as the road climbs uphill in a horseshoe bend, one to the east in Laffaux, leaving the D537 to the right before reaching the town center approaching from north, and the last to the north, on Rue Principale in Neuville-sur-Margival.
I selected the first of the three, for immediately after passing the gate and the former guardhouse there is a free area where you can conveniently park your car. This area is technically inside the old fence, so if there is nobody around to greet you and to ask about, you may be worried about your car being blocked inside if somebody closes the gate. I watched the door closely and decided it had been open for months, so I left my car inside. Soon after I met one of the members of the preservation society, who assured there was no trouble in parking where I had actually parked, so I guess you can adopt the same strategy…
I must mention the preservation society has a website where they advertise guided tours of the place, even in English language (website here). I tried to contact them in advance the days prior to my visit, about twenty-five times via phone, but could never speak with anybody – the line was free but nobody answered. I sent also some emails to the guys on the contact list of the site, and never received an answer. I decided to go anyway, and in the event I could tour the place without troubles, except a few restored bunkers, which are closed and cannot be visited except with a guide I guess.
The place is not particularly creepy. Once there, I found an entire family and various other people touring the area, plus people busy in the restoration of some of the bunkers. The railway track is still active, so there are also trains passing right besides the bunkers.
The bunkers are roughly aligned along a single road leading from the southern to the northern entrance, to the east of the railway track. The length is about 1.7 miles one way, so plan a walk of about 3.5 miles for a round tour of this installation.
The first large bunker you find when approaching from the southern gate is the ‘Loano’ bunker – all names are from after WWII, where the numbers painted on the bunkers are original German. The distinctive concrete dome and the surface with holds for practicing with climbing and doing exercises is an addition dating from after WWII.
The road then splits in two. Both ends lead to the northern part of the installation, where the most interesting bunkers can be found. The lower path goes along the railway, and climbs uphill steeply towards the end. There is less to see along that than the other path, going uphill immediately behind the ‘Loano’ bunker.
Along the latter, you can find a series of service buildings, barracks, clubhouses and canteens for troops. Also a former square with a flagpole can be seen to the side of the road at some point. Most of the buildings are totally abandoned. I explored some of them with some satisfaction, but what you can find dates clearly from relatively recent years.
Among other buildings, a partially interred bunker for troops, similar to those you can find in the batteries of the Atlantic Wall, can be spotted in the trees, refurbished but unfortunately not accessible. A distinctive feature of some of the buildings is their ‘partially armored’ construction, with the part reaching to the road made of lighter materials and that closer to the hill made of reinforced concrete.
I guess the iron window frames and blinds date back from WWII.
After a good walk you finally reach a T-shaped crossing and a group of buildings. Among them, the one belonging to the preservation society – ‘Berezina’ bunker. To the east you can spot the only multi-storey building of the complex, which reportedly served as a building for visitors, and actually looks like a small hotel. I don’t think this dates back from WWII, for the style is somewhat ‘un-German’. You can step inside at your own risk, for the building is totally derelict. Baths and canteens are still easily recognizable. To the back of the ‘Berezina’ bunker it is possible to find the entry of a heavy armored bunker, in a refurbished camouflage.
Going back to the T-shaped crossing and taking to the west you find one of the most interesting bunkers, a former communication bunker which was named ‘Patricia’ after the war. This building follows the ‘partially armored’ construction scheme. It is exceptionally long, possibly one of the largest of the kind in Europe.
Inside the building it is easy to distinguish the unarmored part to the front from the armored part to the back, closer to the hill.
Again the inside of the armored part is very similar to the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall, a consequence of both being designed by the same design studio. Remains of cables from WWII and of other equipment from various ages make this visit very interesting. It’s very dark inside the armored part, you will definitely need a torch, and be very careful, cause the pavement is uneven and there are manholes and other strange cavities all around.
The last part of the visit will bring you to the Führer’s quarters. Keeping going uphill, the road will turn north. As you reach the top of a steep climb you will be facing a corner building with three square pillars. This is bunker N.1, where Hitler was in his only visit to the Margival site in June 1944. The very sober decoration of the façade with the three pillars is the only distinctive feature of this building, which is again armored to the back.
Leaving the N.1 building to your left you may take a road proceeding around the hill without climbing. Along this road you see a grassy area with curbs framing a square spot on the ground. This is where a ‘normal’ – i.e. not armored – house for the Führer’s entourage used to stay. Further on, you can find an original Nazi swimming pool, again intended for top-ranking staff stationed in the installation.
Going back to bunker N.1 and taking to the north, you can find large buildings possibly originally hosting command services and canteens. At the time of my visit these were undergoing restoration.
A refurbished bunker with a ‘Tobruk’ shooting post can be found to the northernmost end of the building complex.
During my exploration I came back to the southern gate and to the ‘Loano’ bunker following the lower road along the railway. Being an active track, it should be approached with extreme caution. It is part of the tour, for it was there from the origin.
All in all, this was a stress-free, easy and enjoyable exploration. The site is rich of historical significance and showcases interesting military buildings from the period of Nazi Germany. I would recommend it for everybody interested, including those in lower than average physical condition. Don’t forget guided tours are possible in principle – I wish you are luckier than me in scheduling one!