France for me has always started at Saint Omer.
During an earlier life, I spent much time working from France. Over a number of months I gradually became intoxicated by the experience and flavour of my Gallic surroundings and wanted to indulge more my new preoccupation.
I set off one day in my car from England and headed for Dover. I was off to Calais and I was going to embrace the more intriguing aspects of the secret world of Nord, Pas de Calais. After the crossing, I headed for my chosen base of Saint Omer. This city was going to be my first night stop in France away from work.
I loved St. Omer from the very start. It painted everything for me that I felt about France as a kind of caricature. There was the broad market square presided over by the ever permanent Hotel de Ville. There was the clutter of the street life going on alongside the vibrant cafe culture. There was the strange language with the complete lack of British inhibition from all of the local people. All of these things were everything that I had come to espouse about this country. France for me had really begun at St. Omer and, after so many years, I have not looked back.
My employment at that time was in the British airline industry. I had then, and still do, an intense interest in all things flying and aviation. I did not know on my first visit that St. Omer maintained an active aerodrome. This had been the headquarters of the British Royal Flying Corps during the Great War. I did not know on my first trip that the area around the city had been chosen by Adolf Hitler as the base for his highly destructive flying V weapons during WW2. The associated science led to the modern reality of space and interplanetary travel. Such things would have been of enormous interest to me at the time. I only found out about them all much later.
During my new life as a writer recently, I was invited back to visit the remains of Germany’s V weapon launching sites in Northern France. I was going to learn much more about the secret world of aviation and space flight that keeps such a low profile close to St. Omer. I set off once more to meet my travelling fellows just across the channel. I wanted to see it all for myself.
We met our tourist guide in the port of Calais with his minibus. His name was Benoit and he actually lived in St. Omer. He was an expert on all things WW2 and all the history in his corner of France. We set off to visit Le Blockhaus d’Eperlecques that very afternoon. This installation was the original base of the V1 flying bomb launch site and the fuel storage facility for most of the V weapons.
On December 22, 1942, the German arms minister in Berlin ordered the construction of this massive concrete structure. It was to weigh roughly 90,000 tons and it would be virtually indestructible. It would be constructed by forced labour consisting of slave manual workers, prisoners of war and forced French labourers. The work process was intense and it was completed deep inside the surrounding woodland in about 10 months. It is still there within a beautiful forested area, about 20 kilometres N W of St. Omer. It remains as a permanent and a guided museum for all to visit.
Le Blockhaus d’Eplerlecques was to be the launching base initially for the V1 flying bomb and later for the much more sophisticated and destructive V2 rocket. The early V1 weapons were launched against London from here. The metal firing track pointing towards the North West has been preserved. The rail also displays one of the original weapons poised for launch.
Allied aerial attacks using the immensely powerful Tallboy earthquake bomb were used against the site in 1943. The damage is very visible but had little effect against the almost indestructible structure. The bombing achieved sufficient crushing though to prevent further use of the V weapons. The V2 rockets were never fired from this position. The Blockhaus ultimately reverted to being just a fuel storage container for other sites in the area. Visitors can be escorted around the interior of the concrete bunker and the associated exhibits displayed outside. The blackness, solidity and density of the structure provides a very morbid reminder of the period seventy years ago. It was classified as a Historical Monument by the French in 1985.
I and my fellows stayed at the grand and imposing Hotel Chateau de Cocove, nearby, that evening. The bright and peaceful country surroundings of the hotel were such a contrast to the dark and aggressive statement from the Blockhouse.
The next morning we were to visit another Vengeance weapon launch site just about 10 kilometres to the south of St. Omer. It was called La Coupole and it boasted a recently built planetarium. This was to be the highlight of the trip for me.
La Coupole is a similar construction to the blockhouse that we had visited the previous day. It is massive and practically indestructible. It is a domed structure made of reinforced concrete and built into a trench scraped from the surrounding rocky countryside. It was built by the German civil construction company, TODT. They had used the forced French labour and prisoners of war for the manual, menial and very dangerous tasks. It was to become a complete underground and impenetrable town built in quick time. 9000 civilian and military personnel along with 12000 forced labourers died during the construction. La Coupole was intended to be an assembly, storage and firing site for the much more advanced V2 rocket weapon. London, primarily, was to be the target.
The V2 rocket weapon was a dramatic advance in aviation technology developed by the German state. The liquid fuelled engine would run for about 65 seconds. In that time the V2 would have accelerated to a supersonic 5700 kilometres an hour, reached the near edges of space and the crash position of its intended target so far away.
Allied bombing failed to destroy the dome and structure of La Coupole despite the use of the most powerful explosives. The completion of the structure was abandoned, however, in 1944 with the ground advance of Allied troops. No V2 weapons were fired from La Coupole. London, Antwerp and Liege, however, were badly damaged by V2 attacks from other positions.
La Coupole today is a museum. It is a museum though to commemorate the unified and peaceful Europe of today. The only surviving V2 rocket is displayed along with many other artefacts from the period. It is also a museum to celebrate the reality of modern spaceflight that has its origins in German vengeance weapon development.
There is a contemporary planetarium built alongside the domed and bleak, fortified structure. Visitors are given a set of 3D glasses and headphones to provide a running commentary of the films being shown in their chosen language. We entered a large 360 degree viewing room much like an amphitheatre. It has a capacity of 140 seats. The style of leading edge contemporary animation will literally take your sense of balance and your breath away.
We were shown features portraying the solar system and the planets. It was like being amongst them and it was almost a little scary. We saw a feature about the earliest manned space flights. I felt I was sitting next to the astronauts in their capsules. We were also shown a feature about the first Apollo landings. I really sensed that I was walking on the moon. I sometimes found myself instinctively ducking to avoid the approaching illusions. The 3D cinema show was mind changing and it was the highlight of the visit for me. The planetarium is a celebration of how modern spaceflight has its origins in Nord, Pas de Calais.
We stayed that evening in a nearby hotel called La Ferm du Vert. It was the perfect place to get our breath back in a wonderful spot along a quiet French country lane.
The next day, before returning to England, we were taken to a German V3 site. This was the fortress at Mimoyecques. It is towards the coast about 30 kilometres west of St. Omer. It was not really aviation for me but the vast underground tunnel and bunker construction was interesting. The guide gave us information so that we could reflect of the dreadful abuse of human life faced by the enforced workers once again.
The V3 weapon is basically just a cannon. It is an armament with a towering barrel built under fortified concrete constructions underground. Visitors can examine it. The barrel has side breaches where additional explosives are inserted to accelerate the speed of the main shell. There are 35 of them and each had to be reloaded separately by forced labour for each main charge to be fired. The weapon was directed across the channel towards London. The Germans intended to fire 3000 rounds a day. It would have been the most labour intensive slave work. Allied bombing had put the firing bunker out of action before any great damage had been done.
The fortress at Mimoyecques is run as a museum. It is also home to eleven species of bat. The museum is kept closed during the winter months to protect the breeding period.
I asked the guide about any surviving workers from the days of construction. There is a Polish man living now in the south of France. He had been forced to work at the V3 site and had visited the museum in recent years. He came simply to remember his friends from all those years ago. He had remarked that he had no hatred for the German people.
The tour was of especial interest to me. It was about the area around my first adventures in France. It was also about my interest in the sky and flight. I could not help but be extraordinarily impressed by the technical developments of the German people during WW2.
Our tour guide was keen to emphasise that the French state holds no grudge against Germany due to the events of the Second World War. The present day result is of a peaceful, stable and optimistic Europe. We have all rightly moved on. The V weapon storage and launching sites are monuments to past difficulties. They seem also to be a symbol of what can be achieved in the future.