It is 65 years today since the guns fell silent on what came to be known as Victory in Europe Day. And silence still fills the railway tunnel leading to Wizernes V2, a gigantic underground Nazi bunker constructed in a limestone quarry by what is euphemistically called “forced labour”—captured French and Soviet men and women—in northern France.
It’s impossible to suppress a shudder as one passes into this heart of darkness, now known as La Coupole (literally, The Dome), but my journey began in a different place, full of sunlight and song. Lounging in a café in Montmartre, Paris, I was entranced by an old man playing The Girl from Ipanema on his saxophone. Later, when we got talking, Antoine Maire told me he had been a member of the French Resistance during World War II. One of his missions had been to supply to the Allied bomber command the exact location of Wizernes V2.
Battle planes: (clockwise from above) Wernher von Braun with a model of the V2 rocket. Photo: NASA; an exhibition dedicated to the bravery of the French forces; the Citroën Traction Avant; and the V2 rocket. Photographs by Rishad Saam Mehta
“But the bunker was so solid—the dome was 5m thick—that though the Allies conducted 16 raids, dropping up to 480 bombs in one sortie, they could just about damage it,” said my new old friend.
But what made the bunker such a focused target of the Allied forces? It was constructed in 1943 specifically for the launch of the V2 rocket, Hitler’s secret weapon to destroy London and reverse the course of the war. As it happens, the bunker never became operational. The constant Allied bombardment may not have destroyed the concrete walls, but it did cause the Nazis to abandon the site in the summer of 1944.
With sophisticated audio headset around my ears, I walked through the tunnel, the sinister settings accentuated by the stark pictures on the walls. It led to a hexagonal room, from where an automatic elevator took me up to right below the concrete dome. I turned right for the Rex Circuit, themed around Hitler’s secret weapons. It started with a 20-minute film on the Nazi development of unmanned flying bombs and the V2 rocket, the first ever single-stage ballistic missile.
Exhibits surround the little theatre, with the star being the V2 rocket. What fascinated me was the engine, also on display, which would have shot the rocket into the stratosphere, directed it towards London and then dropped it from a height of 110km at thrice the speed of sound—all this, much before computer or satellite guidance systems.
The Cineac Circuit covers the context of these developments: the German occupation of the north of France. Exhibits include a replica of the horrifying “Execution Wall” from the citadel in Lille and a poignant letter written by a 21-year-old teacher, Félicien Joly, in which he declares his faith in a future Franco-German reconciliation 3 hours before being executed at the wall. Also parked here as an exhibit is the Citroën Traction Avant which the FFI (French Forces of the Interior), a resistance group, used for their daring work.
But perhaps the most interesting cinematic exhibit is a 20-minute film depicting the development of ballistic missiles and the beginning of the space age. From the earth to the moon: 1945-1964 also highlights a little-known fact: That the designer of the V2 rockets—incubated in this bunker, in the secrecy of the Nazi Reich laboratories—was Wernher von Braun.
As the Allies closed in on Berlin and the conclusion of the war became imminent, the Americans would race the Russians to win his allegiance. Victory in this battle, too, was crucial: 24 years down the line, von Braun would be instrumental in developing the Saturn V rocket that put Neil Armstrong and his boys on the moon in 1969.
La Coupole, in Pas-de-Calais, is 5km from the town of Saint-Omer, 45km from the Calais ferry port, 203km from Brussels and 248km from Paris. The museum is open round the year, but timings change. For details, visit here
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