Strasbourg, Maison des Tanneurs at night

Strasbourg, barrage Vauban


World War II German hardened A4/V2 rocket launch sites

Several German hardened A4/V2 rocket launch sites have been built in France. The most impressive and well-preserved ones are located in Northern France. One at Watten, in the Eperlecques forest, the other at Wizernes-Helfaut. They represent two different ways of constructing a fixed rocket launch site. The site in Watten is a large concrete bunker complex on a wooden hillside. The site at Wizernes-Helfaut is a tunnel complex and has been built under a enormous concrete dome over a chalk quarry. Neither of those sites could eventually serve their original purpose due to heavy Allied bombing raids and the late time of their construction given the general state of the war.

A great one-stop source of in-depth information is set up by enthusiasts in the A4/V2 developments on the web.
An excellent book on these and other developments is by HENSHALL, Philip, Vengeance. Hitler's Nuclear Weapons: Fact or Fiction?, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1995, ISBN 0 7509 2051 3.
All images taken on 3 July 2001.

The Blockhaus in Watten-Eperlecques

The Blockhaus is certainly the most impressive site built for A4/V2 rockets. Work on the enormous bunker complex started in March 1943. As in Wizernes-Helfaut, the work was mainly carried out by foreign laborers, some of them volunteers but most forced laborers. More than 3,000 laborers were constantly working on the site, day and night, every day of the week.
The Allies first bombed the site on 27 August 1943 in broad daylight since precision bombing was necessary. The air raids continued during September with great losses in aircraft and crew on the Allied side. Although little actual damage had been inflicted to the main bunker, the northern part of the site (reception station for trains with V2 rockets, and other ancillary buildings) had suffered severely as its construction was lighter and largely unfinished. The construction works had also been severely disrupted. Although it would have been possible to remedy most of the damage in a reasonable time span, the Organisation Todt deemed the northern part irremediably lost and decided to concentrate on the southern part, the main bunker, converting it into an liquid oxygen plant that would serve V2 launchings elsewhere in the region (Wizernes dome and mobile operations). Construction on the main bunker continued with a very ingenious method of lifting the roof. The roof had been built to withstand even the heaviest Allied bombs (Tallboy, 6 tons). It weighed 50,000 tons (5 meter thick) and was built at a low level and then lifted with special lifting gear, while construction of the walls underneath continued. This provided for a very effective air raid shelter and made the bunker practically indestructible. Construction on the oxygen plant finished in January 1944. Inside, several liquid oxygen compressors had been installed on plints. They were later removed out of fear for explosion due to the heavy vibrations caused by the continuing Allied bombing.
Two bombardments with Tallboy bombs took place on June 19 and July 27, 1944. Only a single Tallboy actually hit the bunker, at the north side. The effects are visible but the roof had not been pierced and no structural damage had been inflicted.
The Allies captured the site on September 6, 1944. The Americans tested new bombs on the bunker in January 1945. A tip of the roof on the southern part (control tower) came off, but again with no structural damage to the building itself !
The site can now be visited. More information can be found at this very informative site, and at the official Blockhaus site. A map of the site, showing how it was originally planned and how it had eventually been built, is shown here. More images can also be seen here.


La Coupole in Wizernes-Helfaut

After the bombing and serious damage at the Watten bunker site, the Organisation Todt looked at an alternative place for a protected V2 base. Wizernes-Helfaut is south of Saint-Omer. Construction started in July 1943, the first Allied bombing took place in March 1944. The site was protected by an enormous bombproof concrete roof (dome shape) weighing 45,000 tons, 71 meters in diameter and 5 meters thick, built over a chalk quarry. The roof could withstand even the heaviest Allied "Tallboy" bombs (6 tons). A 7 kilometers tunnel complex was built in the quarry walls. A railway took the rockets in the tunnel, where they were stored and prepared for launching. Due to the height of the inside, complicated lifting gear was unnecessary. The rockets were to be launched outside on two launching pads (called Gustav and Gretchen). The walls of these pads can still be evidenced today, notwithstanding the heavy Allied bombing. The site was eventually abandoned as a rocket base in August 1944, mainly as a result of the huge damage to the outside communication lines (roads, railway) which made further construction almost impossible. The amount of actual damage inflicted to the site was, however, limited. The dome as well as the tunnel vent and part of the tunnels remained largely undamaged. After the site had been left, all plans for hardened V2 launching sites were abandoned and deployment was shifted exclusively to mobile launchers (called Meilerwagen).
The site has nowadays been turned into a museum. One can enter the main tunnel, take the elevator to the upper floor just under the concrete roof (where a rare genuine V2 rocket is on display, as well as an excellent exhibition on the German secret weapons which ultimately led to Man's conquest of space), and go down via the area at the base of the site where the V2 rockets were prepared for launching. A worthwhile visit. Beware, however, that the inside temperature in the tunnels is only 7° C and slightly more just under the roof. Jackets are available at the entrance.

More information can be found at this very informative site and at the official site of "La Coupole". A map of the Wizernes site is available here.