About 40 minutes south of Calais there is a place that makes you wonder whether all those James Bond films were so far-fetched after all. The cliché has the evil genius entrenched in his lair; a heavily fortified high-tech bunker, typically in a volcano. Well, I can’t do volcano, but can provide a limestone quarry.
La Couple (‘The Dome’) was the name given to the conversion of a limestone quarry on the outskirts of Wizernes, a small village near Saint-Omer in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. It was literally an underground secret lair, to be packed full of Wernher von Brawn’s latest rocket technology – the V2. The intention was to build a subterranean missile base that could assemble, fuel and launch V2 rockets around the clock.
The German firm of Bauer and Nebel started planning the base in 1942. This involved carving out tonnes of limestone, burying into the side of the mountain. Something akin to a small underground city was created. A railway tunnel at ground level, previously used for removing limestone from the quarry, would become the delivery point for V2 rocket parts. These would then be assembled within the base, passing through a production line where workers would prepare the rockets for launch, finally fuelling them and adding their deadly payloads. The V2s would then exit the side of the mountain on rails and be transferred to the adjacent launch pads. Within five minutes, they would be falling on London.
In order to protect the base from aerial bombing, a massive concrete dome capped its top. Measuring 71m in diameter it was 5m thick and weighed an estimated 55,000 tonnes. Underneath, the ‘hexagon’ room was to act as the rocket production facility, processing 40-50 rockets per day for launch. 42 meters below the ground, rockets could be stored in the 6 kilometres of tunnels that had been dug by Soviet prisoners.
Fortunately, the base never saw operation and was never completed; not a single V2 was launched. Ground-breaking new stereoscopic photography techniques used by the British had identified the dome of Wizerne and it became a target of Operation Crossbow. After several failed attempts to destroy the base, on 17th July 1944, specially design Tallboy bombs carried by 16 Lancaster Bombers finally made their mark. The dome’s supporting structure was damaged, the concrete behemoth listing to the side, beyond repair.
Faced with the advancing forces that had made the D-Day landings a month before, the decision was taken to abandon La Coupole and it was never to fire a shot in anger. Today the dome still sits, listing, on the top of limestone quarry and you can experience the unique feeling of being beneath it’s massive structure.
Today La Coupole is a museum preserving the history of ‘what might have been’ but also as the French museum of the holocaust. A visit allows you to enter through the railway tunnel, explore some of the tunnels underneath and then ascend to the dome itself. Inside the dome are two museums, carefully separated to avoid distress to younger visitors. The first covers the history of rocket development and in particular the history of von Brawn’s advances in rocket technology all the way up to the Saturn V, which put man on the moon. The second is dedicated to those who lost their lives under the occupiers and makes for harrowing viewing. Descending down again you visit the uncompleted ‘Hexagon’, a Thunderbirds-esque construction that would have eventually been the assembly route for V2 launches.
La Coupole is an amazing and eye-opening visit, especially when you consider what might have been should this fortress have come to life. Many owe their lives to the brave members of the Operation Crossbow air forces who prevented those V2s from ever taking flight.http://everything.explained.at/La_Coupole/