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World War 2 museums, in my experience, come in several guises. They range from the big, impressive set-pieces at the Imperial War Museum, at Duxford and in Normandy, to the shrines to the victims, and to the merry jumble of memorabilia at the small Battle of Britain airfields. La Coupole is distinctive in that it is both a site and a very informative and forward-looking museum. It is dedicated specifically to the V2 rockets which were aimed at London in the latter stages of the war.
A bit of history revision, so pay attention at the back. In 1944, Germany was in trouble. The Eastern Front was collapsing, the Normandy landings had taken place and British and US bombers were bombing Germany cities. Hitler, who had vowed that he would repay every bomb falling on German cities a thousand-fold, ordered the deployment of his secret weapons which then became known as Vergeltungswaffen, revenge or "V" weapons. The V1 (doodlebug or buzz-bomb) was a pilotless plane launched from a ramp with a pre-set amount of fuel. When the fuel ran out, the plane dived out of the sky on to whatever was beneath. But what concerns us here are the V2s, rockets which were fired from launch pads and were the first long-range ballistic missiles.
The Germans had been developing the technology for several years at Peenemünde, a remote base on the Baltic coast. Some inspired aerial photographic intelligence eventually identified the long cylindrical shapes for what they were, and the base was bombed in 1943, but by then the facility had been scattered across various sites ready for mass production to supply the launch sites being set up near the Channel coast. La Coupole was one of these launch sites. From here and others like it the Germans intended to rain rockets on London, terrifying the civilian population who would demand an end to the war. In the event, about
1,200 were launched between September 1944 and March 1945, killing more than 2,500 civilians and injuring more than 6,000. Not a single one was fired from La Coupole. It was all too little, too late. By this time, Allied air superiority was such that La Coupole was itself bombed before it could get started, and the Germans were forced to use mobile launching sites to keep one step ahead of the photo reconnaissance planes and the bombers hot on their heels.
Before I take you round the site, let's just contemplate what it must have been like on the receiving end of a V2 attack. With conventional bombing raids, air-raid warnings were sounded and you could get yourself into a shelter. The V1s could be seen coming, warnings sounded and could be shot down. Fighter pilots could even, with astonishing skill and bravery, get a wing tip of their plane under the V1 wing and flip it over to crash harmlessly into the Channel or away from populated areas. But the speed and height of V2s were way beyond the scope of the tracking systems of the time. They simply arrived, literally, out of the blue. Bang - you're dead. They were the first terror weapons, the first weapons of mass destruction. Had these been deployed as intended, even in 1944, the outcome of the war might have been very different.
So fast forward 60 years and what do you see today. You are in a chalk quarry, standing on the flat floor intended for launch pads, and looking up at a vast hollowed-out hillside, topped with a concrete dome (hence La Coupole). The first thing that strikes you is the massive scale of the place; the second thing is that everything is at an odd angle, and the dome looks like a cap about to slide slowly off. The exterior remains as the bombers left it in 1944. The reception area, ticket office, shop, information and cafeteria are out here in a separate, newly constructed building. From here you walk into the bunker itself, through the crazily tilting vast concrete slabs that mark the entrance, and along several hundred yards of huge, dark, dank, echoing tunnel. This was where the V2s would have been trundled out on railway tracks from the assembly area to the launch pads. You feel as if you are walking into some sort of hell, which is pretty much what it was for the slave labourers from Eastern Europe who built it. I was glad to escape into the lifts which take you up into the museum itself…..
…… to be confronted immediately by a full-scale reconstructed V2. Enormous, pointed and sinister. But at least you are now in a well-lit, airy, friendly environment; well-lit because it is totally enclosed in the dome and there is no natural light at all. The museum has three focuses. Firstly the V2s, of course, how they were developed, how they worked and specifically how this site was laid out. Then it moves forward to the Cold War and the conquest of space, both of which were made possible by the V2 prototype. Werner von Braun led the research at Peenemünde, was later captured by the Americans and then led their research into space exploration. Finally, there is a section devoted to life in this part of France during the occupation. The displays are well presented, informative, and very varied, ranging from diagrams and working models to a Citroën car used by the Resistance. Information is delivered by an infra-red headset; although multi-lingual guides are on hand you do not need to take a guided tour. Not to be missed are the film shows in two small cinemas: one is about the V2s and the other is about the Occupation. Both are excellent, showing some fascinating original footage. They last about 20 minutes, with a pacey English commentary.
From these displays another lift takes you to what would have been the assembly hall where the missiles would have been fuelled, directional gyroscopes fitted etc. This is cavernous, to accommodate the 46 foot long rockets and you can still see the "landings" on the walls to prepare different parts of the upright missiles.
It would be easy for this museum to dwell on the past, on the death and destruction, the slave labourers and the Resistance heroes. But it succeeds in pointing the way forward to the benefits of rocket science and seeks a conciliatory stance to the nations who were at war when this site was built. Nevertheless, I couldn't help pondering the "what ifs?" What if the 1940 Blitz had been V2s rather than conventional bombs? What if the 1944 initiative had been a few months earlier and sites like this had been fully operational? Almost certainly the first words of the first man on the moon would have been: "Ein großer Sprung für die Menschheit"!
If you live near enough to the Channel to make a day-trip practical, then this is an ideal destination. It's only 45 minutes from Calais. Take the A26 (Paris, Reims) out of Calais and come off at the third exit. From there you wind your way along small roads and through several villages but every junction is sign-posted.
It is open 9am - 6pm except July and August when it is 10am to 7pm. Closed over Christmas and New Year. It is popular with school parties, and the museum is not huge, so best times to go are weekends or school holidays. Entrance prices for 2006 are adults €9, children (5-16) €6, family €19.50.
Allow at least 2 hours for the visit. There is some basic catering at the site, and a nice picnic area if you want to take your own. Alternatively there is a reasonable choice of restaurants nearby. The nearest town is St Omer.
It should be of interest to all ages except very young children. All parts of the site are accessible to the disabled.