The direct predecessor to all modern rocket developments was the German-built Aggregat 4, later relabeled Vergeltungswaffe 2. 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. Instead, A4/V2 rockets were launched from mobile platforms, which were easier to conceal from Allied bombers.
The A4/V2 was an unmanned, guided, ballistic missile carrying an explosive warhead of about one ton with a maximum speed of 5400 km/h and a range of 320 km. It was operated by the Wehrmacht (army) in contrast to the Fieseler Fi-103, relabeled Vergeltungswaffe 1, which was operated by the Luftwaffe (airforce), a flying bomb carrying 850 kg explosives with a maximum speed of 576 km/h and a range of 285 km. The main targets of the V1 and V2 were Antwerp (Belgium) and London (UK).
A great one-stop source of in-depth information is set up by enthusiasts in the A4/V2 developments on the web.
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 3000 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 existing at the time (Tallboy, 6 tons). It weighed 50000 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 of the Grand Slam type (10 tons) on the bunker in January 1945. Two Grand Slams hit the building. 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 has been classified as a historical monument in 1985 and can be visited. More information can be found at this very informative site, as well as here, 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. I have visited the site three times, in the early eighties, 2001 and 2010. Regrettably the site has undergone some changes including cleaning up and parts being sealed off for the public, as well as unrelated items being added to the site. Images from my previous visit in 2001 can be found here. Click here for front and back of the Blockhaus brochure (French, English, Dutch and German languages). Click here for a location on Google Maps.
Images taken on 6 April 2010 with Leaf AFi-II 7 and Schneider AF-Super-Angulon 50mm f/2.8 (first image with Schneider AF-Tele-Xenar 180mm f/2.8) at 400 ISO. They are displayed in the logical order of a visit to the site.
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
45000 tons, 71 meters in diameter and 5 meters thick, built
over a chalk quarry. As with the Watten site, the roof was built to 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).
|Images taken on 6 April 2010 with Leaf AFi-II 7, Schneider AF-Tele-Xenar 180mm f/2.8 and Schneider AF-Super-Angulon 50mm f/2.8 at 100 (outside) and 800 (inside) ISO. They are displayed in the logical order of a visit to the site.|
The enormous concrete dome is visible from far away. The tower on its left side is the railway ventilation shaft. On the left side in front of the concrete dome the remains of the Gustav launching pad can still be evidenced. The railway tunnel entry, where trains loaded with A4/V2 rockets were arriving in order to be off-loaded inside the complex, is where visitors enter the site nowadays. The rails have been removed. While it was possible to climb up the hillside, regrettably this has now been made impossible as the perimeter has been fenced-off. A footpath takes you around the hillside but avoids the dome and the railway ventilation shaft.
When entering the railway tunnel takes visitors deep into the hillside. There are 7km of underground tunnels but they are only very partially accessible. Different side-galleries have been cut alongside. At the center the tour takes visitors further on the right side into the heart of the complex, with an elevator taking them up to just under the concrete dome. Under the dome the museum has been set up with different themes including the development of V1 and V2 weapons, the role of Werner von Braun as initiator of modern rocket technology, the further conquest of space, and life under German occupation during WW II.
The museum under the dome has various genuine items on display including the sole remaining A4/V2 rocket in France, an A4/V2 rocket motor, and a V1 flying bomb.
Different scale models are on display inside the museum. Two of them are of the Wizernes site, another one is of the Watten site (see above).
(c) 2010 by Pascal Heyman
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