WELL I wondered, as I gazed at the grey, grim remnants of the Blockhaus, Eperlecques, was it from here that a life-threatening rocket was fired in my direction ? Apparently not, for this fearsome fortress, in Northern France, bombed by the British and Americans was rendered useless for rocket launching in August 27, 1943. And the only V2 that exploded in Hayes, Kent, killing four people and injuring 70 others, landed close to my home at 5.25pm on February 9, 1945. More likely, I learned from the guide as we toured the vast Nazi hell-hole, was that it was launched from one of the mobile batteries possibly based in The Hague region of Holland. My memory, as a typical wartime child of nine, was simply annoyance at being woken up to discover the windows blown in with the glass splinters joining the plaster from an equally damaged ceiling lying on my bed – though no doubt my poor parents were distraught.
For the record, the 691st Big Ben ( as the rockets were code-named ) fell on the Grandfield Nursery, killing Mr and Mrs James Grandfield and their son Jack. A discharged soldier, Edwin Tidbury, who had been working in the greenhouses, escaped uninjured but complained of deafness next day. My father swore his hair also turned white. As for the 22,300 plus pilotless V1 Flying Bombs or Doodlebugs, I casually described them as mere irritants to a gaping group of students, who had been marvelling at the V1 (left) shown on its launch pad ready for action. ‘ You simply stopped still for the engine to cut out and waited for a loud bang – then walked on.’ I explained. A blast from the past, literally, but it all seemed like yesterday.
www.leblockhaus.com for opening times and entry fees; allow 90 minutes, small sightseeing trolleys available for small groups or pre-reserved. Wheelchair accessible. By car from Calais: 37 min (33.5km) via A16 and D219; 41 min (41.3km) via A16 and D218.
LEAVING the enormity of the Blockhaus, a mere third of the original monstrosity built by forced labour, I headed for Mimoyecques site of yet another fortress of fear dug into a chalk hill close to the Channel coast. It was here Hitler planned the V3 a multi-charge ‘terror’ gun, with 25 targeted on London and capable of firing ten dart like missiles a minute, or 3,000 daily.
Fortunately, design and other problems allowed Britain time to source the location of what they realised were new weapons of war. In November 1943 two bombing raids were made on a ‘suspect’ site. Even then it was not until July 1944 that the new fangled Tallboy bomb – developed by Barnes Wallis of the Dambusters bouncing bomb fame – put paid to Hitler’s plan. In May, 1945 , the Fortress was blown up as ordered by Churchill. In 1984 a museum was opened by private owners and acquired by the “Conservatoire des Espaces Naturels du Nord et du Pas-de- Calais”, a nature association, in 2008. It reopened to the public in 2010. So what is there to see? Very little it may seem other than 600 metres of gloomy tunnels home to hibernating bats during the winter. It is only once inside the dripping geological structure of what was once covered by warm sea that you gain a sense of rocketry being made through a series of wall panels. See www.mimoyecques for opening times etc. By car from Calais: 19 min (17.9km) via A16, 23min (18.6) via D304
Finally head for La Coupole, a cracker of a centre bringing a state of the arts approach to rocket science over the years. The new 3D Planetarium alone, with its 360-degree setting, is sufficient to attract a family audience. The fact it once housed yet another vast World War Two bunker for firing V2 rockets at London adds even more poignancy to this touristic tour de force. Allow at least three hours. It is well worth it. See www.lacoupole-france.co.uk for comprehensive overview. By car from Calais: 37min (44.8) via A26 49min (45.6km) via D943.
PHOTOS: John Ruler (c) & La Coupole