La Coupole St Omer is an incredible historical site – a huge World War II domed bunker left behind by the German occupiers in this little northern French town.
I’ve visited it before with friends and family, it is considered to be one of the key World War II sites in the area, an area of many hundreds of memorials, battle field sites and remains from two world wars and many other wars gong back centuries.
When I was invited to tour La Coupole by the St Omer Tourist Office I expected a good visit, after all a domed bunker with 5.5m thick concrete walls – no, it’s not a spelling mistake 5.5 metres thick, created from an astonishing 55,000 tonnes of concrete is not something to be taken lightly.
However, this visit was different.
La Coupole has changed, there are updated exhibition areas, there is a coherent flow to the visit which wasn’t there before, as you wander from one area to another in this massive and frankly haunting building,
There is something else here too – a new planetarium and it isn’t just any old planetarium, this is the newest 3D planetarium in Europe and I think it is one of the best, if not the best. One thing that hits you straight away is the sheer size of the images. The projectors that are created for 3D screens such as this are usually put to work in an area twice the size of the theatre at La Coupole. Consequently, projecting 3D images onto a smaller, rounded screen, produces the most amazing effect.
I can honestly say that I think this is the closest that any of us will ever come to understanding what a rocket launch will look, sound and feel like and it is astounding. When the astronauts of Apollo 11 ‘land on the moon’, you actually see the dust they kick up, the heat haze from the thrusters of the moon buggy, hear their protective suits creak as their knees bend the stiff material – its utterly and compellingly brilliant.
As I listened to the story through my English language audio guide earphones and watched the screen, I could see others around me – children and adults – gasp as a Russian Sputnik dropped a piece of equipment into the atmosphere – it appeared to be hurtling straight towards us and we all flinched!
In the words of one of the astronauts as he bounced across the surface of the moon just inches away from me “super… unreal” – La Coupole’s new planetarium show is just that.
After the 35 minute show we toured the rest of La Coupole with its huge echoing tunnels and galleries covering an incredible 7kms.
This was once the place where the V2 rockets were to be assembled and launched with a deadly cargo – a ton of explosives.
It is a tale of genius, madness and tragedy.
Masterminded by a German wunderkind, Wernher Von Braun, who came up with rocket designs the like of which had never been seen before and which are the precursor to all rockets that have followed.
At the age of 30 he was given carte blanche to design a rocket that would carry a terrible load and wreak havoc. The ultimate aim was to launch a rocket every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day to hit the United Kingdom – and it very nearly succeeded. The components of the V2 were made in concentration camps and then transported by rail to La Coupole where the trains would run directly into the centre of this round bunker hidden in the woods. The plan was ultimately thwarted and no V2 rocket ever left La Coupole as intended.
In the centre of the dome is one of the original V2 rockets, 40m high and incredibly similar to today’s rockets. The V2 was the first object to ever leave earth’s atmosphere and the guides who work at La Coupole are always happy to answer questions from visitors though the audio guides are very good.
The exhibition shows how that rocket from the 1940s defined rocket design forever more.
After the war, the Americans transferred Von Braun to Texas where he worked on the US space programme – ultimately creating the first rocket to the moon.
The story is told through a series of rocket models, photographs and film. The rivalry between the Russians and the Americans to be the first in space, the first to the moon; the development of rockets and space vehicles.
La Coupole also tells the story of the human tragedy; larger than life photographs and drawings depict the reality of life for those who were compelled to work for the Nazi war machine. Daily life in the Pas de Calais is depicted, made more human with old cars, shop fronts and a replica of the Wall of Execution from Lille, photographs of destruction and faces with eyes that have seen what they shouldn’t.
The updated exhibitions (in separate areas within the dome) and the planetarium make this a top visitor site in the region.
Details of the 3D planetarium shows, tickets and pricing, travel and a free bus service from the town of St Omer to La Coupole, Helfaut on the La Coupole website.