Saint Omer is a quintessential northern French rural town. With its broad market square presided over by the charming Hotel de Ville and a clutter of the street life going on alongside its vibrant cafe culture.
It’s a great location for touring the memorial sites of World War II and there are several key places that you shouldn’t miss such as the Blockhaus d’Eperlecques, La Coupole and the fortress at Mimoyecques.
Le Blockhaus Eperlecques
This installation was the original base of the V1 flying bomb launch site and the fuel storage facility for most of the V weapons (Vergeltungswaffen, which meant retaliatory weapons).
On December 22, 1942, the German arms minister in Berlin ordered the construction of a massive concrete structure, in fact it is the biggest bunker in the north of France. The amount of material that was planned for its creation was incredible, it is estimated to weigh roughly 90,000 tons and it was meant to be indestructible, built in the woodland not far from Dunkerque. The work process was intense and unrelenting and the building was completed in about 10 months by prisoners of war and enforced labour.
Le Blockhaus d’Eplerlecques was to be the launching base initially for the V1 flying bomb and later for the much more sophisticated and destructive V2 rocket. The early V1 weapons were launched against London from here. The metal firing track pointing towards the north west has been preserved. The rail also displays one of the original weapons poised for launch.
Allied aerial attacks including many immensely powerful Tallboy earthquake bombs were aimed at the site in 1943. The damage is very visible but had remarkably little effect against the rock-solid structure. The bombing achieved sufficient crushing though to prevent further use of the V weapons. The V2 rockets were never fired from this position. The Blockhaus ultimately reverted to being just a fuel storage container for other sites in the area.
To this day it remains, within a beautiful forested area, about 20 kilometres N W of St. Omer. It rests as a permanent skeleton of those terrible days.
Visitors can walk around the interior of the concrete bunker and examine and climb on the exhibits like the tanks that are displayed outside. The blackness, solidity and density of the structure provides a very morbid reminder of the period seventy years ago. The site hasn’t been messed about with, it has been left as it was which gives a tremendous sense of history.
I stayed at the luxurious Hotel Chateau de Cocove in an 18th Century Chateau which is nearby, that evening. The bright and peaceful country surroundings of the hotel were the perfect contrast to the dark, historic statement from the Blockhaus.
You can take a guided tour or audio guide. Allow about an hour to an hour and a half to see it all. Website www.leblockhaus.com/en/
Sites close by: La Coupole bunker; Mimoyecques Museum
Bob Lyons is an ex-pilot turned travel writer.