Several years ago, on my way south from Dunkirk in northern France, I stopped off at Eperlecques, a small town you access off the main autoroute. A sign for the Blockhaus d’Eperlecques was intriguing enough to lure me from my travel plans.
What I discovered, in an area of beautiful countryside where the sound of bird song competes with the chug of a tractor – idyllic, was the most enormous bunker, left over from the German occupation of France in WWII. It was an incredible sight and left a lasting impression.
I recently stopped off for a return visit and found that over the years, a huge amount has been done to make the Blockhaus more accessible to the public, to expand the information available to help us understand and discover the tale of this enormous bunker and its place in history. Artifacts have been added to the grounds and the interior and this time round, it was even more impressive than I remembered.
History of the Bunker of Eperlecques
It is the biggest bunker in northern France, monumental in fact, and is privately owned. It is essentially in the back garden of a local family though not your average back garden since the dimensions of the bunker have to be seen to be believed.
Building began in March 1943 and its purpose was for the assembly and launch of V2 rockets aimed at England. Construction of the bunker was rapid, 3000 people were forced to work around the clock, and by August, it’s presence was sufficiently huge and worrying to provoke the British to start a bombing campaign. Though the bunker wasn’t destroyed it was enough to halt plans for its use and development. The original plan was for a bunker three times the one that’s left, the sheer size of what’s there is breath-taking, it’s impossible to envisage how it might have looked had the build been completed.
What to see at Eperlecques
You can take a guided tour as I did, with an excellent English speaking guide whose father actually worked on the construction, forced to be there against his will. Or you can use an audio guide. There are information boards all around the area and audio points as well and they really bring the past alive.
The bunker is 7 stories high and there are underground tunnels. Work is ongoing to open more of the bunker as the team continue to discover openings, rooms, halls, tunnels, equipment. The building has a 58 feet high gateway, large enough for exiting the V2 rockets that were to be built.
A monstrous building
At an audio point to one side of the bunker, the 5-metre-thick walls dented and cracked in places but standing pretty much intact, you push the button and played out loud, you can hear the sound of planes approaching. It is a re-enactment of events that took place here on August 27, 1943 when British planes dropped bombs that caused sufficient damage to halt the progress of this monstrous building. Standing there on a sunny day, I could hear the drone of planes coming ever nearer, you can’t help but look up at the sky, it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Impossible to comprehend how it must have been for the poor workforce there that day, caught up in the events. Around the bunker there are bomb craters, now filled with water to form natural ponds or with grass and wild flowers, time has softened them.
As you walk around you’ll spot tanks, trucks, guns, even a submarine, and rockets plus a launch pad with a VI flying bomb, aimed at England. The tracks for the former railway are still in evidence, it’s as if time has moved on but the moment remains. Inside the bunker it is chilly and chilling. The thought of the misery of this place for those who were forced to join its creation gives you goose bumps. There are areas that are closed off, still to be explored, but more is opened each year. It’s oppressive, impressive and monstrous. Eerily lit, an old car in a corner, remains of signs and equipment, a Tall Boy bomb, a “bunker buster”, hangs – it looks ominous, and was the bomb of choice dropped in copious amounts in the attempt to destroy Eperlecques.
A powerful memorial
A visit here gives you get a real feel for the past. My guide tells me that his father survived the war, got a job, carried on, and when he retired, he returned to work at Eperlecques as a guide. “He never liked to talk about the past” he says “but coming here to work – this time as a guide, to tell people about this place, it was what he wanted to do. He died just six months later…” he pauses and says quietly “finally it was all over for him”.
This is both a memorial centre and a monument to a dark time of history. It makes for a truly impressive visit, a reminder that we must never forget the lessons of the past.
The Blockhaus at Eperlecques is open daily (closed Tuesday mornings) from March to October. See the website for opening times and details: www.leblockhaus.com/en
Visit to La Coupole, not far from Eperlecques, this enormous dome shaped bunker also makes for a fascinating visit for its exhibitions and 3D film show.
Three things to do for the family on a rainy day in Pas de Calais
Head to Saint Omer which is nearby, for the lovely restaurants, Saturday morning market
Take a boat ride on the UNESCO Audomarois marshes near Eperlecques and discover waterways of nothern France