25 April 2024

Eclectic France

Observations on the sites, sounds and events around France

HistoryMuseums

Going Underground

There’s something of the Bond villain’s lair about the submarine pens in Bordeaux. Indeed, anyone familiar with “The Spy Who Loved Me” will quickly see where the set designers for the 1970s Moore-era story got their idea.

The Germans built the pens in the early part of WW2 to house their U-Boat fleet. The objective was to attack shipping in the Atlantic. In fact, there are another four similar bases located on the French Atlantic Coast, stretching from Brest to Bordeaux.

The structures at all five bases remain more or less intact. When you visit one of them you can see why. They are all basically concrete boxes with massive scale to protect one of the Germans’ key strategic weapons. It was probably easier to leave them than try to take them apart after the war.

Looking at the structures the construction technique was evident. The builders poured concrete into wooden shuttering that formed a mould. No doubt there was steel reinforcement inside the concrete too. This simple but effective technique allowed the builders to create large and often complex structures relatively quickly and easily. We could see the patterns of the grain from the wooden shuttering boards on the concrete walls. Looking at these ghostly patterns deep inside the building it was chilling to reflect that enforced and slave labour probably created the entire structure.

Inside the submarine bunker

Even if you didn’t know their history, everything about these massive constructions feels sinister. At Bordeaux, like the others, the structure faces directly onto the water. There are large openings where the U-Boats would enter. Once inside they could moor safely for repairs and restocking. They were protected from any bombing from above because the roof – indeed the whole shell of the building – is made from concrete which is metres thick. British and American bombers attacked the bases many times. However, their efforts were largely unsuccessful, even when using their biggest and specially-designed bombs.

When we were there the area that housed the U-Boats was closed. This was because it was being upgraded in time for the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. They were due to reopen in early 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic put an end to that. All that we were able to see was the section that housed the living quarters and offices. It was very much an underground warren of narrow corridors opening into square rooms, none of which had any natural light at all. This must have been very claustrophobic for the submariners and support personnel. It could barely have been any respite from the confines of life on board the U-Boats.

Submarine pens at Bordeaux

The Germans used a similar technique on other military “block-houses” in France during WW2. The structures at Eperlecques in Northern France are also largely concrete. These were the launch sites for the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on London. These structures suffered more damage through bombing. But they are well worth a visit for anyone interested in WW2 or military history.

Back in Bordeaux, the submarine pens are part of the old dock area that is undergoing something of a renaissance. Bordeaux’s City of Wine and the recently opened Maritime Museum are close by. There’s also a great place to get some street food – or something a bit more substantial – in the Halles de Bacalan. All of these are worth a visit and close enough together to make a busy day of sightseeing.