The Calais Memorial Museum 39-45 (Musée Mémoire 39-45) is hunkered down in a park in the middle of Calais. Unless you know it’s there you might miss it. But do visit the huge bunker; the museum tells a fascinating tale of Pas de Calais during the war, and particularly of the citizens of Calais.

Side view of the Calais Memorial Museum showing dark grey concrete walls , 2 of them in park
Calais Memorial Museum 39-45 © Mary Anne Evans

The Beginning of the Nightmare

Calais inworld war 2 bombed by Germans. One German soldier walkingin foreground over rubble of destroyed houses with tower in background
Calais Photographed by the German Army © Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-383-0337-11 Böcker CC-BY-SA 3.0

On May 26, 1940, the German army entered Calais. They were to occupy the city and region until September 1944. During the offensive, Calais was so heavily bombed that 73% of the old town was destroyed. For five long, violent days, 3,000 British and 800 French troops held out against the German 10th Panzer Division.  

Calais after German victory 1940 with German tank carrying wounded British soldiers
Calais. A German tank carries wounded British soldiers after the siege. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B14898 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Allied forces might have lost the battle, but the siege diverted the Panzer Division from reaching Dunkirk. It was of vital help as Operation Dynamo saved 330,000 Allied and French troops who, from May 26 to June 4, were being evacuated to England in the armada of small boats.

September 1940 was the start of a horrifying few years for the inhabitants of Calais and the surrounding villages. The Germans believed that the invasion of France would take place in Pas de Calais and heavily fortified the coastline. In Calais itself, the Germans built the Marine Kommando bunker (Widerstandsnest 13), believed to be the longest in Europe. It was the command post for German troops with a telephone exchange controlling the whole of the region.

Visit the Memorial Museum 39-45

memorial Museum Calais long corridor of concrete walls and doors in bunker
Memorial Museum Calais © Alastair McKenzie

The massive concrete bunker is just one storey high but it dominates one end of the park. Inside it’s set up just as the Germans built it. There’s no natural light; if the power failed it would be a claustrophobic, frightening place. 20 rooms stretch down the two sides of the long corridor, each telling a story about the war in Calais and the region.

Each room is small but packed with posters, models, photographs, weapons and boards explaining the action. It’s not a particularly sophisticated museum, and many of the posters and photos are old, some of them faded. But this brings home the reality much more effectively; you really do get the sense of what the war was like.

Different Rooms in the Calais Memorial Museum

memorial Museum Calais Piece of aircraft shot down and ruined
Memorial Museum Calais damaged equipment Memorial © Mary Anne Evans

There are rooms dedicated to aircraft, covering the RAF and its planes, complete with a smashed engine and a room full of model aircraft.

Memorial Museum Calais poster of different aircraft, english and German
Memorial Museum Calais © Alastair McKenzie

Rooms dedicated to Calais cover the resistance and the call to arms for the liberation of the city.

There are rooms full of models of German soldiers – some asleep; some eating; and an impressive communications room. Rooms themed on secret weapons, the Lindemann battery, Charles de Gaulle, coastal support positions, World War I and of course, Liberation.

Memorial Museum Calais. Room devoted to de Gaulle with bustof him at top and pictures, posters and information
Memorial Museum Calais. De Gaulle Room. © Alastair McKenzie

You see the lives of the civilians under German rule and what they were allowed, and not allowed, to do.

And there’s also a great model of the Lindemann Fort with a prisoner of war camp.

Calais Memorial Museum model of German encampment showing soldiers sitting relaxing in ground floor bunker with walls and fortifications above
Calais Memorial Museum Model of German encampment © Mary Anne Evans

The French Resistance

One particularly impressive, and tragic room shows the stories, and pictures, of civilians caught up in the war and killed as a result of their activities. The women are impressive:

memorial Museum Calais. Room of women resisting Germans with wall of pictures and information about what happened to them and case in middle with artefacts
Memorial Museum Calais. Room devoted to women resisting the Germans © Alastair McKenzie

Odette Bader Gerschel, born on October 14, 1914. Arrested on February 1, 1944, deported to Auschwitz and killed on February 10, 1944. Her crime? Being Jewish.

Raymonde Boetzle-Basser, born on July 17, 1920 in Ardres. Arrested on July 17, 1942, deported to Loos, then Essen and killed on May 1, 1945. She was heavily involved in espionage and was given various awards posthumously like the Légion d’Honeur, Croix de Guerre, Medal of France Libre and others.

Yvonne Barbier, born May 24, 1892 in the barracks of Blériot-Plage. She hid, housed and fed English soldiers and airmen shot down in the region. Arrested on March 21 in Lille she was taken to Loos and tortured. Condemned to death she was deported on May to Berlin and warned she would be beheaded by axe. She asked for a lesser punishment and received a sentence of five years of forced labour. She was sent to different concentration camps. On May 28, 1945, she was liberated by the American 101 Airborne. She died on July 28 1966.

The Memorial Museum 39-45 might be small but it’s impressive and you emerge into the park with a better idea of the hell that Calais residents, and Allied forces, suffered.

Memorial Museum, Musée Mémoire 39-45
Parc Saint-Pierre
Boulevard Jacquard
Calais 62100
Pas-de-Calais
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 34 21 57
Website
Open Feb 1-Apr 30; Oct 1-Nov 11: Mon, Wed-Sat 11am-5pm; May to Sep Daily 10am-6pm. Last admission 45 minutes before closing
Closed Dec, Jan
AdmissionAdult: €8; child 4 to 11 years 6€; child 0 to 3 years free; family: 16€ 3 people, 2 adults and 1 or 2 kids; or 1 adult with 2 to 3 kids

The Liberation of Calais

Calais was liberated between Sep 25 and October 1, 1944 by General Daniel Spry’s 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. Other Canadian forces were liberating the surrounding towns and countryside.

During the liberation, many of the 20,000 civilians who had stayed in Calais came out of their hiding places and began singing the Marseillaise.

More Information about Calais

Calais is one of my favourite north France cities. While most people just use it as a ferry port, I have spent many weekends enjoying the city and the nearby coast.

Guide to Calais
The Calais Dragon

More about World War II around Calais

La Coupole and Hitler’s V2 Rockets
The secret and brutal blockhouse of Eperlecques
The strange story of the V3 weapon, and Lt. Joseph Kennedy’s part in the bombing of Mimoyecques

Visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to see how this great organisation looks after the cemeteries of the great wars, and deals with newly found bodies.

Declaration: I travelled to France courtesy of DFDS from Dover to Calais on a self-driving press trip as a guest of Saint Omer/Pas-de-Calais Tourisme.

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