Why visit La Coupole

La Coupole tells the fascinating, and chilling, story of the development of Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets. Then this impressive museum takes you on beyond World War II and into the space race.

La Coupole concrete dome on hillside
La Coupole © Mary Anne Evans

Its Sinister Purpose

The huge dome of concrete built into the hillside hid a vast network of 7 kilometers of underground galleries. Developed in strict secrecy by Von Braun’s team at the Peenemünde centre, it was built in 1943-44 by prisoners in appalling conditions under the direction of the Todt Organisation, responsible for major works for the Nazi state.

V2 victim. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

La Coupole was intended as an assembly and launch pad for the V1 flying bomb and V2 rockets for attacks on Europe but particularly on London. In 1944 the Allies discovered its existence, launched a massive and successful bombing campaign and the place was abandoned.

First Impressions

Long tunnel at La Coupole entrance
La Coupole Entrance

You enter a massive, cold, echoing corridor where lights dim randomly and the sounds of war crackle in the background. You’re entering the dome, 72 metres in diameter and 5.5 metres thick, created from 55,000 tons of reinforced concrete. Really it’s better not to think too much about it.

Small exhibitions are housed in the vaults along the walls. One particularly chilling one deals with the Train to Loos, which departed on September 1st, 1944 from Loos, near Lille. It carried 871 resistance fighters aged between 16 and 71 years old to Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. By May 1945 only 275 of them were left alive.

Take the lift up to…

…The main exhibition space which is divided into two sections. The first is The North of France in German Hands (Cineac Circuit), dealing with the Occupation of north France from 1940 to 1944.
The second takes you through the development of the weapons and the building of La Coupole to the space race of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Signs for the Occupation in la Coupole
La Coupole

Invasion and Occupation

Start with films on the invasion in 1940 and the evacuation at Dunkirk, covering life during the occupation, the deportation and genocide of the Jews and of gypsies, resistance workers and other ‘undesirables’. It’s extremely powerful, pulling no punches over the details and the statistics, describing in detail the rounding up of Jews in Paris in July 1942, and transporting them to Auschwitz as well as the process of extermination.

Clothing and displays in the concentration camp display at La Coupole
Concentration camp display

Displays cover uniforms, a reconstructed shop, reconstruction of the Execution Wall at the Citadel in Lille, a Messerschmitt propeller, letters and objects that bring the world of resistance to life.

Radio Equipment for the Resistance © Alastair Mckenzie

The displays expand on the themes, taking you through France from 1940, when the battle fought from the Ardennes to the Somme ended the French campaign, through the German Blitzkrieg, Dunkirk, the Resistance and the damaging effect on civilian life. These were indeed the ‘Dark Years’.

There are a lot of films, covering propaganda and collaboration which is a fraught and difficult subject, raising questions such as…Well, what would you do if your children were threatened with death if you didn’t collaborate?”

V2 rocket hanging over displays at La Coupole
V2 Rocket © Mary Anne Evans

Dominating the area is a huge V2 rocket, the only one on display in France. It’s terrifyingly large, painted yellow and black and  hangs like some giant, demented creature pointing down to the next area below.

A Memorial Wall records the names and displays the photographs of some of the North France victims  who died.

Total war (1939-1945) and Germany’s secret weapons

Space Race at La Coupole © Mary Anne Evans

This the part that I found fascinating and one where I had not joined up the dots: the story of the V2 rocket technology that became the basis for the space race between Russia and the USA.

It starts with World War II with Nazi Germany developing its rockets at Peenemünde, on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea under Von Braun.

In France, German sonderbauten (special constructions) appeared along the English Channel from Cotentin in Normandy to Pas-de-Calais, built by prisoners from the concentration camps.

June 13 1944 saw the V1 flying bomb offensive against London start in earnest. I remember my parents talking about the ‘doodle bugs’, pilotless winged bombs that flew rapidly until they ran out of fuel. The silence as the engine stopped was the terrifying moment; within seconds it would land and that would usually be it. There were moments of relief; my parents remember neighbours rushing into the street where an unexploded bomb had landed, picking it up and taking it off to the park before calling the bomb squad to remove it.

Rocket display at La Coupole
La Coupole Space Race © Alastair McKenzie

In summer 1943 the RAF discovered and bombed Peenemünde, leading to the construction of La Coupole by deportees from Buchenwald.

There’s a lot of information about the technology used to make the weapons, but done so effectively that you learn without knowing it. Films and interactive exhibits take you through the processes; models show you what they looked like. It’s a seductive tale, leaving me marveling at the genius of making the bombs and horrified at the uses to which they were put.

By 1943 the Black Projects amounted to total war against the enemies of the Third Reich. From June 13th to September 1st, 1944 V1s were launched against London.

Atomic cloud over HIroshima
Atomic cloud over Hiroshima. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This section also tells the story of the American development through the Manhattan Project of the atomic bomb, the ‘Little Boy’ dropped with such devastating effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945.

The Conquest of Space 1945-1969

The conquest of space has some extraordinary films about the space race between Russia and the USA, starting with the acquisition of the German engineers and developers like Werner von Braun. Coming to mind immediately was the scene in the film The Right Stuff . “Their Germans are better than our Germans” remarked an American politician. 

NASA GPS Satellite with earth in background
NASA GPS Satellite. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The films and exhibits take you through the Space Race, again with the rockets, the technology and some fabulous images from NASA and from Star City in Moscow. They show Sputnik, the first space ship and personalities like Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut.

La Coupole
Centre d’Histoire et de memoire du Nord-Pas-de-Calais
Rue André Clabaux
62570 Wizernes
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 12 27 27
Open July & Aug 10am-7pm, September to June 9am-6pm
Closed Dec 25, Jan 1; Jan 7-20
Admission Adult €10 euros, child 6 to 16 years old €7, family of 2 adults and one child 22€
More Information
Pick up an audio guide in your language (free with admission) which turns on automatically beside each exhibit. The audio guide also works for the films, giving you whichever language you choose.
There is a free car park at the site and a café.
Getting to La Coupole
There is a shuttle bus service between Saint-Omer and La Coupole. Details on the website.

3D Planetarium

The 3D Plantetarium is right beside La Coupole and offers timed sessions. It’s worth doing this with a visit to La Coupole. Films include: Dream to Fly; Lucia, the secret of shooting stars; Space Next, a 3D animated session (in French only); Polaris; To Space and Back, and Dynamic Earth. Check the website to see which you want to see; they are aimed at different age groups.
There is a charge for each Planetarium show. Check here for details.

For an expert review of La Coupole with technical details on the rockets, read Mech Traveller’s review of La Coupole.

More about Hitler’s weapons in World War II

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