It has been so long between posting expo reports on this part of the site that I don’t really know where to start… So I’ll start with something easy, a recent adventure to the La Rochelle (La Pallice) German U-boat bunkers in France.
I have to at least give you a little bit of history so you know why this place is significant. The base was built in late 1941 to re-supply the U-boats of the German 3rd. Flotilla for their missions in the Atlantic. It was obviously an important base for the German army and was very heavily defended. So well defended that the German garrison at La Pallice held out right up until German capitulation in May 1945, after 8 months of siege by allied forces.
For us our trip down to La Rochelle it was a bit of a chance to get out and see something different from the usual Parisian locations. So early Saturday morning Snapple, dsankt and myself shoehorned ourselves into Marc’s car and we headed South.
After a long drive punctuated with supply stops and sunroof episodes at 130km/h we arrived at the bunkers. Locating them was not difficult as they are one of the biggest buildings in the area but getting inside would be a different story. The first thing we did was get talking to a local, turns out he was actually stationed at the base while in the French Navy (the base was used by the French Navy after the war). We had no idea if we were actually allowed to wonder around the bunker as it is located in an active port but he assured us that it was no problem because “you’ll never get in anyway”. That sounded like a challenge to us and we were there for the challenge as much as we were for the bunker.
I can’t remember where I nicked this photo from, if it is yours and you want it removed, let me know. I’m guessing it was taken sometime in the 1970′s, the surrounding area has changed but the bunker is exactly the same.
The bunker was designed to withstand aerial bombardment and full on amoured assult so keeping us out should not have been a problem. Luckly for us there are no longer 22,000 German soldiers defending it so we hatched plans for an invasion by sea. Commandeering a vessel in an active port turned out to be a problem so that idea was put into the ‘if all else fails’ category. For the next three hours we climbed everything we could and we must have walked around the base ten times to no avail. Eventually we managed to access the rear section of the building and we thought we were home and hosed. Turns out this was the section of the bunker refitted by the French Navy as offices and command centers for their submarine operations. There was some interesting stuff left behind including various maps and ‘enemy’ sub tracking records. Unfortunately this entire section of the base was completely sealed off from the sub pens. We crawled that dark, dank place for an hour, climbing over mountains of pigeon shit but without finding how the crews may have actually got to their subs had the need arisen.
One interesting thing to mention is the roof. It is up to 7 meters think and there is actually a double roof section in parts that was presumably designed to detonate the bombs before they hit the main roof. Only strange thing is that this only covered a small section of the roof, if you know why let us know in the comments below.
This base was no secret to the Allies and over 50 (essentially ineffective) bombing raids were conducted here. There is clear evidence of bombing damage on the roof. But even direct hits on the caused little more than cosmetic damage. There are anti-aircraft positions on the roof and we were surprised to see that there was no direct access to the AA positions from inside the bunker (we know, we tried every one!). But what I presume this means is that the poor guys would have to run across an open rooftop in the middle of a bombing raid to access the guns. Not my idea of good working conditions.
Anyway, during our wanderings on the rooftop a carload of military police had turned up (the bunker is still military property) and we spent the next hour trying not to look suspicious. I’m pretty sure they knew exactly what we were doing, it’s kinda obvious, four guys all in black carrying backpacks, wondering in circles and pointing at the bunker, but they did not seem to give a shit. Eventually our efforts paid off and we got inside the sub pens, we did not even have to resort to invasion by sea.
Inside I was surprised that the bunkers were in such bad condition, it can’t have been that long since the French Navy moved out but everything wooden was rotten and everything steel was flaking away in hand fulls of rust. The base was used as the set for the German movie ‘Das Boot’ and I have a feeling most of the German writing on the walls was actually from the movie. After all, it’s a little unlikely that the French Navy would take over the base and not paint over the German signs.
After poking around the bunkers for long enough we turned our minds to our next problem: a place to sleep and Pro-hobo was the plan. My vote was for the roof of the bunker from the start, but someone had the brilliant idea of sleeping on the beautiful white sand beaches of La Rochelle. Unfortunately La Rochelle does not have any white sand beaches (not to my standards anyway) and once we confirmed that a night on a stinking rocky wet shoreline was not going to be very ‘pro’ we headed back to the bunkers. Rooftops are perfect places to sleep if your a hobo, no one is going to wake you up, steel your shit or tell you to move on. The only problem is the weather and after a hearty meal (cidre, roquefort, jambon cru et baguette – bien seche bien sûr!) we listened to the storm roll in. The false roof (originally designed to stop heavy bombing) did a reasonable job of stopping the rain and all things considered, we slept really well.
The only thing I really have left to say about the bunkers is an observation we made upon leaving, the place is so big and virtually indestructible that no one can afford to demolish it. The bunker will probably be there forever. The Ancient Egyptians left the pyramids, the Romans left the Colosseum, we are going to leave a submarine bunker.
Footnote: Most of this historical information was lifted from this excellent site, if you want to know more that’s where I suggest you go first.