La Coupole - A Focal Point of 20th Century Wartime History
Look out of your window, at people going about their normal lives.
Now, ignore the ringing in your ears, the dust in your hair, the blood running into your eye. Crawl back to what's left of your window and watch the huge cloud of dust dissipate to reveal a rubble-filled hole where the next two streets used to be.
That's how much warning Londoners had, when a supersonic V2 rocket landed.
La Coupole was designed and built by the Germans in World War II as a bomb-proof factory to mass-produce V2 rockets, wheel them out and fire them at London, only 120 miles away.
Mercifully, persistent Allied bombing disrupted supplies and work schedules enough that in the end, not one V2 was launched from there.
It's not hard to be impressed by La Coupole. It's one of the largest wartime concrete structures built by the Germans. Buried into the side of a quarry in Nord Pas de Calais, its colossal, 72m diameter, reinforced concrete domed roof was 5.5m thick, designed to shrug off even the biggest bombs - which it did.
Now it is an ultramodern museum, history centre and state-of-the-art 3D planetarium - a natural evolution given its former role in the birth of the space industry.
It’s not rocket science… well, it’s not all rocket science!
The aerospace lineage is easy to spot. Among its exhibits of historic aerospace technology & rocketry, there’s a reconstructed V2 rocket motor with a really good video explanation (Audio guides come in 4 languages including English) of how it worked. Look at the engine of any rocket on a launch pad today and it will look pretty much the same.
Geeks like me will love it. “Excuse me, mademoiselle, “ I asked a museum guide, “those little flaps in the engine cones of that V2 suspended over us.. what are they made of?” She went away and came back moments later. “Carbon - they steered the rocket exhaust”.
But there’s plenty for non-geeks too. Not least the sometimes harrowing exhibits, displays and films documenting life, death, resistance & deportation for the forced labourers working on the site, and for French civilians under German occupation... and liberation - La Coupole currently has a temporary exhibition (till 31 Aug) covering the Liberation of Nord Pas de Calais, commissioned to mark its 70th anniversary. For intergenerational families with kids who’ve no first or second hand knowledge of 20th century war history, La Coupole provides an important educational experience (schools & groups visit too), and the whole family can participate in the discovery process because the site is accessible even for those with limited mobility.
Location!, Location!, Location!
The Nord Pas de Calais region has been a crossroads throughout history. Everybody, from Napoleon to Eurostar, has passed through on their way somewhere, and in the 20th century that made it a focal point for two World Wars. As a result it is steeped in military history, and very accessible to travellers from all over the continent and the UK.
For example, to the west, La Coupole is just 45 minutes driving distance from Calais, 50 from Dunkirk, and just minutes from the airfields where Luftwaffe legend, Adolf Galland entertained RAF legend, Douglas Bader who was housed in nearby St Omer after being shot down and captured.
To the east, the great First World War battlefields (addressed in an exhibition in La Coupole) around Arras, Cambrai, the Somme, Vimy and the region’s capital, Lille, are within two hours driving distance.
So, If you want to show your kids where some of the key events of the 20th century took place, don’t just drive through Nord Pas de Calais!