La Coupole (English: The Dome), also known as the Coupole d’Helfaut-Wizernes and originally codenamed Bauvorhaben 21 (Building Project 21) or Schotterwerk Nordwest (Northwest Gravel Works), is a Second World War bunker complex in the Pas-de-Calais department of northern France, about 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) from Saint-Omer, and some 14.4 kilometers (8.9 miles) south-southeast from the less developed Blockhaus d’Eperlecques V-2 launch installation in the same area. It was built by the forces of National Socialist Germany between 1943 and 1944 to serve as a launch base for V-2 rockets directed against London and southern England, and is the earliest known precursor to modern underground missile silos still in existence.
Constructed in the side of a disused chalk quarry, the most prominent feature of the complex is an immense concrete dome, to which its modern name refers. It was built above a network of tunnels housing storage areas, launch facilities and crew quarters. The facility was designed to store a large stockpile of V-2s, warheads and fuel and was intended to launch V-2s on an industrial scale. Dozens of missiles a day were to be fuelled, prepared and launched in rapid sequence against London and southern England.
Following repeated heavy bombing by Allied forces during Operation Crossbow, the Germans were unable to complete the construction works and the complex never entered service. It was captured by the Allies in September 1944, partially demolished on the orders of Winston Churchill to prevent its reuse as a military base, and then abandoned. It remained derelict until the mid-1990s. In 1997 it opened to the public for the first time, as a museum. Exhibits in the tunnels and under the dome tell the story of the German occupation of France during World War II, the V-weapons and the history of space exploration.
The V-2 rocket was one of several innovative long-range weapons developed by the Germans after the failure of the Luftwaffe to strike a decisive blow against Britain. It was a revolutionary weapon – the world’s first operational SRBM – that had been developed in a secret programme begun in 1936. The German leadership hoped that a barrage of rockets unleashed against London would force Britain out of the war. Although Adolf Hitler was at first ambivalent, he eventually became an enthusiastic supporter of the V-2 programme as Allied air forces carried out increasingly devastating attacks on German cities.
The 12.5-ton missile, standing 14 metres (46 ft) high on its launch pad, was fuelled primarily by liquid oxygen (LOX) and methyl alcohol. Deploying the V-2 on a large scale required far more LOX than was available from existing production sites in Germany and the occupied countries. New sources of LOX were required, situated close to the missile launching sites to reduce as far as possible the loss of propellant through evaporation. The missile’s operational range of 320 kilometres (200 mi) meant that the launch sites had to be fairly close to the English Channel or southern North Sea coasts, in northern France, Belgium or the western Netherlands.
Because of the complexity of the missile and the need for extensive testing prior to launch, the V-2’s designers at the Peenemünde Army Research Center favoured using heavily defended fixed sites where the missiles could be stored, armed, and fuelled from an on-site LOX production plant before launching. But the German Army and the V-2 project’s head, Major-General Walter Dornberger, were concerned that the sites would be vulnerable to aerial attack by the Allies. The Army’s preferred option was to use Meillerwagens, mobile firing batteries, which presented a much smaller target for the Allied air forces.
The Army was nonetheless overruled by Hitler, who had a long-standing preference for huge, grandiose constructions. He preferred fixed installations along the lines of the virtually impregnable U-boat pens that had been built to protect Germany’s U-boat fleet. In March 1943, he ordered the construction of a massive bunker (now known as the Blockhaus d’Éperlecques) in the Forest of Éperlecques near Watten, north of Saint-Omer. The bunker was soon spotted by Allied reconnaissance, and on 27 August 1943, a raid by 187 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers wrecked the construction site before it could be completed. A surviving portion was reused by the Germans as a LOX production facility.
The successful attack against the Watten bunker forced the German Army to find an alternative location for a launch site nearby. They had already taken possession of an old quarry between the villages of Helfaut and Wizernes, south-west of Saint-Omer and some 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of the Watten bunker, near the Aa river alongside the Boulogne–Saint-Omer railway line, about 1 km (0.62 mi) from Wizernes station. The quarry had been designated for use as a missile storage depot where V-2s would be housed in tunnels bored into the chalk hillside before being transported for launching. The Germans undertook major work in August 1943 to lay extensive railway sidings to connect the quarry to the main line.
On 30 September 1943, Hitler met with Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production, and Franz Xaver Dorsch, the chief engineer of the Todt Organisation, to discuss plans for a replacement for the out-of-commission Watten facility. Dorsch proposed to transform the Wizernes depot into a vast bomb-proof underground complex that would require a million tons of concrete to build. It would be constructed within a network of tunnels to be dug inside the hillside at the edge of the quarry. A concrete dome, 5 m (16 ft) thick, 71 metres (233 ft) in diameter and weighing 55,000 tons, would be built over the top of the central part of the facility to protect it from Allied bombing. Beneath it, about 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) of tunnels were to be dug into the chalk hillside to accommodate workshops, storerooms, fuel supplies, a LOX manufacturing plant, generators, barracks and a hospital.