EYE ON EUROPE
Johnson poses in front
of the huge World War II German
submarine base at Bordeaux
Where Nazis' war machine still is defacing France
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
I have never understood how a German could show his face in France. Memories of two world wars--both started by Germany--have left deep scars here. References to the Hun also resound in Britain but the French were hit harder, and twice in a generation. Hundreds of thousands of their most talented young men were killed, and France still suffers from damage to its gene pool.
Traveling around France, it is impossible to miss the junk the Germans left behind. The entire Atlantic coast is littered with bombproof concrete emplacements where Wehrmacht machineguns and cannons were pointed toward the sea, always ready to fire at any Allied approach. Amateur collectors still manage to find German shells and guns buried in the sand.
In towns and cities across the country, bronze plaques are fixed to buildings where French resistance fighters or innocent hostages were machinegunned by Germans. The wording on these plaques is matter-of-fact: names of victims and dates of executions. The language does not sugar-coat who did it. Not Nazis. It was les Allemands, the Germans.
The French political attitude toward Germany is magnanimous but still cautious. Presidents and prime ministers maintain a civil relationship with each other but German tourists are eyed warily by ordinary people. I once witnessed four German hoodlums on motorcycles roaring around the streets of Arcachon, south of Bordeaux. The locals looked on in horror and muttered, les Allemands, les Allemands.
The mere sound of the German language sends chills down the spines of ordinary French people. Occasionally you will hear the French indulge in some gallows humor, such as the comment when one orders a second bottle of rouge or blanc in a restaurant: Encore une bouteille que les Allemands nauront pas. (One more bottle that the Germans wont get.)
Today, the French coastline is the holiday destination of choice for well-off Parisians and others. Nestled in among the German bunkers are smart summer homes and charming cafes. The contrast reminds us of how things have changed.
But these bunkers are nothing compared to the colossal, sinister submarine base for the Wolf Packs built on the outskirts of Bordeaux. Today the hulking, grey structure is visible from Bordeaux Lac, a busy shopping center that includes such globalized players as Ikea and Toys R Us. When I first noticed it I thought it was an abandoned factory and I wondered why no one had torn it down and built something less ugly, less menacing. It seemed far too large to be just another blockhaus.
After a few months in Bordeaux, I happened to drive by it with Luc, a French Corsican friend who told me something of its origins. Luc--himself an enthusiastic collector of wartime memorabilia--called it a monument to German engineering put to evil use. The double roof is cleverly designed to deflect 500-pound bombs and explode them without damaging the actual roof. This is a good working definition of indestructible.
With more research I learned that the foundations rest on hundreds of deep pilings. The walls vary from 8 to 11 feet in thickness, heavily reinforced with steel rods. Several hundred feet of railway were laid inside to load torpedoes. The design included 11 portals to welcome returning German U-boats for maintenance, rearming and rest after a month or two at sea picking off American and British merchant ships.
Some 60 percent of all concrete poured in 1941 in Europe went into this facility and four other sub bases in French coastal cities. Main contractors included German companies that still function today, Siemens and M.A.N.
Bordeaux was chosen as the site for the largest of the bases because it lies relatively far to the south of England, beyond easy striking distance of British air bases.
The structure was erected in record time, with crews working round the clock and goaded by the German military. Safety was a secondary concern. Recently a Spanish war veteran visited the structure and seemed overcome by his memories. He explained to his guide that in 1941 he had witnessed the collapse of a portion of the scaffolding that stretched across a huge pool of freshly poured cement. About 50 of his comrades, all forced laborers, were plunged into the pool. No attempt was made to rescue them.
They and an unknown number of others, including some Germans, are entombed in the walls. Some perhaps fanciful Bordeaux people say they have heard moans arising from the structure at night.
At liberation, the base was discovered to have been sabotaged with several sunken ships and dynamited cranes but the exterior remains virtually as it was in 1944.
What to do with the base has been a political football for 50 years. Parts of the interior have been rebuilt for popular concerts and art exhibitions. Tearing it down has not been an option.
The French Navy has obtained rights to reactivate the base for its own submarines in case of some future war. No doubt visiting Germans with long memories wonder how wise it was to make the base quite so indestructible.
©2006 by Michael Johnson. The photo is the property of the author. All rights reserved. This column was first posted Jan. 9, 2006.
You can comment on this column online. Please address your message to either "The Editors" or Michael Johnson. To send an email, click here and don't forget to mention Michael's name: email@example.com
HOME About Us Index To
Talkback Contact Us