Wednesday, February 6, 2013

World War II Submarine Base, Bordeaux

And now for something completely different…

Base Sous-Marine, Bordeaux

I’ve always been interested in World War II. No, not the generals and the battles – I think that’s pretty dry stuff. It’s the personal histories and individual acts of heroism that keep me spellbound. But despite seeing dozens of movies and reading countless books, the war years remained slightly intangible. It was always something that had happened “over there.”  I suspect that even during the war the news from Europe must have seemed pretty unreal to most Americans.  My mother lived through those years in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and her family, although inconvenienced by rationing, remained largely untouched by the conflict. As a young teenage girl her wartime memories involve flirting with soldiers, not death.

But now that we’re “over here”, World War II looms large. Every village, no matter how minuscule, has a statue commemorating ‘les enfants’ who gave their lives for France. Graffiti-covered concrete gun emplacements mar the beaches. Memorials to those killed in German reprisals appear in the most unexpected places – in the middle of an isolated cornfield, for instance. Shrines to Resistance fighters dot the highways. Plaques at train stations honor hundreds of deported Jews.  Now, with reminders all around me, the devastation of World War II is, at last, becoming horribly real.

Memorial to the Battle of Richemont Farm where 13 young frenchmen
fought 100 German soldiers. All of the boys were killed.

Bordeaux was occupied shortly after the Armistice was signed in 1940. Its strategic location on the Garonne River 60 miles from the coast made it an ideal location from which to patrol the Atlantic. Immediately after the occupation the Germans and Italians established a joint submarine base here and the first Italian subs arrived in September. From October 1942 the base sous-marine was home to the German 12th Flotilla. These long-range subs, known as ‘milk cows’, delivered fuel, weapons and supplies to the U-boat fleet, enabling longer patrols.

Construction of the submarine base, circa 1942.

Construction of the permanent bunker began in the autumn of 1941 and the first submarine entered the pens in January 1943. Over 800 feet wide and 530 feet deep, the enormous reinforced concrete building covers an astounding 450,000 square feet. The original roof was over 11 feet thick, but in 1944, to protect the base from armor-piercing bombs, a second roof was added.  An extra layer of concrete was cast, reinforced with blocks over 3 feet wide and 7 feet deep and the entire roof is now over 30 feet thick. This double-layer construction was designed so that the upper layer would activate the fuse of an armor-piercing bomb, causing the device to explode in the void, thereby preserving the primary roof. Of the eleven pens, numbers 1 through 4 were wet docks, each capable of housing two submarines. The seven adjacent dry docks held one sub each. About 1,600 men were stationed here with a security force of 250 in barracks nearby.

Sub base shortly after construction was completed.
Recent photo of dry dock bays 6 and 7.
Note the additional roof structure.
Over 6000 Portuguese and Spanish prisoners of war worked day and night to construct the bunker. In the process countless died of exhaustion, hunger, illness, or simply by falling into the work and smothering in concrete. A moving memorial at the site marks their tragic sacrifice. 

Several times throughout the war the Allies attempted to bomb the submarine base, always unsuccessfully. After the Allied invasion the Germans themselves attempted to blow up their bunker, without success. Again in August 1944 the Allies bombed the base, with several direct hits recorded. However, when they later inspected the bunker there was no discernible damage.

Virtually indestructible, this concrete hulk is likely to remain for centuries, despite current plans for the redevelopment and gentrification of the surrounding basin area. Now owned by the City of Bordeaux the sub base is used as a cultural venue; art is displayed in an interior area and concerts are held in one of the larger submarine bays.

Interior art exhibit.
Wet dock Number 1.
Walking through 600,000 cubic meters of raw concrete where many of the walls retain original German signs is a sobering experience. And it certainly makes the occupation of Bordeaux very tangible. In October we went to a jazz concert there. Listening to Melody Gardot sing a bluesy love song while theatrical lights played across those brutal concrete walls was, in a word, surreal. Inexplicably though, in that environment it was chillingly easy to envision Das Boot rising stealthily out of the murky waters behind the stage.

The incomparable Melody Gardot
Special thanks to suej for use of her photo.

Further reading on WWII U-Boat bases can be found at:

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