The massive German works projects that dotted the coast of northern France from 1942-44 are usually associated with the colossal Atlantik Wall, "Fortress Europa", for the most part. Visitors have traveled to France, Belgium and Holland for many years to view these impressive fortifications built in vain by Nazi Germany. What many people never knew, was that many of the most extravagant construction projects undertaken by Germany, were part of Hitler's campaign of "vengeance".
German citizens were dead, and the city was laid waste. Hitler was enraged and demanded retaliation. But with the Luftwaffe’s defeat over England, there was little recourse for revenge. Hitler met with Speer, who happened to have a copy of Dornberger’s new memorandum that proposed a hardened rocket-launching bunker to be constructed on the coast of France. Speer had previously asked Dornberger to outline his own aspirations for the rocket program, and in the memorandum, “Proposals for Employment of the Long-Range Rocket,” Dornberger touted the benefits of the rocket and discussed the ineffectiveness of other conventional weapons. In the memo, Dornberger reasoned it was feasible that almost 5,000 missiles per year could be launched against Allied targets such as British industrial centers, seaports, and the city of London itself. For the first time, he gave an indication of what the psychological effect might be on the civilian population during this missile bombardment. Touting the advantages of using missiles, he pointed out the targets could be attacked night or day, regardless of the weather conditions. The memo was highlighted in Hitler’s mind a few weeks later when a thousand RAF bombers attacked the city of Cologne. Even though he demanded retaliation, Hitler still refused to give the rocket production priority.
On December 22, 1942, Speer was summoned to attend an important meeting at the Ministry of War in Berlin. During the course of the meeting, the subject of the A-4/V-2 was raised by Speer. He was able to convince Hitler to finally sign the order to expedite mass production of the rocket. Speer also reminded the Führer of Dornberger’s proposal of a hardened Blockhaus (block house, concrete bunker) in northern France from which the rockets could attack England. Later in the day, Speer ordered the beginning of normal manufacturing procedures for the A-4. This practice involved setting up development commissions composed of industry experts who were to analyze manufacturing techniques and recommend improvements.20 Speer began preparations for the launching bunker in late December by contacting Peenemünde and requesting an immediate survey of the Channel coast to find an appropriate construction site. Dornberger was away on Christmas holiday and learned of Speer’s request later. In the months of December and January, officers, geologists, engineers, and scientists under the direction Major Thom from Peenemünde, Dornberger’s chief of staff, scoured the countryside of northern France searching for an appropriate site to construct the massive launching bunker.
On January 8, 1943, Dornberger traveled again to Berlin to see Speer. He was informed by Speer that Organization Todt would be working closely with Peenemünde during the construction of the launching bunker, which was to be built in the Pas de Calais of northern France. He also introduced Colonel Dornberger to a man named Gerhard Degenkolb, a man who would help organize the mass production of the rockets. Degenkolb was the former director of the Demag Engineering Works and the man responsible for streamlining the production of Germany’s locomotive industry. Speer touted Degenkolb as a miracle worker when it came to managing important large industrial projects with seemingly impossible deadlines. Dornberger’s first impression of Degenkolb was not positive. The balding Degenkolb seemed to be boastful and pretentious. Without any previous knowledge of the rocket program, he proceeded to tell Dornberger how he intended to move the rocket production forward. Degenkolb was already talking about setting up a production committee, and this made Dornberger very nervous. In fact, Speer had already named Degenkolb as head of the Special A-4 Committee. Nevertheless, Dornberger invited Degenkolb to come to Peenemünde to familiarize himself with the rocket and the facilities.
On December 22, 1942, General Dornberger along with the Minister Albert Speer, were summoned to attend an important meeting at the Ministry of War in Berlin. Hitler gave them a directive to build a hardened "blockhaus" in northern France where V-2 rockets could attack England. There would be several V-2 projects in northern France, along with the V-1 and V-3 projects that were also underway. The preparation for the V-2 launching bunkers began in late 1942. In the month of December and January, officers, engineers and scientists from Oberstleutnant Thom & Peenmünde scoured the countryside of northern France searching for appropriate sites.
The scientists in Peenmünde were in favour of the bunkers as a place where the V-2 could be in a controlled environment and very precise checks could be made to each rocket before firing. They had already been planning for this type of deployment, having plans and models already constructed. All of the components were accounted for including, barracks to house the 250-300 personel, anti-aircraft batteries, storage of dangerous materials and a way of transporting the missiles through a prepping stage, all the way to the moment of launching. But, General Dornberger and other military officers thought that the only practical way to deploy the missile would be as a highly mobile system. This theory would eventually be proved very true.
Throughout 1943-44 work commenced on these mammoth projects. Using 40,000 forced laborers, the Germans began their program of secret-weapons sites in northern France. Six-thousand of these laborers were brought to the Pas-de-Calais area, near Eperlecques, to begin the excavation of the giant Watten "blockhaus". The Watten construction was eventually bombed to the point that another location was found near St. Omer in a large quarry at Wizernes. This site too would come under heavy Allied bombing. Another V-2 site was located on the Cherbourg peninsula near the town of Sottevast, about 8 miles south of Cherbourg.
Differing opinions existed as to whether regular soldiers could be trained to fire the rockets. Presumptuously, the Peenemünde scientists and engineers believed that only qualified technicians such as themselves working in a self-contained environment like the Eperlecques bunker could successfully launch the rockets. They had been planning for this type of deployment, having plans and models already constructed. It was suggested the rockets would require an extensive support structure, such as the bunker at Eperlecques, which could store the necessary fuel and provide ready access to testing and maintenance equipment. All of the components were accounted for, including barracks to house the 250–300 personnel, antiaircraft batteries, and a way of transporting the missiles through a prepping stage, all the way to the moment of launching. Dornberger preferred mobile firing batteries manned by regular soldiers with specialized training. The military believed mobile launching crews, operating in a field environment, could avoid being detected by prowling Allied fighter aircraft. In the end, one battery was organized for the bunker and two others for mobile field operations. Dornberger’s theory would eventually be proven correct. In France, work continued on the massive bunker at Eperlecques.
None of these sites would ever launch a single V-2 rocket toward England. The enormous scale of these works drew the attention of the Allied Air Command, especially the RAF. The Normandy invasion, the later than expected development of the V-2, and the constant bombing - all contributed to this outcome. The rockets would indeed become a mobile weapon that was impossible to counter after its deployment in Holland and Germany late in the war.
But these massive structures, for the most part, remain today as they were then. It is very interesting to visit these sites today. They remain as constant reminders of the struggle between bombs and armour. You can imagine very well the harsh, cruel treatment of the laborers, but still marvel at the structures themselves. You can see what might have happened, if the brave Allied airmen had not undertaken this challenge of crushing Hitler's V-2 and V-1 bunkers in France.