Hewn from the soft chalk, I wandered on my own through rough cut tunnels and chambers carved through the rock by labourers overseen by the German Army, the sound of running water never far away and despite the outside heat in the open air there was a cold chill and damp which quickly penetrated down through my jacket into my bones. An eerie place, yet I could not help but be in awe of the massive civil engineering efforts that were delivered at a cost of 1000’s of lives to create La Couple. The huge bunker was built by the Todt Organisation between 1942 and 1944 and was the base for launching the V2 rockets against London. The complex was bombed mercilessly by the Allies and the scars of the high explosive detonations can be seen in collapsed chambers and offset concrete caps and arches. La Coupole was abandoned during the summer of 1944, after the Normandy landings and is now slowly being reabsorbed back into the tranquil french countryside.
I found these iconic statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels whilst looking for shade (and an ice cream) in the Marx-Engels-Forum which is a great open park in Berlin, a place for relaxation, surrounded by fountains and picnicking families. Whilst much of Berlin has been rebuilt, the site of these two great memorials is on the land in past occupied by the Old Town quarter which was heavily bombed during allied air attacks when most of its buildings reduced to ruins. For some reason after the war, the ruins were cleared but nothing replaced them and the open space remains. Despite the peaceful facade, the Marx-Engels Forum has been the subject of public controversy, with some saying it is an unwanted reminder of austere past times stepping past the political arguments, I welcomed the shade and respite and pondered on George Santayana’s wise words “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” as I ate my decadent western ice cream.
Riding south from Ravaniemi on the E75, I spotted a small side turning leading east marked Tervola and slipped quickly of the rough north south route, into the unknown. The brilliant sunshine glimmered of the the new bridge over the Kemi, as I stopped in the shade of the Kirk. Finland’s wartime past is not widely publicised but knowing the Russian pacts and advance from the east and the Finnish resistance and the earlier Lapland War, the number of German and Finnish war graves with similar dates reinforces the strategic importance of this river crossing in 1944.
Tirpitz was the largest battleship in the German Kriegsmarine and a sister to the Bismarck, built in 1939 and named after the deputy admiral Alfred von Tirpitz Freiherr. In March 1943 Turpitz was berthed in Kåfjord in Alta with the role of threatening Allied convoy traffic in the Barents Sea. The Germans built a massive navel base in Altafjord, as in addition to Tirpitz the battleship Scharnhorst and cruiser Lützow were stationed in Alta – a total of 20,000 German troops lived the in areas I have been exploring on the bike over the last two days. It has been fascinating to see the object of attraction for Easy Elsie, stumble across historic artefacts and sobering to remember the tragic loss of life on both sides in this conflict.
The deeper I go into Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary the more old cold war bunkers and military outposts I find. Wish I had more time to explore some of the remnants which are both fascinating but also exceptionally “creepy”. Without exception they seem to be in excellent preserved condition with little signs of vandalism and just succumbing to the ravages of nature with tree roots growing through feet think concrete walls enhancing the dereliction. I could spend weeks in these areas alone, just meandering through the countryside and borders, looking at these historic sites but sadly time in limited – and the west is calling me again.
Riding off the main highway today around the back roads on the Slovenia / Italian border I came across an abandoned fortification which was once part of the great Alpine Wall. This fortification was built in the lead up to WWII at the order of Benito Mussolini to protect Italy from her neighbhours the defences comprises two central areas with bunkhouses and kitchens and two opposing circular machine gun posts with metal fixings for heavy machine guns giving a possible almost circular field of fire. Although the main doors had been removed to this Type A Zone of Resistance fortification I could clearly envisage the determination required to get through the two blast doors and the meters of reinforced concrete.
Catching occasional glimpses of a famous merchant vessel used to guide the way for ships during the D Day landings, I meandered around the tracks and back roads of Skewen before finally ending up on the waters edge alongside the River Neath. Perched in the mud was LV72 – Juno. Built in 1903 by John Crown and Sons in Sunderland this lightship is now ‘rusting and resting’, embedded in the sticky estuary mud and, to be honest, is a sad sight. Having been a lightship for Trinity House she was moored off the Normandy coast on 18th June 1944 and was used to mark the edges of minefields and give safe passage – remaining on station until 27th January 1945. In the spring of 1973 she was sold and after plans for a nightclub conversion failed, she now sits on the bank slowing eroding back into her surroundings.
Disregarding the driving rain, I could not help but notice on my way into work this week that the felling of some mature larch trees had exposed hidden WWII bunkers, pill boxes, trench complexes and anti tank defences near Brecon. Despite the damp and resident amphibious inhabitants they are well worth a visit. Seemingly date stamped 26/8/1940 by the engineers they were built for the Home Guard who manned them round the clock and the combination of anti tank defences and pill boxes were designed to prevent northward movement of any invasion forces – though the Home Guard Officers were issued with weapons they had no communication equipment, so if they spotted an invading force it would have been a long march to the nearest Army Camp to call for reinforcements!