British General Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army group was responsible for liberating most of northeastern France in the autumn of 1944.
After the Battle of Normandy, US General Eisenhower directed Montgomery’s 21st Army Group – consisting of the British Second Army and First Canadian Army – to move north into Belgium, with the objective of taking Antwerp and the River Scheldt. On the way, the two armies had to clear northeastern France, including the Channel coast. Dieppe, site of a military debacle for the Allies in 1942, was captured on 1 September 1944 after the German garrison had withdrawn.
A far more important port, Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine, proved a far greater challenge. It was liberated on 12 September after a massive RAF bombing campaign, described as “a storm of iron and fire.” The Allies refused to evacuate the town, killing an estimated two thousand people. Le Havre was near-destroyed.
Further north, Montgomery’s troops dealt with resistance in the Pas de Calais region, the strip of coast nearest to England. In 1940, Hitler had dreamt of launching an invasion across the English Channel to finish off his last enemy, but “Operation Sea Lion” never took place. Instead, Pas de Calais was heavily fortified, both to deter an inbound invasion and as a base from which to bombard London with Hitler’s new long-range weapons, the V1 and V2.
In the early autumn of 1944, British and Canadian troops liberated the Channel ports of Boulogne (22 September) and Calais (1 October). On 15 January 1945, the first civilian train for five years ran from London to Paris via the ferry to Calais. Dunkirk – its name still resonating in British ears for its connotations of defeat and military resurrection – held out until the end of the war.
Western, southwestern and central France
One of the Third Reich’s seven biggest constructions, this fortified gun battery still looks across the Channel at the enemy coast. Originally it had four 380mm guns concealed in casemates, each capable of firing projectiles to a distance of 42km – easily reaching the coast of England. A crew of eighteen men and four officers was needed to operate each gun.
The battery was bombed by the RAF and then stormed by Nova Scotia Highlanders on 29 September 1944. No.2 gun fired a last wild shot at Dover before the assembly was surrendered at 10.30am. Today, the battery is a war museum on three levels. Unique in Europe, a 280mm railway gun is stationed outside, a monstrous 35m in length.
In 1943, Adolf Hitler decided to destroy London using new weapons. To this end, he ordered five “special constructions” in the Pas de Calais, but all of them were bombed before they could be put into use. The largest of the lot is La Coupole of Helfaut, which has a concrete dome 72m in diameter and 5m thick over what was to be the largest V2 rocket launch pad ever constructed.
Of all the World War II museums in northern France, La Coupole is one of the best, with a labyrinth of 7km of galleries to explore. As you walk around the site of the intended V2 launch pad, individual, multilingual headphones tell you the story of the occupation of northern France, about the use of prisoners as slave labour, and the technology and ethics of the first liquid-fuelled rocket – advanced by Hitler and later developed for the space race by the Soviets, French and Americans. Among the exhibits are an authentic V1 and V2 (restored by a local company). Four excellent films cover all aspects of La Coupole.
Another of the “special constructions” that was built in the Pas de Calais, Eperlecques was planned as a launch site for V2 flying bombs, but never came into operation. Today, visitors are guided around the exhibits – including an authentic V1 launch pad – by a number of talking “sound points”.
From spring 1943 until the late summer of 1944, the Germans used forced labour to build this secret base for deploying their “supergun”, usually referred to as the V3 or the “canon de Londres”. Had it been completed, the guns at Mimoyecques would have been collectively capable of firing 1500 shells a day across the English Channel. On 6 July the fortress was hit by lethal Tallboy bombs dropped by the RAF. It was stormed and taken by the Canadians on 5 September, before it was operational.
After the abortive Dieppe raid Hitler ordered the construction of a western command post from which to co-ordinate the defence of France in the event of an invasion. Much of this complex of 475 bunkers is still intact, but can only be visited on a guided tour lead by enthusiasts of the Association de Sauvegarde du W2. Shortly after D-Day Hitler visited Wolfsschlucht II, the first time he had come to France since 1940. When a malfunctioning V1 flying bomb landed not far from Margival, he cut his visit short and hurried back to Germany.
Top image: Wolfsschlucht II bunkers © arenysam/Shutterstock