The Fortress de Mimoyecques, near Calais: How history could have been so different

A few days ago Jeremy posed the question why is Europe a top destination? The first reason he offered in response was that Europe has been at the centre of some of the greatest battles in history. No matter how one defines greatest, this is surely true – battles have literally raged across the whole continent, and France has experienced more than its fair share. In fact, for anyone interested in the history of warfare, France is one of the best places to visit in Europe.

Jeremy also made the point that there is so much history and culture you could “spend the rest of your life travelling the continent and never learn all there is know … ” Having lived in Normandy for nearly six years now I find this is so true of that part of northern France I explore regularly, let alone the rest of France, or Europe. I frequently travel to and from Calais, and have only recently stumbled upon a World War II monument that I have driven by countless times, a monument that really could have changed the course of history.

One of the tunnels that make up the Fortress de Mimoyecques, and the ‘rail-trucks’ used to remove the chalk from the tunnels (photograph: Sparks68).

The ‘Fortress de Mimoyecques’ is located in a limestone hill not that far from the French entrance to the Channel Tunnel near Calais. This fort comprised a number of subterranean tunnels that were intended to house the Nazi’s ‘Cannon of London’ – the V-3 (Vergeltungswaffe 3). Construction of the fort began in September 1943 in a desperate attempt to stem the tide of Nazi defeat; the V-3 would have been capable of raining bombs down on London – some 165 kms away.

Part of the barrel of the V-3 super-gun, there were to be 25 of these, each 420 feet long (photograph: Late Red).

Slave labour was used to dig the tunnels, and even as the Limestone debris was removed from the tunnels it was painted green so as to prevent the Allied Forces from realising what was going on. Fortunately for the city of London Intelligence Units almost immediately noticed suspicious activity, by comparing reconnaissance photographs taken over a period of time from before construction began. The Allied Forces repeatedly attempted to bomb the fort from November 1943 until August 1944. None of these missions were entirely successful, and the fort was never abandoned, but it was over-run by the Canadians in September 1944.

This year a museum at Mimoyecques was opened on 1 July, which allows visitors to view tunnels in various stages of construction and damage, the remains of guns, a small, scaled replica of the V-3, as well as remains of machinery, rail systems and tools employed by the slaves. There is also a memorial at the site to these slaves and to the airmen lost in action during the various missions to destroy the fort.

For anyone (particularly interested in military history) travelling to or from Calais and needing something to do, the Fortress de Mimoyecques is definitely worth a visit.

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About Thomas Dowson

Hello, I am Thomas Dowson - a freelance writer and archaeologist living in Normandy, France. My field of expertise is prehistoric art - such as the cave paintings in the Dordogne and South Africa. But I am becoming passionately interested in France more generally, and Normandy in particular, and what this country and one of its very well known regions has to offer people with all sorts of tastes and desires. In 2005 I exchanged a university archaeology lecture room for a Bed & Breakfast in Normandy. More recently I started the Archaeology Travel website; sharing my expertise and love of archaeology and travel with others who also want to explore the many different pasts around the World.