La Pallice, France

Enter the wolf pack

Date June 2010
Posted July 2010
Exploring the La Pallice U-boat pens
We've heard plenty about what the Germans did during WW2 that was unsavoury, 'bad form' and just plain nasty. But what did they do that was impressive? As it happens, quite a lot. Few nations matched their engineering prowess and this was only too apparent as their military forces grew in size, armaments became more varied and their weapons developed beyond what many thought was possible. Here at La Pallice on the west coast of France, the occupying forces were issued an order from German Command: build a U-boat base - a big one. It was April 1941.

U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

It's not exactly hard to find on satellite images, or indeed on the ground. Put simply, it's massive. Measuring 195m x 165m and 19m tall, it's anyone's guess just how many tons of concrete were poured between wooden shuttering to create the pens (and also the bomb-proofing of the entrance to the dock). Not the sort to do things by halves, the architects designed the base to withstand bombing from above and attacks from the ground (in fact, so well designed was it in this respect that we found getting into all parts of it a day-long challenge, and that's without being shot at...). On the roof anti-aircraft positions were constructed to provide answering fire in the event of attacks. As it happens La Pallice received a few hits but weathered the storm well - the scars are evident, but relatively insignificant given the 7m thickness of the base's roof.

The location here on the Atlantic coast was naturally a strategic choice. The U-boats were deployed across the ocean to attack the convoys bringing vital supplies to the Allied forces from the US, often operating in so-called 'wolf packs' to increase their own chances of survival. Admirable men fielded both sides of the battle here: the brave crews of the Kriegsmarine submarines and the unsung heroes of the Merchant Navy. The advantage though was strongly held initially by the Germans - in June 1942 for example the Allies lost 173 vessels. In the first six months of that year the German navy only lost 21 U-boats. The significance of this choke-hold was made clear later by Winston Churchill: "the only thing that ever really frightened me was the U-boat peril". In due course the tide would change, helping to reassure the eventual victory of the Allies.

U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

After their deployments the boats would return to base for re-stocking, re-fuelling and maintenance. At La Pallice up to 13 boats could be berthed at the same time, with 3 wet docks and 7 dry ones. The crews could take the opportunity for some well-earned rest (well-earned in that they'd probably just spent countless nights sealed up in an oversized sardine tin below the waves, sharing bunks, avoiding depth charges and being shot at - obviously sinking British and American ships is not something your author considers worthy of merit) and who knows, maybe the next trip would be their last. The shocking statistics after the war revealed that three out of every four U-boat crewmen lost his life. Not a great way to go, even in wartime.

For the four of us in the car it was evident that we'd never had to endure these hardships and whilst we'd each courted death on a number of occasions it was the product of our own stupidity rather than an order from an officer with a Luger. We shambled instead through the supermarche arguing over which bottle of value brand cider to buy, the various flavours of chips and stocked up on cured sausage. Our 'mission' was somewhat less critical and death-defying than those sailed by the U-boat crews of the 1940s, but since our experiences are only relative to those we have already lived through, it was set to provide enough problems, risks and entertainment to keep these four wayward minds occupied.

U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Gaining entry to the pens, which are now unused, took longer than expected. At one point Marshall had to drag himself up two storeys using a collection of plastic-wrapped cables and various gnarly looking metal brackets of unapparent purpose. No sooner had he done this than a dock police car drove past, the remaining three of us receiving questioning stares but they didn't stop. Probably too eager to return to their little grey harbour boat and get smashed on port. In fact, later we were to indulge in more suspicious behaviour clambering about in full view of their vessel, and since nobody appeared on deck one can only assume they were indeed busy intoxicating themselves.

The insides of the base are showing their age, and also their various uses. The French navy used part of the base and spent some time building new walls, partitions and generally messing the internals around. Here and there original Kriegsmarine typography can be found, but more often than not the signage is in French. The pens themselves are in various states with a lot of the wooden walkways busted, rotten or just gone, making their navigation somewhat intrepid, especially considering the jumble of junk floating about in the murky waters. Of note though is what I presume to be a cable-laying boat moored up in one of the pens. Also a few scenes of Das Boot were shot outside the front of the bunker.

U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

By the time we'd finished digging around to see what had been left behind it was getting dark, and we had nowhere to sleep. At this point it would've been wise to agree to sleeping in or on the bunker but instead we returned to the car and spent the next hour and a half investigating nearby beaches. Verdict was we'd either be washed away, rained out or eaten by dogs. Eventually we returned to La Rochelle and made do with the roof of the pens, falling asleep below modest shelter once the alcohol stocks had been exhausted. Thunder and lightning ensued but sheltered below the huge concrete beams (added to the roof to break up the Allied bombs before they hit the main roof slabs) and with a pair of jeans as a makeshift matress, it was hard to be anything but content.

Props to sh00, Marc, dsankt and Marshall. More photos below for your enjoyment...



U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


U-Boat pens, La Pallice, France (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net
6m ways, choose one...
Map of the World Marker background imageMap marker image

Further reading...


This story is tagged with...


Also involved...