German U Boats & the Battle of the Atlantic: Brest, Lorient, St Nazaire, La Rochelle & Bordeaux U Boat Bases
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During World War II, U-boat warfare was the major component of the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted the duration of the war. Germany had the largest submarine fleet in World War II, since the Treaty of Versailles had limited the surface navy of Germany to six battleships (of less than 10,000 tons each), six cruisers, and 12 destroyers. Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”
The U-boat bases in France were the home port of the most famous U-boat flottillas from 1940 to 1944 :
– Bordeaux U-boat base : 12th flottilla (+ Italian submarines)
– La Rochelle, La Pallice U-boat base : 3rd flottilla
– St-Nazaire U-boat base : 7th and 6th flottillas
– Lorient U-boat base : 2nd and 10th flottillas
– Brest U-Boat base : 1st and 9th flottillas
Guests are met by MHT at Bordeaux airport at 09:00 or slightly earlier if staying at a nearby airport hotel. We drive the short distance to the first of our U Boat Bases, Bordeaux. Here we start our story by exploring the background and need for the protective buildings as well as the manufacturing designs, processes and departments involved in their construction. No two were the same so guests are taught the overall concepts as well as the individual differences at each. Here we also give an introduction to the Battle of the Atlantic and the U Boats themselves.
We then make our way to La Rochelle for the 2nd of the 5 bases. After a comfort and snack stop on the way we arrive at the outskirts of La Rochelle for the pens at the commercial port of La Pallice. All 5 pens currently have different uses and we tell the story at each so as to make the most of the access possible at each. One is pretty much abandoned, one is in a sealed commercial port, another is inside a military base but 2 are very accessible to visitors. After discussing and viewing La Pallice we then head to our hotel for the first night, a lovely hotel on the edge of the park which is just a short stroll into the Old Town. We check in then head to the Admiralty Bunker in the centre of town where we really get a feel of what life was like when the Kriegsmarine were at La Rochelle. This old fashioned exhibition is a wonderful little private museum who are to be highly commended for their rememberance of the occupation, the resistance and of course the presence of the Kriegsmarine and U Boats. The wonderful film Das Boot has an opening scene set in the caberet room of a hotel – and this museum is housed in this former hotel. A great connection. We then head back to the hotel arriving c17:30. For those that wish to join us we dine in a lovely little French restaurant in the Old Town at 19:30.
After breakfast we leave for the 3rd U Boat base which is housed at Saint Nazaire. We are able to get up on top of the huge concrete structure which affords close up views of the roof and it’s structural defences against Allied bombs. The panoramic view of the port also provides an opportunity to give guests a brief overview of Operation Chariot: the Greatest Raid of All, the Raid on Saint Nazaire where the Commandos and Royal Navy stormed the port and rammed the gates at the Normandie Dock with a ship which later exploded on a time delay and effectively put Europe’s largest dry dock out of action for the rest of the war and denied the Germans an Atlantic dock for their great Battleships. We also get to see a protected/bunker U Boat lock before making our way inside the base to look at individual pens at ground level. We are able to get up really close and guide guests around right up to the waters edge at this impressive building. After a lunch stop at our regular quayside restaurant with impressive views of the front of the pens we then head to Lorient, the 4th and largest U Boat Base on the French Atlantic coast. We visit the base at Lorient twice. On the afternoon of the 2nd day and show guests the layout of the 3 huge buildings and give the background of the base and then we return the next morning for more exploring and story telling. We then drive up to Brest where we stay for the 2nd night. After we check for those that wish we meet for dinner and taxi down to the quayside to dine at a wonderfully traditional French seafood restaurant (who also have vegetarian and meat options).
We head to the 5th and final base, Brest. From an elevated position about the Naval base we discuss the “Channel Dash” by the German ships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. We then contiue on the short distance where, at the foot of the cliff that houses the French Naval Academy (whose buildings were requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine) we discuss the U Boat facilities at Brest and the efforts by the Allied air forces to disrupt the base functioning. We then drive back down the coast to Lorient to see the HQ building requisitioned by Donitz and used as his Atlantic base just accross the estuary from Lorient U Boat base. Our last stop of the day is an in depth walk around the Lorien U Boat base, the largest of the bases. We see all 3 huge Keroman buildings as well as 2 examples of the original U Boat Bunkers and the remains of the U Boat turntable facility. This is the largest and most accessible of all the bases and a fitting way to end our tour before driving down to Nantes airport arriving mid afternoon for guests to make late afternoon flights back to the UK, if required.
Over the 3 days we see all 5 U Boat bases, explain and discuss their design and manufacture, explore their layouts, their defences and tell stories of the men and women that worked their as well as those of the Resistance who paid for their bravery with their lives. We set all this against the backdrop of the Battle of the Atlantic: as an island nation the United Kingdom was highly dependent on imported goods. Britain required more than a million tons of imported material per week in order to be able to survive and fight. In essence, the Battle of the Atlantic was a tonnage war: the Allied struggle to supply Britain and the Axis attempt to stem the flow of merchant shipping that enabled Britain to keep fighting. We discuss the role of those who served and fought on both sides and remember the men of the air forces who lost their lives fighting the U Boats whose own attrition rate was 75% or 30,000 lost out of 40,000 who fought. The U boat crews had the highest percentage casualty rate of any area of the armed forces of all sides.