Pottering southwards from Dunkerque on our French odyssey this summer, we take the opportunity to revisit a memorable tourist attraction near St Omer.
La Couple is a remarkable structure: a domed, semi-underground cavern that would serve well as a film set for the lair for a James Bond villain. But it was the real life setting of a far greater horror. It’s a Nazi military bunker, built to house and launch the revolutionary V2 bombs on London.
The museum has a particular significance for me. The London suburb in which I spent my childhood was a target for V2 bombs. I remember my grandma telling me that the most frightening thing about them was when they went silent: that meant they were about to hit the ground.
My eight year old daughter Laura has just finished a school topic about World War II. She and her classmates enjoyed it so much that they did not want the term to end. We’re hoping the museum will complement her topic nicely, but I quickly realise that its displays are more horrific than I had remembered.
Fortunately some of the significance goes over Laura’s head. She laughs at the spectacle of a slide show projected on a pocked and pitted rough brick wall, thinking it makes a funny cinema screen. It’s actually a reconstruction of a squad’s wall against which many French citizens met their death. She looks askance at a coarse stripey suit in a glass case: it offends her developing sense of fashion. I don’t want to explain that someone may have died in this suit: it’s the uniform of a concentration camp prisoner.
Watching films of French refugees heading south on foot, pushing sparse possessions in handcarts and wheelbarrows, I wonder what it would have been like if we’d been part of that procession. What would Laura have wanted to take with her? She’s not good at travelling light. Seven cuddly toys have somehow stowed away in the camper van this holiday, although I’d told her to bring only two.
Then I remember an assignment she did at school. Her class had to plan what they’d have taken in their suitcases,had they been evacuees. No doubt many of them will have included modern luxuries such as ipods and XBoxes. Not so Laura. She thoughtfully showed her favourite cuddly toy (so she’d have something to comfort her at night), a notebook and pen (in case she got bored), and her diabetes test kit. She drew a neat and accurate illustration of the lancets, test strips and a blood glucose monitor that we use many times a day to manage her Type 1 diabetes.
I realise with a start that to be among those French refugees would almost certainly have sentenced Laura to death, not from Nazi atrocities, but from her diabetes. Her complex medical needs, such as refrigeration for her insulin, and supplies for her high-tech insulin pump, could never have been met on such a journey.
Suddenly Gordon and I find ourselves making excuses to leave the museum before she is ready to go. As we march across the car park back to the safety of our camper van, I hug my daughter a little tighter, patting the test kit in my handbag for reassurance. La Coupole is indeed an extraordinary monument, but as it recedes into the shadows behind us, I do not for a moment glance back.