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Second World War

French coal-miners working under German military supervision. They actually came out on strike, and many were shot.

Half a century later: ruins of the German's Atlantic Wall defences along the beaches of the north.

Invasion in 1940
When the "phony war" of 1939 ended with the German army sweeping through Belgium, much of the British and French armies were isolated at Dunkirk - from where they were rescued by a motley collection of boats in the famous evacuation off the beaches - see 'Dunkirk evacuation'.

Millions of refugees from the Nord/Pas-de-Calais fled south, fearing a repetition of the brutal German occupation of the 1914-18 War.

German administration 1940-45
The area of Nord/Pas-de-Calais was administered by the German Command in Brussels as part of Belgium. So ;ong as the war continued, the German powers intended to use French resources and manpower to help them win final victory. At first, it provided the ideal base for kaunching an immediate invasion of Britain - "Operation Sealion" but that was thwarted in the Battle of Britain. In the longer term, they planned to use France as the market garden and playground of Europe.

As the German's launchpad for attacking Britain, north France was littered with military bases, airfields and later rocket launchpads. [see 'V1 and V2 rockets']. Back to top

Meanwhile over a third of French production was forcibly given to Germany, paid for by taxes on the French as "occupation costs". Over a third of France's manpower was employed in the German war effort.

French resistance
Charles de Gaulle issed a "call to arms" to loyal Frenchmen from London: "France has lost the battle, but France has not lost the war!"

In the North particularly, resistance groups were soon actively sabotaging the German war effort and feeding information to the Allies. Once Russia had joined the war, the communists in the coal mining areas were very active. Many were shot when they led a miners strike during the war.

Resistance fighters published a secret newsheet called the "Voix du Nord", which after the war became the region's leading newspaper, with offices in the Grand Place in Lille.

As the fortunes of war turned against the Nazis, they massed thousands of slave labourers to build massive defences - while behind the lines, the Resistance fighters launched a clandestine newspaper, organised sabotage, and fed information to the Allies.

Progress of Allied liberation of northern France and the low countries after D-Day 1944.

D-Day and Liberation
As the fortunes of war turned, the Nazis were led to expect an Allied invasion across the narrowest part of the Channel [see 'Operation Fortitude South - the story of the deception effort']. The German built coastal defences and deployed their forces accordingly.

Once the Caen bridgehead had been secured after the Normandy landings, Allied forces swept across France more quickly than had been expected.

Pockets of German resistance along the coast were by-passed to be dealt with later, as the main advance thrust into Germany. Dunkerque was last to be liberated, only days before the end of the European war in 1945.

The cost of the war
The 1939-45 war was much more destructive to France than the First World War. The nation had lost over a quarter of its wealth to war damage and German requisitioning - compared with about 1/10th lost in 1914-18. Once again, the damage was particularly severe in the north. Battles had been fought through Nord/Pas-de-Calais in 1940 and again in 1944-5, with heavy bombing raids in between.

Transport was left badly disrupted. As in the rest of war-torn Europe, there was a serious shortage of basic necessities such as fuel and food. After the initial hardships, the effort of reconstruction was to launch France into 30 years of growth and prosperity. Production returned to pre-war levels by the late 'forties.

The Route 39-45

A group of museums and historic sites have joined together to offer you a special rate if you join their Association, and show your card on entry. These are:
Blockhaus bunker, Eperlecques: - bunker for assembling V2 rockets -Review
V3 Base Fortress, Mimoyecques
Second World War Museum, Ambleteuse
Atlantic Wall Museum - gun turret at Cap Gris-Nez
War Museum, Calais
+ others in Belgium


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Other Places to visit:
La Coupole - museum of V2 rocket base, with displays on German occupation and resistance.
General de Gaulle Museum - Lille birthplace of wartime leader of the Free French

Related background information
Dunkirk evacuation and the fall of France May 1940
Operation Sealion and the Battle of Britain - August-September 1940
V1 and V2 'vengeance weapons'
Fortitude South - D-Day deception
Dover Patrol: keeping the Channel open for Allied shipping




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