As we’ve demonstrated time and again on this blog, our planet is littered with the remarkable remains of a conflict that ended over seven decades ago. World War Two, as its name suggests, sucked in just about every corner of the globe, and is considered to be the deadliest conflict in history. Even when victory was finally declared, monuments to this terrible war remained, in the form of abandoned military bases, installations, equipment and other wartime ruins. Fast forward to 2016, and many of them are still there. Here are 10 impressive military relics of the Second World War that linger on in the modern day.
The Wartime Sub Pens of Saint-Nazaire, France
The Third Reich’s occupation of France was such a brutal, soul-searching time for the French that you’d think all traces of it had been destroyed at the war’s conclusion. That wasn’t the case. Across the French Republic, relics of those dark days endure. One such ruin is the abandoned submarine pen complex of Saint-Nazaire.
During the era of the Vichy government, Nazi Germany used France’s long coastline to launch multiple attacks on Allied ships. U-Boats were sent out of Saint-Nazaire, the problem soon becoming so severe that British commandos targeted the base in a 1942 raid which destroyed the dry dock. When the Germans were finally forced out of France, the concrete submarine pens were considered too much hassle to destroy. Instead, they were left to decay, an eerie relic best forgotten.
Eventually, though, another usage was found for Saint-Nazaire’s abandoned sub pens. In 1994 a conversion process began that saw the old U-Boat base turned into a complex of museums, commemorating forever the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
Llanberis Bomb Store, Wales
Llanberis was once the site of one of the most spectacular errors in RAF history. A deep underground bomb store, it was home to 18,000 tons of bombs when a structural defect caused the roof to collapse. Fourteen percent of the RAF’s total stock of bombs was lost beneath an avalanche of debris. Although most were eventually recovered, the disaster very nearly robbed the nation of much-needed wartime munitions.
In the aftermath of this collapse, Llanberis was effectively abandoned. Yet it continued to be a thorn in the government’s side. Up until the mid-1970s, bombs were still being uncovered and disposed of at the fenced-off site, each one with the potential to cause large amounts of damage. Finally cleared of dangerous material in 1975, the surviving sections of the abandoned Llanberis bomb store have stood empty ever since, a minor secret hidden beneath the rolling Welsh hills.
Complex Osówka (Project Riese), Poland
Project Riese remains one of the most peculiar mysteries of the Third Reich. A vast underground complex of wartime tunnels and bases, stretching out beneath the countryside of modern-day Poland, it claimed the lives of thousands of prisoners drafted in to finish it. Yet its ultimate purpose remains a mystery. Was it a grand bunker for the Fuhrer? A secret underground munitions factory? Something else entirely? Opinion remains divided.
Yet huge traces of it still remain, perhaps most-notably at Complex Osówka. A selection of vast tunnels hewn from rock by imprisoned Jews, Poles, Greeks and Hungarians, the abandoned underground complex stretches over a mind-boggling area. Great concrete buildings rise up. Vast chambers have been excavated deep below the earth. Walking through Osówka in the 21st century is a haunting experience, one that takes you back to a much-darker time in human history.
La Coupole, France
As World War Two reached its brutal endgame, German forces lost their last vestiges of sanity or rational planning. Funds and energy were pored not into securing territory, but into wreaking vengeance on the countries that had dared defy them. Flying bombs known as V-1s were sent in waves across the English channel, followed by supersonic rockets that impacted into London with horrifying force. The ‘vengeance rocket’ campaign alone killed 10,000 people in Britain, mostly in the capital. La Coupole in France is perhaps one of the most significant monuments to this bloodbath still standing.
The first underground missile silo in history, La Coupole was a massive concrete bunker from which terrifying V-2 rockets could be launched at Britain’s distant shores. Thankfully, though, it never got to achieve its intended function. Allied forces caught wind of the plan, and bombed the unfinished structure with such ferocity that it was ultimately abandoned. Had they failed, the total number of V-2 deaths in Britain could have been far higher. Since repurposed as a museum, La Coupole today is a reminder of how far Hitler was willing to go to strike those who defied him.
Derelict V-1 Flying Bomb Launch Pad, Germany
In an anonymous stretch of German woodland lie these unassuming relics of the Third Reich’s military machine. Although the pictures may look like nothing more than a few overgrown lumps of concrete, these ruins were once at the forefront of Hitler’s psychological terror tactics. It was from here that multiple V-1 flying bombs were launched at Britain. Known as Doodlebugs, these early-vengeance rockets would emit a loud drone as they sailed over London, before finally silencing as their engines cut out and they plummeted to earth.
The forerunner of the V-2, the V-1 was less technologically-advanced, but mentally devastating. While the number killed in V-1 attacks was still in the thousands, it was the long silence as the engines cut out that seared itself into people’s memories. For those living in reach of the Doodlebugs, round-the-clock terror was the default mental setting. Yet all this terror and misery came to aught. The Nazis were defeated, and these V-1 launch pads left to slowly decay.
(Image: German Federal Archives)
Abandoned Japanese Submarine on Kiska, Alaska
The story of the United States in World War Two is often one of death far from home, and misery in foreign lands. While American POWs suffered terribly, there’s none of the history that European countries have of occupation or the heavy bombardment of civilians. Almost. It’s often forgotten that the Imperial Japanese forces managed to occupy several of Alaska’s outlying islands. On desolate Kiska, you can still even find ruins of their time as successful invaders of American soil.
This abandoned Japanese mini submarine is almost all that remains of the forces that once set-up base here. Intentionally disabled by Imperial forces to stop it falling into Allied hands, it has sat in this same spot for over 60 years, slowly turning to rust. Remarkably, large parts of it, such as the coning tower, are still intact, even as vegetation creeps inside and takes over.
Abandoned Ashley Walk Bombing Range, England
One of Britain’s newest National Parks, the New Forest is a stretch of serene woodland in England’s Southeast region, a place of rolling fields, dense forest, and wild ponies playing in long grasses. Yet just beneath the surface of this playful idyll lie the scars of something much darker. It was here, in 1940, that the RAF established Ashley Walk Bombing Range. Before too long, they were testing enormous Grand Slam earthquake bombs on the fringes of unsuspecting villages.
Five thousand acres were set aside for this manic series of mega-explosions, designed to quickly help the RAF catch up with Luftwaffe technology. Day and night, munitions were dropped on the landscape, developing a new type of weapon that would take the fight deep into the German heartland. Although the passage of time has slowly covered up most of the craters and practice structures used for targeting, traces of them (including giant concrete directional arrows) are still visible beneath this tranquil national park – a strange counterpoint to the peaceful landscape all around.
Wrecked Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter, Pagan Island, Northern Marianas
A desolate, mountainous island jutting from the Pacific in the Northern Marianas archipelago, picturesque Pagan Island today looks like one of the loneliest places imaginable. Yet its eerie silence and brooding volcano hide a peculiar little secret. In World War Two, this blasted landscape was home to a large Imperial Japanese Navy garrison. Rusted wreckage of their years there still litters the island, a testament to how active this tiny place once was. Among the abandoned wartime military relics is the wreck of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero pictured above.
Looking at pictures of Pagan now, it’s hard to fully comprehend the horrors visited upon it less than one lifetime ago. It was Pagan that the US succeeded in completely cutting off, leading to a horrific situation as Japanese commanders allowed their men to starve to death rather than surrender. When the island eventually fell, much of it was a scarred ruin, damaged by sustained bombing and sporadic firefights. Yet Mother Nature soon fought back, subsuming the destruction beneath a lush wave of green.
Whale Head Chain Home Radar Station, Orkney, Scotland
(Image: J M Briscoe)
Not all abandoned military structures from World War Two are ruins of weaponry and places of destruction. Some had a much more defensive nature, such as the remains of these old concrete radar stations on the Orkney Islands. Great, gloomy bunkers that rise out of the green landscape, these imposing wartime buildings were once the last line of defence in Britain’s battle to stave off German bombers.
(Image: J M Briscoe)
It’s easy to forget now, but the working radar wasn’t demonstrated until 1935. By then, the clouds of war were gathering on the horizon, and the UK had no effective means to locate incoming German bombers (save for the Observer Corps). In the years that followed, engineers were scrambled to build as many radar stations as possible, in a race against time before the war inevitably kicked off. It wasn’t until 1939 that Britain was finally enclosed within a radar chain for detecting incoming aircraft, of which the Whale Head station was an important link.
Although little remains to commemorate the abandoned wartime station’s role today, the buildings themselves still survive; low squat structures, calmly turning to dust beneath the Orkney skies.
Wrecked B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber, Papua New Guinea
(Image: Alf Gillman)
If you need any more proof that World War Two truly was a global conflict, a quick look at some of the relics on Papua New Guinea should do the trick. A poor, distant country that rarely flits across the minds of people in the West, it was nonetheless the site of fierce fighting between US and Japanese forces. Some of this came in the form of aerial battles, such as that which cause this B-17 Flying Fortress to make a crash landing on a hillside there.
Shot down over Black Cat Pass, the B-17 was forced into an emergency landing on its way to attack a Japanese convoy. Under the control of 1st Lt. Raymond S. Dau. of Arlington, Virginia, it made a rough landing before skidding to a halt in an area of open grassland. Incredibly, most of the crew survived – only radio operator Robert Albright was killed – and though broken in half amidships, the plane mostly remained intact. Since then, the abandoned B-17 Flying Fortress has become one of the region’s many abandoned military relics of World War Two. It’s now an offbeat tourist destination, earning the spooky nickname ‘the Gray Ghost’.