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French naval history and art meet in silent steel and a concrete castle

The French submarine Espadon and the U-boat pens of Saint-Nazaire represent some incredible WWII and underwater history. Here's how they look up close.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read
Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

I'd seen countless pictures of Saint-Nazaire's submarine base, but in person it was even more impressive. The sharp lines and structural bulk would be interesting on their own even if it weren't a World War II relic. Even though the industrial and commercial area around the base is entirely modern, the heavy brow of the base's roof looms over the street and is unmistakable. 

Time and weather have tried for decades to do what the Allies could not, but other than mild discoloration and a few chips at the corners, it seems transported intact from the past. I bet it looks the same in another 75 years.

Built during the Second World War by the Germans using forced labor, it's an incredible piece of engineering, though it can never escape that history. Today it has been repurposed, deemed far too costly to dismantle. Several museums and art installations fill the cavernous space. 

Across the Bassin de St. Nazaire is what looks like a smaller version of the base, with similar construction and anachronistic aesthetics. It was once a fortified lock to shield submarines as they passed from the Loire estuary into the protected basin. Inside is a sub from a different era: A Cold War French patrol submarine. The Espadon, launched in 1960, traveled over 360,500 nautical miles in her 25 years of service and is now a museum ship you can tour. Which of course we did. Check out the gallery below for what this incredible base and submarine look like inside and out.

Inside the French submarine Espadon and base Saint-Nazaire

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Even before the war, Saint-Nazaire was an important industrial and ship-building town. Located on France's Atlantic coast, but protected by its location up the Loire estuary, many famous ships, such as the SS Normandie, were built in here. After the Germans captured the port, they quickly started converting it to a submarine base. One of five such bases in Occupied France, the Saint-Nazaire U-boat pens were completed in mid-1942. There are 14 docks, some dry, some wet. In its day the base also had repair facilities, ammunition storage, places for sailors to eat and sleep while waiting for their ships to be repaired or restocked and more.

Now, this massive building houses a night club, a cafe, art installations and a museum, to name just a few.


Inside the submarine Espadon. From my Instagram

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Across the basin, in the fortified lock, sits the French sub Espadon. The first of France's post-war sub designs, it was a huge leap in technology. Faster, able to remain submerged longer, and only requiring a short time near the surface in order to recharge, they were state of the art in their day. Her life as a museum ship began in in the mid-1980s. Though poorly lit in its fortified cave, the Espadon is still an excellent example of a design that's rather different from most submarines you can tour.

'The Greatest Raid of All'

Saint-Nazaire was a massive threat to the Allies during WWII. This was of course due to the heavily fortified sub pens, but also for something far larger: the Normandy dock. Built in the 1930s for cruise ship construction, it was the only drydock outside of Germany able to repair the massive battleships Tirpitz and Bismark. If the drydock was destroyed, these ships would have to go past Britain and the RAF to be repaired. Taking it out became vital, especially after the sinking of the Bismark,since she was headed to Saint-Nazaire for repairs before she was sunk. But being well inside occupied France, plus surrounded by dozens of anti-aircraft guns and torpedo and submarine nets, this seemed impossible.

The outrageous British plan, involving an obsolete destroyer packed with explosives, not only succeeded, but took the drydock out of commission until well after the war. It's known in military circles as The Greatest Raid of All, and it's incredible. Jeremy Clarkson, of Top Gear and Grand Tour fame, made an excellent documentary about it.

Concrete and time

Today, Saint-Nazaire is a quiet port town, but still home to shipbuilding. Aircraft too, with an Airbus factory located here. The massive sub pens remain as relics of the past that will likely to survive far into the future. Too difficult and expensive to remove, they remain a reminder of history, much like the bunkers a bit north, on the Normandy coast.

But I suppose it shouldn't be surprising how much use these anachronistic buildings get. They're supremely overbuilt for a nightclub or private dock, but then, why not use them for that?

As a history buff, not to mention a fan of submarines and brutal concrete buildings, the Saint-Nazaire sub pens ticked a bunch of boxes for me. Being a few hours south of the beaches of Normandy, it likely and understandably gets overlooked by many. But if you have the time, it's a fascinating place to visit.

The Espadon is open most days in the spring, summer, and autumn, and closed most days in the winter. Tickets are 10 euro ($11USD/£8.50/AU$15.50). It's free to walk around the U-boat pens themselves, but it's worth checking out the website for the area as there are tours of the nearby ship and aircraft manufacturing, though you'll need to book in advance. And if you're headed to western France, definitely check out the Redoutable, which is the only ballistic missile sub you can tour. Or if you're not headed that way, check out the photos in the gallery above.

As well as covering audio and display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips and more.

Also check out Budget Travel for Dummies, his travel book, and his bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines. You can follow him on Instagram and YouTube