Inside the French submarine Espadon and base Saint-Nazaire

Saint-Nazaire’s German U-boat base still stands, and in it, France's Espadon sub. Here’s a look inside.

Geoffrey Morrison
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
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The massive hulk of the Saint-Nazaire submarine base. Inside are several museums, and across the basin is the submarine Espadon

For the story behind this base and this tour, check out Silent steel and a concrete castle.

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There are 14 pens total. Some are regular docks, some are dry (docks).

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The roof is 26 feet (8 meters) tall with four layers of reinforced concrete, granite, more concrete, and steel. They wanted it impenetrable to aircraft, and given the shape it's still in, after 13 aerial bombing attacks and 70-plus years that goal seems to have been achieved. 

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For decades, the pens and the area around it were either vacant, or just for industrial use. Now the area is well developed, renamed Ville-Port, and there's a cafe, a night club, the museums, and across the street, a mall with restaurants and shops.

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Interior walls

Well, something has to support that massive ceiling and its huge reinforced concrete walls that divide the different pens.

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Parking for giants

It's sort of like a parking garage, except for monster trucks and giants. 

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Today, many of the docks have found new use as... well, docks again. Best-protected rescue craft on Earth.

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Steel reinforced

Bridges get you across several of the docks that aren't in use. The whole facility takes up 39,000 square meters, or 419,793 square feet.

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It required nearly half a million cubic meters of concrete (~16,900,000 cubic feet).   

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What the...

After making my way through a dark and narrow passage between two pens, I exited to this in shock. A massive cruise liner! It took me a moment to realize it was a trick of lighting and mirrors, and was just a small segment. Inside is a separate exhibition called Escal'Atlantic about the many incredible ships of this type built in Saint-Nazaire. 

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Now essentially a public park, with ramp access to the shops across the street, the roof of the base would have been covered in anti-aircraft batteries during the war.

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Today, especially in the hot, still summer air during my visit, it's an eerie and unique space filled with strange and eye-catching photo opportunities.

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The spaces in the concrete let in light at strange angles.

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Future passages

The wet concrete makes for an interesting canvas.

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Being in the shadows for a bit was a welcome respite from the sun. Many of the "roof-above-the-roof" slabs were added later in the war to help protect from ever-more-powerful Allied bombs.

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Concrete view

Walkways allow easy access to most of the roof. There are several art installations to discover as you explore.

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The tower, which I'm standing atop for this photo, has a commanding view of the building and basin. It was built well after the pens themselves.   

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Though looking somewhat like it has been here all along, the radar dome is actually from Berlin's Tempelhof airport and was installed here in 2007. It houses special exhibitions. 

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Fortified lock

Across the Bassin de St Nazaire is what looks like a single sub pen, but is actually a fortified lock.

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Serious garage

Built later in the war to protect submarines as they transited from the estuary to the basin and sub pens. Right now it's home to a submarine, and it's where we're headed next.

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Base sous-marine

A better look at the sheer size of this thing. 300 meters long, or nearly 1,000 feet.

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It took Organisation Todt a little over a year to finish the pens. It's likely at least some, if not all, of the builders were forced labor. 

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Empty lock

Repairs to the old lock between the Bassin de St Nazaire and the Loire estuary. I just found it interesting to see one completely empty of water. 

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Locked view

Inside the fortified lock, looking into the Bassin de St Nazaire and the sub pens. There's a road through the lock, and a narrow sidewalk. On the other side of the road is...

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The Espadon entered service in 1960, after being launched two years earlier.

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Sea ice

She, and her sister ship Marsouin, were the first French submarines to sail under Arctic pack ice, north of 70-degrees latitude.

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She spent over 34,000 hours submerged, and traveled over 360,500 nautical miles in her 25 years of service.

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Speed in silence

Submerged, the Espadon could get up to 33 km/h, or 21 mph.

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Looking forward

The stairs, like on most museum submarines, were added to help visitors get on board. The crew would enter via a ladder. 

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Changing use

Originally the Espadon had two rear torpedo tubes. These were removed in the mid-'60s and replaced with a chamber for combat divers to enter and exit the sub while underwater.

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Hot bunks

The mechanics and electricians slept back here. 18 men in 12 bunks. Most subs of this era had hot bunking.

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The two electric motors put out 5,000 horsepower.

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Engine room

A serious bulkhead headed into the engine room.

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Motor control

Stations to control, among other things, the electrics and electric motors.

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Engine control

Dials and controls for the diesel engines. The original two-stroke seven-cylinder diesels were so loud and ran so hot, it was hazardous for the crew.

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Ear protection

That drinking fountain is original. The temp in here with the engines running could get between 113 and 176 degrees Fahrenheit, or 45 to 80 Celsius. They'd also wear full antinoise helmets.

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New diesels

Not surprisingly, those engines got replaced only a few years after launch. Three new SEMT Pielstick 12 PA4-185 V12 diesels were installed, each producing around 952 hp each. They'd need to run every 5 days for roughly 5 hours to keep the batteries charged.

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Submarines are known as having the best food in the fleet. So does that make the food on a French submarine the best military food on Earth?

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The layout on the Espadon is a bit different from most subs I've toured. There's less of a feeling of "this is ops" as much as it's "here's a bunch of equipment with benches in a hallway." 

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Into the sail

Very few submarines that you can tour have ladders, especially in the middle of the sub. (Health and safety concerns.) But while in the Espadon's ops you can climb up a few rungs to have a look in the sail. The big tube houses one of two periscopes.

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Sonar and acoustic telemetry machines. 

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Plot a course

Plotting table, with radar gear on the right.

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The next compartment is the control room. The two men tasked with driving the sub are facing perpendicular to the direction of travel. Not unique, but a bit odd.

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Rank has privileges

As you'd expect, officers get a bit more space to relax when off duty. 

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Officer's cabin

Their own bunks, too. Mirror cameo by my camera.

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Long cabins

The Espadon has much longer compartments than most subs I've been on. More bunks for the crew here.

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First mates

The "Chambre des Premiers Maîtres" which roughly translates as the cabin for the first mates.

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The majority of the crew slept and lived in in these long compartments. Here with some items and uniforms from the crew. 

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64 crew total: 7 officers, 32 petty officers, 25 quartermasters and sailors.

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Torpedo bay

Though it lost two in its refit, the Espadon still had six torpedo tubes in the bow. Another rack to store torpedoes would have been on the other side.

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For most of its service, the Espadon carried the F17 torpedo, which could be controlled by wire or set for autonomous acoustical homing. 

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Orange you glad it's inside?

I hate sodium vapor lamps.   

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Silent beauty

The Espadon is a great tour, but the best, probably in the world, is a bit farther north. The Redoutable is the only ballistic missile submarine you can tour, and we did a few years ago.

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The Greatest Raid of All

The port of Saint-Nazaire was the location of what's called The Greatest Raid of All, a daring and flat-out incredible attack by the British on the only drydock outside of Germany large enough to repair the Tirpitz and Bismark battleships. The entrance to the Normandie dock, as it's called, is on the left here (it was filled with water during my visit, so not much to photograph). The mid and rear of the the destroyer HMS Campbeltown would have been visible in the center of the frame had this photo been taken that next morning. On the far right is Old Mole jetty, the planned escape route. 

Jeremy Clarkson, of Top Gear and Grand Tour fame, made an excellent BBC documentary about it. Definitely worth watching.

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From the roof of the fortified lock, you can see the art installation called Suite de Triangles, by Felice Varini. This is the only location where they all line up in a row like this. Some triangles, on the other side of the port, look heavily distorted from any other viewpoint. The top of one triangle could be on a completely different building. You can get an idea what it looks like in the Google Maps overview or this short video.

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Sous marin Espadon

If you're fascinated by WWII history, a tour of western France is a must. The sub pens here for sure, with the Espadon as an added bonus, but of course the beaches of Normandy, with the Redoutable as an added bonus. 

The tour of the sub is 10 euros ($11USD/£8.50/AU$15.50), but there are other tours in the area, including Airbus, the shipyards and more, but most require booking well ahead of time.

Check out French naval and art meet in silent steel and a concrete castle for the more about the base and this amazing submarine.

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