Light show in a disused WWII submarine base

Last summer I visited a light show featuring Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork. The show is in a WWII submarine base in Bordeaux and it reopens on 3rd February 2023

The base has been an ugly blot on the landscape to the north of the town since the war. It was so well built it has been impossible to demolish.

Now it is being put to good use. The light show opens one’s eyes to another way to view art. Water inside the hangars reflects the art on the walls adding another dimension to the display.  I love art galleries but for those who don’t I think the show might tempt them to visit a gallery to see some of the fabulous paintings that inspired it in real life.

Bordeaux WWII submarine base

Part of the show is about the building of the submarine base.  I am fascinated by this period in Bordeaux history and one walk I take talks about life there during the Nazi occupation.

The first base was built for Italian submarines at Bacalan. Italy became an ally of Germany in 1940.

The Italian base was close to where the Cité du Vin is now. This is the Bassin à Flot No 1. There was a dry dock space there already which could be used for repairs. The submarines would often need to be repaired after time at sea.

It was known as Betasom by the Italians. Beta or B for Bordeaux and som short for sommergibili – the Italian for submarines.

On 8th and 9th December 1940 the Betasom was bombed by the RAF. After which the installations at Betasom were camouflaged. There is nothing left of the base in Bassin No 1.

A second submarine base, far more modern and substantial was built as a bunker for German U-boats between October 1942 and 1943 at the Bassins à Flot No 2.

There are 11 hangars and the roof is 7m thick. The reinforced concrete of this base has survived bombing raids and attempts to demolish it.

It was designed by a Nazi consortium, Organization Todt owned by Fritz Todt and built by forced labour. In this part of France many of the workers were Spanish. They had been on the losing side during the Spanish Civil War and fled to France only to be interned by the French then used as slave labour by the Nazis when they took control.

Conditions were harsh and many men died during the construction. For example, some fell while ramming the wet concrete into the metal reinforcement frames. Their bodies were not recovered. One of the survivors, Carlos Riuz-Garcia wrote a book called, Lettre à un Amis about his time here. I can thoroughly recommend it.   

Why were there submarines in Bordeaux?

The submarines were to block convoys from the US getting to the allies and to protect convoys from Japan bringing goods for Germany. Bordeaux was far away from the ports blockaded by the allies in northern France. A major import needed for the war effort was natural rubber. It came from Brazil, a neutral state until January 1942. Then Brazil joined the allies. The other source of rubber was the far east, especially Japan.

Book tickets to the submarine base light shows


For Bordeaux under the Nazi Occupation walking tours and London spy tours


About the author: Gail Jones

Tourist Guide

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