The Nazis’ Atlantic wall that failed to prevent D-day

Fearing an allied invasion of occupied Europe, Adolf Hitler in 1942 ordered the building of a 5,000km (3,100 mile) coastal defence system studded with bunkers, gun emplacements, tank traps and other obstacles.

More than 20 million cubic metres of concrete and 1.2 million tonnes of steel went into building thousands of fortifications linked by barbed wire along the Atlantic and North Sea shores, from France, through Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark to Norway. More than 300,000 workers of all nationalities worked on the French part alone, some of them prisoners press-ganged into labour but also hard-up people desperate for work or German factory workers. Entire communities were forced off their land to make way for Hitler’s biggest defence project, which took two years to build.

  • A blockhaus from the Atlantic wall built between mountain and ocean at Eggum, Lofoten, northern Norway.

In the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, thousands of homes, seven schools, three churches and two hospitals were demolished in the name of defending “fortress Europe”.

In 1944, with an allied invasion appearing imminent, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was entrusted with boosting the defences.

The allies had managed to dupe the Nazis into thinking that they were planning a landing on France’s north coast, near Calais, which meant they had left long stretches of the coast wide open for invasion, including what would become the Normandy landing beaches.

Rommel rushed to station more than 2,000 tanks, assault cannons and tank destroyers along the Normandy coastline, including “Czech hedgehogs” – spiky steel anti-tank obstacles – and wooden poles nicknamed “Rommel’s asparagus” used to try prevent gliders and paratroops from landing. More than 5 million mines were planted along the beaches. But it was too little too late.

On 6 June 1944, 156,000 allied soldiers punched a hole in the defences of 80,000 German soldiers. The US suffered heavy losses, especially on Omaha beach, where its soldiers found themselves trapped on the narrow beach beneath high cliffs of sand and stone. Despite the challenges, the British, French, Americans and Canadians took just days to establish a beachhead in Normandy, which they had used to land 800,000 troops and more than 100,000 vehicles by the end of June.

Now, remnants of the Atlantic wall remain scattered along the coast of Europe but many have been swallowed by the sand or sunk into the sea. The Dutch government in 2014 launched an annual “bunker day” when the walls of the fortifications are thrown open to the public.

Some have been converted into museums, as at Batz-sur-Mer in France, at Ostend, Belgium and Noordwijk in the Netherlands.

Now, remnants of the Atlantic wall remain scattered along the coast of Europe but many have been swallowed by the sand or sunk into the sea. The Dutch government in 2014 launched an annual “bunker day” when the walls of the fortifications are thrown open to the public.

Some have been converted into museums, as at Batz-sur-Mer in France, at Ostend, Belgium and Noordwijk in the Netherlands.

In the northern French city of Cherbourg, graffiti artists have transformed one bunker into a spaceship, while in the Brittany village of Saint-Pabu another has been renovated and turned into an Airbnb rental.

The wall proved woefully inadequate in the face of the planning that went into the D-day landings. Within 11 months, Germany had surrendered.

The Guardian

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