The Atlantic Wall (German: Atlantikwall) was an extensive system of coastal defense and fortifications built by Nazi Germany between 1942 and 1944 along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia as a defense against an anticipated Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe from Great Britain during World War II.
Hitler ordered the construction of the fortifications in 1942. Almost a million French workers were drafted to build it. The wall was frequently mentioned in Nazi propaganda, where its size and strength were usually exaggerated. The fortifications included colossal coastal guns, batteries, mortars, and artillery, and thousands of German troops were stationed in its defenses. When the Allies eventually invaded the Normandy beaches in 1944, most of the defenses were stormed within hours. Today, ruins of the wall exist in all of the nations where it was built, although many structures have fallen into the ocean or have been demolished over the years.
Simultaneously, the term Festung Europa was being used by Nazi propaganda, namely to refer to Hitler’s and the Wehrmacht’s plans to fortify the whole of occupied Europe, in order to prevent invasion from the British Isles. These measures included the construction of the Atlantic wall, along with reorganization of the Luftwaffe for air defense. This use of the term Fortress Europe was subsequently adopted by correspondents and historians in the English language to describe the military efforts of the Axis powers at defending the continent from the Allies.
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World War II in Europe began on 1 September 1939, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. Two days later, the UK and France declared war on Germany. Poland’s geographical location, however, prevented the Allies from intervening directly. Four weeks into the attack, the Germans had successfully occupied Poland.
Less than a month after this victory, Adolf Hitler issued a directive stating that Germany must be ready for an offensive through France and the Low Countries. However, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German high command; OKW) was convinced that preparations would take at least until the following year. After furious arguments, Hitler reluctantly agreed to wait. In May 1940, three massive German army groups overran France and the Low Countries in little more than six weeks.
Prior to the Atlantic Wall decision, following a number of commando raids, on 2 June 1941 Adolf Hitler asked for maps of the Channel Islands. These were provided next day and by 13 June Hitler had made a decision. Ordering additional men to the Islands and having decided the defences were inadequate, lacking tanks and coastal artillery, the Organisation Todt (OT) was instructed to undertake the building of 200-250 strongpoints in each of the larger islands. The plan was finalised by the OT and submitted to Hitler. The original defence order was reinforced with a second dated 20 October 1941, following a Fuhrer conference on 18 October to discuss the engineers assessment of requirements. Referring to the “permanent fortification” of the Islands to make an impregnable fortress to be completed within 14 months. Festungspionierkommandeur XIV was created to command the project of fortifying the Channel Islands.
It was six months later on 23 March 1942 that Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 40, which called for the creation of an “Atlantic Wall”. He ordered naval and submarine bases to be heavily defended. Fortifications remained concentrated around ports until late in 1943, when defences were increased in other areas. This decision required the army engineers and the OT to organise quickly. Massive supplies of cement, steel reinforcing and armour plate would be required and everything would need to be transported.
Nazi propaganda claimed that the wall stretched from the cape of Norway down to the Spanish border.
The Regelbau (standard build) system used books of plans for each of over 600 approved types of bunker and casemate, each having a specific purpose, having been updated as enemy constructions were overrun and examined, even testing some to destruction for effectiveness. They incorporated standard features, such as an entrance door at right angles, armoured air intake, 30-millimetre (1.2 in) steel doors, ventilation and telephones, internal walls being lined with wood, and an emergency exit system. There were over 200 standardised armour parts.
The standardisation greatly simplified the manufacture of equipment, the supply of materials and the budgetary and financial control of the construction as well as the speed of planning for construction projects.
To offset shortages, equipment from French and other occupied armies were incorporated in the defences, casemates designed for non-German artillery, anti tank and machine guns and the use of turrets from obsolete tanks in tobrukstand pill boxes
Organisation Todt (OT), formed in 1933, had designed the Siegfried Line during the prewar years along the Franco-German border. OT was the chief engineering group responsible for the design and construction of the wall’s major gun emplacements and fortifications.
The OT supplied supervisors and labour as well as organising supplies, machinery and transport to supplement the staff and equipment of construction companies, many of them were German however construction companies in occupied counties bid for contracts. Companies could apply for OT work or could be conscripted. Companies failing to complete their work on time, which was always possible as the OT controlled the material and manpower of each firm, could find themselves closed down, or more likely fined, or taken over or merged with another firm to make a more efficient larger unit, successful firms however could make attractive profits.
The OT obtained quotes for necessary works and signed contracts with each construction company setting out the price and terms of the contract, such as bonus payments for efficiency, including the wage rates and bonus payments for OT workers (which depended on their nationality and skill). There could be several construction companies working on each site.
Labour comprised skilled volunteers, engineers, designers and supervisors, who were paid and treated well, second came volunteer workers, often skilled technicians, such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and metal workers, again these workers were paid, took holidays and were well treated. Next came unskilled forced labour, paid very little and treated quite harshly, lastly came effective slave labour, paid so little, badly fed and treated very harshly. The OT ran training courses to improve labour skills.
Massive numbers of workers were needed, the Vichy regime imposed a compulsory labour system, drafting some 600,000 French workers to construct these permanent fortifications along the Dutch, Belgian, and French coasts facing the English Channel. Efficiency of the OT decreased in late 1943 and 1944 as a result of manpower pressures, fuel shortages and the bombing of worksites, such as V-weapons sites, where some volunteer workers refused to work in such dangerous areas.
OT Cherbourg in January 1944 dealt with 34 companies with 15,000 workers and 79 sub contractors. Daily, weekly and monthly reports showing progress, work variations, material used, stocks of material, labour hours used per skill type, the weather, equipment inventory and quality, level of supervision, employee absences, staffing levels, deaths and problems experienced all had to be filed with the OT.
Throughout most of 1942–43, the Atlantic Wall remained a relaxed front for the Axis troops manning it, with only two large-scale British attacks. Operation Chariot, launched near St Nazaire in March 1942, successfully destroyed German pumping machinery for, and severely damaged, the Normandie dry dock and installations. The second attack was the Dieppe Raid, launched near the French port of Dieppe in August 1942 to test the German defences and provide combat experience for Canadian troops. The Germans were defeated at St. Nazaire, but had little difficulty in repulsing the attack at Dieppe, where they inflicted heavy casualties. Although the Dieppe raid was a disaster for the Allies, it alarmed Hitler, who was sure an Allied invasion in the West would shortly follow. Following Dieppe, Hitler gave Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the overall German Commander-in-Chief in the West, 15 further divisions to shore up the German positions.
Early in 1944, with an Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe becoming ever more likely, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was assigned to improve the wall’s defences. Believing the existing coastal fortifications to be entirely inadequate, he immediately began strengthening them. Rommel’s main concern was Allied air power. He had seen it first-hand when fighting the British and Americans in North Africa, and it had left a profound impression on him. He feared that any German counterattack would be broken up by Allied aircraft long before it could make a difference. Under his direction, hundreds of reinforced concrete pillboxes were built on the beaches, or sometimes slightly inland, to house machine guns, antitank guns, and light and heavy artillery. Land mines and antitank obstacles were planted on the beaches, and underwater obstacles and naval mines were placed in waters just offshore. The intent was to destroy the Allied landing craft before they could unload on the beaches.
By the time of the Allied invasion, the Germans had laid almost six million mines in Northern France. More gun emplacements and minefields extended inland along roads leading away from the beaches. In likely landing spots for gliders and parachutists, the Germans emplanted slanted poles with sharpened tops, which the troops called Rommelspargel (“Rommel’s Asparagus”). Low-lying river and estuarine areas were intentionally flooded. Rommel believed that Germany would inevitably be defeated unless the invasion could be stopped on the beach, declaring, “It is absolutely necessary that we push the British and Americans back from the beaches. Afterwards it will be too late; the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive.”
The Channel Islands were heavily fortified, particularly the island of Alderney, which is closest to Britain. Hitler had decreed that one-twelfth of the steel and concrete used in the Atlantic Wall should go to the Channel Islands, because of the propaganda value of controlling British territory. The islands were some of the most densely fortified areas in Europe, with a host of Hohlgangsanlage tunnels, casemates, and coastal artillery positions. Walcheren Island is considered to be the “strongest concentration of defences the Nazis had ever constructed.”
However, as the Channel Islands lacked strategic significance, the Allies bypassed them when they invaded Normandy. As a result, the German garrisons stationed on the islands did not surrender until 9 May 1945—one day after Victory in Europe Day. The garrison on Alderney did not surrender until 16 May. Because most of their garrisons surrendered peacefully, the Channel Islands are host to some of the best-preserved Atlantic Wall sites.
The commander in Guernsey produced books giving detailed pictures, plans and descriptions of the fortifications in their island, Festung Guernsey.
Many major ports and positions were incorporated into the Atlantic Wall, receiving heavy fortifications. Hitler ordered all positions to fight to the end, and some of them remained in German hands until Germany’s unconditional surrender. Several of the port fortresses were resupplied by submarines after being surrounded by Allied Forces. The defenders of these positions included foreign volunteers and SS troops.
Immediately after the war, there was little interest in preserving the wall due to the negative memories associated with the Nazi occupation. One of the best preserved parts is the Todt Battery. In 2011, renewed efforts to preserve the wall were spearheaded by organisations in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Some of the beach fortifications have toppled or are underwater, while the ones further inland are still mainly extant due to their location.
Many French construction companies benefited financially from helping construct the Atlantic wall; these companies were not penalised during the post war period.
The question has been raised over whether France should declare the wall a National Monument to ensure it is preserved; however no government so far has envisaged this.
Although the defensive wall was never fully completed, many bunkers still exist near Ostend, Channel Islands, Scheveningen, Den Haag, Katwijk, and in Scandinavia.