The Atlantic Wall was the name given to a massive coastal defensive structure built on Hitler’s orders that stretched all the way from Norway, along the Belgium and French coastline to the Spanish border. The Atlantic Wall covered a distance of 1,670 miles and it formed the main part of Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’. The wall was built to repulse an Allied attack on Nazi-occupied Europe – wherever it was planned for. The building of the Wall started in 1942 and ended in 1944. The building project was vast and most of it was done along the French coastline where it was assumed by the Nazi hierarchy that an Allied landing would most likely be.
Fűhrer Directive No 40, issued on March 23rd 1942, ordered the building.
Initially the building concentrated on protecting ports where U-boats and other vessels of the Kriegsmarine were based. Once this had been completed the building of the Wall started in other coastal areas. In 1944, the French part of the Atlantic Wall was heavily reinforced on the orders of Erwin Rommel who was placed in charge of improving the defences. Artillery emplacements were supported with machine gun posts and other artillery emplacements were built inland to give the Wall some form of protection when the expected Allied landings took place. Beaches along the northern coastline of France were strewn with anti-tank and anti-vehicle obstacles known as ‘Rommel’s Teeth’. Many of these had mines attached to them so that at high tide both the ‘teeth’ and the mines would not have been seen by an invading force keen to get onto the beaches. At low tide, they would have been seen and in Rommel’s planning would have been effective at delaying any advance onto the beaches. He believed that the invasion had to be stopped on the beaches. Rommel assumed that once the Allies had established a beach head the war would be lost. Six million mines were laid on beaches in Northern France.
In France to this day the building of the Atlantic Wall is controversial. Some saw the Atlantic Wall as a sign of collaboration during World War Two. “A lot of French construction companies got very rich out of building the Wall. After the war, France needed those same companies for the task of reconstruction. So no-one said anything. There was a wilful blindness, in which everyone was complicit.” Jerome Prieur.
Many thousands of French men were forced to work on the Atlantic Wall as part of an arrangement between the Vichy government and the Albert Speer’s Organisation Todt.
“There was no choice about it. We had to go. Naturally we weren’t enthusiastic, but it is not as if we had any choice. The conditions were not terrible. We weren’t beaten or anything and we got a basic wage. At the start we could go home on Sundays, but after Stalingrad they put up barbed wire and we were stuck inside the work camp. Of course we knew we were building defences for the Germans, and it felt bad. I remember at the end of the war, my two brothers came home. One had been a prisoner, the other a deportee. I felt so bad I did not want to go to the party celebrating their return. But I do think the wall should be preserved now. It is important to remember what happened – the ignominy of it all, the cataclysm that we had to endure.” (Rene-Georges Lubat)
The Atlantic Wall as an entity absorbed a huge amount of German resources. The Wall used up over 17 million cubic metres of concrete and 1.2 million tonnes of steel and the cost in France alone was 3.7 billion Deutschmarks. Had the Organisation Todt paid out a fair wage per worker per day, the cost would have been even greater. However, slave labourers cost nothing while those pressurised into working were paid a minimal wage for the work they carried out.
The most heavily constructed batteries were around the north and west coasts of France. The ‘Batterie Lindemann’, named after the captain of the ‘Bismarck’, was built near to Calais and covered the English Channel. Its primary purpose was to defend against an Allied invasion but its massive guns were also used against shipping in the Channel and against Dover itself. The ‘Batterie Lindemann’ fired 2,450 shells at targets in the Channel or against Dover or Folkestone – not for nothing was that part of Kent known as ‘Hell Fire Corner’.