The Atlantic Wall

The Atlantic Wall is one of the largest building works of the 20th century. Nazi Germany built it during World War II (between 1942 and 1945) to make an Allied invasion of the Western European mainland from the sea impossible. The construction began in response to the threat of a protracted two-front war for Germany, when, after losing the air war against Britain in late September 1940, the German advance into the Soviet Union also came to a halt a year later. To strengthen the weak defence of the coast in the west, the Germans began to build a coastal defence line in late 1941. This so-called New West Wall – to distinguish it from the West Wall, a 630-kilometer-long defence line along the western border of Germany itself – aimed to strengthen strategic locations such as ports, cities and industrial areas along the entire coast from Norway to the Franco-Spanish border. The idea was that an enemy invasion could then be stopped with a relatively small military force. 

The construction of the New West Wall, later to be renamed as the Atlantic Wall for propaganda reasons, barely progressed to start with. However, the fear of an Allied invasion became so great after 1942 that all available manpower was redirected to coastal defence. The Netherlands too soon experienced the consequences of the construction. The beaches and dunes along the entire coast were declared prohibited areas (Sperrgebiet) in April 1942.  A general building prohibition was in place from 1 July 1942, because a large part of the building capacity was needed for the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The original plans provided for the construction of 15,000 bunkers on the Dutch, Belgian and French coast. However, due to lack of manpower, material and fuel, only 6,000 bunkers had been completed by the deadline of 1 May 1943. Of these, 510 were in the Netherlands, instead of the planned 2,000.

The Atlantic Wall was a series of separate, independent and smaller and larger structures that were defensible on all sides and could provide fire support to each other. In many cases they consisted of bombproof bunkers made of reinforced concrete, sometimes with a wall and roof thickness of at least two metres.

Apart from bunkers and batteries, fences and natural barriers, such as watercourses and steep dune slopes, also formed part of the Atlantic Wall. One example of such an obstacle are rows of slanted steel beams encased in poured concrete, called Höckerhindernisse, also referred to as “Dragon’s Teeth”. Those Dragon’s Teeth obstacles consisted of five parallel rows of concrete pyramids that differed in height per row. The Germans also flooded areas, built anti-tank walls (Panzermauer) and dug dry or wet anti-tank ditches of up to 20 metres wide. 

Organisation Todt, named after its founder, Fritz Todt, was responsible for the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The organisation mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers. Initially, the work was performed by paid workers and prisoners of war. However, a shortage of manpower later led to the use of civilians as forced labour, for example, in Norway and France. Even German soldiers took part in the construction. At the height of the building work, a total of half a million people were involved. 

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