Hitler's Atlantic Wall: Should France preserve it?

 
The Atlantic Wall was Adolf Hitler's name for the fortifications that were the cornerstone of his Fortress Europe defences against Allied invasion. Construction of the complex network of concrete barriers and gun emplacements was overseen by the Fuhrer's chief architect, Albert Speer, seen here on the left with Hitler.
The first fortifications were a response to a series of British commando raids along the French and Norwegian coasts during 1941. Further successful raids accelerated the construction until the wall stretched along 2,685km (1,670 miles) of coastline. Many still survive today.
Batterie Lindemann was one of the most fearsome weapons incorporated into the Atlantic Wall. The massive casement for the main gun measured 50m long by 17m high. There were three in all. In total they fired 2,450 406mm rounds, mostly against coastal traffic, but also against Dover and other English ports.
Construction of the Atlantic Wall absorbed huge resources. Built by slave labour and other non-German volunteer labour, the fortifications consumed over 17m cubic metres of concrete and 1.2m tonnes of steel. The cost was astronomical, some 3.7bn Deutschmarks in France alone.
The strongest defences were around the French ports which Hitler viewed as the most likely targets of an Allied invasion. Dubbed the Iron Coast, these defences were circumvented by the D-Day invasion on the Normandy beaches where the defences were weaker. The Atlantic Wall was breached in a day.
Coastal erosion since the end of the war has left many bunkers stranded on the beach. These in the south of France around the Bay of Arcachon are being excavated by a group of local enthusiasts. Some retain their original camouflage and war-time grafitti.
The best-preserved bunker sites are probably those around the D-Day Normandy beaches, such as this gun emplacement. Many much smaller gun positions and anti-tank defences are scattered around the countryside and can still be found almost untouched since the day the last German troops departed.
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Sections of Hitler's Atlantic Wall are being restored by French enthusiasts. But should the Nazi fortification be fully embraced as part of the country's heritage?

Along 800 miles (1,287km) of French coast lie some of the most substantial and evocative vestiges of war-time Europe.

Blockaus BA22 Barbara, part of the Atlantic Wall, in Bayonne, southwestern France Remaining sections of the wall have fallen into disrepair

The so-called Atlantic Wall - Hitler's defensive system against an expected Allied attack - stretched all the way from the Spanish border to Scandinavia.

Inevitably, it was in France that the most extensive building took place. Today there are still thousands of blockhouses, barracks and gun emplacements visible along the French shore.

But in France there has been no effort up until now to preserve this extraordinary historical landmark.

Elsewhere, World War II bunkers have been renovated as tourist attractions or for educational visits. The internet boasts Atlantic Wall fan sites in Germany and the Netherlands - and strong interest in the UK - but nothing in France.

It is as though the nation was relieved to see the German defences slide inexorably into the sands - and oblivion.

But now - quite suddenly - a new mood has emerged. Recently, several local associations dedicated to safeguarding portions of the Wall have been set up in France.

Times have moved on, memories of the war have lapsed, and a new generation no longer feels pain or guilt, but curiosity.

Wall finds home in New Orleans

Section of Atlantic Wall in New Orleans

In July 2011, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, US, took receipt of three sections of the Atlantic Wall (part of it is pictured above).

The huge chunks - complete with pockmarks from bullets and artillery rounds fired by incoming Allied troops - were donated by the Utah Beach Museum in Normandy.

"To see only a small portion of what our troops had to overcome to begin to liberate Europe, to be able to feel the chips and holes made in the wall by their artillery, it really gives you a renewed sense of appreciation for their sacrifice," says museum president Dr Nick Mueller.

National World War II Museum

"It really has been very rapid. In just the last three or four years, there has been a radical change," says Marc Mentel, founder of Gramasa (Archaeological Research Group for the Atlantic Wall: Arcachon Sector).

"Today people are constantly coming up to us at our sites and wanting to know more about the Wall. In the past, the whole issue was too painful, it brought back too many bad memories.

"Time had to do its work. For me personally, there was no way I could have started the association until the death of my grandfather. He had been a prisoner in the war. For his generation, the Wall was something you preferred not to think about.

"Funnily enough, I think it was the death of the last poilu (World War I veteran) a couple of years ago that was the trigger. Suddenly now we see that World War II is slipping into history too."

Members of the association spend their weekends clearing and restoring German bunkers around the bay of Arcachon, a beautiful area of oyster beds, pine woods and tourist beaches to the west of Bordeaux.

Falling into the sea

The sector was too far south to be a likely contender for Allied landings. Nonetheless, the Germans had a complex of emplacements defending the narrow entrance to the bay and the port of Arcachon.

Some of the defences were on the actual beaches, where they are now gradually falling victim to the tides and shifting sands. Others - mainly gun batteries - were on higher ground, and are relatively intact.

'The ignominy we endured'

War veteran who worked on the Wall

Rene-Georges Lubat, 91, is one of the few Frenchmen who worked on the Wall who is still alive. In 1942 he was "volunteered" by his village mayor and sent to work on defences in the Arcachon sector.

"There was no choice about it. We had to go," he said. "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."

By studying German military maps, Mentel was able to pinpoint where one bunker had apparently disappeared. In fact it was buried beneath the sands next to the lighthouse at Cap Ferret, one of the promontories guarding the bay of Arcachon.

The association has now dug away the sands, revealing concrete walls still showing signs of the original camouflage. There is also an intriguing outside mural - drawn by some bored German soldier - of a man in a boater hat smoking a pipe.

Such amateur art works are quite common. In another emplacement across the entrance to the bay, there is a cartoon of a jazz band - sadly, rather hidden by modern-day graffiti.

"The Germans built the bunkers according to absolutely standard patterns, so we can walk into one and know straight away where everything will be - the hole for the radio mast, another for the periscope, the air vents, the sleeping area and so on," said amateur archaeologist Jean-Francois Laquieze.

"The blockhouses that are on the beaches, I don't think there is any way we can save. They are already disappearing into the sands, or in some cases are already under water.

"The ones that are slightly inland we can preserve. But there the problem is encroaching urbanisation. Town authorities are under pressure to open up more and more land for building.

"Nowadays we wouldn't for a minute consider destroying our mediaeval castles. But that is what is exactly happening to the Atlantic Wall, which is just as much part of our history," he said.

Blindness

If the French preferred for 70 years to avert their gaze from the Wall, it is perhaps for understandable reasons.

The fortifications were after all German fortifications - emblems to the French of their own national humiliation. But there is more to it than that - the Wall was not just a symbol of defeat - but of collaboration.

"A lot of French construction companies got very rich out of building the Wall," said Jerome Prieur, author of a 2010 book, Le Mur Atlantique.

"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."

House in southwestern France One section of the wall has even been turned into part of a house

In addition, many thousands of French men were forced to work on the Wall as part of an arrangement between the Vichy government and the Organisation Todt, the Nazis' civil engineering group.

There are some who believe France should declare the Atlantic Wall to be a historic monument, thus ensuring its preservation - or at least of parts of it.

That will never happen. No French government would elevate a symbol of national dishonour.

But what is intriguing is how the French people have themselves now taken the initiative, safeguarding what for them is less a mark of shame, more part of the collective memory.

 

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  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 114.

    Pointless waste of money. The french need to worry about their failing banks not these useless bits of concrete! Perhaps they could employ some Greek builders to restore these "landmarks"?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 113.

    Yes, they should be preserved if anything as a reminder of the dangers of not being prepared in the face of an enemy who made no bones about his aggressive intentions to his neighbors. It was the darkest hour in France's long history, the one time the French nation just knuckled under and was more content to fight amongst themselves than the implacable enemy next door.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 112.

    The Atlantic Wall was put there in 20th century for a similar reason that Hadrians Wall was put there in 2nd century. Hadrian wanted to keep out the Picts. Hitler wanted to keep out the Allied.
    Hadrian's Wall is a World Heritage site. Need I say more?

  • rate this
    +19

    Comment number 111.

    I have always loved history & think it would be very sad to let these fortifications disappear. I visited an American cementary in England & was brought to tears looking at the ages of the men buried there, they were just babies, 18 & 19 years old. I very much admire all the men who were brave enough to fight in WW2, especially those that landed on those well fortified beaches on June 6th.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 110.

    Come on BBC, You know as well as we all do that it would only be in England that this would be stopped. We have to take bad history with the good and if you are prepared to allow this piece of history to disappear then it is the same as allowing St Pauls cathedral to be ignored while it is undergoing rack and ruin.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 109.

    It seems somewhat appropriate that these structures should now be covered in surf graffitti. That action - and the 'lifestyle' that it is associated with is about as far from National Socialism as you can get. They are also, surely, unique in architectural terms, aren't they? We wouldn't demolish anything Roman now, and they weren't pleasant. Wish that build quality had been used on my house...

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 108.

    98.Guy Croft

    I was of the same opinion as you with ref to German/Nazi technology, however, after digging deeper its more interesting. Ther equipment was at best on par with allied but it was their tactics and combined force thinking that surpassed the allies initially. Allied forces still thought of the great war tactics whilest the rising German forces exploited new thinking & tactics.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 107.

    The fortifications should be preserved as historically important monuments to be learnt from. But it worries me that France could ‘embrace’ them as part of wider national heritage/culture. Time has distanced us from WWII allowing us to impartially analyse and show interest, but these are still symbols of the most ruthless, abhorrent and intrinsically racist (and foreign) ideology in centuries.

  • rate this
    -18

    Comment number 106.

    come on bbc, this is the most pointless drivel I have come across yet

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 105.

    No matter how many videos, colour photos or computer generated models we have, there's just no replacement for the real thing.

    The town I lived in when I was in Canada has an M4A2E8 Sherman 'Easy Eight' as a memorial, I just couldn't appreciate the size or threatening profile of the tank until I had stood in front of it and touched the armour plating.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 104.

    96.mikethebike99
    what on earth is the BBC doing wasting our time with this?
    Its up to the French what they do
    ///
    I disagree. I read this article with interest. I think it is good that the French move on. So should we. Too many of us still dwell in the past.

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 103.

    Must have been pretty well built to have withstood Atlantic weather and all the other ravages of time...impressive for that if nothing else. All military fortifications have their interest, why should German-built structures be any different? It doesn't signify approval of Nazism just an acknowledgement perhaps of their skill?

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 102.

    #54.Stuart_MCFC: "At least there was resistance in France. Time to drop the France hating , Brits. Remind when how fast the overseas British forces legged it from the Germans?!"

    Much as I hate it when my fellow Britons attack the French, I must counter this rubbish. The small number of British troops in France fought very hard. They certainly did not just "leg it"! Read your history.

  • rate this
    +14

    Comment number 101.

    Keep the wall? Non.
    There is just so much of it, and all built to the same design.
    It really is a case of "see one and you've seen them all".
    Yes keep a few examples for historical interest in some locations, but we don't need it all.
    In most places they are a just a graffiti covered blight on an otherwise beautiful coast.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 100.

    Let France decide.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 99.

    There is are no worries about our children forgetting about war. They have know nothing but war since the day they were born.

    Three years of peace in the last hundred. What a cruel bunch of war mongers we are.

    How about we no longer glorify war? WW2 is four generations old. Time to move on.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 98.

    I used to enjoy WW2 history. Germany had the best gear and uniforms, I studied their campaigns and famous units, people. Allied side seemed dull and slow by comparison. In later years I realised that the German forces were just the knights of a filthy, wicked, regime embarked on annihilation - like something from Lord of the Rings. The monuments are only worth keeping if that's never forgotten.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 97.

    @ # 62 Peter_Sym
    There's peace time forces and there's war time forces.
    Britain has relatively small peace time "professional" (i.e. mercenary) armed forces which doesn't mean that Britain's wartime forces (like genuine WWII-like war) will be as small. Britain is now what it's never been b4 -- a country of 70 mln and rising. It should be able to field a 10 mln strong army in proper war time.

  • rate this
    -22

    Comment number 96.

    what on earth is the BBC doing wasting our time with this?
    Its up to the French what they do

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 95.

    You don't have to save *all* of it, that would be ridiculous. Pick a particularly well-preserved area that has access for tourism and save that.

    Tearing it all down because people are offended of the history is silly. In a few decades, the emotional impact will be all but gone... would one suggest the destruction of a tyrant's castle because he was a bad man hundreds of years ago?

 

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