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.


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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