The Atlantikwall, definition of a phenomenon

1. Introduction

The Dutch province Zuid-Holland works together with parties to create a better protected, experience and use cultural heritage in the province. This is achieved through the development of seven ‘heritage lines’, of which the Atlantic Wall is one. A subsidy can be applied for projects that strengthen this heritage line.

The question, however, is whether there is a common picture about what we mean by the Atlantikwall. Among historians and policy makers there often seem to be differences of interpretation. In the framework of the subsidy program ‘Erfgoedlijn Atlantikwall’, the corresponding heritage table therefore asked to define the phenomenon of Atlantikwall. An unambiguous definition makes it possible to determine whether subsidy applications within the framework of the Heritage Line actually relate to (parts of) the Atlantic Wall. The question of what the Atlantic Wall is, and what we can understand, is not only of military interest, but it is also important to be able to interpret the Atlantic Wall for the current and future use of the heritage.


2. The German coastal defense in historical perspective

a. Phasing
There are roughly four phases to distinguish in the development of the German coastal defense:
Phase 1: Offensive preparation, defense of specific locations (harbors) and monitoring of the
                coastline (1940-1941);
Phase 2: Linear closed defense line against attacks from the sea (late 1941);
Phase 3: Closed defense line against attacks from the sea, the air and from the
                hinterland (late 1942-late 1943);
Phase 4: Proactive defense and deepening defense line (end of 1943-1945).

 b. From surveillance to defense: the previous history (phase 1)
Offensive preparation, defense of specific locations (harbors) and monitoring of the coastline (1940-1941).

At the beginning of July 1940, the Germans held the west coast of Europe from the north of Norway to the south of France. From that moment on the coastline formed the outer boundary of the Third Reich. For the time being, it was only guarded primitive by the Wehrmacht because they were still on the offensive. A defense (sometimes with bunkers) only existed at strategic locations such as the important ports on the Western European coast, the Channel coast and the prestigious Channel Islands. After losing the battle for England and the growing attention of Hitler to the East, the Wehrmacht gradually placed more radar and artillery positions from 1941 onwards between the initially isolated coastal bollards, gradually creating a series of positions along the coast.

c. The order of December 14, 1941: the Neue Westwall (phase 2)
Linear closed defense line against attacks from the sea (late 1941).

On December 14, 1941 Hitler orders the construction of the Neue Westwall. The defensive concept that formed the basis for this was based on a strong capacity for resilience (areas had to be able to defend themselves for a longer period of time so that there was time to bring reinforcements from the hinterland) and efficient deployment of troops (the coastline to be defended had an enormous length). ). These starting points were prompted on the one hand by the increasing threat of an Allied invasion and on the other hand by the necessity to deploy more and more soldiers on the Eastern Front.

The further extension of the existing defenses to a closed defense line “von Eismeer bis zur Biscaya” therefore had to take place with thousands of so-called Ständige Bunker (St-Bunker). This line would protect the main coastal locations, in particular port areas, from enemy attacks from the sea and the sky, naturally with the use of “all available means”.

In addition, according to Hitler, the Neue Westwall had a large symbolic and therefore propaganda value. For the time being, the realization turned out to be too large a structural task and that led to adjustments to the plans. In this phase, therefore, hardly any St-Bunkers were built but, instead, thin-walled concrete and brick bunkers. 

St-Bunkers, or bunkers in Ständiger Ausbau, are technically ingenious designs with a wall and roof thickness of at least two meters of reinforced concrete. There are hundreds of different standardized types, intended for, among other things, housing troops, ammunition, supplies and weapons. Bunkers with less thick walls and roofs and masonry structures were not bombproof and were referred to as Verstärkt feldmässiger Ausbau (literally: reinforced fieldwork). Nowadays we can say that the St. Bunkers are the icons of the Atlantikwall.

d. Progressive insight: the Atlantic Wall (phase 3)
Closed defense line against attacks from the sea, the air and from the hinterland (late 1942-late 1943).

Less than a week after the so-called ‘Atlantikwall conference’ held on 13 August 1942, the failed allied attack on Dieppe took place. That event reinforced Hitler’s view that bombproof bunkers, so-called Ständige Bunker, were necessary because open field positions and light bunkers were too vulnerable to air strikes. That led 25 August 1942 to command number 14 of General Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt, then Commander-in-Chief of all German troops on the Western Front. Here the expansion of the Channel coast and the Atlantic coast was announced as an “impregnable fortress”. The construction of St-bunkers was now given the highest priority and from this time on it was no longer talked about the Neue Westwall but about the Atlantic Wall.

The order also meant an adjustment of the defense concept, because “impregnable” now concerned both the front and the back of the line. This implied, in addition to the Seefront at the front, a Landfront on the other side, also meant to defend the positions against pincer movements and backward air landings. This led to the construction of tank obstacles (tank walls, dragon’s teeth) and, in addition to naturally occurring water hazards, the digging of tank ditches.

The extension of the Seefront with a Landfront also required an even greater integration of existing and newly constructed bunker complexes (eg headquarters, airports and radar stations) within a certain area. This led to the clustering of the bunker complexes in so-called Stützpunktgruppen. The defensive concept required far-reaching coordination between the three armed forces Kriegsmarine, Heer and Luftwaffe.
Various bunkers and fieldwork (elements) together form a military complex such as an infantry position, a gun battery or headquarters (ensemble). Often such a complex is referred to as a statement (Stützpunkt), which can be confusing because a complete line of defense is also called a position.

e. All or nothing: Rommel (phase 4)
Proactive defense and deepening defense line (end of 1943-1945).

At the end of 1943, the defensive concept was further adapted by order of field marshal Erwin Rommel, then on behalf of Hitler inspector of the Atlantic Wall. He felt that the attackers had to be destroyed at sea in an invasion and that in the extreme case the decisive battle would take place on the beach. According to him, the Wehrmacht would not be able to defeat the enemy if he succeeded in gaining a foothold. At the beginning of 1944, Rommel had all kinds of barriers placed in the flood line, including large numbers of sloping piles with mines.

In addition, he recognized the increasing danger of Allied airborne landings on the basis of his fronter experiences. In order to prevent this and at the same time as back cover for the coastal defenses, the existing defense of the Landfront and the underlying area was expanded on Rommel’s order. Low-lying areas were flooded (inundations), and Rommel also had additional minefields, earthen walls, trenches and other obstacles.


3. The Atlantic Wall as a phenomenon

The remains of the German coastal defenses are now referred to in total as ‘The Atlantic Wall’. Because of their physical appearance, they are visible and tangible ‘scars of war’. Relatively there are still few visible traces of the German occupation in our coastal region and in recent years there has been a realization that the Atlantic Wall has a cultural-historical value and can contribute to the culture of remembrance (landscape of remembrance). The remnants have now received the status of (protected) cultural heritage.

For the current and future use of the Atlantikwall it is therefore important to have insight into the nature of this defense line. This makes it possible to give a balanced assessment of the value and significance of (parts of) the Atlantic Wall.

The Atlantic Wall can be characterized in different ways, namely:
• a military defense concept, based on a line;
• a recognizable, physical infrastructure, often along and near the coastline;
• a largely standardized form of fortification;
• a coherent defense system;
• a propaganda material.

a. The Atlantikwall as a defense concept
The Atlantikwall (Neue Westwall) builds on previously developed German defense concepts based on lines such as the Hollandstellung, the Ostwall and the Westwall. The big difference with these lines is that the Atlantic Wall does not have one blueprint, but under the influence of the ever-changing war situation and on the basis of military-strategic considerations from 1941 to 1945 gradually evolved into a closed line. Because of the successive different ideas during the five war years, the coastal defense line has a stratification of defense concepts that is visible in the ultimate physical structure as we know it today.

b. The Atlantic Wall as a physical infrastructure
The German coastal defense that was built from mid-1940 was intended to prevent or repel enemy attacks from the sea (or the air). At first it consisted mainly of artillery batteries around the harbors, but over the years it grew into a closed bunker line along the entire coast and had both a See and Landfront. At intermediate locations U-Boot bunkers (Unterseeboot, a submarine), and S-Boat bunkers (Schnellboot, an engine torpedo boat), airfields, anti-aircraft units and radar racks were built. These objects and complexes are located in the same area of ​​the coastal defense line that we now call Atlantikwall, while formally they were not (essentially) part of the Atlantic Wall. However, due to their necessary tactical or strategic presence in that area, these objects were more or less integrated into coastal defense, including for their security. Often they had their own form of defense, which, however, could also be used again in the assignment of the Atlantikwall.
In short: the Atlantic Wall as a physical coastal defense structure consists of separate elements and ensembles in which military objects are integrated that were present along the coastal strip for other reasons. Usually these objects are considered part of the Atlantikwall, although they do not have to be strictly speaking.

c. The Atlantikwall as a defense system
If there were an allied attack on the coast, the battle would take place on land, at sea and in the air. The defense was therefore an interplay between the various German armed forces, the army, the air force and the navy, and the various bunker complexes in an area were coordinated in function in order to make the deployment of weapons and men as efficient and effective as possible.
For the fighting troops good support, coordination and command was essential and the coastal defense could not function adequately without the backward headquarters of the military units responsible for this coastal defense, their logistical support, the communication / connections, etc. In short, the Atlantic Wall is inseparable connected with the German military structure and cannot be considered separately from the associated underlying military objects.
The so-called setbacks, inundation areas and other more inland barriers also have their place in this defense system. They give depth and strength to the entire Atlantic Wall.

d. The standardized form of fortification
The standardized form of fortification is expressed in the Atlantic Wall by:

  • the centrally controlled construction of the Atlantic Wall and the hierarchy of defense sites on the basis of the categories Widerstandsnest, Stützpunkt, Stützpunktgruppe, Verteidigungs-bereich and Festung;
  • the standardization of bunkers and objects (Ständiger Bau, Küver, Verstärkt Feldmässig, Sonderkonstruktionen, etc.).

In German sources the line was also described as Perlen am Perlenschnur, where the theses form the pearls and the intermediate coastal parts (Freie Küste) were the pearl necklace.
In total, over 17,000 Ständiger Ausbau bunkers were built in all of Western Europe between 1941 and 1945, of which more than 2,000 in the Netherlands. Most of it was part of the Atlantikwall. In addition to these heavily constructed bunkers, the Germans built approximately 21,000 smaller bunkers and concrete or masonry structures in our country. This does not include the so-called Deckungslöcher, one-man pit rings, which were placed on a large scale.
The length of the Atlantikwall is about 6200 kilometers. This is based on straight coastlines without inlets and fjords, and measured from the border of Norway with Russia to the border of France with Spain, including the coastline of the Channel Islands.

In addition to the abovementioned permanent fortifications of reinforced concrete or stone, so-called field reinforcements were built on a large scale. The trenches, foxholes, open machine gun and mortar setups etc. were dug and sometimes covered with wood on the inside. Where the concrete or stone structures are referred to as the so-called ‘hard remains’, we speak of the contours of trenches, etc., which are often still vaguely visible in the terrain, of ‘soft remains’. This form of field reinforcement was also standardized by means of regulations.

e. The Atlantic Wall as a propagandaterm
In war news, newspapers and magazines, the image of the Atlantic Wall was deliberately created as an impenetrable wall that made the ‘Festung Europa’ impregnable. This propaganda message had to reassure the German population and to uphold the morale of the soldiers, to impress the population of the occupied territories and at the same time to discourage and demoralize the enemy.


4. Definition of the Atlantic Wall

a. Definition
The final shape and size of the physical infrastructure of the Atlantic Wall was determined by the German coastal defense concept evolving during the Second World War. The organization, management and support of the coastal defense units made the Atlantikwall function as a defense system. Partly due to the far-reaching standardization of bunker construction, the Atlantic Wall became enormous in size and numbers and could therefore be used as a propaganda tool.

b. Boundary
Today, the Atlantic Wall is considered by many to be synonymous with German coastal defense during the Second World War. Or as a collective name for all structures that are located along the coastal strip. Based on the foregoing, nuance can be made here. Depending on the chosen perspective, it is possible to indicate what the scope of the Atlantic Wall is, and which objects and defense works can be considered.

 The physical boundary of the Atlantic Wall is formed by:

  • The outer limits of the scaffolding and bunker complexes (Widerstandsnest, Stützpunkt), or combination of bunker complexes (Stützpunktgruppe, Verteidigungsbereich, Festung) – both Seefront and Landfront – as determined by the Wehrmacht for coastal defenses;
  • The coastal strip between the various Stützpunktgruppen, Verteidigungsbereiche and Festungen, with a varying depth of several kilometers from the original coastline;
  • All objects that belong to the defense system of the Atlantikwall: in the hinterland constellations, support points and headquarters of the armed forces responsible for coastal protection.

  Schematic representation of the composition of the Atlantikwall: AW-schedule (Pdf)

Heber, T. (2003). The Atlantic Wall 1940-1945. Die Befestigung der Küsten West- und Nordeuropas im Spannungsfeld nationalozoferischer Kriegführung und Ideologie.

Molt, A. (1993). Der Deutsche Festungbau von der Memel zum Atlantik. Festungpioniere, Ingenieurkorps, Pioniertruppe 1900-1945.

Rolf, R. 2014. Atlantikwall. Batteries and Bunkers.

The Hague, The Netherlands, 22 February 2016,
Kees Neisingh
Geert-Jan Mellink
Raphaёl Smid
Jeroen Rijpsm