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A Hopeless Endeavor: Hitler’s Atlantic Wall
Contrary to popular belief, the Atlantic Wall was far from a contiguous system of walls and fortifications. Nonetheless, it caused a great deal of concern for the Allies.
A POWERFUL DETERRENT
As in the case of most fortifications, the capabilities of the Atlantic Wall were defined by three main aspects: the ramparts, firepower, and the available manpower. Most of these were added to the system in the six months leading up to the Allied invasion in June 1944, thanks mostly to the efforts of two people – generals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt (although the latter had more confidence in repelling the Allies deeper inland, in moving warfare).
At the height of its strength the Atlantic Wall consisted of 15 thousand fortified concrete structures, which included ammunition depots, shelters, battle stations for the infantry and the artillery, communication centers, different kinds of warehouses, command centers, observation posts, as well as stations designated for various machines, generators, and anti-aircraft searchlights. When referring to “the Wall”, the Germans themselves meant the sections along the Dutch, Belgian, and French coasts, whereas the shorelines of Germany, Denmark, and Norway were protected by much more scattered, detached fortifications and fortified artillery positions.
The cornerstone of the system was its various artillery devices, which were organized into hundreds of batteries and ranged from 150mm and smaller caliber weapons to massive railway and naval guns, some of which boasted calibers of up to 406mm. The Germans built countless weapon types into the Atlantic Wall: since most of their own devices were needed elsewhere during the war, mainly on the Eastern Front, the Atlantic Wall came to include – in addition to weapons confiscated locally from French troops and pieces left behind by the Brits during the evacuation at Dunkirk – heavy weaponry manufactured by other countries such as Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union.
The construction of the Atlantic Wall can be divided into three main phases. The first one began in the late summer of 1940 and ended in December 1941, when the failure of Operation Barbarossa forced Hitler to rethink the way he envisioned the rest of the war – his original plan for the western coastal region of Europe had included conquering Great Britain in Operation Sea Lion after defeating France. However, after losing the Battle of Britain, he was forced to rethink this element of his strategy in September 1940, while his defeat at Moscow in late 1941 only complicated his plans further. Defense took precedence along the Atlantic coast, which at the time involved no more than protecting the established submarine bases and fending off potential British commando operations.
The second phase lasted from December 1941 until October 1943, and involved the Wall’s inception, as well as the beginning of its development. In addition to more efficient defense, another goal was to allow units stationed in the west to be deployed in other theaters of war (especially in the east), and make up for their absence – in accordance with the model laid out above – with more extensive ramparts and artillery.
The third phase began in late October 1943, after Field Marshal von Rundstedt sent a report to Hitler on the state of the western defenses. This prompted a considerable increase in the amount of resources dedicated to the Atlantic Wall, and these preparations would last all the way until June 6, 1944 – the Allied landing in Normandy.
A RAG-TAG GROUP
Von Rundstedt, who took over the Western Command in 1942, was rather unsatisfied with the state of the Wall and the troops stationed by it. At the time the majority of German units assigned there had arrived to rest and recuperate after the ravages of the Eastern Front, and were in no state to be sent into battle. The general complained that the Atlantic Wall was nothing more than a huge bluff, a propaganda tool with no real military value at most of its sections. He already preferred deeper inland defense plans over bunkers and other static structures near the shores.
Troops who had not arrived from other theaters were in even worse shape: the permanent crew of the Atlantic Wall consisted of barely-trained youngsters, men in their late thirties and older, and others who were less suited to more serious combat tasks. They received reinforcements made up of “folk Germans” (Volkdeutsche), who were ethnic Germans recruited from other parts of Europe, as well as non-German nationals recruited from various occupied territories, including the so-called “Eastern Troops” (Osttruppen).
The units of the Osttruppen were organized in a variety of ways from men from the various ethnic groups of the Soviet Union. Some units had men from a single ethnic background, while others were mixed. There were volunteer units, as well as ones made up of prisoners of war forced to work for their captors. Such units included Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Armenians, Tatars, Ukrainians, and Central Asians. Employing them made it possible for German units to be used for more serious tasks. The Eastern Troops working on the Atlantic Wall were headed by German commanders, who treated their subordinates as second-rate soldiers. By late 1943 nearly all German coastal defense units included an Osttruppen battalion.
Von Rundstedt expressed concern over the weaponry and equipment of the coastal defense units – the condition of their armaments (which were not very modern to begin with) was often dismal, acquiring the countless varieties of ammunition compatible with all the guns from the many kinds of countries was a logistical nightmare, and other pieces of gear also left a lot to be desired. Many units simply had to be classified as “static”, since they did not even have vehicles that could be drawn by horses.
Making matters more difficult for von Rundstedt was the fact that his authority was limited to issuing commands to his own units only – as the general of the land-based army of the Wehrmacht, he could not coordinate the activities of the air force (Luftwaffe), the navy (Kriegsmarine), and the other land-based force, the Waffen-SS, in the region.
LAND MINES AND STAKES
Construction of the fortification was carried out by the civil and military engineering group Organisation Todt – among other projects, they had built the German highway system before the war, as well as the rampart system on the German-French border, the Siegfried Line. The first notable constructions along the Atlantic coast were the submarine bases erected for the Kriegsmarine and air bases for the Luftwaffe. On March 23 1942, Hitler issued Fuhrer Directive No. 40, which ordered the creation of the Atlantic Wall, and the construction project got underway.
In addition to the long-range coastal artillery and the fortifications designed to stop a landing, another important consideration was the ability to launch attacks on large ports. A May 1942 order from von Rundstedt laid out a hierarchy among the fortifications, dividing them by their size and number of crew into fortresses (Festungen), defense zones (Verteidigungsbereiche), station groups (Stützpunkt-gruppen), stations (Stützpunkte), and finally, so-called “resistance nests”, located behind the fortified lines (Widerstandnester).
In August 1942 Canadian and British troops carried out a surprise attack on the French port of Dieppe. Even though the attack failed to meet several of its objectives, it forced the Germans to recognize several deficiencies in their defense. Construction of the Atlantic Wall was sped up, with several hundred thousand cubic meters of concrete used per month – and yet von Rundstedt remained unsatisfied and still would have no faith in Germany’s ability to stop a potential invasion with coastal defenses only. In a report sent to the Wehrmacht high command (OKW) on October 28, 1943, he highlighted the need for more qualified troops and establishing reserves further away from the shores. After the report made its way to Hitler, it resulted in Directive No. 51 and development works that would continue all the way to D-Day.
In accordance with the Field Marshal’s recommendations, the divisions stationed by the shores began to be expanded from the previous two to their full strength of three regiments, and more armored vehicles and warplanes were reassigned to the region. The Kriegsmarine sent multiple ships to the Atlantic Ocean, while planting even more naval mines in the waters closer to Great Britain. It was during this time that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had already proved to be a capable leader in North Africa, became the head of Army Group B under von Rundstedt’s Western Command, and undertook ambitious development projects. However, the increasingly intense Allied bombing raids were causing a shortage of both manpower and building materials.
According to Rommel, the Allied invasion had to be broken on the shore, and thus he had a multitude of minefields and new beach obstacles installed, and moved his armored units closer to the water. He also admitted the necessity of units stationed inland, but these did not receive reinforcements by June 6.
In North Africa, Rommel had verified the utility of minefields and other hidden weapons, and thus under his command almost four million land mines were planted alongside the existing nearly two million. In addition, he also employed simpler devices, such as sharpened stakes intended to impale paratroopers, and wooden installations designed to topple landing ships.
Without a doubt, the Allies preparing for D-Day planned each step carefully due to their fear of the Atlantic Wall. But when it came time for the decisive battle, the units landing in Normandy ended up breaking through in a matter of hours – in many places without the planned armored support. General von Rundstedt was vindicated by the fact that, even though the Atlantic Wall had failed on June 6, it took the Allies until late August to liberate Paris, as the Germans were indeed able to put up a much more effective resistance inland.
According to the popular image of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, it was a system comprised of massive bunkers and huge artillery hardware – but this is rather far from the truth. That said, despite the Wall hardly being a contiguous rampart, its mere presence was enough to cause serious concern among the Allies and force them to tread very carefully as they prepared for the siege on the Festung Europa (Fortress Europe).
Did you know?
An estimated six million land mines were laid down to reinforce the defense of the Atlantic Wall.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt also found Germany’s second significant defense line, the Siegfried Line that stretched from Holland alongside the French-German border to Switzerland, inappropriate.
The Great Wall of China, erected to protect Imperial China from nomadic forces, lay 5,500 miles (8,850 kms) along the northern border of the empire.