This term, an anglicization of the German “Atlantikwall” (which actually means ‘dam’ rather than ‘wall’), is collectively applied to all those coastal fortifications and gun emplacement that the Nazis
constructed from 1942 in the Western and Northern European countries occupied by them (and to smaller degree within Germany
itself) during WWII
in the hope of fending off Allied attacks/landings. It worked fairly well – until D-Day
and the subsequent Battle of Normandy.
This string of fortifications reaches from the French coast on the Bay of Biscay all along to Dunkirk and onwards along the Belgian
coasts and continuing up on the west coast of Denmark
along the North Sea (so “Atlantic” Wall is a bit of a simplification), and finally along the coast of Norway
up and beyond the Arctic Circle. The latter two, as well as France
, have the best preserved elements of the Atlantic Wall that have become veritable tourist attractions today.
Here only a brief overview can be given, as there are far too many to be covered in any detail, though a few get mentioned in the Norway
chapters; the Channel Islands
are also a special case in point. Arguably the Bunker Valentin
could be considered part of the system too. But because the sections of the Atlantic Wall in France
, in particular Normandy and Pas de Calais, were historically the most significant (actually used in battle), I’ll cover only a selection of those, going south-west to north-east:
There are several fairly well-preserved Atlantic Wall fortifications at Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the French Basque country, close to the border with Spain, e.g. those at Pointe Sainte Barbe.
The fire direction tower “Barbara” near the mouth of the Adour River
Some also include the large U-Boat pens, massive bunker structures for the protection of submarines, as parts of the Atlantic Wall. In that case the one at Bordeaux, actually inland, on a tidal river, the Gironde, is the first south-westernmost one.
The mouth of this river was also heavily fortified, e.g. at Arros.
The next submarine pen is at La Rochelle.
La Rochelle in turn was protected by fortifications on the Île de Ré, including another large 20m-high, fire direction tower.
The next U-boat pen is at Saint-Nazaire
, and this is even commodified
for tourism and includes a (French) submarine (not from WWII
, but one built in 1960).
Saint Nazaire, in turn, was protected by outlying fortifications too, such as Le Pointeau on the other side of the estuary.
Of the fortifications further up the coast, a significant example is the “Grand Blockhaus” near Batz-sur-Mer, a massive bunker with several levels that now houses a museum (grand-blockhaus.com).
Yet another fire direction tower serving a set of gun batteries can be found at Bégo south of Lorient.
The next U-Boat bunker complex, consisting of several pens, on this coast is at Lorient
, and this too features some tourism commodification
(musee-sous-marin.com), and also includes an actual (French) submarine (la-flore.fr). Other parts are in commercial use.
The final one of the large U-Boat pens is in Brest, the large naval port in Brittany. This one is not accessible.
Brest was heavily fortified, and one of the better commodified sites is the former Graf Spee Battery to the west of the city, which also features a museum (museememoires39-45.fr).
Making the turn around the peninsula of Brittany, towards the west of its northern coast near Saint-Malo is the small island of Cézembre
, which is one of the most bombed places of WWII
; it’s still littered with bunker ruins, broken gun barrels and scarred turrets. Naturally, though, it’s not so accessible as any mainland sites.
In the city of Saint-Malo itself, the the Fort d’Alet features the Musée Memorial 1939-1945 inside a German blockhaus (www.ville-saint-malo.fr/les-musees/).
Moving on into Normandy, the first point of Atlantic Wall interest here is at Pointe du Roc west of Granville, where several coastal bunkers can be seen.
In Normandy it was the city of Cherbourg
that was the most heavily fortified, a particularly significant example is the Batterie Roule
inside the mountain of the same name – see under Liberation Museum
Batterie d’Azeville features a bunker whose camouflage as a regular stone building has been recreated.
The fortifications at Pointe du Hoc
are featured in the chapter on the D-Day tours
run by the Mémorial de Caen
. This also comes with a photo gallery!
The most unique and hence fabled of the countless gun batteries along the French coast has to be the one at Longues-sur-Mer
– for the simple reason that it is the only one with preserved guns! Everywhere else they’re either completely gone or seriously damaged (within France
, that is; in Norway
many more intact coastal guns can be found).
Another unique sight, if of a different nature, lies a little further inland at Douvres-la-Délivrande: a German radar station featuring the last intact “Würzburg” radar in France, now part of a dedicated museum (musee-radar-fr).
An especially large bunker
on 5 levels is to be found at Ouistreham
, north of Caen
. This now houses an Atlantic Wall museum (museegrandbunker.com).
Another significant site is the Merville Battery and open-air museum east of the Caen canal, which features not only bunkers but also reconstructed trenches, some guns and a full Douglas C-47 “Dakota” plane (batterie-merville.com).
Moving further east, a major fortification was atop Mont Canisy near Blonville-sur-Mer.
The major harbour of Le Havre was naturally protected by numerous fortifications, including on the outer harbour pier.
A partially commodified (through info panels) set of fortifications further up the coast is at Cap Fagnet near Fécamp, including the base of what was a giant radar station antenna.
There are many more bunkers and former gun emplacements along the coastline going east towards Calais and beyond, as this coastal stretch to where the English Channel is narrowest was naturally heavily fortified. But many of these are either difficult to access and/or quite damaged and some are even slowly sinking into the beaches as the dunes retreat (similar to what you find a lot in Denmark
), e.g. on the beach to the west of Calais.
The one big exception is the so-called Batterie Todt
(named after the Nazi
“Organisation Todt”, which built many of these concrete monsters) north of Boulogne-sur-Mer. It consists of several casemates, and it’s also home to the Musée du Mur de l’Atlantique
, or Atlantic Wall Museum (batterietodt.com). The star exhibit here, in the open air, is one of only two remaining, Krupp K5 283mm railway gun
s in the world (the other one is in the USA, namely at the US Army Ordnance Museum), which was capable of firing 255 kg shells over a distance of nearly 40 miles (62 km), i.e. it could easily reach the south coastal areas of Britain, including Dover and Folkstone. Given this, as well as the rest of the museum, and the good state of the bunker it is housed in, Batterie Todt has to rank as the Number One sight along the entire Atlantic Wall
Other impressive sets of bunkers, though less well commodified for tourists, are the Batterie Oldenburg and Batterie Waldam to the west of Calais.
Finally, there are also massive fortifications to the east of Dunkirk at Leffrinckoucke, in a state of ruin mostly, but some have been used as canvasses for rather creative large-scale graffiti.
There are yet more fortifications beyond the border between France
and further east in the Netherlands
, e.g. at Oostende, Vlissingen and Ijmuiden (esp. the aptly named Forteiland, or ‘fortress island’), but I’ll leave it at this list here.
Note, though not strictly speaking part of the Atlantic Wall coastal defences, the V-bases
in Pas-de-Calais are also noteworthy constructions in this context.