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Walking or cycling in the dunes, you will come across them sooner or later: German bunkers from World War II. But not everyone will know that they are the visible remains of the Atlantic Wall, a 5,200-km-long defence line, which ran from Norway to southern France. The story of the Atlantic Wall is about its construction and military importance, but also about the lesser-known aspects such as mass evacuations, the demolition and reconstruction. The bunkers and other remnants of the Atlantic Wall form a memory landscape reminding us of the dark past of World War II.
World War II
The Atlantic Wall is one of the largest building works of the 20th century. Nazi Germany built it during World War II (between 1942 and 1945) to make an Allied invasion of the Western European mainland from the sea impossible. The construction began in response to the threat of a protracted two-front war for Germany, when, after losing the air war against Britain in late September 1940, the German advance into the Soviet Union also came to a halt a year later. To strengthen the weak defence of the coast in the west, the Germans began to build a coastal defence line in late 1941. This so-called New West Wall – to distinguish it from the West Wall, a 630-kilometer-long defence line along the western border of Germany itself – aimed to strengthen strategic locations such as ports, cities and industrial areas along the entire coast from Norway to the Franco-Spanish border. The idea was that an enemy invasion could then be stopped with a relatively small military force.
Fear of invasion
The construction of the New West Wall, later to be renamed as the Atlantic Wall for propaganda reasons, barely progressed to start with. However, the fear of an Allied invasion became so great after 1942 that all available manpower was redirected to coastal defence. The Netherlands too soon experienced the consequences of the construction. The beaches and dunes along the entire coast were declared prohibited areas (Sperrgebiet) in April 1942. A general building prohibition was in place from 1 July 1942, because a large part of the building capacity was needed for the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The original plans provided for the construction of 15,000 bunkers on the Dutch, Belgian and French coast. However, due to lack of manpower, material and fuel, only 6,000 bunkers had been completed by the deadline of 1 May 1943. Of these, 510 were in the Netherlands, instead of the planned 2,000.
Structure of the Atlantic Wall
The Atlantic Wall was a series of separate, independent and smaller and larger structures that were defensible on all sides and could provide fire support to each other. In many cases they consisted of bombproof bunkers made of reinforced concrete, sometimes with a wall and roof thickness of at least two metres. Depending on their importance and size, the support structures are called Widerstandsnest, Stützpunkt, Stützpunktgruppe, Verteidigungsbereich or Festung. The Widerstandsnest (Resistance Nest) is the smallest support structure, Festung (Fortress) – the ports and access to them – the largest. There were four Verteidigungsbereiche (Defence Zones) in the Netherlands: Den Helder, IJmuiden, Hook of Holland and Vlissingen. In 1944, Hook of Holland and IJmuiden received the status of Festung.
The coastal defences consisted, in addition to the personnel of the support structures themselves, of batteries with coastal and anti-aircraft guns and radar installations. The batteries were typically composed of a fire control post (where observations were made and measurements taken), gun emplacements, shelters for troops and storage facilities for ammunition and, for example, generators. The defences were interconnected by underground trenches.
Apart from bunkers and batteries, fences and natural barriers, such as watercourses and steep dune slopes, also formed part of the Atlantic Wall. One example of such an obstacle are rows of slanted steel beams encased in poured concrete, called Höckerhindernisse, also referred to as "Dragon's Teeth". Those Dragon's Teeth obstacles consisted of five parallel rows of concrete pyramids that differed in height per row. The Germans also flooded areas, built anti-tank walls (Panzermauer) and dug dry or wet anti-tank ditches of up to 20 metres wide.
Reinforced Atlantic Wall
In late 1943, Hitler instructed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to fortify the Atlantic Wall further. Rommel thought that an invading force should be destroyed while still at sea. If that could not be done, the invasion should, in any case, be repulsed at the beach. That is why, in early 1944, he had all kinds of obstacles placed in the flood line, had low-lying areas flooded and minefields, earthen walls, trenches and anti-tank ditches built. He also had large numbers of slanted poles, connected by steel wires and mined, placed in the ground all along the coast. To prevent Allied airborne landings, and to reinforce the coastal defences, the Germans also flooded large areas of the Dutch provinces of Zeeland and South Holland from February 1944.
Organisation Todt, named after its founder, Fritz Todt, was responsible for the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The organisation mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers. Initially, the work was performed by paid workers and prisoners of war. However, a shortage of manpower later led to the use of civilians as forced labour, for example, in Norway and France. Even German soldiers took part in the construction. At the height of the building work, a total of half a million people were involved.
As in other countries, the Germans used well-paid local subcontractors in the Netherlands. The workers were either contracted voluntarily or deployed by the Germans as forced labour via the Arbeitseinsatz. There were camps for Atlantic Wall workers at various places in the Netherlands.
Where possible, the Germans made use of existing Dutch defences for the Atlantic Wall. For example, they placed a gun bunker on the ramparts of a 19th century fortress in Hellevoetsluis and converted an ammunition chamber in Fort Hook of Holland, also from the 19th century, to a bread bakery for Festung Hook of Holland. The sea front of Fort Erfprins, dating from the French Period, in Den Helder, was used for the construction of an anti-aircraft battery.
How to build a bunker?
The Germans used standard bunker designs for the construction of the Atlantic Wall. These Regelbauten had been used in the construction of the West Wall in the late 1930s. In total, hundreds of different standard types are known, all with a unique identifier and unique type number. The advantage of standard construction was that it was known in advance how much construction material and labour was needed, which facilitated the logistics planning and shortened the construction time.
Efficiency was essential as the construction of the Atlantic Wall required massive amounts of concrete and reinforcing steel, because the bunkers had to be able to withstand powerful bombs. More than 100 cubic metres of concrete, for example, was required for small bunkers. The construction of a bunker started with digging a hole. Then the bulky frame of reinforcing steel was built, around which the wooden formwork for the concrete was installed. Concrete was then poured, after which it had to dry for 24 hours. Once the concrete shell was ready, engineers installed the steel doors, ventilation systems, heaters, sleeping berths, etc. In the course of the war, steel became ever more scarce and some bunkers were, therefore, never fully equipped.
Demolition and evacuation
The construction of the Atlantic Wall had a major impact on the people living on the Dutch coast. The Germans tore down landmarks (towers) along the coast and cleared fields of fire. Thousands of homes and buildings were demolished. Towns such as Ter Heijde and Petten almost disappeared completely from the map, while in Hook of Holland, Hellevoetsluis and IJmuiden the historical centres were torn down.
In The Hague, a stretch 10 kilometres long and 500 metres wide was designated for the construction of an anti-tank ditch, which led to the demolition of several neighbourhoods. In Katwijk, almost all the buildings along the boulevard were pulled down and the old fishermen's quarter behind it also disappeared.
Residents of demolished houses in the Sperrgebiet were forcibly evacuated. The same was true for the residents of such areas as Goeree-Overflakkee, Voorne-Putten and Hoeksche Waard, which were flooded by the Germans. In The Hague alone, 130 000 people had to leave their homes and find shelter elsewhere, often far from their hometown or province. Many of them did not return to their hometown after the war. An estimated several hundred thousand people were forcibly evacuated. Both the evacuations and demolitions were organised and coordinated by the municipalities themselves.
Nature also suffered from the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The dunes were excavated and structures erected on top of them, forests felled for making formwork and obstacles, and tens of thousands of hectares of farmland destroyed by flooding, anti-tank obstacles, trenches and minefields. The interventions changed the dune landscape in many places.
Life on the Atlantic Wall was monotonous: guard duty, practicing and playing cards. But the living conditions there were, certainly in comparison to the front, outstanding. The bunkers were often surrounded by shelters, bakeries, kitchens, baths, toilets and garages, built from light concrete or brick. Some of those facilities were also housed in heavy bunkers.
Use of the Atlantic Wall
The Atlantic Wall was built to seal off Festung Europa. The propaganda, aimed at both the enemy and the German people, created and bolstered this image of an impregnable fortress. That proved to be a myth, because the Atlantic Wall failed to prevent the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944.
Yet, the military significance of the defence line should not be underestimated. The stubborn German resistance during the Allied invasion of Walcheren in November 1944 was made possible by the Atlantic Wall. The radar installations and anti-aircraft guns also played an important role in locating and intercepting Allied bombers, for example.
After the war
The demolition and removal of bunkers and fortifications started shortly after the war. Although there were also practical reasons for demolishing them, this was mainly done for psychological reasons. The defence structures were symbols of the occupation and people did not want to be reminded of the occupation. Hundreds of thousands of mines were cleared from the beaches, the sea and the dunes, often by German prisoners of war. The beach in Scheveningen re-opened to seaside visitors in the summer of 1946.
Bunkers were also used as (emergency) housing during the reconstruction years. When the Cold War began, the bunkers were also seen as possible shelters for the civilian population. New uses prevented the demolition of many bunkers. A good example is the Biber bunker near Oostvoorne, which was given a second life as a command post of the Civil Defence Organisation.
The Dutch Ministry of Defence also made a virtue of necessity and, for instance, used the bunker complex in the Staelduinse Forest at 's-Gravenzande as an ammunition store. During the Cold War, the Americans installed a beam transmitter or troposcatter and its four satellite dishes next to a German anti-aircraft bunker in nearby Vinetaduin.
In the 1960s, many bunkers on the Zeeland and South Holland islands were demolished because they were seen as a threat to the safety of the coast. This was a justified measure, because, during the disastrous flood of 1953, several dikes were breached in places where a bunker was built on the body of the dike. Numerous bunkers have been given a new purpose over time. They are being used to store ammunition, archives and art, to grow mushrooms or as museums or holiday homes. Bunkers are also sheltering some protected plant and animal species, such as bats.
Traces of the Atlantic Wall
Although large parts of the Atlantic Wall have been demolished, there are still many remnants of it in the coastal landscape, reminding us of its continued existence. We can still see bunkers in many places, as well as parts of anti-tank walls and the war-time infrastructure (feeder roads, railway lines), trenches and sand extraction pits.
What is less visible, however, is the impact the Atlantic Wall's construction had on the villages and towns along the coast. In South Holland in particular, the Atlantic Wall dramatically altered the appearance and character of such places as The Hague, Katwijk and Hook of Holland. Many places where the original buildings had to make way for the fortifications are now dominated by reconstruction architecture. Nowhere is this contrast greater than in The Hague, where you can still clearly see in many locations the sharp transition from original buildings to post-war developments.
Dozens of bunkers and bunker complexes are still there under the sand, often disguised as overgrown knolls or dunes. However, more and more bunkers are now being excavated, restored and opened to the public. The first Atlantic Wall Museum opened in Hook of Holland in 1996, followed by initiatives in Noordwijk and The Hague. Fifteen bunkers were dug out at the Punt on Goeree in 2012, and there are plans to excavate bunkers and make them accessible to visitors in more places along the coast.
It is, perhaps, difficult to imagine now, but one day the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall will inspire the same fascination as castles, city walls and fortresses do now. Originally intended to prevent the Allied invasion of occupied Western Europe by sea, the Atlantic Wall has now become World War II heritage. The surviving parts of this defence line have made our coastal region into a memory landscape. The remaining bunkers are silent witnesses to the significant events that took place here.