The European Atlantic Wall Heritage Foundation (Stichting Europees Erfgoed Atlantikwall) was founded in 2014 with two main goals: to raise awareness for the Atlantic Wall as a heritage entity amongst a wide audience and to further develop the cultural-historical experience it offers. These goals are being realised by the organisation of various projects with a focus on recreation and tourism. Bunkerdag is the best-known example of these.
Germany started as early as 1940 building fortifications along the western European coast. The term ‘Atlantic Wall’ or ‘Neue Westwall’ as the line was first known, was not yet being used. The battlements were primarily built for the defence of the most important harbour entrances; in The Netherlands IJmuiden, Rotterdam and Vlissingen. It occurred to the German forces at that time that the coastal defences could also potentially play an important role in an invasion of England by providing cover for the invading fleet but an invasion was never realised as Germany was defeated in the airborne offensives above England.
The German Army installed open artilleries between the existing fortifications from 1941 onwards and the concept of an uninterrupted line of defence was born.
The hindrance of the German attack on the Soviet Union at Moscow at the end of 1941 made Hitler realise that he may be hemmed in on both sides; on one side a possible English invasion and to the east a Russian counterattack. He did not have enough troops or resources to fight both.
Because of this, Hitler decided, on December 14th 1941, to build the ‘Neue Westwall’. His intent was to expand the existing defences to complete an uninterrupted line running from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Biscay. Hitler thought that physically ‘closing’ the coast in this manner would free up the necessary troops for a further offensive on the Russian front.
Building the wall was not progressing fast enough and Hitler was concerned that the open artilleries were too vulnerable for airstrikes. He chose therefore to build bunkers around them with reinforced concrete walls of at least 2 metres thick. This was called ‘Ständiger Ausbau (St)’. Then, on August 25th 1942, General-Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt, commander of all German troops on the western front at the time, ordered the West-European coast be transformed into an impregnable fortification. This, order number 14, was the birth of the Atlantic Wall.
Some 15,000 heavy bunkers along the Dutch, Belgian and French coast should have been built by May 1st 1943, but due to insufficient manpower, materials and fuel only 6,000 were completed. Of this number 510 were completed in The Netherlands, instead of the 2,000 that were planned.
In 1943, Hitler appointed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel as inspector of the Atlantic Wall. His strategy was to destroy attackers at sea and only to give battle on the beaches if driven to it as a last resort. In accordance with this, Rommel began in early 1944 with the installation of numerous hindrances along the water’s edge, including masses of large poles buried so they stuck out of the sand at an angle connected with steel wire and combined with landmines, later called ‘Rommel-asparagus’. Furthermore, he fortified the defences on the land-facing side by flooding low-lying areas and installing minefields, levees and trenches, anti-tank ditches and other obstructions. The compilation of the Atlantic Wall continued right up until the end of the war, even though it had become clear much earlier that there was no longer any reason to do so.
The Atlantic Wall measures 6200 kilometres in length (including the coastline of the British Channel Islands which Hitler captured in 1940).
In the end, the full 2,000 fortifications were realised, along with tens of thousands of lighter bunkers and brickwork buildings. Moreover, likely vulnerabilities for enemy aviation landings and tank offensives on the land-facing side of the coast were further fortified with more anti-tank ditches, anti-tank walls and other obstacles.
The construction of the Atlantic Wall has had a profound effect on inhabitants in the coastal area of The Netherlands. Large sections of this region were declared no-go zones and 300,000 people were forced to evacuate. In The Hague alone 150,000 had to leave their homes and seek shelter elsewhere, often far from their hometown or province. Many did not return to their original domicile after the war. Early 1944 saw the Germans flooding large portions of Zeeland, which lead to the evacuation of some 60,000 Zeelanders, and almost 10,000 buildings were demolished so that ground troops would have a clear line of fire. The resulting rubble was also used to create additional defences such as anti-tank ditches.
Author and publisher Geert-Jan Mellink produced De Atlantikwall in Nederland en België, a handy and uncomplicated guide to bunkers in The Netherlands and Belgium. The 100+ paged book contains descriptions and photographs of the +/-80 most important Atlantic Wall locations as well as the history of the Atlantic Wall as a whole and specific engineering of the bunkers. Spectacular drone photography and many historical images in this comprehensive guide make it an historical gem not to be missed!
De Atlantikwall in Nederland en België (in Dutch) can be ordered via bol.com, or directly via Geert-Jan Mellink himself (email@example.com). The guide is also available during Bunkerdag at selected vendor locations. Price: € 12.95.
Atlantikwall Europe is a collaborative project in the context of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018, and is supported by Creative Europe Culture (2014-2020), the European subsidy programme for the cultural sector. The project runs from July 1st, 2018 to June 30th, 2020.
The main partners in the project include: the European Heritage Atlantic Wall Foundation, organiser of the Dutch Bunker Day, the Raversyde Domain in Ostend, the Flemish Land Agency and the French La Fabrique de patrimoines en Normandie. In addition, heritage organisations from the other Atlantic Wall countries (Denmark, Norway, the Channel Islands and Germany) have joined Atlantic Wall Europe.
The objective of Atlantic Wall Europe is to form a sustainable network of Atlantic Wall locations, and to present the heritage of the Atlantic Wall as a source of inspiration for cultural cooperation with museums, places of remembrance and other interested parties.
The projects resulting from this collaboration contribute to cultivating remembrance of the Second World War, especially among the youth. They simultaneously generate awareness amongst current and future generations of the significance of Atlantic Wall heritage for the Europe of today and tomorrow. The Atlantic Wall is not only permanently linked to our collective memory of the Second World War, but also to segregation and oppression. With this in mind, Atlantic Wall Europe endeavours to connect past with present via cultural and arts projects, thereby contributing to diversity, a collective European identity based on shared values, and mutual understanding between European citizens.
European Bunker Day is the most important event of Atlantikwall Europe. Based on the Dutch ‘Bunkerdag’, each of the seven Atlantic Wall countries is organizing a national Bunker Day in May or June.
In 2017, Belgium experienced its first Bunker Day. Atlantikwall Europe had made a cautious start in 2018 with Bunker Days in the other Atlantic Wall countries, where the first official European Bunker Day took place in 2019.
Just as in the Netherlands, the aim of European Bunker Day is to open as many bunkers and bunker locations as possible once a year, and to bring the Atlantic Wall to the attention of a wide audience as an important part of Second World War heritage via educational and cultural activities, simultaneously demonstrating the significance of the Atlantic Wall for today’s Europe.
The Atlantic Wall is a symbol of exclusion and oppression, but D-Day showed that no wall can stop freedom. That is why the bunkers will always remind us of the importance of living in a free and democratic Europe.
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