“Although one of the most impressive engineering feats of modern times, British, American and Canadian troops breached the seemingly impregnable Nazi defences along a 80-mile stretch of French coastline at Normandy in a single day: June 6, 1944.”
AS EARLY AS 1942, Adolf Hitler knew that at some point the Allied armies massing in Britain would try to cross the English Channel and blast their way into his Fortress Europe. The Nazi dictator was convinced that if his Thousand Year Reich were to survive this day of reckoning, it would be up to his troops to hurl the invaders back into the sea faster than they could wade ashore. In preparation for the inevitable showdown, the Fuhrer ordered his generals to fortify Europe’s northern shore. He dubbed the resulting 2,000-mile long chain of fortresses, gun emplacements, tank traps and obstacles “The Atlantic Wall”. Although one of the most impressive engineering feats of modern times, British, American and Canadian troops breached the seemingly impregnable Nazi defences along a 80-mile stretch of French coastline at Normandy in a single day: June 6, 1944. With the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord happening this week, MilitaryHistoryNow.com asked Scott Addington, founder of the company Military Research UK and author of the recently released book D-Day: A Layman’s Guide, to compile a list of some remarkable facts about this formidable (yet failed) piece of wartime engineering. Enjoy!
By Scott Addington
1. Hitler issued the order to build the Atlantic Wall on March 23, 1942 in his now famous ‘Directive 40.’ The plan called for the construction of 15,000 separate concrete emplacements to be manned by 300,000 soldiers (both German troops and foreign conscripts). Since no one in the Axis high command knew where the invasion would occur, the whole of occupied Europe’s Atlantic coastline was to be fortified. Astoundingly, Hitler wanted the work completed by May 1, 1943.
2. The “wall” was really a three-tier system of fortifications running almost 2,000 miles from the Franco-Spanish border all the way to the northern tip of Norway. Strategic port cities like Cherbourg, Brest and Antwerp were to become festungen or “fortresses” — the most heavily defended installations. Sites of secondary importance (lesser ports, military installations, radar stations) were protected by stützpuntkte or “strong points”, which would be guarded by batteries and gun positions under independent command. The third level of defences consisted of widerstandnesten or “resistance nests”. These less hardened installations featured interconnected bunkers and medium caliber guns.
3. Approximately 1.2 million tons of steel went into the Atlantic Wall. That’s enough to build more than 20,000 Tiger tanks. The Nazis also poured 17 million cubic metres of concrete into the defences – the equivalent of 1,100 Yankee Stadiums.
4. The cost to lay down just the French portion of the Atlantic Wall was 3.7 billion Reichsmarks — an estimated $206 billion in today’s currency.
5. More than 260,000 workers helped to build the Atlantic Wall. Only 10 percent of these men were German. Albert Speer’s Organisation Todt directed the construction effort using thousands of forced labourers as well as many poorly paid local men. Speer’s previous projects included the Autobahn highway system in Germany as well as the Siegfried Line along the Franco-German border.
6. The guns that grew out of the Atlantic Wall were a confusing mixture of sizes and calibres rushed in from all over Europe. They ranged from naval guns that were cut away from decommissioned French and German warships to captured artillery pieces of Czech and French origin. Servicing and supplying ammunition to this dizzying array of weaponry would become a logistical nightmare for the Axis.
7. By the summer of 1944, the Nazis had laid more than 5 million mines along the Atlantic Wall. German gun crews spent months pre-sighting anticipated landing areas and constantly rehearsed pouring artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire onto these designated killing zones.
8. The commander to first oversee the defences was Field Marshall Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, a 69-year-old career soldier who won fame in 1940 for outflanking the Maginot Line. The maneuver ultimately led to the collapse of France. Ironically, he would now preside over the building of an even more massive series of fixed fortifications.
9. In late 1943, when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel inspected the Atlantic Wall for the first time, he thought the enterprise a giant farce. The famous Desert Fox described Hitler’s strategy for defence as something out of wolkenkuckucksheim or “cloud cuckoo land”.
10. Events proved Rommel right. The wall was famously breached along the Normandy coastline in mere hours on June 6, 1944. Thanks in part to a remarkable Allied campaign of deception, Hitler was adamant that the massive operation on D-Day was only a feint and that the real blow would land elsewhere, namely at the Pas de Calais. Within days, the British, French, Americans and Canadians had secured their beachheads through which millions of fresh troops would soon pour into Europe. Within 11 months Berlin was in Allied hands.
11. After 1945, the people of France felt that the abandoned defences were an unpleasant symbol of the occupation and couldn’t break them apart fast enough. Efforts to reclaim the coastline would still take years. It wasn’t until decades later that the public began to preserve sections of the Atlantic Wall for posterity. Many of the fortifications still stand and draw thousands of tourists annually.