Here's What You Need To Remember: In spite of all the money, manpower, and effort expended, in the end, thanks to information provided by British intelligence and the French Underground, a bit of luck, and many determined soldiers, the Allies breached the “impregnable” Atlantic Wall in a matter of hours on June 6, 1944.
The popular image of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall (Atlantikwall) is one of massive bunkers and huge artillery pieces recessed in concrete casemates stretching the length of the Reich’s coastline. It was anything but that.
Yet, while it was hardly a continuous series of defensive structures, or as formidable as Allied planners thought it to be, the Wall did give them pause when planning the assault on Fortress Europe.
Three elements constituted Germany’s defenses along the Atlantic coast: fire-power, fortifications, and manpower. However, none of these could have been effective without proper leadership.
Building Up the Wall
Much of the Wall’s lethality was only added in the six months prior to the D-Day landing, due to the efforts of two men—Field Marshals von Rundstedt and Rommel.
The Wall included an estimated 15,000 reinforced-concrete structures: munitions bunkers, flak bunkers, troop shelters, infantry and artillery combat bunkers, communication bunkers, depot bunkers for storing supplies and crew-served weapons, combat headquarters bunkers with staff quarters, observation and command bunkers, battery fire-control positions, and support bunkers for machinery, searchlights, and power generators.
The Germans themselves came to think of the Wall primarily as that portion on the Dutch, Belgian, and French coasts, while defenses along the Norwegian, Danish, and German North Sea coasts consisted mainly of a series of separate fortresses or heavily protected gun emplacements.
The core of the Wall was its coastal gun batteries. The number of batteries deployed by 1944 included 22 in Germany’s Helgoland Bay, with 78 guns of over 150mm; 70 batteries along the Danish coastline with 293 large caliber guns; 225 batteries in Norway with approximately 1,000 guns of 100mm or larger caliber (42 of them of 240mm or larger), and 343 batteries along the French coast, which included 1,348 guns of 150mm or larger.
Some 495 artillery casemates or other emplacements were built for heavy artillery of 150mm or larger in the area of the German Fifteenth Army, north of the Seine River; about 200 in the Seventh Army area (Normandy and Brittany); and 65 in the First Army area, along the Bay of Biscay. The batteries included over two dozen different calibers of weapons ranging from 76mm to 406mm. Many were captured French guns, but also included Russian, British, Czech, Yugoslav, and Dutch as well.
Three Phases of the Atlantic Wall
The Atlantic Wall evolved in phases as the war took on changing circumstances for Germany. The first, or pre-Wall phase, lasted from the late summer of 1940 to December 1941, when reverses on the Eastern Front forced Hitler to alter his timetable for the war. Defensive efforts were confined mainly to protecting submarine bases and to guarding against possible British commando raids.
The second phase lasted from December 1941 to October 28, 1943, and was marked by the creation of the Atlantic Wall concept. It involved setting up a system of fortifications that would make it possible for the Wehrmacht to free up troops for tasks elsewhere—defensive installations and fire-power serving as substitutes for manpower.
The third phase began in October 1943, following Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s situation report to the Führer on the West’s defenses, and lasted until the Normandy landing in June 1944. By then, the Germans, in spite of their dwindling resources, had assembled a fairly impressive force behind a substantially improved line of coastal defenses––a system that they hoped would be sufficient to turn back an invasion.
The third element of the Atlantic Wall was the manpower or units deployed to defend it. From 1940 through 1941, Army Group D, under Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, had a small number of divisions stationed in the Netherlands, Belgium, and occupied France.
“A Propaganda Wall”
In the spring of 1942, when Field Marshal von Rundstedt took over command, the number of divisions in the area began to increase; however, many of the units were sent there primarily to rest and rebuild after suffering heavy losses on the Eastern Front.
Von Rundstedt complained that the Atlantic Wall was nothing but a gigantic bluff, a “propaganda wall.” After the war, he made a number of damning remarks about the Atlantic Wall: “The enemy probably knew more about it than we did ourselves.” He did believe that it was a formidable barrier from the Scheldt to the Seine, “but further than that—one has only to look at it for one’s self in Normandy to see what rubbish it was.”
He also described the Wall south of the Gironde toward the Spanish border as “a dreary situation” because “there was really nothing at all there.” Gloomily, he stated that, “It doesn’t suffice to build a few pillboxes. One needs defense in depth.”
Von Rundstedt was less concerned about the unfortified stretches of beach than about the number and quality of his troops to defend the wall, and the strength of his reserves. “Moreover,” he said, “the requisite forces were lacking—we couldn’t have manned them, even if fortifications had been there.”
With a few exceptions, the coastal divisions were at less than full strength and of inferior quality, made up of untrained youth, men in their late 30s or older, and others deemed unfit for frontline combat duty. They were supplemented by Volksdeutsche––ethnic Germans from across Europe––and by non-Germans recruited from the occupied territories, as well as Soviet prisoners-of-war.
Foreign troops taken into the German forces from Russia, called Osttruppen, included various ethnic groups––Cossacks, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, and Turkomans. They were formed into battalions separated by religion and ethnicity and placed under German officers, and were generally treatd as second-class soldiers. By the end of 1943, there were one or two Ost battalions in almost every German coastal unit.
The coastal divisions’ weapons and equipment were also less than first rate, much of it foreign made and obsolete. There was also a severe shortage of tanks, and many units were designated “static divisions,” as they lacked even horse-drawn transport.
To make matters worse, von Rundstedt commanded only Army troops; he had no authority over the few assets of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine in the West, or over Waffen-SS units.
Preliminary work began on the Atlantic Wall in the late summer of 1940 as the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine established defenses at key ports and airfields to protect facilities for Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain, from air raids and possible naval bombardment. The Army also brought up heavy batteries to the Pas de Calais with orders to clear mine-free paths for the planned invasion crossing and to protect the coastal area.
During September 1940, construction began on the first of three large, concrete- dome bunkers for heavy rail guns in the Pas de Calais area. These bunkers were built with armored doors and were large enough to house two 280mm guns and a locomotive.
One such bunker was situated northwest of Calais, about one kilometer from the coast. Another was sited at Vallée Heureuse, about four kilometers east of Marquise, almost halfway between Calais and Boulogne, some six kilometers from the coast. A third was placed one kilometer north of Wimereux, five kilometers north of Boulogne, near the coast. A fourth bunker, larger than the others, was built later to house a rail-gun battery not far from the first dome bunker near Calais.
As guns were transferred from German coastal positions along the North Sea and Baltic, and from the border-guarding Westwall, the first concrete mounts were completed in November 1940. Most of these weapons were installed in huge casemates or mounted on concrete emplacements. Heavy naval guns were mounted in turrets with some placed in concrete casemates with their turrets. Defensive support or protective combat bunkers and munitions bunkers were also built to service the guns.
Technical work on facilities and structures was the responsibility of the Organisation Todt (OT)—a civil and military engineering group responsible for the design and construction of the prewar Autobahn system and the Westwall (Siegfried Line) along the French-German border. OT was later absorbed into the Ministry for Armaments and War Production (Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion).
Construction work along the coast in 1941 was primarily devoted to the building of coastal batteries and U-boat bases. Most of the concrete used went into submarine pens and the second largest amount to Luftwaffe airfields and installations.
On March 28, 1942, Führer Directive No. 40 called for the creation of the Atlantic Wall. Long-range coastal batteries were to be placed to protect important harbors as well as military and industrial targets in coastal areas. In addition to preventing landings, importance was also placed on safeguarding the sea entrances of protected waterways. The concern was that any interruption of coastal shipping could have serious consequences.
Von Rundstedt, the commander of the German Army in the West––Ob West (Oberbefehlshaber West), issued orders during May 1942, based on Directive No. 40, which established the organization of the coastal defenses in a hierarchy from Festungen (fortresses) with heavy and super-heavy guns placed in reinforced concrete structures, then Verteidigungsbereiche (defense sector), followed by Stützpunkt-gruppen (strongpoint group), Stützpunkt (strongpoint), down to Widerstandnester (resistance nest, or WN).