What Was the Atlantic Wall and When Was It Built? | History Hit

What Was the Atlantic Wall and When Was It Built?

Sophie Gee

01 Mar 2023
German barbed wire obstacles on the beach at Franceville, Brittany, France. 1944.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Littered along the Atlantic coast of the European mainland are a series of fortifications and bunkers. Though now unkempt, they have stood the test of time. They did not, however, stand the test for which they were built.

These concrete structures were part of the Atlantic Wall, or Atlantikwall: a 2000 mile defensive line built by the Germans during the Second World War.

Why was the Atlantic Wall built?

After the emergence of an Eastern front following the invasion of the USSR, the failure of Operation Sealion to successfully invade Britain, and the entry of the United States into the war, the German strategy became exclusively defensive.

Building of the Atlantic Wall began in 1942. The barrier was supposed to stave off an invasion by Allies seeking to liberate Nazi occupied Europe. Coastal batteries were placed to protect important harbours, military and industrial targets and waterways. Hitler issued ‘Directive No. 40’ on 23 March 1942, in which he wrote:

In the days to come the coasts of Europe will be seriously exposed to the danger of enemy landings… Special attention must be paid to British preparations for landings on the open coast, for which numerous armoured landing craft suitable for the transportation of combat vehicles and heavy weapons are available.

The Atlantikwall spanned the coasts of six countries

As the Nazi propaganda extolled, the fortifications extended from the Franco-Spanish border, around the Atlantic coasts of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and then up to Denmark and the northern tip of Norway. This was thought to be necessary because, not only did the German forces not know when the allies would attack, they also did not know where they would choose to attack.

Camouflaged German torpedo battery in northern Norway (Credit: Bundesarchiv/CC).

It overran its completion date

The original deadline placed on the building of the Atlantic wall was May 1943. Yet by the end of the year only 8,000 structures, of a targeted 15,000, were in existence. Construction had, however, sped up since a British and Canadian raid on the French port, Dieppe, in August 1942.

How long was the Atlantic Wall?

The 2,000 miles of coastal defences and fortifications were made up of fortresses, gun emplacements, tank traps and obstacles. It was not a continuous structure or barricade.

The defences were formed into three tiers. The most strategically important areas were festungen (fortresses), then came the stützpuntkte (strong points) and finally the widerstandnesten (resistance nets).

The man in charge called it a ‘propaganda wall’

After the war, Field Marshal von Rundstedt recalled that “one has only to look at it for one’s self in Normandy to see what rubbish it was.”

Rundstedt had been dismissed from command on the Eastern Front after a significant failure at Rostov in 1941, but was appointed Oberbefehlshaber West in March 1942 and was therefore in command of coastal defence.

German soldiers placing landing craft obstructions, 1943 (Credit: Bundesarchiv/CC).

Large amounts of the operational defence was installed as late as 1944

As Allied invasion looked increasingly likely, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was assigned the task of inspecting the wall as General Inspector of the Western Defences from November 1943. He had witnessed Allied airpower in North Africa and found the defence to be weak. He argued that:

The war will be won or lost on the beaches. We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy and that’s while he’s in the water … struggling to get ashore.

Alongside Rundstedt, Rommel worked to upgrade the number and quality of personnel and weapons. In addition, construction rates were brought back up to the highs of 1943: 4,600 fortifications were erected along the coasts in the first 4 months of 1944, to add to the 8,478 already built.

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6 million land mines were planted in Northern France alone during Rommel’s lead, accompanied by obstacles such as ‘hedgehogs’, C-Element fences (inspired by the French Maginot Line) and various other defences.

The wall was built using forced labour

The organisation contracted to build the Atlantic wall was Organisation Todt, which was notorious for its use of forced labour.

During the period in which the Atlantic Wall was built, the organisation had approximately 1.4 million labourers. 1% of these had been rejected from military service, 1.5% were imprisoned in concentration camps. Others were prisoners of war, or of occupation – compulsory labourers from occupied countries. This included 600,000 workers from the unoccupied ‘free zone’ of France under the Vichy regime.

Of the 260,000 involved in the building of the Atlantic Wall, only 10% were German.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel visiting the Atlantic Wall defences near the Belgian port of Ostend (Credit: Bundesarchiv/CC).


The Allies stormed most of the defences within hours

On 6 June 1944, the Allied D-Day occured. 160,000 troops crossed the English channel. Thanks to intelligence, luck and tenacity, the wall was breached, the allies found their beachheads and the Battle of Normandy was underway.

More than two million Allied troops were in France within the next two months: the campaign to liberate Europe had begun.

Sophie Gee