Visitors in the dunes next to The Hague might have noticed bunkers placed along the coast, pointing towards the sea. What’s up with these bunkers and why are they there in the first place?
The fortifications extending through most of the Dutch coast are part of the Atlantic Wall, built by Nazi Germany. This massive project was planned to extend from the Spanish border in the south, along the coast of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, extending upwards alongside the Norwegian coast.
The defensive bunkers and walls didn’t really do their job, yet their remnants remain as a reminder of a not so distant past. In this article, we’ll explore the history of the Atlantic Wall, its failings and its current situation.
1942, the start of the Atlantic Wall
In the first stage of the war, from 1939 to 1941, it seemed as if the victory of Nazi Germany was on the horizon. The Lowlands and France were swiftly defeated and conquered in 1940, while Great Britain was undergoing a brutal blitz. Meanwhile, on the eastern front, Operation Barbarossa in 1941 kickstarted the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, the Nazi leadership was afraid of the possibility of a two-front invasion. With the Blitz in the UK stalling and Stalingrad blocking Nazi advancement on the eastern front, concerns were raised of a possible Allied invasion on the western seaboard.
Constructions started in 1942 due to the fear of an invasion from the west. Initially, it was called the New West Wall, in relationship to the West Wall on Germany’s terrestrial border to the west. Not really having a ring to it, they changed its name to the Atlantic Wall for propaganda purposes.
Nazi Germany directed a lot of its manpower to the construction of the wall, with up to half a million people working on it during its peak. The workers included forced labour from conquered countries, but also German soldiers and professional builders from local communities.
The initial plans involved building 15,000 bunkers along the French, Belgian and Dutch coast. However, due to the limited resources and manpower, only 6,000 of those bunkers ended up being finished by their deadline on May 1 1943. In the Netherlands for example, the initial plan was to build 2000 bunkers. Only 510 of those bunkers were finished.
Structures of the Atlantic Wall
The Atlantic Wall was formed out of independent structures that could support themselves in case of battle. The bunker was the main fortification found along the Atlantic Wall, and there was quite a major variation of size depending on the strategic location along the coast.
The wall also consisted of batteries containing anti-aircraft guns and radio installations, as well as storage facilities for ammunition and troops. The defences were connected through a series of underground trenches.
Beyond bunkers and trenches, fences and natural barriers such as steep dunes were also established.
Demolitions along the Atlantic Wall
Building the Atlantic Wall proved to be a traumatic experience for the communities living alongside the coast. In the Netherlands alone, hundreds of thousands of people had to relocate from their homes which were demolished for the Wall, some never to return again to their former towns.
In the Hague for example, the Nazis built a 10-kilometre stretch that was 500 metres wide in order to make an anti-tank ditch, demolishing through several neighbourhoods. In Katwijk, many of the buildings alongside the main boulevard were demolished, including a historic fisherman’s quarter.
Nature was also hard-hit by the demolitions, affecting the dunes which were excavated and modified for the purpose of building the Wall. Forests were also cut down, and thousands of hectares of farmland were destroyed as trenches and mines were built on top of them.
Fall of the Atlantic Wall
From the get-go, the Atlantic Wall was more of a desperate attempt to prevent a Western invasion than it was a well-thought-out strategy. The Wall was a best a deterrent through propaganda, meant to detract from an invasion.
The failure of the Wall became evident with the Normandy Invasion by Western forces in June 6 1944. While in some areas of the Wall, the bunkers proved to be useful for some time in repelling attacks, both on the ground and in the air, overall, the defences were breached relatively fast.
Post-war Atlantic Wall
Immediately after the war, many of the bunkers were demolished, including in the Netherlands. A psychological reminder of a horrific war and occupation, many of them were demolished throughout the late ’40s and the ’50s.
Another round of demolitions occurred in the ’60s in Zeeland and Zuid-Holland, as the bunkers proved to be a hazard that could lead to flooding alongside the coast.
The Atlantic Wall nevertheless left its mark on the Netherlands and other countries, and ruins, ranging from bunkers to railways and sandpits can be found all along the coast. The Hague is one of the most distinct places where you can still see this heritage, not only in the ruins scattered around but also in the city’s post-war development, that emerged from the demolitions done to build the Atlantic Wall.
A brutal war, but heritage nonetheless
Immediately after the war, nobody wanted to see the Atlantic Wall for its historic heritage, and for good reason. Still, as years went by, people looked back at the Atlantic Wall not with horror, but with historic curiosity and interest.
Towards the turn of the century, bunkers started to be excavated again after many years under the sand. Some were open to the public as museums, the first and most notable bunker being the Atlantic Wall Museum in the Hook of Holland, which opened back in 1996.
Other initiatives were started in The Hague and Noordwijk, and bunkers are also being excavated and reopened elsewhere. No matter the case, to see the bunkers, the best place to go is in Scheveningen, at the dunes extending towards Wassenaar. You cannot enter them, but take them as an open-air museum!
Have you seen or visited any of the bunkers from the former Atlantic Wall? Let us know in the comments!
Feature Image: Frans Berkelaar/Wikimedia Commons