The Atlantic Wall




The Atlantic Wall was one of the largest defensive structures ever built. It can be counted in complexity and cost to the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall. It stretched from the Arctic Circle to the northern coast of Spain in he Pyrenees Mountains. It was not a continuous structure like the Maginot Line. It was instead a series of extremely robust coastal fortifications separated by almost impossible natural barriers: extremely high rocky cliffs, turbulent sea waters, rocky beaches and easily defended high ground separated the more than 15,000 redoubts.


At key points of the western European coast were placed fifteen 400mm naval guns, capable of sinking a battleship at 35 miles. Trained crews that knew how to hit a target accurately manned these guns,  seven in Norway and three in France. Heavy 300mm guns captured from Belgium were also repurposed to stop Allies, plus tens of thousands of 88mm guns and tens of thousands more high observation posts, anti aircraft installations and heavy machine gun nests. The fortifications housed 300,000 German soldiers and thus became something of a long barracks, fitted with bunkers and showers, carefully placed food entrepôts, ammunition depots, and a sophisticated network of radio coverage. Fortified culverts protected German troops running from defensive post to post.


You see the Germans had to block every possible accessible port or beach to prevent an invasion. As the war proceeded, Allied bombing began crushing German infrastructure. In June 1941, the largest land invasion in history took place when Germany opened a huge front in the east as it penetrated Russia. But within a year, after spectacular victories resulting in thousands of miles or territorial gain and millions of POWs, the resilient Russian gained some footing, and soon the Eastern front was a bloody inch by inch struggle. Hitler knew that the Allies were staging large troop carriers on the Southeastern British coastline and a massive invasion was looming. He knew he didn’t have the manpower to fight a multi-front war, given that the invasion of Italy and Sicily opened a front in the south that also would not relent.





The Germans, just a few decades after the trench warfare of World War I had a whole corps of combat engineers who knew how to build hardened fortifications. He assigned them and millions of French slaves build the Atlantic Wall. They placed camouflage netting that was extremely effective hiding gun emplacements from the bombers. They placed 6,000,000 mines, millions of poles attached to munitions or Teller mines, steel girders welded together to destroy landing craft and slow down infantry. And that was only phase one.


Despite the fact that Hitler ran his own show, there was a huge disagreement on the defensive strategy of the Atlantic Wall. Von Rundstedt, the old Prussian maneuver general wanted to allow the Allies to land and make progress inland. He felt it would be easier to defeat them once they were on flatter ground. His subordinate Rommel disagreed and felt the Allied invasion had to be stopped at the waterline. Hitler agreed with Rommel.


One of the odd truths about Normandy was how easy it was to fool the Germans. British agents captured German agents and forced them to convince the Nazis that the landings would happen at Pas de Calais. Operation Fortitude was that intelligence coup that the Allies were able to tie up German assets in the wrong place. In 1944, Rommel was asked to bolster the wall and added millions more mines, and thousands of miles of barbed wire. Normandy itself was the least hotly defended stretch of beach and despite the 4000 casualties on the first day; the wall was breached in 14 hours.






The Atlantic Wall was itself placed there to make up for the lack of manpower. Bunkers would make up the difference, and by the invasion, there were bunkers that literally no Allied weapon could penetrate. For the most part, the Allies learned during the Dieppe Raid early on how unprepared they were to breach it and that they would need to invent new machines to penetrate the Nazi’s impervious seaside fortifications.


One strategy was to do the simple things. All bombers with unspent munitions would drop their remaining load over the bunkers. The persistent overcast weather was often to the advantage of bombers, hiding their positions overhead and the disappointment of ground anti aircraft crews. These attacks, and the attacks on the manufacturing capability itself all took their toll in a massive war of attrition.  Another Allied strategy was to create the LSI (Landing Craft Infantry) flat bottomed landing craft, Higgins Boats, designed to float over the obstacles and mines below the surface. The Allies also modified armored vehicles to clear mind trails and protect crews from booby traps. 


As the invasion approached, Rommel added 50,000,000 more mines to the wall, many made of glass and therefore non-magnetic. Rommel even placed poles in the ground in flat fields to smash up gliders as they landed. These obstacles were called Rommel’s Asparagus. There were also Hedgehogs, Bucky ball like steel structures that would rip into the armor of a tank or boat. There were Nutcracker Mines, musically Belgian Hedgehog structures with a lever and a shell set to explode when the armored vehicle touches it.


The Atlantic Wall was over time dismantled, scavenged and cannibalized for the reconstruction of Europe, parts of it remain as museums. The amount of steel to build 60 Chrysler Buildings was used to stop the invasion. 50,000,000 metric tons of concrete were poured. In an era of aircraft and mobile armor, static defenses were hard to penetrate but medieval strategies nonetheless – desperate measures really.

The third front mentioned earlier, in Italy, forced the Nazis to build about 800 miles of fortifications on the Mediterranean coastline south of France as well. They too, were breached.


Sources: Bundesarchiv,, and Jurga, . Fortress Europe: European Fortifications of World War II, Da Capo Press, 2002., History Channel.




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