The Atlantic Wall

Example of coastal defences (348 Inf. Div.), as at 1 May 1944

“Enemy forces that have succeeded in landing must be destroyed or thrown into the sea by immediate counterattacks.”

Führer Directive No. 40, March 23, 1942.

The completion of each static element in the German defence system naturally worked in favour of the established tactic of making the shore the front line. In the year before the landing, therefore, the construction of coastal fortifications and the Atlantic Wall assumed even greater significance. Each day that could be spent on further reinforcement, structural improvement, and more efficient camouflage seemed like a day gained.

At first, up to late autumn 1943, the construction of coastal fortifications was connected with the aim of saving as many troops as possible for deployment on other fronts. Later on, as the danger of an invasion grew, the coastal defence preparations were assigned a high value in their own right. The overall planning and execution criteria changed little up to the landing, with the emphasis, where building defensive installations was concerned, remaining on the large ports and the stretches of coast that appeared particularly vulnerable to attack. Above all, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, as commander-in-chief of Army Group B (with the troops of Wehrmacht Commander Netherlands, the Fifteenth, and the Seventh armies, under him), did his utmost to ensure that the overwhelming majority of the envisaged 15,000 fortifications and countless other obstacles were sited in the presumed epicentre of the enemy landing between Calais and the Seine estuary. Further west, in Normandy and Brittany, a smaller number were planned, and in the remaining coastal areas only a few.

It goes without saying that the Germans were unwilling and unable to carry out such a huge construction project on their own. In early October 1943 Jodl bluntly asserted that `the time has now come, in Denmark, Holland, France, and Belgium, to use the harshest measures to force the thousands of idlers to work on the fortifications, which take precedence over all other tasks’. In the end, the population was everywhere forced to take part in the work. As late as June 1944, despite repeated attempts to transfer forced labourers from the occupied countries of western Europe to the Reich in the course of Sauckel’s recruitment drives, the Todt Organization supplied some 140,000 non-Germans and 18,000 Germans for the construction of the Atlantic Wall.

The Germans were nevertheless forced to withdraw many workers from the coastal construction sites to repair the damage caused by increasing Allied air raids and sabotage by the Resistance, mainly against transport facilities and industrial plants. More and more workers were also needed for the construction of V-weapon bases in northern France.

Despite all these difficulties, the construction work as a whole assumed imposing proportions. Although only about 8,500 fortifications were more-orless ready by the beginning of 1944, a further 12,247 had been built on the west coast and 943 on the French Mediterranean coast by the day of the landing. At the same time, around half-a-million obstacles had been anchored offshore and 6 1/2 million mines laid, in order to prevent the Allies landing in force or to steer their advance in a direction favourable to the German defences. The barrier was completed by artillery of all calibres, tank cannon, and anti-aircraft guns, more and more of which were shielded from Allied air attack by concrete walls.

Differences of opinion soon arose as to the direction in which army and navy artillery should point. Hitler and OB West wanted to position the batteries so that they could also fire inland, against enemy airborne and ground troops that had broken through the German defence lines, whereas the navy insisted they should be directed towards targets out at sea. In the end, the interests of the army prevailed, and the navy had to give up most of its ideas. This also shows that the Germans ultimately intended to concentrate on fighting the Allies effectively inland rather than offshore. Many of the installations demanded by Naval Group West Command were consequently not completed, and the guns often left unshielded. In addition, much of the artillery supplied to it was taken from captured enemy stocks and was of doubtful range and accuracy.

The deficiencies in the area of the Fifteenth Army, at the heart of the defence preparations, were less serious. There, everything was done to ensure rapid and efficient consolidation. In the area of the Seventh Army, however, the completion of defence installations was much slower. At the end of May 1944 LXXXIV Army Corps, in whose area the landing actually took place, reported that only half the envisaged winter programme could be completed and that many batteries were still being installed, even though 74,000 Todt Organization workers and 3,765 trucks had been available to the Seventh Army since the middle of February.

Here, too, priorities had been set. While the ports of Cherbourg, St-Malo, Brest, Lorient, and St-Nazaire took the lion’s share of the available equipment and weapons, the right flank of the Seventh Army, between the rivers Vire and Orne, was comparatively poorly equipped. In late April 1944 Naval Group West Command reported that the Seventh Army in Normandy had a total of 47 artillery pieces for use against targets at sea, of which only 27 were protected by bunkers. Work on the remaining artillery was still under way or had not even started.

The second line of defence, 20-30 km from the coast, was also in a poor state of preparation. Planned in October 1943, most of the finished installations were in the Pas-de-Calais region, while the material and manpower available for Normandy were not sufficient to carry the project through to completion. OB West must have sensed that a static defence system like the Atlantic Wall was only as strong as its weakest point. In February 1944 he wrote to his commanding officers emphatically rejecting any comparison with France’s Maginot Line, which had failed so miserably in 1940. Stressing the many other advantages of the Atlantic Wall under construction, Rundstedt repeated that the troops in the coastal area must not and would not give way, as the French had done. By way of emphasis, less combative souls were even threatened with the death sentence if they failed to hold their ground. Such excuses as `we could not hold out any longer because we had no more ammunition or supplies’ would have the `most serious consequences’ for those responsible.

The top military leadership, however, seemed not entirely convinced of the effect of such threats. Otherwise they would not have ordered the construction of defensive installations further inland, as they did in early November 1943-although they kept it top secret so as not to demoralize the troops. Shortly afterwards, a restricted circle of selected officers reconnoitred defensive positions along the Somme and the Marne-Saone canal and on to the Swiss border.

None of this, of course, was seen as an alternative to defensive preparations in the coastal region, which continued to be given top priority. Key ports and stretches of coast were renamed `fortresses’-also called `Fuhrer fortifications’ by OB West to emphasize the seriousness of resistance on the coast by associating it with the name of the supreme military commander. Fortress commanders-who in OB West’s view had to be army officers-were given special full powers and solemnly sworn in by the army groups. The `fortresses’ were located in what was now called the `battle zone’, a strip of land extending from the coast to the second defence line. Within the battle zone, army commanders-in-chief had full powers, including the right to evacuate the civilian population. This right was exercised to the full, and by mid-February 1944 no fewer than 313,000 people had been forced to leave their homes. Nevertheless, no military measures could be taken without considering their impact on the economy, since Germany’s war industry remained dependent on the proper functioning of French enterprises even in the `battle zone’. In early April 1944 work on defence installations had to be slowed down because manpower and transport facilities were required for agricultural purposes.

Economic considerations also interfered with German plans to flood large areas of the coastal region as a further obstacle to Allied landings and penetration. In the discussions on the extent and location of the flooding, conflicts arose between the army, navy, and Luftwaffe that were exacerbated by the unequal division of powers. As we have seen, OB West and the OKW had given most authority to the army command. When it became clear that AOK (army head quarters staff) 15 intended to undertake widespread flooding operations on its own authority, Air Fleet 3 and Naval Group West Command objected on the grounds that the flooding would put many of their installations at risk. While OB West did not refuse to consider these objections, the commander-in-chief of the Fifteenth Army reacted angrily: `I totally disagree with the position of the navy and Luftwaffe . . . with regard to the planned flooding. The navy is interfering in matters that are none of its concern.’ He informed OB West, moreover, that Army Group B had `now ordered the flooding’.

Rundstedt and his staff had to act as intermediaries, propose compromises, and even seek a decision of principle from the OKW. After seemingly endless negotiations, a balance was struck between the two positions: bearing in mind the concerns of the navy, Luftwaffe, and the war economy, flooding operations in the coastal area were to be kept to a strict minimum and only carried out just before the landing. Everything else would remain at the planning and preparation stage.

Even though OB West’s original aim of completing the Atlantic Wall by the beginning of March 1944 proved impossible to achieve, the Germans nevertheless managed to build a large number of defence installations and provide them with effective protection against bombardment, especially in the area in which they expected the landing to be concentrated. The unfinished installations gave continuing cause for concern as they were particularly exposed to attack from the air.

The numerous bunkers, obstacles, minefields, and flood areas were one thing; the military effectiveness of the Atlantic Wall quite another. As many German officers certainly realized, everything would hinge on the fighting quality of the troops defending the fortifications-in the final analysis, on their strength, mobility, and reserves.

The Atlantikwall

The Atlantic Wall

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