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Atlantic Wall / Festung Europa

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese empire attacked the US military installations in Hawaii. Four days later, Germany's dictator, Adolf Hitler, fulfilling a treaty with Japan, declared war on the United States. From the autumn of 1942 German propaganda used the phraseFestung Europa (Fortress Europe) assure the German population, and to warn the Allies, that an invasion of Nazi-dominated Europe would be shattered on an impenetrable shield of defences. Hitler's Third Reich sped construction of a formidable "Atlantic Wall," to protect the exposed beaches of the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France. This rampart was a massive system of fortifications, obstacles, and warningcenters intended to thwart an Anglo-American invasion of Nazi-occupied western Europe.

The coastal installations were Germany's first line of defense against invasion. The original German coastal fortifications were constructed, manned, and defended by the Navy in conjunction with the Air Eorce. However, new fortifications and improvements of old defenses on the German and the conquered coasts had been added since 1940 under the direction of the Army. In the absence of information to the contrary, it was presumed by the Allies that the original naval fortifications on Germany's own coast line are still serviceable and probably greatly reinforced. They were administered by two naval territorial commands, the "North Sea Station" and the "Baltic Station." Under the commanding admiral of each station is a subordinate admiral, known as the "second admiral" in direct charge of the fortifications.

Germany's coastal defenses began with obstructions in the water and extend inland, their strength and depth depending on the suitability of the beaches for hostile landings, the natural defensive strength of the terrain, and the strategic value of the portion of coast line concerned. In many cases the defenses reach depths of 35 miles from the coast. Many concrete emplacements, shelters, and other installations had been built along the possible landing beaches and around important ports; and the former French, Belgian, and Dutch defenses had been integrated into the German fortified system. Other installations, which the Germans have been busy constructing or improving for more than 3 years, were long-range fixed and railway guns, mobile coast-defense batteries, elaborate antiaircraft emplacements, prepared positions for holding forces at all vulnerable points, and extensive water and beach obstacles.

In the German coastal defenses in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the smallest self-contained unit of the infantry positions was the shell-proof "defense post" (Wider standsnest), which normally includes machine guns and occasionally antitank or infantry guns, and was held by a group of less than a platoon. A number of such defense posts, adapted to the terrain and affording mutual support, make up the familiar German "strongpoint" (Stutzpunkt). Each strongpoint had all-around protection by fire, wire, and mines, and was provisioned to hold out for weeks if isolated. The coastal strongpoints were manned by units of company or larger size, and their armament includes the heavier infantry weapons. There are also naval. Air Force, and artillery stongpointsj which were usually centered on antiaircraft batteries or signal installations. Strong-points are further combined into powerful fortified groups (Stutzpunktgruppen), and in such combinations the groups included underground or sunken communications for the defense of particularly vital sectors. Such strongpoints included antiaircraft guns and heavy antitank guns, in addition to other weapons. Finally the defenses were organized into divisional coastal sectors (Kustenverteidigungsabschnitte).

The Atlantic Wall was not the absolute obstacle to an invasion as the German propaganda purported. The principal reason the Atlantic Wall could not be recognized as an absolute obstacle was that modern warfare was fought no longer in two dimensions, but in three dimensions.A s Roosevelt pointed out, the fortress had no roof, so the Germans were always vulnerable to Allied air power. At any time, enemy paratroops could be dropped behind the fortifications. The Allies based their offensive strategy on the belief that Germany was the strongestof the Axis powers and therefore should be defeated first. An air offensive against Germany was an important component of this strategy. Properly conducted, it would enable the Allies to leap the Atlantic wall and damage the industrial foundations of the Third Reich well before Allied ground troops penetrated the coastal barrier.

After the summer campaign of 1940, the first step was the construction of a group of heavy offensive batteries between Boulogne and Dunkirk. Then the Navy installed batteries to protect the ports against attack from the sea. Defense against attack from other directions was little considered. Changes were effected after the first British pinpricks (raids on radar stations, lighthouses, etc, and St Nazaire and Dieppe).

By the Fall of 1942 the German Army High Command had given up hope for a quick termination of the Russian campaign and hence, had to reckon with an Allied invasionin the West in due course. Orders were issued in 1942 for some essential changes in the defense system of the Atlantic Wall. A permanent occupation of the Atlantic Coast was initiated by units which were especially organized for this purpose so called "garrison divisions". A systematic improvement of the coast was carried out by the garrisons. Increased effectiveness of operations on the part of the garrisons was achieved by means of allotting supplementary weapons, according to the importance of the respective sectors. These weapons were manned by permanently stationed fortress cadre troops, who had to remain in the same localities, even when the security divisions were changed. These measures brought it about that the garrison troops gained a good knowledge of the surroundings and became convinced that each improvement of the fortifications would result in a betterment of their own combat conditions.

The most distressing problem of technical construction was the impossibility of appropriate camouflage. In spite of the realization of its importance and greatest efforts, the Germans did not succeed in sufficiently camouflaging the concrete shelter constructions and water obstacles against enemy air reconnaissance. They therefore had to assume that the Allies were fully infirmed about these fortifications.

The great lack of materiel had detrimental effects on the constructions. For instance, the most moderate monthly requirements of the coast defense sector of the 343 Infantry Division, called for 40 trainloads of concrete, of which not even half the quantity was generally brought in, This was due not so much to the lack of concrete as the difficulties of railroad transportation, caused by Allied air force activity and acts of sabotage on the part of the French Resistance Movement. Allotments of concrete were made in accordance with the importance of the respective fortifications. Until 1943, the three branches of the Wehrmacht were operating independently, so that these requirements were not sufficiently taken into consideration. It would happen that in naval constructions, latrines were fortified with concrete, while at the same time, defensive weaponsat the coast could not yet be constructed with concrete. At the end of 1943, this state of affaires changed, when the corps general staff was placed in supreme control of the Wehrmacht branches.

The situation which confronted Generalfeldmarschall [Genfldm] Rommel when he assumed command of Army Group B [A Gp B] at the end of 1943 was, in broad outline, as follows: the entire Atlantic Coast was occupied from Den Helder to the Spanish border. The divisions on the Channel Coast occupied a comparatively narrow defensive front, the frontage being gradually extended in division sectors toward the southwest. The entire coast was fortified (the Channel Coast most heavily). The construction of the fortified defense system had begun in the autumn of 1942, but was progressing slower than desirable because of poor organization and lack of material. Each division was varied in depth according to the width and importance of its sector.

By the winter of 1943-44, all troops near the shore were installed in Widerstandnestern (strongpoints), which could be defended against attack from any direction. Between the ports, the batteries and Heereskuestenartillerie [Coastal Artillery] had been augmented, but, contrary to naval custom, these guns were for the most part unprotected from shells or bombs. Ordinary armored turrets had not been ordered in time and were unavailable after 1942 because of the ever-increasing scarcity of high-grade steel.

The experts were loath to sacrifice maximum traverse for better protection, since immobile concrete blockhouses possessed an aperture allowing for only a 30 to 60 degree traverse. A very simple reinforced concrete turret, which could be rotated by hand, had been devised for medium caliber guns. Unfortunately, this turret was rejected for over a year for no apparent reason. Consequently, the fortifications were built in a rather casual way without a full realization of Allied air and naval strength and without a system based on such a conception.

Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, C-in-C [Commander-in Chief] in the West, and Gen Pz Geyr von Schweppenburg, who was in command of the panzer-type divisions, did not see any possibility of preventing the Allies from landing considerable forces. As a large-scale landing seemed inevitable to them, they prepared to counterattack somewhere inland. By rapid operations with their concentrated reserves they hoped to push the Allied forces back or even to encircle them.

Rommel's ideas were fundamentally influenced by the vast superiority of the Allied air arm. He was deeply impressed by the fact that in North Africa a numerically inferior air force had kept him, with 80,000 men, "nailed to the ground," as he expressed it, for two or three days. In view of this and other experiences, he was of the decided opinion that the operations planned by Rundstedt and von Schweppenburg would either be nipped in the bud or at least so much delayed that they were bound to fail.

To Rommel, the only hope of repelling the invasion seemed to lie in offering the strongest possible resistance to the actual landing. The first 24 hours would be decisive. Once the Allies established a large beachhead it would be impossible to drive them back into the sea because of their superiority of material. He expressed this opinion to the Fuehrer both verbally and in writing. He repeatedly told us that the Fuehrer had agreed with him.

Rommel had the basic ideas of his system of defense already in mind after his inspection of the Danish coast in the second half of December 1943. So this time was not altogether lost, although a start of some weeks earlier in France might have had an appreciable influence on the course of events. Rommel's plans were, in theory, authorized by the Fuehrer, but, in actual fact, part of them were not put into execution because the opinions of others prevailed. It goes without saying that the success of such an elaborate scheme was very much jeopardized when essential features were altered or omitted.

The use of technical means to make the belt along the shore stronger was an essential part of Rommel's scheme. All the strongpoints themselves should have had a core of bombproof bunkers. This was not the case everywhere-least perhaps on the coast between the Orne River and the Vire River. Most of the few bunkers that were in existence were imperfectly constructed, some with 60 cm of concrete (instead of two meters), others with no concrete at all.

The development of the defensive installations increased unbelievably, and during the first three months of 1944, most of the fortifications which had made slow progress for more than a year were finished. New installations were planned and constructed within an amazingly short time. The construction forces were constantly assigned new tasks to improve and to increase the number of installations. The new policy was to build numerous simple types of installations instead of a relatively few extensive structures with large chambers like those previously employed. The simple type of installation was tactically easier to incorporate into the system of fortifications which already existed.

Because it proved impossible to make up for all these omissions in so short a time, the Generalfeldmarschall concentrated his effort on means which could be procured comparatively quickly-first of all, mines. He had made extensive use of mines in Africa and had studied British mining tactics very closely. In France, his objective was first to surround all strong points with deep minefields, and then to lay mines between strong points, wherever the terrain was suitable for armored vehicles.

Paratroop and glider obstacles were a later improvement to the defenses. At first, simple ten-foot poles were erected in open areas to prevent the successful landing of gliders. The actual efficiency of these obstacles was a much debated point. Stretching wires between the poles was little improvement. It was then decided to put a mine on top of each pole and connect this mine to one of the wires. This idea came too late to be of practical value.

The idea of constructing obstacles on the beach itself originated in Denmark. In front of the infantry positions near the beach there were a great number of Tschechenigel (obsolete tank obstacles consisting of three iron bars at right angles to each other). As they were of no use against armored vehicles, they were carried to the beach and emplaced so that they would be awash one or two hours before high tide. It was fully understood that they could form a serious obstacle to landing craft.

To thwart bombing attacks, the Generalfeldmarschall ordered the construction along the entire coast of a great number of dummy positions. Dummy installations of widely different types appeared, varying from heavy batteries to single machine guns. Special orders were given for the realistic and clever construction of these installations and for the improvement of those already existing. The attempt at deception, which was also intended to simulate the presence of a greater number of units on the coast, was a real success. Thus, numerous attacks by enemy bomber formations were diverted from the actual fortifications.

The Normandy front was considered the most probable location because this coast was by nature favorable for landings, and because it was possible to reach the beach after a relatively short run from the fleet. Moreover it was necessary for the Allies to obtain after landing a suitable harbor like Cherbourg for their supply. In addition, construction of the coastal fortifications in Normandy was not as advanced as on other fronts - a fact not unknown to the Allies, who was always informed of the progress of construction.

The defense plan for the Atlantic Wall included basic miscalculations, and could never be fully put into effect because of German helplessness in the air and the steady attrition of German forces on two other major fronts. The German effort to build permanent coastal defenses had been handicapped throughout the winter both by the inability of the crowded and bombed railroads to carry sufficient building materials and by the higher priority for men and materials which was assigned to the V-Bomb sites. Those defenses which were completed were concentrated most heavily in the area between the Somme and Seine Rivers which the Commander in Chief West consistently estimated as the most likely spot for an Allied invasion attempt. This region presented the most direct way to the Ruhr and from its excellent port, Le Havre, a fine road net led to the interior. Moreover, some effort had also to be expended to meet Hitler's insistence on maximum defense of the Channel Islands. It was not until May 1944, when the imminence of a landing became obvious to all, that Hitler reportedly foresaw, by "intuition," the likelihood of an assault on the Cotentin Peninsula. At that time it was too late to improve the fixed defenses.

The Germans recognized from the beginning that failure to repel the invasion at the outset would rapidly unbalance both their tactical and strategic positions. Given a foothold, the Americans and British could ultimately win the race for the build-up of men and supplies, and so make it impossible to dislodge the enemy forces. But if the landings could be pushed back into the sea at once, it as likely that invasion would not be attempted again in the near future and perhaps not at all. Germany would then have a large part of the sixty western divisions for use as reserves against the Russians.

Rommel had no influence over the Luftwaffe. He knew that it was hopelessly outnumbered, and did not expect all the promises of support during the initial stages of the invasion to materialize. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, considered at one time the possibility of committing the whole of his fighter force against the expected invasion, but was forced to abandon the idea. Allied bombings had hit hard at Luftwaffe ground installations in France, and by moving large numbers of fighters to France, months ahead of time, the Luftwaffe would have been inviting destructive fights with Allied planes which it could not afford. Moreover, Goering was reluctant for obvious political as well as military reasons to strip Germany of fighter protection.

The main reason for the failure of the defense of the Cotentin Peninsula was not so much the result of tactical surprise, since a landing in Normandy had been expected, as it was the absolute air supremacy of the Allies. Long before and even during the attack a considerable part of the artillery was nearly eliminated by air attacks - at least to the extent that it was unable to fire on the sea. The infantry near the beach was so greatly battered by air raids shortly before and during the attack that it could no longer operate effectively. On 6 June 1944, American, British, Canadian, Free French, Polish, Norwegian, and other nationalities in the Allied Expeditionary Force, set to invade Normandy. Within 24 hours, the Allies transported 175,000 troops and their equipment, including 50,000 vehicles of all types, across 60 to 100 miles of open water to assault a well-fortified German beachhead.

The Atlantic Wall, which took the Germans four years to construct and absorbed a large percentage of German material and manpower, fell in only one day. However, Allied penetration of the Atlantic Wall was a costly task that resulted in nearly 5,000 casualties. Accurate material losses have yet to be calculated; however, by D-Day plus one, the widespread wreckage of landing craft and motor vehicles along the Omaha beachhead suspended landing operations. The American journalist Ernest Taylor Pyle, one of the most famous war correspondents of World War II, referred to the Omaha beachhead as a shoreline museum of carnage.

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Page last modified: 04-05-2019 18:15:37 ZULU