The Atlantic Wall – Off the Beaten Track

Soon after gaining control over French territory in early summer 1940 and after the unsuccessful battle in the sky against Britain the following autumn, having successfully occupied all Nations in continental western Europe, Hitler’s military command decided to fortify the sea border on the Atlantic coast of the Third Reich.

At that time, this meant developing existing strongpoints and building many others anew along a shoreline extending from Norway all the way to the border between France and Spain, thus encompassing the western coasts of Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France.

The detailed preparation of this pharaonic project – the ‘Atlantic Wall’ – and its realization were commissioned by the government to the ‘Organization Todt’, a paramilitary organization led by Fritz Todt, and following his death by the minister of armaments Albert Speer.

Thanks to millions of tons of concrete, to forced labor – in the form of forced cooperation of the local skilled workers in the respective Countries -, and to often reconditioned cannons transferred from other fronts and older WWI forts, either original German or captured in occupied territories, tens of fortified bunkers for coastal defense of many sizes began to appear on the Atlantic coast and reached operational state between 1940 and 1944.

The proximity of the coast to undefeated Britain made the areas of southern Belgium and of the French Pas-de-Calais and northern Normandy the most fortified of all. Some among the most monstrous pieces of artillery ever deployed were installed in this sector, where it was expected that an invasion of the Reich would take place sooner or later. These batteries were operated by troops of either the German Army or Navy.

Comparatively less fortified, the coast of Normandy was that actually attacked in June 1944. Even though the German command knew an attack was imminent at that time, the preparation of the D-Day included deceptive side-operations, which successfully misled the Germans, who could not know exactly the point of the Allied invasion until little before the fateful dawn of June 6th.

Today, many of the coastal batteries in the area of the beaches of the D-Day, which played an active part trying to interfere with the Allied operations, are obviously national monuments and can be visited very easily.

On the other hand, the majority of the batteries of the Atlantic Wall, scattered along a very long coastline, have slipped into oblivion.

In France, many of the strongpoints close to the coasts and shores of the Pas-de-Calais are still there, derelict and often covered in graffiti, a very common sight along the coastline. More inland batteries and installations, including storage bunkers and service buildings, lie on private land, hence they are not publicly accessible (in theory…). In Belgium, much of what remained was willingly dismantled, leaving only a few sites open to the public as museums. And so on.

Even though the Atlantic Wall was an excessively ambitious project and remained a largely unfinished work, some of the completed installations are unusual and very interesting from the viewpoint of engineering. Thanks also to the many murals, inexplicably not preserved, dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation, exploration of many of these abandoned sites can be rewarding and a very interesting way to spend some time in these regions.

The following photographs were taken exploring some installations of the Atlantic Wall along the coast of northern Normandy and Pas-de-Calais, France, in August 2016.

Fécamp

The garrison here operated a Würzburg Riese radar, of which the fork-shaped concrete base remains today, plus optical distance measurement devices. Entering the bunkers is not possible, the gates are locked.

Walking north on top of the shore, towards a horrible, really misplaced wind farm, it is possible to spot more measurement stations, with a characteristic bulged roof, a round shaped plant and a very thin observation slot. Going in is generally possible at your own risk – wild brambles obstruct the entrance.

Close to the road running along the coastline more demolished bunkers can be spotted, but they are out of reach, too close to the wind turbines and beyond a guarded perimeter.

Getting there and moving around

A car park can be found on top of the cliff north of the center of Fécamp, close to a small church. The area can be toured with a pleasant walk along the coastline on top of the cliff.

Dieppe

In the garden you can reach in the premises of the castle of Dieppe it is possible to spot the former entrance to the service tunnels of the local coastal fortifications. The gates are locked. Also a small bunker for a light cannon can be found nearby.

On top of the cliff besides the castle an armored metal observation post can be easily found. From there moving south along the road on top of the cliff you pass a totally inaccessible former battery besides a small parking area – the doors have been bricked up. Farther south another concrete observation bunker can be found, this time accessible with the usual precautions – it is very close to the rim.

Getting there and moving around

Reaching the castle is possible from the city center or from a dedicated parking. The top of the cliff with the metal observation post is a popular panorama point with a parking nearby. The concrete observation bunker can be reached with a narrow path with little difficulty – pay attention to the usual brambles and nettles.

‘Friedrich August’ Battery – Wimille

Little remains of this once huge battery with 305 mm naval cannons, operated by the Navy. The area has been converted for industrial production. One of the remaining bunkers, partly destroyed but still very large and imposing, can be spotted from the distance close to a factory on top of a hill, driving along Route de la Menandelle, Wimille.

The area is reportedly rich of remains of the Wall, including headquarters of the German admiralty, but all are on private grounds – not just pastures or vineyards, but fenced private gardens. I spent a couple of hours trying to get close to them without success.

All in all, it is much easier and more rewarding moving along the beaches in the area, where you can surely find some interesting remains.

Getting there and moving around

Unless you have some sort of permission and you are going with a local guide, don’t waste time leaving your car, just drive uphill along  Route de la Menandelle, Wimille. You will see the battery to your right in the distance.

‘Todt’ Battery – Audinghen

One of the best museums on the mighty batteries of the Pas-de-Calais has been created in one of the towers of the famous ‘Todt’ battery. This museum (Musee du Mur de l’Atlantique, wbesite here) is surely worth a visit to find an explanation of the working procedures of the battery, its history, and also for the pieces of artillery preserved here, including Europe’s only surviving ‘Leopold’ railway cannon.

A less visited place nearby the museum is the former N.4 tower of the same ‘Todt’ battery. This is totally abandoned and unfortunately the ubiquitous writers hit very hard with their ignorant spoiling. Nonetheless, in the almost total darkness – you will need at least an iPhone torch for moving around – of some of the former shell storage and service rooms many substantial traces of original Nazi murals can be seen still today – much larger and more interesting than those you can find in the museum.

Besides the service road, you can explore the firing chamber and the support platform of the cannon with the concrete platform of the main metal pivot still in place.

Getting there and moving around

Reaching the abandoned tower N.4 is easy from the museum. From the round about where D940 and D191 cross you will find the museum leaving D940 close by along a road called La Sence. Leaving the museum to your right, keep driving along La Sence. You will come to a T-shaped crossing, where you need to turn left. The road will start to descend downhill, and you will find a convenient parking area to the left just before reaching D940. Leave your car here. Leaving the parking from the main gate by foot, turn right on the road you just came from, and soon after take an unpaved service road to the left, in the direction of the sea. Follow this road until it turns left – about .15 miles later. You can spot the tower partly hidden by the trees.

The tower has a shape very similar to that of the one you can visit in the museum, so you may already have an idea of the plan of the site. Anyway, an entrance can be found on the eastern side – i.e. the back side – of the tower. The murals can be found on the lower floor, so no climbing is strictly needed. The ground is extremely muddy and slippery, so carefully choose your shoes. The rooms are almost totally dark, so you will need at least a small torch and good flash or a tripod for your camera.

You can also walk around on the outside to the front of the tower. Entering from there is very difficult, the level of the ground inside being much lower than that on the outside.

Calais

This unattractive port town is home to many installations connected with the Atlantic Wall. The beaches to the south of the town are crowded with cannon and observation bunkers, which are ‘gently’ moving with time from the original elevated positions to a lower level close to the water.

On a large abandoned area which was once a huge car park – possibly for embarking cars going over the Channel to England – to the west of the city centre it is possible to spot an armored tunnel/shelter for storing a railway cannon.

Getting there and moving around

The installations on the western beaches of Calais can be reached and walked very easily. Just park your car in one of the parking areas for people going to the beach and go by foot.

The tunnel/shelter cannot be reached, it is in an abandoned parking which nonetheless is private property (many signs and fences in place). You can photograph it with a zoom lens parking your car in front of the cemetery on Avenue Pierre de Coubertin, or in front of one of the gates of the area on Rue d’Asfeld. No walking is needed.

‘Oldenburg’ and ‘Waldam’ Batteries – Calais

Among the most remarkable remains of the Atlantic Wall, these two batteries are located close to the beaches east of central Calais.

The two huge towers of the ‘Oldenburg’ battery used to host heavy naval cannons and were operated by the German Navy. Today the cannons are gone, but the huge concrete bunkers are still there. Also a one-of-a-kind bunker hospital can be spotted nearby.

The installations are totally derelict, and unfortunately the area is today on the border of a guarded and overcrowded refugee camp, so you don’t feel very safe when moving around – small groups of young immigrants ‘escaping’ their camp and without much to do will probably find and stare at you – and at your belongings. Try to avoid misunderstandings, but be ready to defend yourself. On the plus side, Calais center is populated by much Police, clearly aware of the exceptional condition of the town in these days.

The ‘Waldam’ battery besides is placed farther east with respect to ‘Oldenburg’, in the territory of Le Fort Verd. Here besides the ‘usual’ intermediate size bunkers for cannons you can spot an interesting piece of engineering, in the form of a concrete bunker capable of revolving around a pin. At least one exemplar is still in relatively good shape. Also a very unusual observation tower for aiming equipment can be spotted nearby.

Exploring the site can be done with no official restriction, but the area is mainly for bird hunting, so be careful not to interfere with hunting-related activities. Accessing the totally derelict bunkers is possible if you go prepared to face wild vegetation, brambles and nettles. Immigrants do not go far from their base camp, so you have very low chance to find them if you move in the area of the ‘Waldam’ battery.

As usual in the area, ship-arresting devices, once standing half submerged on the beach, can be spotted around, often used as posts for roadsigns or for marking road corners.

Getting there and moving around

As already pointed out, Calais is not only unpleasant as usual for a mainly commercial port town, but it is also living a particularly bad moment, being overcrowded with immigrants posing some security problem. Fearing for my car I elected to park close to the beach way east of the ‘Oldenburg’ battery and of the refugee camp. A convenient parking used by some friendly hunters and local traffic can be found between Le Fort Verd and Les Hemmes de Marck. When driving east towards the latter (along Rue Jean Bart), turn left on a public unpaved road with no signs pointing straight to the coastline. The road turns sharply left towards Calais at some point, and you find a prohibition sign telling not to go further, and a good parking with some information panels. You can park there.

For reaching the ‘Waldam’ battery I would suggest using Google Maps or something similar on your phone – coverage is very strong. This is to avoid wasting time on dead-end passages between the countless ponds and puddles in the area.

The road you can’t drive on going west (Digue Taaf) will lead you back to the ‘Oldenburg’ battery. For reaching the ‘Waldam’ battery you will need to move north of the road, in the hunting area between the road and the beach.

From the parking to the ‘Oldenburg’ battery is about 1.5 miles one-way. Touring the area is a physically requiring task not only for the distance, but for you have to find your way on uneven terrain, with fields of brambles and nettles. You can have much fun if you like exploring and you go prepared, only don’t forget to bring some water and snacks – you are on a beach after all, so it will be hot and you will be totally exposed to sunlight.

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