Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Atlantic Wall

German defenses along the European coast, last of the great defensive lines to be built (1941–1944). As German plans to invade Britain faded late in 1940, it became increasingly clear to the German High Command that thousands of miles of European coast had to be defended from Allied invasion. Heavily protected from the beginning were the German submarine bases in France, the occupied Channel Islands, and the Dover-Calais narrow point in the English Channel. Following the June 1941 invasion of Russia and the U.S. entry into the war in December 1941, Germany went on the defensive in the west. Formal work on the Atlantic Wall began in May 1942.

There never was a continuous "wall" per se; that would have been impossible to build or man. What was built was a series of defended zones—artillery and infantry positions overlooking likely invasion beaches and ports. Rivalries and different designs among army and navy units and civilian construction battalions often held up progress, as did strategic arguments about the comparative value of fixed defenses versus mobile reserves. And so did Allied bombardment of transport of construction materials. Nevertheless, the three-year effort by Germany was massive, soaking up huge quantities of men, money, and material.

Thousands of emplacements were built along the coast of France, with lesser facilities in the Low Countries, Denmark, and along the Norwegian coast. Where possible existing fortifications and weapons were used. Highlights of the wall were the often-extensive artillery batteries built into extensive steel-reinforced cement casemates designed to deflect air attacks. A typical position might include four separate 8-inch gun casemates (which, while protecting the gun and its crew, also limited the weapon's field of fire) plus one or more observation and combat-direction posts, all built close to the coastline. The largest positions might feature mobile 14-inch railway-mounted artillery or huge turret-mounted guns. Some of the latter, installed in massive emplacements built near the French coast, could shell England directly across the Channel. Among German defenses were scores of smaller emplacements for machine guns, observation, personnel, command posts, and minefields. Some were camouflaged to look like houses or other structures, and most were built at least partly built into the ground for further protection. A large number of so-called "standard" bunker designs were employed, although each service had its own set of standards. Extensive propaganda made the wall appear impregnable to attack from the sea.

When placed in command of German beach defenses in October 1943, Erwin Rommel made the high-tide mark into the main line of defense, adding obstacles and intervening emplacements covering possible landing points. There were a half million beach obstacles along the English Channel alone, many armed with mines.

In the end the stupendous construction project was largely for naught. Although two-thirds of a planned 15,000 emplacements were completed, few of them fired in anger. D day was hardly hindered by the several emplacements in Normandy (some were shelled from the sea; others were taken by paratroopers or special ranger attacks, as at Point du Hoc), and the rest of the coastal forts were generally captured from behind by advancing Allied forces. Extensive remains of the Atlantic Wall exist to this day.

Christopher H. Sterling


Further Reading
Kaufmann, J. E., and J. M. Jurga. "Atlantic Wall." In Fortress Europe: European Fortifications of World War II, 381–406. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1999.; Rolf, Rudi. Atlantic Wall Typology. Rev. ed. Nieuw Weerdinge, Netherlands: Fortress Books, 1998.; Saunders, Anthony. Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2001.; Schmeelke, Karl-Heinz, and Michael Schmeelke. German Defensive Batteries and Gun Emplacements on the Normandy Beaches. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1995.; Virilio, Paul. Bunker Archeology. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994.; Wilt, Alan F. The Atlantic Wall: Hitler's Defenses in the West, 1941–1944. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975.
 

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