As one European country after another succumbed to the relentless onslaught of HItler's Wehrmacht sweeping across the continent in the early 1940s and German armies stood, peering across the water, on the Atlantic coast, military planning to fortify the new borders of the Nazi empire were in full flow. Having built a 630 km long defensive barrier along its borders with France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in the 1930s, German planners took the strategic building project to a whole new level after the British victory in the Battle of Britain and started to work on a comprehensive system of bunkers, fortifications and obstacles to make Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) impregnable to an amphibious invasion. What would become a network of over 10,000 structures on the eve of the Normandy landings by Allied forces on 6 June 1944, Hitler's Atlantic Wall, or Atlantikwall in German, was following in a long military tradition of building defensive fortifications around strategic installations and towns that goes back to Roman times. What is remarkable about the Nazi attempt to batten down the hatches around a new German empire on European soil was the sheer extent and the efficiency with which it was achieved in just over three years. Using a mixture of German civilian and military workers and tens thousands of POWs and other slave labour, the different types of embattlements followed a set of standard blueprints that were implemented across the board.
Starting in the far northern reaches of what was then Finland (now Russia), and covering the most exposed coastal areas of Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France down to the Pyrenees, concrete bunkers and fortified artillery batteries were later supplemented with mine fields and obstacles strewn across the beaches. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was tasked with overseeing the Wall in early 1944 also had obstacles and mines planted at sea that would be invisible at high tide, the most likely time for a seaborne invasion.
In the event, diversionary tactics by Allied planners who launched fictional invasions in Norway and around Calais in the days leading up to D-Day and the overwhelming numbers of Allied forces that landed in Normandy ensured that the Atlantikwall was quickly breached, making much of the rest of the fortification in other locations obsolete. Believing there to be other invasions in the offing, German military engineers continued to build fortifications along the Atlantic coast for another few days after the 6th of June.
Since the end of the war, many of the thousands of structures have been dismantled or left to slip into the sea. In Germany, among the rebuilding frenzy of the late 40s and 50s, almost all the concrete fortifications where eradicated. In France, where civilian workers were employed to build many of the structures, the historical significance of the Atlantikwall as a historical monument remains controversial. The most northerly of the structures today are in the middle of a military zone in Russia's Murmansk Oblast.
Stephan Vanfleteren travelled the length of the Atlantic Wall, capturing the stark and strange beauty of these often colossal remnants of the Second World War.