Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Our only possible chance will be at the beaches - that's where the enemy is always weakest." Erwin Rommel

Whenever I have the opportunity to teach about the D-Day landings, students are always impressed and fascinated by Hitler’s Atlantic Wall – the formidable series of obstacles that were erected on the coast of Europe. Once a possible invasion of England was foregone and the Russian front was proving to be a challenge, Hitler ordered that an indestructible wall be built, “a belt of strongpoints and gigantic fortifications … to make this front impregnable against every enemy”. Thousands of slave laborers worked around the clock, pouring millions of tons of concrete and utilizing incredible amounts of steel (a material facing a shortage in Germany, all to create a defense that would repulse and invading force. These defenses were mostly concrete bunkers with large armaments to defend the coast, ensconced in an elevated position on the cliffs on the coast.

When Field General Erwin Rommel examined the fortifications, in the middle of the war, he felt that Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” was actually too weak, and he ordered additional barriers of anti-invasion obstacles – the ones made famous in the movies “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Longest Day”. Rommel pushed for the installation of mine tipped rods, huge steel “hedgehogs”, concrete cones, and huge gates of steel, all planted at the high water and low water marks. Rommel wanted to stop the enemy from reaching the beaches by decimating them in the water. Not to be too cautious, he had the beaches loaded with obstacles as well, heavily mined (17,000 or so mines in all), and lined with barbed wire. The result - 37,000 obstacles along the Norman coast, or one obstacle every two yards. Imagine facing this combination of defensive structure and elevated firepower on an open beach with no cover save a few obstacles and multiple dead comrades. I hope I will get a small sense of what the Allied soldiers saw when they landed on June 6, 1944.

There are still remnants of the Atlantic Wall that I will be able to see and experience on my trip. I am not sure what I will feel when I sit in one (or more) of the German concrete bunkers that remain on the Norman coast. I also am excited to visit Le Grande Bunker Musee de mur de l'Atlantique in Ousitreham on my first morning in France.

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