REVIEW: THE ATLANTIC WALL History and Guide by Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes
Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, the complex system of coastal fortifications that stretched from Norway to the Spanish border during the Second World War, was built to defend occupied Europe from Allied invasion. Many of its principal structures survive and can be visited today, and this book is an authoritative guide to them.
Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, the complex system of coastal fortifications that stretched from Norway to the Spanish border during the Second World War, was built to defend occupied Europe from Allied invasion. Many of its principal structures survive and can be visited today, and this book is an authoritative guide to them.

If you have been anywhere along the coastline of Europe in territory which had been occupied by the Nazis you will come across the concrete relics of their determination to stay put. Lets not mince words; some of these structures are marvels of engineering and architecture as much as they are a testament to the efforts of the people who sought to kick the Nazis out. Bunkers, call them what you like, are very blokey edifices. We like to ferret around in them, climb on them, pat them and nod in approval. There is something very assuring about them even when they represent a horrible tyranny like the occupation of a whole continent by Nazi Germany. Now, many have been swallowed up by dunes or turned into yacht stores. Some are museums or monuments. A good few are so bloody big nothing can be done with them, while some have actually been demolished.

I happen to like exploring and photographing them and recording a genuine piece of history. I keep in mind another aspect, the tens of thousands of slave labourers whose only victory was survival. If you’ve been to the imposing V2 rocket factory at Watten you will have seen memorials to the many nationalities who built it and the thousands who died at the hands of their guards or when the Allies bombed it out of use. Success always has a price. This immense book actually takes on the feel of a lump of reinforced concrete from the bunkers it describes. Packed with information, beautiful drawings, maps and diagrams, it almost defies a standard review. I am not an architect and I haven’t visited a bare percentage of the locations covered in the book. So, I am not sure I can really do the authors justice. What I can say is this is a genuinely studious but entertaining work of great passion which sounds contradictory, but the point is the authors are enjoying themselves while not messing about.

This is not a place by place guide, but a detailed look at the way the Germans set about constructing defensive works in depth and also the manner in which they built specialised factory sites such as the aforementioned Watten. To do this the authors must have put in some serious legwork and the surveying they have done is excellent. I am genuinely gobsmacked at all of this. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to you.

I say it isn’t purely a guide, but the authors have included a section to show where we can visit things. Perhaps in a second edition or in a future work they could take it further. We couldn’t be in safer hands.

One of my favourite places is the Batterie Todt, just down from Calais. You can visit the museum, which is a hoot, but you can also get out into the parkland there and explore the other casemates which are abandoned sites, but remember to take good care. One is a bat sanctuary, another is completely devastated and the other is open to and is full of the gunners’ graffiti along with more modern offerings. After that you can get a decent steak and chips in the café by the museum should you so wish and the owner is a great guy. He once rustled up fifteen dinners for my gang at short notice without batting an eyelid. We like him. You won’t find this sort of detail in this fantastic book, but the point is the authors have explained how the Germans built their defences; it is up to you to get out there and look at them. It can be great fun.

I have a another point to make which I hope makes sense: In the old days we used to learn in school about the old English kings and one of them was Canute, who wasn’t English at all, of course, and he was famous for trying to turn back the sea by commanding the tide to turn back. My daughter Emily won’t thank me for this, but when she was one we took her to Camber in Sussex for a holiday and I pushed her on to that most beautiful beach (which doubled for Dunkirk in the famous film in case you’re interested) and she sat in her buggy looking at the tide and she would watch it roll in and put her hand up and say, Canute-like “pffhghghghtfffttt” or something like that, in solid disapproval as it lapped round the wheels. Seventeen years later I get a fair few books to review from Pen & Sword and I have to be honest and say not all of them appeal and the real snorters earn a “pffhghghghtfffttt” from me, too. But, certainly not this gem. This one is for keeps. I’m over in France in a couple of weeks and it will be coming with me. Get your own!

Mark Barnes

THE ATLANTIC WALL
History and Guide
By JE Kaufmann, HW Kaufmann, A Jankovic-Potocnik and Vladimir Tonic
Published in hardback by Pen & Sword Military £25.00
ISBN: 978 1 84884 387 5