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The Atlantic Wall

It was almost impossible for the Germans to predict where an Allied Army would land should they decide to launch an invasion in Northwest Europe. Thus it was impossible for them to effectively plan and concentrate their defences. They knew that the Allies would want to take a deep-water port in order to sustain their offensive and the Pas de Calais area with its shorter shipping route was considered to be the likeliest place. The Germans however could not be certain of this and they had to spread their forces throughout Western Europe at many different points.

Shortly after the capture of France Adolf Hitler ordered that a belt of coastal defences was built to counter the threat of a possible invasion. This belt of defences was to stretch up the Atlantic coast of France, along the English Channel and up the North Sea Coast of the German Occupied Northwest Europe. It was a huge project and Organisation Todt, German’s elite Nazi Construction Organisation, was made responsible for carrying out this work. Organisation Todt reported to the German Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, and work began in 1942.

Work progressed slowly and in 1943 Hitler issued a directive ordering that the work on the Atlantic Wall was to be sped up. He also appointed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel as the Inspector General of Coastal Defences. Following his appointment, Rommel inspected the shoreline defences of the Atlantic Wall and ordered many improvements to be made. When D-Day took place this work was still incomplete with bunkers still under construction and many of the additional minefields and obstacles that he had ordered still to be erected.

The Atlantic Wall on D-Day was not the continuous barrier that Hitler had wanted, but still presented a formidable obstacle to the Allied invading forces. It consisted of four types of defensive structures. The fortress, the coastal battery, the close beach defences and defensive obstacles.

The Fortress

The Anglo-Canadian raid on Dieppe in August 1942 had convinced the Germans that the Allies would try to capture a port during their next landing attempt so that the follow-up forces and supplies they would need could be landed. As a consequence, all the major ports along the coastline of Northwest Europe were turned into virtual fortresses, known as Festungens that bristled with large-calibre guns intended to repulse any invasion fleet.

In the Normandy area there were two such fortresses at Cherbourg and Le Havre. The Cherbourg Fortress, commanded by Generalleutnant Karl von Schlieben, extended for nearly 20 miles along the sea front on either side of the city, from Jardeheu in the west to Cape Lévi in the east. There were no fewer than a dozen heavy batteries in the area, with a total of more than forty guns ranging from 105 to 240 mm in calibre. The city and port were dotted with numerous blockhouses, anti-tank walls and anti-aircraft positions. An outer defensive ring that formed a curve seven and a half miles long protected the inland side of the fortress. Within the outer defences was an inner ring that touched the very outskirts of the city. These inland defences had been constructed in considerable haste and were the weakest part of the system.

The Coastal Artillery Batteries

In between the fortresses, the Germans had constructed a series of coastal artillery batteries that were manned by either the Army or the Navy. These were spaced a few miles apart and designed to fire out to sea to ward off any invasion fleet. They were equipped with guns of varying calibre, normally between 100 and 155 mm, and the guns were generally grouped in fours.

In all, there were more than twenty main batteries along the Calvados Coast between Cherbourg and Le Havre. Each of these coastal batteries was protected by a defensive perimeter ringed with minefields and a network of barbed wire. Within the defensive perimeter were machine-gun, mortar and anti-aircraft gun positions, all inter-connected by trenches.

The guns were originally placed in open concrete pits, but they had proved vulnerable to Allied aerial bombardment which had considerably increased in frequency since 1943. In order to protect them, Field Marshal Rommel had ordered that thick concrete casemates were constructed. In the spring of 1944 the construction of these casements was still far from complete and some of the guns had been discreetly removed from their emplacements and hidden inland to protect them against Allied air attack.

The Close Beach Defences

The Widerstandnesten (“nests of resistance”) located within the immediate vicinity of the shore, on cliffs, dunes or sea walls, were lighter structures than the coastal batteries. They were intended to provide close defence of the beaches against assault troops.

They generally comprised of one or two casemates housing medium-calibre guns (50, 75 or 88 mm) that had been positioned so that they could fire along the shore. Tobruks (concrete pits embedded in the ground and fitted with a circular lid where an infantryman could be posted), mortar, machine-gun and anti-aircraft gun positions were also constructed and a network of trenches interlinked them all.

By the spring of 1944, there were no fewer than 200 Widerstandnestens along the coasts of the Bay of the Seine. There were, for example around fifteen along the four mile stretch of beach between Vierville-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Mer that was part of OMAHA Beach.

The Obstacles

In order to achieve Field-Marshal Rommel’s strategy of blocking the Allied landing forces a vast numbers of obstacles designed to hamper the approach of the assault barges were placed along the beaches. These obstacles were designed to trap the barges, where they would crash, become impaled, torn apart or explode, and included “Czech hedgehogs”, “nutcrackers”, “Belgian gates” and "tetrahedra”. Trenches and anti-tank walls or “dragon’s teeth” also blocked the beach exits.

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