One of the joys of living in The Hague is its proximity to the sea. The beach in the suburb of Scheveningen is both a popular place to live – lots of people have told me I should move there – and somewhere that sees several million visitors during the warm summer months, when desperate Northern Europeans absorb some Vitamin D. A crowded beach is something that fills me with dread, luckily at this time of year the North Sea coast of the Netherlands is still the preserve of hardy dog walkers and inquisitive foreigners.
According to some, it was the Dutch who gave the North Sea its name – Noordzee – and this small bit of water is not to be underestimated. These aren’t beaches lapped by exquisitely warm turquoise waters; these are beaches washed by the icy cold and frequently turbulent waves of the North Sea. When the wind and rain whip across the water the gunmetal grey sky melts into the murky grey-brown of the water, and a walk on the beach can become an endurance test. For all that, this is a sea with character.
I hadn’t realised before I reached the ocean, but this stretch of coast was part of Germany’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ sea defences during World War II. Although the defences were begun in 1942, it was only in 1944, under threat of Allied invasion and the direction of General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, that they were expanded massively. German coastal defences stretched from the French border with Spain to the tip of Denmark, and along the Norwegian coast.
It was a massive undertaking, and huge amounts of steel and concrete were used. Although many of the bunkers and gun emplacements have been destroyed or washed away by the ocean, some of these terrible and evocative reminders of Europe’s violent history remain. It was a peculiar feeling to stand beneath the hulking remains of several gun emplacements built into the sand dunes behind the beach. I found myself thinking of the film The Longest Day, when the Allied invasion fleet appears out of the murky North Sea to start bombarding the Atlantic Wall.
There is something very somber about these monuments to a period of collective destruction. I couldn’t help but explore them, and to look out from the top of the bunkers. The panoramic views over a grey ocean and the isolated position must have made this a bleak posting for any soldier – especially in winter. Waiting for the onslaught of an invasion fleet the likes of which the world hadn’t seen before, or since, must have been terrifying.
Passing beyond the remains of the Atlantic Wall, the beach leaves the gaudy delights of Scheveningen behind, and stretches for miles into the distance. I walked for an hour or so with the wind at my back before turning for home. It was a day for pondering the past and looking toward the future; ironically, also a day when military ships could be seen patrolling the waters off the shore. Several dozen Heads of State, including US President Obama, were in town for the Nuclear Safety Summit. Security was tight.
In fact, just up the beach, anti-aricraft missiles had been deployed to prevent airborne threats to world leaders. A modern-day Atlantic Wall, and evidence that the ghosts of World War II have yet to abandon their posts on Europe’s coast.