When German Field Marshal Erwin ‘Desert Fox’ Rommel arrived on the Western front in 1944, he believed he had only months before the Allied invasion of Western Europe. Unsurprising then that he was dismayed by the failure of his predecessors to complete the Atlantic Wall defences which were supposed to repel the D-Day landings. He immediately set about building this giant defensive line along the coast from Norway to Spain.
He is reputed to have said to a subordinate tasked with the construction, “Which would your men rather be, tired, or dead?” Rommel’s forces faced insurmountable odds and he threw huge reserves of man power, much of it slave labour, and millions of tonnes of concrete and steel into the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The result was a vast string of defences running for thousands of kilometres.
Most people thought France – Calais or Normandy – the likeliest D-Day landing site, but this coast is long and inviting to invaders (just ask the Vikings). Today the echoes of those feverish days in 1944/45 are still evident; Rommel’s defences are still seen all along the North Sea Coast. Some of the fortifications are preserved and open to the public, others cold, grey and silent reminders of Europe’s terrible history.
Cycling south I passed several well preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall, especially around the Hook of Holland. This entrance to the Rhine and gateway to the vital port and rail junction at Rotterdam was a major strategic asset; the German High Command were determined to defend it and prepared themselves accordingly.
The major feature of the Atlantic Wall on this bit of coast is Fort 1881, as the name suggests built in 1881 following the Franco-Prussian War. In 1940 it was garrisoned by the Dutch Army and fell to the German advance across Western Europe. Germany held it until the British Army liberated the Hook of Holland in 1945. In 1940 the Dutch Government held its final cabinet meeting in the fort before the Dutch surrender. This strip of coast has seen momentous events.
Inside the fort two things are apparent: it is deceptively large (I must have walked a mile and a half); and it would be easy to get lost were it not for the numbered arrows pointing you in the right direction. Even then it’s easy to feel lost: at one stage I hadn’t seen or heard another person for quite a while and began to wonder if I’d taken a wrong turn never to be seen again. The silence was deafening. I wouldn’t want to spend a night locked in here.
Deep underground the air has a damp, dank smell and taste; it is humid and unpleasant. The endless silence is spooky, only occasionally broken by the sound of running water. When you’re underground that isn’t a sound that instils a sense of wellbeing. I started climbing up a set of steep stairs, eventually arriving with beads of sweat forming on my brow in the domed gun emplacement three or four stories up.
Parts of the fort are as they were in 1970 when it was finally abandoned; other parts have interesting (occasionally bizarre) displays involving some unconvincing mannequins. When I say ‘bizarre’ my benchmark for this is a group of mannequins in the surgery. There is no legitimate reason why the person being operated on should have his genitals exposed. There is even less reason for a Harry Potter look-a-like mannequin to be holding a pair of tweezers over said genitals.
Unfortunately, and for the Netherlands unusually, the museum is only labelled in Dutch. This is probably down to resources, this piece of European history is only open and accessible thanks to volunteers – even then it is only open for a couple of hours each day.
It was enormous fun and I can heartily recommend a visit; although the claustrophobic corridors and rooms won’t be for everyone. If you want to know more the website is www.forthvh.nl (only in Dutch).