“Which would your men rather be, tired, or dead?” Echoes of Europe’s terrible past

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.

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

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.

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Anti aircraft gun, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Anti aircraft gun, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Gun, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Gun, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

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.

Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Corridor in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Corridor in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

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.

Mannequin on the toilet! Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequin on the toilet! Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Newspapers, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Newspapers, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequin in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequin in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

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.

Mannequins, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequins, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Old sign in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Old sign in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Graffeti in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Graffeti in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

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.

Mannequin in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequin in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Corridor in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Corridor in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

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.

Mannequins, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequins, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

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).

Cycling the North Sea Coast (II)

The weather in The Hague, and all along the North Sea coastline that stretches to the north and south, can change in the blink of an eye. I’ve often looked out of the front window of my apartment and the weather is blue skies and sunshine; meanwhile, a peek out of the back window reveals dark and foreboding rain clouds. Its not so much that you can have four seasons in one day; more that you can have four seasons several times a day.

Run aground ship at the start of the cycle route leaving The Hague, Netherlands

Run aground ship at the start of the cycle route leaving The Hague, Netherlands

Beach near The Hague, Netherlands

Beach near The Hague, Netherlands

Beach mural, The Hague, Netherlands

Beach mural, The Hague, Netherlands

When the weather is changeable (when isn’t it?), timing and a slice of luck are all important to stay dry should you step outdoors. This was illustrated for me on my recent cycle south along the North Sea Coast to the Hook of Holland or Hoek van Holland (Dutch often seems like badly spelled English). The Hook is the spot where the mighty River Rhine emerges from deep inside Europe’s interior and empties into the ocean.

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I set off in windy but sunny conditions. It only takes an hour to reach the Hook of Holland, but riding high on the dunes path into a stiff wind with little protection is still a struggle. I kept telling myself that at least I’d have the wind at my back on the return journey, little knowing that I’d also be racing a tempestuous storm in a desperate bid to avoid a soaking. Amazing how motivational massive rain clouds prove to be.

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Cycle route and lighthouse, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and lighthouse, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The journey down this stretch of coast is wonderful. Often you can cycle along the tops of the dunes with views over the beach and North Sea. While the journey takes you through beautiful sand dunes, the view to the south is dominated by the silhouette of the vast industrial complex at the massive port on the Hook of Holland. Giant cranes and wind turbines tower over the landscape like a metal forest; huge cargo ships can be seen from miles away.

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

On the beach close to The Hague there are plenty of people walking, sailing and kite surfing. Further away from urban centres the people thin out and often the beach is empty but for the crashing waves and wailing seagulls. All the while I travelled along basking in the sun, but could see trouble brewing out to sea.

Despite being one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, once outside the city limits you can find yourself alone for longish periods of time. This is a car free route, but when you think it’s just you and the seagulls a party of enthusiastic and swift moving Dutch cyclists will inevitably hove into view. They do love to cycle in these parts.

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

At the Hook of Holland itself you can stand on a white sand beach and watch enormous container ships sail out into the ocean bound for distant parts of the globe. It’s a mesmerising experience, one I enjoyed in the company of several dozen other people. The number and size of the ships coming and going along this section of river is amazing; sail a little further up river and you arrive in Rotterdam, still one of the world’s largest and busiest ports.

Beach and North Sea at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Beach and North Sea at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

I cycled a little further along and discovered a series ofWorld War II military installations. This was an important area to defend for the occupying German forces, and the vast Atlantic Wall defensive fortifications that stretched from Norway to Spain are visible here. I was lucky that many of the fortifications were open to visit…but more of that next time.

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Deciding that the weather was going to become rough I set off back to The Hague. When I stopped to look backwards it was barely credible that I would remain dry. Terrifyingly large rain clouds loomed, while up ahead I could see the sun illuminating the golden sand of the beach and sand dunes. I cycled in a netherworld between the two and managed to reach home just before a tremendous storm hit. The rain was bouncing off the streets.