Understanding Britain's
Atlantic Walls

Introduction

The existence of a replica “Atlantic Wall” on the Sheriffmuir Hills above Dunblane seems to have remained something of a secret for over 70 years. It has been recorded and listed as an historic monument, however, the inhabitants of the Scottish town still seem to know very little about it.

Over ten years ago (c2005) Dunblane Museum heard of local man who had, in 1943, been involved with the construction of the wall at Sheriffmuir.

In August 2012 Gordon Drew sent us a letter about his time in Dunblane. He apologises that his memory is not as clear as it was:

“49th Division came to Scotland in July 1943 for training in its role of assault division for the Normandy landings. The various units of its infantry, artillery, engineers, etc were located in all areas across the country from Ayrshire to Inverness, and moved around training sites such as Rothesay, Tighnabruach, Inverary, Dunblane. In late 1943, I spent 3 weeks in Dunblane with my platoon from 756 Field Coy Royal Engineers.”

What was the Atlantic Wall?

A series of concrete defence structures built along the west coast of Europe from the northern tip of Norway to Spain. Its purpose was to protect against an anticipated Allied invasion of mainland Europe from the British Isles.

In the spring of 1942 this megalomaniac scheme for encasing all Europe in a solid girdle of concrete had one overall title: Atlantic Wall (German: Atlantikwall). The wall was constructed by the Germans, using slave labour, between 1942 and 1944. 

This map shows the planned extent of Hitler's Atlantic Wall.

Who built it?

‘Organisation Todt’ were the German Engineers in charge of constructing the wall.

They forced approximately 1.4 million labourers into service. Many of them were Prisoners of War, slave labour from occupied countries and others were Germans rejected from military service. All of them were treated badly and many did not survive the work.

German propoganda

“The installations on the sea front and inland together constitute an impregnable fortress!”

Not everyone believed the propaganda. Friedrich Kellner, a German Official kept a diary. His entry for 25th April 1943 made this comment about the actual Atlantic Wall

“This will not stop the Allies”

Why the UK?

During WW2 British Military Intelligence gathered information about the German’s Atlantic Wall – its size, structure and the materials it was made of. For a successful seaborne invasion into occupied France the Allied Forces knew they would have to break through these German defences.

A great deal of effort was put into developing technology to achieve this, including the specialised tanks – known as “Hobart’s Funnies” – developed by Major-General Percy Hobart.

Vital information came from the French Resistance, and other sources such as aerial photographs. This enabled accurate mock-ups of the Atlantic Wall to be built in various locations in the UK. These were used for military training and testing prior to D-Day in June 1944.

We are aware of five Atlantic Walls in the UK—there are probably more still to be discovered. The remains of these walls survive today pockmarked by explosives and surrounded by softer fortifications in the form of ditches and trenches.

The Sheriffmuir Wall, above Dunblane.

UK Locations

There are five known locations of UK Atlantic Walls:

  1. Sheriffmuir, Perthshire
  2. Hankley Common, Surrey
  3. Castlemartin, Pembrokeshire
  4. Sudbourne, Suffolk
  5. Shoeburyness, Essex

Countermeasures

Intelligence – finding out about the ‘real’ wall

The French Resistance movement was created in 1940 and they were asked by British Intelligence to find out all they could about the real Atlantic Wall. By various cunning means the Caen group collected more than 3,000 documents which they sent to London.

René Duchez, a painter and decorator, was a member of the French Resistance in Caen, Normandy, where the German Engineering organisation, Todt, had its HQ. They were responsible for building the concrete fortifications along the west coast of Europe during WW2.

Duchez saw an advertisement requesting quotes for redecorating the Todt offices so he presented himself and offered to do the work at a very low price.

A chance opportunity allowed him to steal a plan of the enemy coastal defences. He hid it behind a mirror and came back later after being given the job and retrieved it without arousing suspicion. He was the decorator, so no-one took any real notice of him.

The stolen document indicated very accurately the position of all the defences and how they were constructed. However, Intelligence in London were concerned that the German Engineers would change the design as soon as they realised that the Allies had got hold of a blueprint. However, Germany kept quiet about their loss.

Using this important information the replica walls built in the UK were based on the actual German design. In London a special committee, known as the Anti-Concrete Committee was set up to look at methods of destroying these structures.

“Hobart’s Funnies”

In August 1942 an unsuccessful seaborne assault was made on the port of Dieppe on the northern coast of France. Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat. Amongst other problems obstacles on the beaches had prevented the raiding force from making good progress. It was clear that new models of tank would be needed for future invasions.

In April 1943 Major-General Percy Hobart, an engineer, was given responsibility for many of the specialised armoured vehicles that would take part in the Normandy invasion in 1944. Under Hobart’s leadership, the 79th (Experimental) Armoured Divison Royal Engineers assembled units of modified tank designs. They became known as “Hobart’s Funnies”. They were specialised devices to deal with specific obstacles, including some natural hazards such as soft ground and sand dunes.

The 79th Armoured Division were involved in exercises prior to D-Day at Castlemartin, Pembrokshire. The replica German defences were attacked from the sea. In Suffolk the villages of Sudboure and Iken were requisitioned by the Army as a battle training area for the 79th Armoured Division under Major-General Percy Hobart.

A Fascine - a bundle of wooden poles or rough brushwood lashed together with wires and carried at the front of the tank. Image credit: The Tank Museum

The Anti-Concrete Committee? What was their role? 

In 1943 the Anti-Concrete Committee was formed. It first met in London on Friday 25th June 1943. Its brief was to:

Review and co-ordinate existing work on methods of destroying,breaching and traversing concrete and reinforced concrete structures, including walls, pill boxes and other fortifications, and to recommend experimental work on new methods where desirable.

The concrete used in building the defensive structures was reinforced with steel bars. Many of the experiments carried out under the instructions of the Anti-Concrete Committee were
aimed at finding out how these steel bars were affected. Were they bent, crumpled or broken through and what weight or shape of explosive was required to do the most damage?

The ability to ‘breach’ the Atlantic Wall was the key to a successful invasion. The Committee gave the following definition of a ‘breach’:

A breach meant a ‘tank breach’, or one capable of admitting passage of a Churchill tank and should be 12 feet wide. Colonel Withers said that since Sherman tanks were likely to be available in greater numbers, the ‘tank breach’ should be large enough to admit this type, and that instead 14 feet was required. Where a Sherman tank could go, a Churchill could also.

Lieutenant Ian HammertonSherman Crab flail tank commander, 22nd Dragoons Extract from his contribution in “Forgotten Voices”.

“…I was sent back to my old battalion in Suffolk, who were experimenting with flails, snakes and scorpions and all the other strange menagerie of things, in the Orford training area, a part of Suffolk that was sealed off, highly secret. Some of the villages were evacuated, boarded up, and there they’d built replicas of the Atlantic Wall – pillboxes, bunkers, walls, minefields, wire, anti-tank ditches, the lot, full-sized – and we practiced breaching them.”

An example of a test 'breach' on the Sheriffmuir Wall.

Tuesday 6th June, 1944

D-DAY

Ultimately, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall did not repel invasion. On the 6th of June 1944 the allies mounted a successful attack. 

The largest seaborne assault in history was not over in a day but it is widely believed that without the ability to train troops, develop tactics and test new technologies the outcome may have been very different.

With thanks to

Dunblane Museum
Herritage Lottery Fund
Community covenant

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