Seaside property

Half a platoon of soldiers – two squads – and the bunker they man. The place is somewhere on the coast of continental Europe, probably France or Denmark. The bunker is one of the more than 15,000 bunkers, fortifications, strongpoints and gun emplacements built by the Germans between 1942 and 1944, intended to stave off an Allied invasion. It was called the “Atlantic Wall”, but it wasn’t an unbroken chain of fortifications. As the German High Command didn’t know where an invasion would take place, there were bunkers all the way from the northernmost point of Norway all the way to the Franco-Spanish border. The heaviest defenses where in the Pas-de-Calais region, where the distance between France and Britain is the shortest. As we all know, the Allies let the Germans believe that they would invade there, all the while they prepared for the landings in Normandy.

The artillery installed was a plethora of captured guns from several European armies, which – with the many differing calibers involved – presented a logistical nightmare. The 300,000 troops manning the Atlantic Wall were mostly second-line units, usually older soldiers, or soldiers with slight health problems, or “volunteers” recruited from Soviet prisoners of war. They had low mobility, often lacking motor vehicles entirely, and little in the way of artillery. The defenses were not limited to bunkers, but consisted of minefields and obstacles, too. In the end, the defenses were breached in the one spot where it mattered – Normandy.


When some friends and I visited Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, we looked at several sites with German bunkers, like this one on Utah Beach in the photo above. The remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall are something for tourists to visit today, and a trip to Normandy provides ample opportunities for study of bunkers, a few of which have been restored and kept as museums and memorials over a time long gone, yet still present today.


Tucked in for the winter

In my series of posts on fieldworks and dugouts, you could see dugouts both neat and rough. This one, probably from the winter of 1941-42, belongs to the “neat” category. Partially dug under a big, stout barn and heated by a woodburning stove, it provides a nice shelter for the soldiers. Having a warm, safe place to stay in meant the difference between life and death during that harsh winter. Tens of thousands of soldiers suffered frostbite, and thousands more froze to death. Those not fortunate enough to be dug in like the soldiers in the photo had to find winter quarters that kept them out of the worst cold. That usually meant cramming themselves into a Russian farmhouse, sharing it with the peasant family, their livestock, fleas and lice. In worst case, the owners were thrown out and left to fend for themselves in the snow. War is cruel, and war in wintertime doubly so.

Fieldworks, part 7:

As a contrast to my post two days ago, this is what most other dugouts looked like. While it might to cosy inside, the outside is serviceable and nothing more. This photo is probably from the later half of 1943, showing a dugout on the Eastern Front. The writing on the back says it’s in a place called “Botchkari”, which probably is Bochkary in Belarus (about halfway between Vitebsk and Minsk), and which was in German hands until the massive Red Army offensive known as Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944. The soldiers in the photo were lucky if they managed to escape the Soviet onslaught.

As already noted, this dugout isn’t as tidy as the previous one. A two-man saw lies behind the man on the left. A stovepipe leans out of the dugout, and a field telephone wire spool holds the last meters of the phone wire leading to company headquarters. Some spruce boughs serve as camouflage, but the overturned sandy soil makes spotting the position from a reconnaisance airplane easy. Today, there’s probably just an overgrown mound with some rotting logs and whatever items the soldiers had to leave behind.

Fieldworks, part 6: “In a hole in the ground…

…there lived a Nazi.” Of the many photos of dugouts and other temporary accommodations used by German soldiers that I own, this is the only one where a swastika is used. Most others have simple signs with unit designations or slightly ironic names like “Villa Bellevue”. Several are almost excessively tidy, though, with little fences and other features more commonly associated with summer houses. It was probably a way of making life on the frontline a little more bearable. Also, if there wasn’t much combat, improving your dugout and making it look less like a hole in the ground gave you something to do.

Fieldworks, part 5: Can you dig it?

When taking up static positions, a good dugout is a must. The Red Army artillery was feared for the heavy barrages it delivered, so it was prudent to dig in as soon as possible. The Germans were known for well-built, cosy (relatively) dugouts, a craft that appears to have originated in WW1. A half-squad dugout was 3.1 x 3.9 meters, with 2 meters from floor to ceiling. Walls and floor were covered with boards like in the photo above or built from logs (like a loghouse), while the roof consisted of c. 30 cms thick logs in two layers (one single layer and a double layer with the logs crosswise) with 40-50 cms of earth between them, and then a meter of dirt on top of it all. That gave decent protection against most artillery shells.

Inside, there were bunk beds, a table, chairs or stools, a stove for heating and simple cooking, a weapons rack, and a radio (if available). Candles and kerosene lanterns provided lighting, and in some cases electrical lighting. Dugouts varied in size and layout depending on what they were used for, like headquarters, cooking, etc. Soldiers tended to add personal items like photos of girlfriends in order to make the dugout more like a home. If they were to spend time living underground, they wanted to do the best of it.

Fieldworks, part 4 (yeah, Bitche)

Rows upon rows of dragon’s teeth, trapetzoid concrete plinths between 90 to 120 centimeters tall, intended to stop tanks and other vehicles from crossing. There are minefields in front of them, and barbed wire obstacles will be added later. Mines are probably dug down between the “teeth”, too. In this open landscape, there are few natural points for bunkers or pillboxes, but those were probably added later. This is the view from the “enemy” side of the Westwall, or the “Siegfried Line” as the Allies called it, near the town of Bitche in Lorraine, France.

Dragon’s teeth were common tank obstacles in locations where the defenders had time to prepare the defenses. They could be seen in Normandy as part of the Atlantic Wall, and the British placed a lot of them in strategic locations when a German invasion was still a possibility. Beams, poles or large rocks were other obstacles used, usually in conjunction with minefields.

Lorraine (and the neighboring Alsace) has been contested over the centuries, passing between French and German ownership several times. The region became German after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, but reverted to French ownership in 1918. It was occupied by Germany in 1940-44. In March 1945 the U.S. 100th Infantry Division broke through the Maginot Line in the Bitche area and liberated the town, which had been occupied by German troops.

Fieldworks, part 3

A machinegun position, the barrel of an MG 34 poking out. The men from a machinegun company in the 217. Infanterie-Division have taken up positions, possibly outside Leningrad, summer of 1941. Part of a trench system, the MG position is situated in a spot where it will be able to provide an interlocking field of fire together with other machineguns. As MG positions are prime targets for enemy fire, the success of any attack resting on the knocking out of enemy machineguns, it was imperative to have cover and camouflage.

The 217. Infanterie-Division was formed in August 1939 in Allenstein in East Prussia (now Olsztyn in Poland). The division took part in the invasion of Poland, where it was mainly used as a reserve unit. It participated in the fighting in Belgium and France, before going back to East Prussia in July, 1940, where it spent almost a year securing the border. In June 1941 it was part of Army Group North, invading the USSR and capturing Tallinn in Estonia. It saw action on the Leningrad front, but was rushed to Ukraine in October 1943 in order to stem the Red Army advance. The Infanterie-Regiment 311 was disbanded together with the rest of the division in November 1943 after suffering heavy losses.


This is what I could tell about trenches. The next posts on fieldworks will be about bunkers.