At dinner on our first night in Normandy, we ended up in conversation with two men at a neighboring table, a pair of British history buggs who were also touring D-Day sites in Normandy. They had already spend several days looking at the remains of the battles over Normandy, and one of them made a comment that stuck with me for the rest of our time in Normandy: “The Germans sure loved reinforced concrete.”
We soon found he was right. The remains of German bunkers and gun batteries bite into the landscape of Normandy: squat ugly concrete constructions with none of the grace of ruins from earlier ages.*
In our first day of touring alone we saw two fine examples: The Grand Bunker Atlantic Wall Museum at Ouistreham and the German gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer.
I must admit, the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer was of only passing interest to me. It was the site of a key incident in The Longest Day.*** Seeing it gave me a sense of physical place, but did not change my understanding of the event. The serious D-Day buffs on the tour were more enthralled, and spent a bit of time quoting their favorite lines from The Longest Day to each other in situ.
The Grand Bunker Atlantic Wall Museum, also the site of a memorable incident in The Longest Day, was a different experience altogether. The concrete tower was the German headquarters in charge of gun batteries the covered the entrance to the river Orne. The top floor was a 360-degree observation post overlooking “Sword Beach”, where the British landed on D-Day. On D-Day, the tower housed two officers and fifty men, who formed the last pocket of resistance after the British landed. For three days the German garrison held off Allied attempts to take the tower with heavy machine gun fire and grenades thrown from the roof of the Bunker. On June 9, the German garrison surrendered to Lieutenant Bob Orrell and three other members of of the Royal Engineers, who blew open the armored door of the bunker. (A four-hour process.)
Today, the fully restored tower is a museum that gives visitors an understanding of the cramped and claustrophobic experience of life in a bunker. The interior of the bunker is a multi-story corkscrew of small rooms on uneven levels, that house a radio transmission room, an electrical generator, ammunitions storage, bunk rooms, the original range finder in the observation post, and a medical bay that makes a Civil War hospital look like a modern surgical theater by comparison. In addition to German artifacts, the museum includes exhibits about the creation of the German system of coastal defenses and fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall****
An illuminating stop by any history buff standard.
*The Romans loved their concrete, too. They used it to build temples and coliseums and the renowned Roman roads throughout an empire that stretched from Persia to Britain. And while I suspect the people they conquered hated their Roman invaders as much as the people of Normandy hated the Germans,** the concrete constructions they left behind them are beautiful.
**Based on the regular revolts against Roman rule from one end of the empire to the other.
***Both the book by Cornelius Ryan and the 1962 movie based on the book–a three hour blockbuster with an ensemble cast that included virtually every male star in Hollywood.
****Built between 1942 and 1944 using conscripted French labor. By June 1944 the Atlantic Wall extended eight hundred miles with some nine thousand fortified positions. Not that it did the Germans any good.