When walking along France’s western or northern coastline, at some point you will likely stumble come across a vestige of the past – a large slab of concrete, perhaps now decorated with graffiti, which once served as a World War II bunker.
At least 8,000 of these ‘blockhouses’ or bunkers were built across France’s coastline from 1942 to 1944, as part Nazi Germany’s effort to create an ‘Atlantic wall’ intended to protect against Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.
While bunkers were built from Norway to Spain, the bulk were constructed in France – from Dunkirk to Basque country – in a massive labour push that required over 290,000 workers and 13 million cubic metres of concrete.
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About eight decades later, hundreds – if not thousands – of these now-dilapidated bunkers remain in place on French beaches. In fact, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many remain, as a national inventory of the bunkers has never been done, according to Europe 1.
You can hear the team at The Local talking about the bunkers in the latest episode of the Talking France podcast – download it here or listen on the link below
In the immediate post-war period getting rid of the bunkers was seen as too expensive, difficult, possibly dangerous and just not a priority.
The bunkers were built to withstand an invasion, so demolishing them is not easy.
According to French media Ça m’interesse, “in Lorient, the bunkers were the only things left standing in 1945, after aerial bombing razed the city to the ground”.
A 2016 effort to remove four bunkers from a beach on the island of Ile-de-Ré found that each bunker would require two full weeks of labour to be removed, with some having one-metre-thick walls, according to 20 Minutes.
Their sheer indestructibility made dealing with the bunkers low on the priority list as France rebuilt in the 1940s and 50s – although some had their doors and metal parts removed, as the country was desperately short of metal at the time.
In the aftermath of WWII entire cities including Brest, Caen and Dunkirk had to be rebuilt, while across France several thousand kilometres of railroad tracks that had been torn up.
In 1946, the country embarked on the Monnet Plan which focused on developing national production and industry in France, with heavy emphasis on sectors like finance, energy and transport.
A shameful period
However historians have suggested another reason for leaving the bunkers – especially in the latter part of the 20th century when the first urgent rebuilding after the war was completed.
“A lot of French construction companies got very rich out of building the Wall,” Jerome Prieur, author of a 2010 book, Le Mur Atlantique, told the BBC in an interview.
In a 2022 investigation on the enormous labour effort that was undertaken to construct the Atlantic Wall, Radio France found that at least 15,000 French companies and tens of thousands of French workers were hired to build the wall.
The project also required the assistance of 40 of France’s cement factories, and it ended up using 80 percent of the country’s cement produced during the 1942-1944 period.
Radio France noted that in 1941, France’s national construction market was worth 16 million francs, and by 1943 it jumped to 671 million, thanks in no small part to bunker-building.
Taking the example of the Côtes-du-Nord area in northern France, Radio France found that in 1939 there were only 35 companies in the construction sector, but by 1942, there were 110.
The Vichy regime used the construction of the wall as propaganda as well, claiming that it had reduced unemployment significantly. Prieur explained to the BBC that “after the war, France needed those same companies for the task of reconstruction. So no-one said anything. There was a wilful blindness, in which everyone was complicit.”
In 1944, Robert Lacoste, a member of the resistance who would go on to become Minister of Industry, sent out a memo calling out the construction industry’s complicity, saying that “the most guilty company directors must be prosecuted”.
Eventually, some convictions were handed down, but the goal was generally not put into action, according to Radio France.
There’s also the identity of the workers who built the wall – while a significant number of workers were forced labourers including people from occupied Eastern Europe and refugees from the Spanish Civil War, many French workers opted to work on the wall themselves, attracted by the high wages.
French writer and journalist, Vincent Borel, wrote “World War II: The Atlantic Wall, built for the enemy by the French”, and in it he said that “the reality of the wall was quickly erased from the national memory, giving way to the myth of an army of blond warriors who alone laid the concrete on the coasts of a predominantly resistant France.”
Bunkers in the 21st century
In many instances, it has been left up to French local authorities to decide the what should happen to the bunkers.
Many were left alone – now serving as squats or hang-out spots for local teenagers.
A few have been memorialised – like the memorial ’39-45′ in Saint-Malo and the one in Longues-sur-Mer in Calvados – while others have been converted, like the wine cellar near Bordeaux, as reported by 20 minutes.
Some local organisations, like Gramasa (The Archaeological Research Group for the Atlantic Wall), have popped up in recent years with the goal of preserving the bunkers, and in the 21st century – as the war becomes a more distant memory – many people see the bunkers as a part of French history that should be preserved.
Now 70 years old, the bunkers stand as a reminder of a difficult and painful, but nonetheless important, part of France’s history.
The Local’s columnist, and Normandy resident, John Lichfield, said: “I think it would be quite wrong to remove them, not to mention very difficult.
“I can see why they were not removed in the immediate aftermath of the war, large parts of Normandy were in ruins and the last thing people wanted was to create more ruins. All efforts had to be put into rebuilding the towns along the coast which were destroyed by the British and the Americans to a large extent, bombings which can to this day not be justified in many cases.
“There’s no pressure to remove the bunkers that remain in Normandy, some of them have quietly sunk into fields, some of them are still very prominent – in the little seaside towns along the coast you often come across a bunker in among the hotels and guesthouses and I don’t think anyone complains that it is there, it’s part of the history of the place.”
But there is also a growing safety issue arising from coastal erosion.
For those that were built directly on the beaches, like many on Ile-de-Ré, waves moving inland have made the bunkers potentially dangerous. In 2016, after several years of coastal erosion, local authorities were forced to invest over €275,000 to pay for the removal of four bunkers because “they created a ‘Venturi effect’ where they generated a depression around them which accelerated the erosion”, Lionel Quillet, the president of the Ile-de-Ré mayors, explained to 20 Minutes.
Meanwhile in the northern Pas-de-Calais area, a bunker collapsed into the sea due to the erosion of the cliff it was built on, forcing local authorities to close off the cliff path for safety reasons.