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FRENCH HISTORY

Why does France still have so many WWII bunkers on its coast?

Have you ever taken a stroll along France's western or northern coastlines and stumbled upon a World War II bunker? Here is why there are so many still in place across the French coast.

Why does France still have so many WWII bunkers on its coast?
A pedestrian walks past a German Blockhaus from the WWII at La Torche beach, in Plomeur, western France, on June 27, 2022. (Photo by FRED TANNEAU / AFP)

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.

READ MORE: 22 of the biggest myths about French history

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

Reconstruction

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.”

READ MORE: Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship

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.”

Safety

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. 

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

July 14th: What to expect from France’s Fête nationale this year

From military parades to fireworks and the arrival of the Olympic torch in Paris, here is what to expect on Bastille Day, or July 14th, this year.

July 14th: What to expect from France's Fête nationale this year

July 14th is the Fête nationale in France, often known as Bastille Day in the anglophone world, which marks the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 – the event that symbolises the beginning of the French revolution. 

There are many ways to celebrate, including fireworks displays, traditional parades and the highly popular bals de pompiers, where French firefighters host parties in their station houses.

Normally, July 14th is a public holiday, meaning most workers get a day off, but as it falls on a Sunday this year, there will not be an extra day away from work. 

This year the event comes just a few weeks ahead of the Olympic Games, and it also coincides with the final match of the Euro 2024 tournament, which will take place at 9pm.

Here is what to expect for the 2024 Fête nationale;

Parades

Most towns and cities across France have some sort of event on July 14th.

In Paris, there is a large military parade, with the President in attendance, to mark the event. Normally, this takes place along the Champs-Élysées, but this year it has been moved to Avenue Foch (which runs from the Arc de Triomphe toward the Bois de Vincennes) due to the Olympic Games preparation.

It will take place in the morning of Sunday, July 14th at 9.20am, and it will run until close to noon.

This year, the event will have two themes – the Olympics and the Armed Forces. There will also be a recognition of the 80th anniversary of the Liberation of France. 

As part of the parade, there will also be a flypast with 23 helicopters and 45 planes involved. The first will take place at 10.30am.

Olympic Torch arrival

July 14th will also mark the arrival of the Olympic torch in Paris. It will start off at about 12.50pm from the Champs-Elysées traffic circle.

Afterwards, it will visit several landmarks across the city, including the Luxembourg Gardens, the Île de la Cité, and the Louvre before arriving at the Hôtel de Ville. 

You can see the full schedule on the town hall’s website here.

READ MORE: MAP: Where will the Olympic torch visit on its journey through France?

Fireworks

It’s traditional for towns and cities across France to put on fireworks displays either on the night itself or on July 13th – these happen even in quite small towns so check your local mairie’s website or Facebook page for details.

In Paris, the famous Bastille Day fireworks will still happen at the Eiffel Tower, but there will be no viewing area at the Champ de Mars or Trocadéro this year, as they are undergoing preparations for the Olympic Games.

You can watch the fireworks from different locations in the city or on television on France 2. They will go from 11pm to 11.35pm.

Concert

If you are visiting the capital, there will be a ‘Concert de Paris’ with choir music and an orchestra. This time it will take place at the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, located in the 4th arrondissement.

According to Radio France, the concert will be free with no need for a reservation.

Many other French towns and cities will be holding concerts too.

Bals de pompier

French firefighters traditionally open up their stations to visitors on the evening July 14th, but this year most will do so on July 13th instead (owing to the fact that July 14th is on a Sunday), and they host the famous bals des pompiers (firemen’s balls).

Some of these events are family-friendly and laid back, while others – especially in Paris and Marseille – are a little more raunchy where les pompiers show off their famously well-honed physiques to an appreciative audience.

Euro final 

Sunday also marks the conclusion of the Euro 2024 football tournament, although since France got knocked out in the semis this won’t be as big an event in France as it might have been. The match kicks off at 9pm and is showing on French free to air channel TF1.

READ MORE: How to watch the Euro 2024 semi-finals on TV in France

Traffic and weather

According to La Chaîne Météo, the weekend could see mixed weather across France, with a possible cold drop, showers and unseasonably low temperatures on Saturday.

As for Sunday, forecasters say that the weather may be unstable in the north and east of the country, with a risk of rain and chilly temperatures. In the south and the west, they expect a return to calmer, drier weather. 

Maximum temperatures may range from 17C in north-east France to 28C near the Mediterranean. Overall, they are expected to stay about 1-2C below seasonal norms.

When it comes to traffic, the most congestion will occur on Saturday.

On Friday, though there will be some slowdowns across the country, and traffic will be most heavy for departures in the upper north-west, with Bison Futé predicting that zone will be ‘red’ for ‘heavy traffic’.

Bison Futé predictions for Friday

On Saturday, departures across the north-west and into parts of central and south-eastern France will also see red-level heavy traffic, with the rest of the country expected to experience moderately more traffic than usual.

Bison Futé predictions for Saturday

As for Sunday, the roads will be mostly clear, with some slowdowns in the Paris area for departures and returns, as well as parts of eastern France for departures.

Bison Futé predictions for Sunday

Closures and operating hours

As the Fête Nationale falls on a Sunday this year, several places will already be closed, such as banks and government offices. Shops may also have reduced opening hours.

Larger chains such as supermarkets, especially in the cities, may be open for part of the day, but may have different or limited opening hours. Bars, cafés, restaurants and tourist attractions should be open as normal.

Politics

Historically, it is not uncommon for the French president to make a speech on July 14th – however France is in a turbulent period right now, so whether Emmanuel Macron will make a speech or not remains to be seen.

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