Originally published in Places.

In 2009 I traveled the coast where the North Sea meets the European continent, exploring underground tunnels and concrete fortifications built before and during World War II. I visited structures built by the Allies in France and England, but my principal focus was the 4,500-kilometer network of Third Reich fortifications known as the Atlantikwall. From 1942 to 1944, after the air war in England had failed, Hitler built more than 14,000 bunkers along the coast from Norway to the border of France and Spain, fortifying port cities, small towns and desolate beaches, with special attention to the far north of France, where he was sure the Allies would invade. 

But instead the Allies landed unexpectedly on the sparsely fortified beaches of Normandy, bypassing the Atlantikwall just as Rommel had sidestepped France’s Maginot Line at the outset of World War II. As General George Patton concluded: “Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man.”

But I did not go to marvel at this colossal waste, as a bunker hobbyist might, observing the salvage gear amassed in bunker museums and collecting photos of bunker art in hard-to-reach interiors.

The hobbyist is fascinated by the endless descriptions of battle preparedness and strategic distribution of bunkers into “resistance nests,” “strong-points,” and so on. I was driven instead by a curiosity about how the structures are used today and how they have settled into the everyday landscape. 

Continued on Places.