Monday, 16 September 2013

The Atlantic Wall Museum, Belgium

From their positions in the dunes west of Ostend the Germans looked out
across the English Channel, waiting for an Allied invasion fleet!
The same position 70 years ago.

The second of my museum visits while on holiday (...oh, it seems so long ago now...) was to Ostend's Atlantic Wall Museum. As with Fort Napoleon, which I visited the previous day, this series of fortifications was used over a couple of conflicts, though - of course - we naturally associate the Atlantic Wall with the Second World War and with the D-Day campaign in particular.

The German battery to the west of Ostend actually began life during the First World War, but then was greatly enlarged and enhanced as part of Hitler's ambitious project to fortify the coastline of occupied Europe in order to defend against the inevitable Allied re-invasion. I found it quite sad really that the poor old citizens of Ostend had to endure occupation by the Germans twice in a generation.

A drawing of the German navel coastal battery as it was during WW1. This
fortification was built and replaced the summer retreat of the Belgian
royal family.
One of the observation posts build by the Germans during WW2.

The network of fortification built by the Germans (in both wars) were done so to the detriment of the Belgians, both i the resources they consumed and in the property that was seized. The Atlantic Wall complex was built on the land used by the Belgian Royal Family as their seaside hide away (sure, as a Republican I can't get too upset by that, but they destroyed several historic buildings in the process).

Anyway, I digress...

You will be pleased to learn that unlike Fort Napoleon - which concentrated on the preservation of an historically important building - Ostend's Atlantic Wall museum attempts to recreate the feeling of the complex while it was in use with displays and the weapons and equipment placed back in situ.

Getting there...
The museum is located in a park of attractions - including the recreation of a medieval fishing village - just on the outskirts of Ostend in amongst the sand dunes along the long beautiful beach that stretches all the way from the town.

Looking back along the coastal road towards Ostend which you can just
make out in the background. If you are feeling fit you could even walk it!

You could drive to the museum quite easily but a nice alternative to this is the tram which runs from the centre of Ostend along the coast and drops you off just outside the museum park. These trams are cheap and run frequently back and forth along the foreshore.

It's also worth mentioning at this point that the Ostend Tourist Office do a special pass that allows access to several of the local attractions for a flat rate. You could save yourself some money.

The Atlantic Wall Museum
There are a few things to note before you go. First of all, the museum trail is not mobility accessible, and don't even thing of taking a pram with young kids (why would you anyway). On the positive side though, the museum offers an audio guide in English, but make sure it is fully charged before you leave the reception - mine wasn't so I ended up listening in on my wife's!

One of the many dioramas designed to give you an idea about who
occupied these defences and how they lived. These chaps are WW1 era
German Naval Infantry who manned the battery of four naval guns.
...And just 25 years later they were back again! This time the army.
As mentioned, the museum is actually a trail through the fortified complex which is built in to the dunes that lie just back from the long beach (which is beautiful by the way). It is a veritable rabbit warren of pill-boxes, tunnels and bunkers that snake around the sandy hills that overlook the coast. The museum suggests that the trail will take you 120 minutes to circumnavigate, but we took over 3 hours!

Two words of warning. First of all, if you visit the museum on a hot summers day - as we did - take some bottled water! It is a bit of a trek round and it gets very hot amongst the dunes, I got dehydrated (I forgot my hat). Additionally, some of the tunnels are a little on the short side and I barely managed to stoop through some of the doorways, so be prepared for some undignified moments if you are tall like me.

One of the maze of tunnels that links the complex of bunkers of the
Ostend battery. My little wife gives some idea of scale - I suffered several
bumps on the head while navigating these burrows!

The exhibits
I wasn't prepared for just how good a job the Belgians had done with their refurbishment of the fortifications. They really went to town recreating life in the various bunkers by creating lavishly decorated tableau with mannequins dressed in the uniforms of the soldiers (and sailors) who manned the fortifications.

The history of the bunkers dates back to the First World War when the Germans build a large coastal battery  into the dunes, but the trail seamlessly combines this exhibit with the later German bunkers from WW2 which greatly extended and enhanced the defensive complex.

I was very impressed by the number of original weapon systems that had been put back in place, these ranged from light AA guns to great big Belgian 120mm cannon (which the Germans 'confiscated' when they occupied the country).

Once again, rather spookily, we see the previously pictured AA gun in
the same position in use 70 years before!

They audio tour described the life that the garrison led in the claustrophobic labyrinth of concrete bunkers and it is quite eery to imagine that they looked out across the English Channel towards British defences that looked back towards them!

The German view across the channel. This picture put me in mind from a
similar scene at the start of the 1962 film 'The Longest Day'. As it turned
out these Germans waited for the Allied invasion fleet in vain - they landed
in Normandy instead.

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel
(15 November 1891 – 14 October 1944)
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
It is a mark of a man when he is respected as much by his enemies as he is by his own nation. Such is the accolade that can be ascribed to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

My father, who served in 8th Army in North Africa during World War 2, held two leaders in esteem - Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel ('The Desert Fox'). And apparently this respect for an enemy extended to a great many of my father's comrades who also served in the desert.

Field Marshal Rommel was assigned the  job of commanding the German forces opposing the Allied cross-channel invasion in Normandy and overseeing the building of Hitlers 'Atlantic Wall'. This (over) ambitious project was intended to throw a curtain of heavy coastal defences all along occupied Europe, but was never really fully completed by D-Day.

On the 23 November 1943 Rommel visited the Ostend battery in order to inspect it's preparedness, he was given a tour of the fortifications by the Commanding Officer - Robert Koppe - and was photographed overseeing the gunnery positions which faced the Allies. Again it is really rather spooky to imagine that on your visit you will be standing more or less in many of the same places, overlooking the same weapons, as the legendary German general!

Contemporary photograph on display at the museum showing Field
Marshall Rommel inspecting the Ostend Battery...
Spookily, the same gun position in 2013! The gun is a Belgian 12cm
K370(b) gun which was captured by the Germans and subsequently used
against the Allies!

Kit and kaboodle!
As I said in my introduction, there is a wealth of equipment on show around the exhibit. In fact I was taken aback at just how much hardware the museum had manage to gather together, there was an abundance of uniforms and small arms on show but it was the range of material on display that was particularly amazing.

From authentic German supplies, to radio equipment - including an example of a famous Enigma machine - to larger weaponry, including anti-tank guns and even a wonderful - and I dare say unique - display of tank traps used on the beaches. I was really quite agog at the variety of equipment on show.

All in all it does tend you rather appreciate just what the Allies were up against when they landed ashore on D-Day. The Germans were definitely not short of the means to defend the coast. It really is a wonder that the Allies managed to get ashore let alone up the beaches as all along the dunes little spider-holes were places along the tunnels so that infantry could rake the sands with machine gun fire.

It's an Enigma!
As you can probably infer the wife and I were hugely impressed with the museum. They really have done a superb job in helping the visitor understand just what a superb and heroic job was done by the Allies when they landed and overcame these sorts of defences.

I was - I admit - a little creeped out occasionally when I peeked through bunker slits and looked down over the now peaceful Belgian sands to where the waves lapped the shore...It makes you think!



I think I mentioned that The Atlantic Wall museum is just one attraction that the seaside park boasts, aside form this there is a lovely nature reserve and a reconstruction of a medieval fishing village. We had intended in taking in the village as well but simply run out of time as we spent so long at the fortifications.

Predictably - this is Belgium after all - there is a superb little cafe at the other side of the nature reserve, just five minutes stroll away. It serves an excellent variety of Belgian treats including pots of steaming mussels, steak and frites and much more, and - of course - the usual extensive beer menu. It's a lovely place to cool down after a hot afternoon wandering through the dunes.

Of course I highly recommend The Atlantic Wall museum. Sadly, Belgium is somewhat embarrassingly rich in such war related museums, due to it's unfortunate experiences, but I would say that this is one of the best.

Links:

> My Flickr album which shows all my 67 photos from my visit

> The official Atlantic Wall Museum web site (in Dutch but use Google to translate it)

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