Visiting the Atlantic Wall | TheFencePost.com

Visiting the Atlantic Wall

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

When my grandfather was a young man, he lived in Eerengem, Belgium, but often he was in Oostende, a city on the North Sea that had roots as a fishing village. In fact, for many years I thought he was actually from Oostende because I heard so much about that city when I was a child. But one thing I did not know until our visit to Belgium last fall was the key role the area played during both World War I and World War II.

Since Oostende is located by the sea just across the English Channel from England, it became an important defensive location during those two wars. The Aachen Battery, built in 1915, is one of the German coastal defense areas used during World War I, and in fact is the only remaining German defense area. It was constructed by the Germans as defense against a possible allied landing. The coastal strip had 35 batteries that held guns ranging from 8.8 cm anti-aircraft guns to 38 cm naval guns.

The Saltzwedel Battery was built in 1941 during World War II and contains another 25 areas including bunkers, storage facilities, personnel quarters, and machinegun nests. Saltzwedel Battery also has several bunkers with submarine guns, anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and there are several cannons. One area has a large collection of anti-invasion obstacles – the booby traps placed offshore in the shallow water as a deterrent to landing watercraft.

The two batteries are interconnected by more than a mile of trenches. In both cases the defensive locations were established by the Germans to repel any attack from the sea by the Allies.

Within the bunkers are displays showing their use – from guns to living quarters and storage areas. These are set up using authentic clothing, equipment, and supplies, so as you wander the tunnels you feel as if you are right there with the Germans watching the sea and waiting for Allied invaders.

The Atlantic Wall stretches from Norway to the Spanish border, a length of nearly 3,300 miles, and this is just a small stretch of it. The location of the Oostende Atlantic Wall Museum is on the estate that was formerly owned by Belgian Prince Karel, who resisted destruction of the bunkers following World War II. In addition to the bunkers, which we fully explored in a visit that lasted far longer than the two hour estimated by the museum staff, we saw the home where Prince Karel lived when he was in Oostende.

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As part of the Domein Raversijde, where the Atlantic Wall Open Air Museum is located, there is also a restaurant and another open air museum, this one a 500-year-old restored fishing village, Walversijde. Unfortunately we did not have time to explore the buildings in that village.

Getting to Oostende and the Atlantic Wall Museum was as easy as taking a train from Brussels to Oostende and then riding a tram bus from the city down the seacoast. We walked along the bunkers and through the tunnels which are all embedded in the large sand dunes that form a buffer beside the North Sea.

We had cousins with us on our exploration who told us that during clear days you can see the white cliffs of Dover from the bunkers. Our own day in Oostende involved periodic rainstorms and dark clouds. But that was actually a perspective that gave you real appreciation for the men who would have been here watching for an armed invasion.

Of course, the Allies did not land on the beach at Oostende, and instead launched D-Day against the French beaches of Normandy.

When my grandfather was a young man, he lived in Eerengem, Belgium, but often he was in Oostende, a city on the North Sea that had roots as a fishing village. In fact, for many years I thought he was actually from Oostende because I heard so much about that city when I was a child. But one thing I did not know until our visit to Belgium last fall was the key role the area played during both World War I and World War II.

Since Oostende is located by the sea just across the English Channel from England, it became an important defensive location during those two wars. The Aachen Battery, built in 1915, is one of the German coastal defense areas used during World War I, and in fact is the only remaining German defense area. It was constructed by the Germans as defense against a possible allied landing. The coastal strip had 35 batteries that held guns ranging from 8.8 cm anti-aircraft guns to 38 cm naval guns.

The Saltzwedel Battery was built in 1941 during World War II and contains another 25 areas including bunkers, storage facilities, personnel quarters, and machinegun nests. Saltzwedel Battery also has several bunkers with submarine guns, anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and there are several cannons. One area has a large collection of anti-invasion obstacles – the booby traps placed offshore in the shallow water as a deterrent to landing watercraft.

The two batteries are interconnected by more than a mile of trenches. In both cases the defensive locations were established by the Germans to repel any attack from the sea by the Allies.

Within the bunkers are displays showing their use – from guns to living quarters and storage areas. These are set up using authentic clothing, equipment, and supplies, so as you wander the tunnels you feel as if you are right there with the Germans watching the sea and waiting for Allied invaders.

The Atlantic Wall stretches from Norway to the Spanish border, a length of nearly 3,300 miles, and this is just a small stretch of it. The location of the Oostende Atlantic Wall Museum is on the estate that was formerly owned by Belgian Prince Karel, who resisted destruction of the bunkers following World War II. In addition to the bunkers, which we fully explored in a visit that lasted far longer than the two hour estimated by the museum staff, we saw the home where Prince Karel lived when he was in Oostende.

As part of the Domein Raversijde, where the Atlantic Wall Open Air Museum is located, there is also a restaurant and another open air museum, this one a 500-year-old restored fishing village, Walversijde. Unfortunately we did not have time to explore the buildings in that village.

Getting to Oostende and the Atlantic Wall Museum was as easy as taking a train from Brussels to Oostende and then riding a tram bus from the city down the seacoast. We walked along the bunkers and through the tunnels which are all embedded in the large sand dunes that form a buffer beside the North Sea.

We had cousins with us on our exploration who told us that during clear days you can see the white cliffs of Dover from the bunkers. Our own day in Oostende involved periodic rainstorms and dark clouds. But that was actually a perspective that gave you real appreciation for the men who would have been here watching for an armed invasion.

Of course, the Allies did not land on the beach at Oostende, and instead launched D-Day against the French beaches of Normandy.