The Atlantic Wall – Hitler’s Coastal Fortress from the Arctic to the Pyrenees, Ianthe Ruthven with a foreword by Joseph Rykwert, Ianthe Ruthven, 2014, 72pp, £15 (paperback)

Atlantic Wall, Stephan Vanfleteren, Hannibal, 2014, 200pp, £35 (hardback)

Works of art exist in infinite solitude…
Rainer Maria Rilke
From Bunker Archaeology, by Paul Virilio, 1975


The landscape photographer Ianthe Ruthven states that the ruins of the prolific coastal fortifications along the European littoral, known as the Atlantikwall and erected by Hitler’s regime between 1940 and 1944, are ‘the least acknowledged of Europe’s monuments’. She is correct in this appraisal. Compared to other historic fortification monuments, coastal or otherwise, the obstinate concrete remains which still pepper the shore and its immediate rear from north Norway to Spain do not draw visitors en masse. Apart from exceptional cases, these ruins, too recently divorced from their aggressive origins, have not been deemed worthy of touristic status, nor, in spite of their collective title, do they ultimately constitute a recognisable wall as such. Sited on dunes and cliffs, in clusters or alone, on so-to-speak ‘common ground’, they have become the subject of curiosity for lone explorers, for photographers, their physical abandonment and uncertain presence resonating with the human solitary who observes them, one on one.

Today the bunkers are as benign as they became at the decisive moment seventy years earlier in June 1944, when they were either knocked out or in most cases simply bypassed. At a stroke their value and function were rendered defunct. Today the survivors are those that escaped the post-war dismantling process, as land reclamation, nature reserves and property developments uprooted obstructions. Today in Belgium, some bunkers have become listed monuments, but not enough, despite the periodical urgings of bunker ‘enthusiasts’. Others have become everything from D-Day museums which are grungy locations for summer ‘bunker’ parties, to stores for surfboards or firewood, and even improvised beach cafes, or protected havens for colonies of rare bats.

The bunkers devised by the Germans from 1941 to strengthen the western defences of the new Reich, were the modern descendants of Roman forts, and later Napoleonic strongholds, traditionally sited at the vulnerable edge of estuaries and key ports, such as Antwerp. The Germans had perfected their use of concrete bunkers in the First World War, where their elaborate bunkers and tunnel systems had repeatedly frustrated Allied attempts to break through the line on the Western Front. But in the war of movement to follow, American general George S. Patton concluded, ‘Fixed fortifications are a monument to man’s stupidity’. Hitler’s Atlantikwall called for massive resources, which had to be diverted from other vital areas of the German war effort. Yet despite the frenzied toil, overnight these ‘impregnable’ static sentries could be safely mocked, and the wall viewed as one of Hitler’s most costly blunders, one made still more absurd given the inspired German bypass of the French Maginot line in May 1940. The bunker ruins are not only a testament to perhaps the most catastrophic waste of materials in history, but more pertinently, they are the only unnamed tombstones left to the tens of thousands of innocents who perished in their construction. These victims included Russian prisoners of war, French resistant fighters, political undesirables and even Jews. Some of the latter group were packed off to Auschwitz soon after their labour was completed on the wall near Antwerp.

Overseeing construction was the Festungspioniere, German engineering troops, operating under the umbrella of the notorious organization Todt, which had proved itself delivering Germany’s Autobahnen. The line of bunkers and command posts were originally designed to protect vulnerable ports, strategic sites and crucial shipping lanes, or in the Pas de Calais to support colossal gun emplacements, like the Lindemann and Todt batteries, designed to command the strait of Dover in the run-up to invasion, the stillborn Operation Sealion. With the disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe in 1942, an operation which proved instructive for both sides, the Germans further stiffened the defences and developed them radically again under Rommel in spring 1944. Some of the most sophisticated bunkers were reserved for the Channel Islands, since Hitler argued the Allies would invade these as a preamble to the main continental assault. They did not, merely sailing round them to Normandy. Today these modernist architectural follies are uniquely imposing, circular towers of smooth concrete, their skin punctuated only by the even climbing rows of dark observation embrasures. They stand stark, unmolested and unnervingly intact on cliff tops and promontories, staring confidently out to an ocean from which an attack would never come.


The artistic merit of the photographs discussed here is largely owed to the natural process of decay, subsidence and weathering to which the seven decades-old bunkers have been subjected. Hitler’s egomaniacal fantasy of a thousand-year Reich seems to endure a permanent and deserved humiliation by their crippled and dilapidated state. Of the roughly three thousand built, many have been uprooted, mostly by coastal erosion, meaning some are buried altogether, or dragged seawards, pounded by waves, to end up as no more than a scattering of jigsaw pieces, sea sluiced chunks piled haphazardly on the shore. Imperceptible as their motion is, the bunkers are ever on the move, slipping away snail-like from their original anchorage. Set starkly on the backdrop of the abstract shore, or skyline, they can seem threatening, monstrous, unnerving, frightening. But sometimes they seem quirkily alluring, docile, pathetic. They take on animal characteristics, as the observer attempts to rationalize their unlikely presence, often seeming whale-like or reptilian, half submerged in the dunes. Stephan Vanfleteren himself sees ‘Malian temples, giant tortoises, whales, spaceships, mega-dice, submarines or UFO platforms.’ The first encounter with these squat interlopers is crucial. Ruthven’s experience is not unfamiliar: ‘Some years ago walking in Normandy I discovered two bunkers half-buried in a wood. Their silent, menacing presence in the gentle Cotentin landscape was deeply incongruous yet curiously captivating.’

A number of the images here overlap, since searching for them is a linear practice of following the coast, one’s wheel locked in the tramline until the end. However, the images themselves are strikingly different. In choosing colour, Ruthven initially appears to favour realism, yet her subtle revelations of light texture and shades beautifully express the ‘tone’ of the structure’s presence, which heightens the sense of depth and grandeur in the surrounding landscape. She excels in bringing forth the ‘flesh’ or ‘hide’ of the concrete beasts she winkles out from the raw breathtaking splendour of the Norwegian coastline or a windswept dune in Normandy. In the untainted Scandinavian air, her lens secures the strange patterns and warm colours left by moss and lichen as nature reclaims the intruders for her own. Meanwhile in France especially, the colourful graffiti shows the bunkers reclaimed as gaudy carnival props.



Bokfjord Norway
Photo by Ianthe Ruthven
© Ianthe Ruthven



Étaples France
Photo by Ianthe Ruthven
© Ianthe Ruthven



Spakenes Norway
Photo by Ianthe Ruthven
©Ianthe Ruthven



Oye-Plage Tower North France
Photo by Will Stone
©Will Stone



Photo by Stephan Vanfleteren
©Stephan Vanfleteren



North France
Photo by Stephan Vanfleteren
©Stephan Vanfleteren


The book opens with a remarkable double-page spread of the typical Zebra stripe effect which many of the bunkers receive over time, from calcification, rust, and damp staining. By framing this abstract display, one is reminded of the heavily scored vertical patterned canvases of the celebrated German artist Anselm Kiefer, recently on show at the Royal Academy in London. But Ruthven, who trekked as far as the tip of north Norway to complete her work, also eloquently captures the monumentality of the bunkers, their massive embrasures and bullish domed crowns still guarding the entrances to fjords and inlets. One memorable image taken at Bokfjord on the border with Russia shows a casemate’s embrasure, as a monster’s expectant jaws at the moment of devouring an oblivious passing freighter. Ruthven captures the innate melancholy which characterizes their futile vigil. One might imagine that the bucolic sunny conditions would work against this, but instead they somehow accentuate the superfluity of the ruins, embellishing the historic tragedy. The permanent redundancy of the bunkers (they might as well be antique ruins) and their relative weakness are heightened by the direct contrast in the majestic might of the surrounding snowy peaks and deep fjord water in an almost solid blue. Here the structures speak all at once as follies, primitive leftovers of a lost civilization, or as abandoned wreckage of some vain human attempt to gain a foothold within the fold of an indifferent nature. Ruthven’s Atlantic Wall images of Normandy and the Channel Islands were first shown in the National Theatre in 2004. In June 2014, 140 digital prints were exhibited at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

The Flemish photographer Stephan Vanfleteren also exhibited his compelling images during the D-day anniversary month of June 2014, though fittingly the location was an actual bunker on the Raversijde museum site on the Belgian coast. Here, in situ as it were, visitors sat in darkness to enjoy a slide show of works selected from the inspirationally designed Atlantic Wall book, where each magnificent image enjoys the luxury of a page to itself. Vanfleteren, who narrowly missed sacrificing himself in pursuit of his art when a freak wave on a channel island almost swept him away, reveals the stark imposition, the entrenched ‘otherness’ and on occasion the interplay of eccentricity between bunker and landscape. Using black and white, Vanfleteren can revel in the contrast between light and dark, drawing out the decayed surface of the bunkers against the rocks and cliffs from which they emerge. His bunkers are often starkly silhouetted against an opaque sky or sea, with nothing else in evidence, as the remarkable image ‘Heuqueville’ eloquently demonstrates. Here a bunker atop a cliff on the Normandy coast juts precariously out above the beach 100 metres below, since the cliff has eroded beneath it. Eventually it will topple and assume a new position in the sands beneath. Its original intent will finally be visibly erased. Vanfleteren allows nothing to come between the bunker and the lens, as if there is only the soundless structure existing in whatever absurd manner fate has chosen. Even the expressive movement of the elements in his images seems to harbour a reclusive silence.

We are constantly reminded of the ‘journey’ of the bunkers, their agonizing movement over time, a slow procession to reabsorption into the earth from whence they came. Like Ruthven, Vanfleteren accessed remote copses and thickets where collapsed bunkers are enshrined like lost temples in moss and saplings. In one eerie photograph, a stone staircase carpeted in moss leads romantically upwards on a gentle gradient through a sparse wood past what might be a bunker or just an outcrop of rock, or a fusion of the two. Elsewhere, the outlines of gun emplacements show as circles and squares of rusting metal, like the indecipherable symbols of some race from prehistory, while low spherical humps of concrete are embossed into the surface of the landscape like the portals to ancient burial chambers.

Some of Vanfleteren’s most memorable images are those of bunkers fallen prey to the channel over which they once held court. These sea-bound victims are sluiced by spray and waves, often within a bath of mist that further accentuates the sense of displacement and isolation. On the beach beneath the dunes or sitting helplessly in the surf, stricken bunkers invite the curious to enter their dank interiors through ink-black entrances, or to take the perfectly preserved concrete staircase, defiantly fixed to their side, leading to the dead end of their pitted summits. The streaking mists and on land the tide of airborne sand create a sense of perpetual movement against the heavy static presence of the casemates. There is a sense of the alien lingering here, a dislocation with reality. The immense triangular chunk of bunker standing upended in the sands at Quiberville, Normandy, was obviously too photogenic to be missed by either of these photographers. It stands spectacularly impaled in the sandy shore like a giant masonry dart thrown to earth by a furious God. Likewise a brace of bunkers at Wissant, which have gradually slipped their moorings to sink down a slope, their half-moon embrasures now almost touching the water, appear like giant beasts stooping to drink at the waterhole.

These contemporary explorers have provided the public with challenging, ravishing images of the overlooked. However, it is important to acknowledge the influential presence of French philosopher Paul Virilio, who in a sense was the pioneer of this ‘Bunker Archaeology’, the title of his book from 1975. Virilio’s majestic duo-tone photographs of bunkers on the French coast dating from the Fifties and Sixties constitute a vital document of the structures in their younger years. For example, in one Virilio image , the ‘leaning tower’ bunker at Oye Plage, designed by the Germans to look like a church, in order to fool enemy spotters, still sports its fake cross at the apex. By the time Ruthven and Vanfleteren arrive this has long gone. In Virilio’s collection the bunkers are in better shape, as would be expected. They appear bolder and more confident against the sky, cleaner, sharper, less weathered, as if the guns had just been removed. The creepers of graffiti have not yet sprouted and nature is only just turning its attention to them.

The Atlantikwall ruins challenge us to employ our imagination in order more powerfully to link a past heavy with difficult lessons to the easily corruptible, ever forgetting present. Furthermore, they appeal to the Romantic sensibility in us like any other ruin, whether we feel comfortable with this reality or not. Here, in Virilio’s tradition, the sensitive photography of Ruthven and Vanfleteren succeeds in drawing the bunkers from their ungoverned obscurity to attributing a permanent value of being to their presence.

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