One of my golden rules of urban exploration is : wherever you are, whatever the occasion – never miss an opportunity to see something obscure, and special. We are surrounded by less known, forgotten history, waiting for us to rediscover, and a small investment in time and effort can yield great results.
Point in fact, I found myself in Antwerp during a trip earlier this year. It is a less hyped city in Belgium in terms of tourism, which doesn’t do it justice : I had the chance to visit several times in the past visiting friends studying and living there, as well as to meet clients. Antwerp is one of the greatest, most diverse cities of Europe, and a center where business and culture flourish. Some facts that stand out about Antwerp : it was the home of the first Stock Exchange in the 16th century, it hosted the summer Olympic Games in 1920, it has the largest diamond trade district in the world, netting a mind boggling 54 billion $ annually, and it is the second largest port in the continent, and one of the top 20 largest ports in the world.
It is indeed this last fact that made Antwerp strategically important to both the Axis and the Allies during WW2. By 1943, the Belgian section of the Atlantik Wall ranged from Dunkirk in the French border to the river Scheldt estuary in the Dutch border. The ports of Oostende, Zeebrugge as well as Walcheren island controlling the mouth of the river Scheldt became particularly fortified strong points, and the entire section came under the command of Wehrmacht’s amply named LXXXIX Corps (easier to remember as the 89th Corps) based in Antwerp. During one of my previous wartime research sojourns in Bruges (where I desperately – and unsuccessfully – looked for the remains of the Kaiser’s Navy Ubootflotille Flandern WW1 submarine base located there) I was told that the Atlantik Wall command posts of Antwerp are still intact, and in fact can be visited.
So here I was in Antwerp that evening, after a day full with business meetings and contacts in Brussels, hungry and dehydrated to the point of having a throbbing headache. I passed out exhausted in my hotel room around 1800 hrs, and woke up in the middle of the night, hungry, thirsty, still in pain, and quite unprepared to face another day full of appointments. As the torrent of cold rain outside lashed my window, and fighting back against my better judgement about recovering in bed for a few more hours, my trusty urbex instinct kicked in : I’d seize the day (well, more like the night at that time), and venture forth in search for Antwerp’s obscure Nazi bunkers – rather than succumb to misery. Knowingly under-equipped for a trek in the woods in my suit and formal shoes, I grabbed my briefcase, an umbrella and my camera, a bottle of water, some breakfast and headache pills from the station’s pharmacy, and hopped on the first tram of the day towards Park Den Brandt, the expansive woodland area in southern Antwerp where the bunkers were located. I had just over 2 hours to my first appointment, and intended to make every minute count : it could only be Bunkers at Dawn !!
Despite my intent to home into some WW2 concrete as fast as I could brave the elements on that morning, I found the residential area around Park Den Brandt quite rewarding in itself : the rows and rows of neat Art Deco townhouses of Acacialaan were impressive. Could it have been that Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, might have also taken exception? He inspected the bunkers twice while in command of the Atlantik Wall in 1944, and it is quite likely that he would have been billeted in one of these fabulous mansions close to the command installation, as per typical Wehrmacht procedure at the time. It was early in the morning, and in that foul weather, the only other living souls in the neighborhood were a drunken man, a couple of dog walkers and an early morning jogger. Looking further up Acacialaan, I could see them all turning into the park at a point further ahead – so I followed this unlikely early morning herd toward the now visible entrance.
The bunkers sneak upon you as you enter, exactly as they’re supposed to. The two SK1 type command bunkers are massive, and stand directly across each other along the path leading deeper into the park. There have been evident past efforts to de-moss them, but nature always has the upper hand, and through its perseverance the structures are blanketed by soft green-brown moss that makes for an unforgettable sight as the morning haze lifts.
The bunkers are remarkable up close. They look very well maintained through the conservation efforts of the Antwerp Atlantik Wall and Air War Museum , which – unfortunately for me – is not open on that day, let alone in this early hour of the morning. I notice the round armored ventilation grill, a typical fixture I’ve seen before on most Atlantik Wall bunkers. It’s a component of the system that provides ventilation, filtration (against smoke and chemical attacks), and air conditioning (heated air) to the soldiers inside.
The other bunker is now housing the actual museum and was fenced. I was able, however, to admire the museum’s significant collection of Atlantik Wall coastal defense implements, seen in the photo below : From left to right, we have a small portable pillbox, fronted by a Nusscnackermine, or Nutcracker mine : basically a concrete receptacle for the huge Teller anti-tank mine with a pivoting steel beam to activate it – for example when set underwater, as an approaching landing craft pushes against the beam. Clank. Push. Boom ! Next, a version of the Rommelspargel, or Rommel’s asparagus – a wooden beam meant to discourage airdrops and gliders – here we see a version mounted on another concrete Teller mine receptacle, much like the nutcracker. Next, a concrete Tetraëder, a somewhat portable pyramid-shaped tank obstacle. The more familiar 3-steel beam trap in the background is a Tschechenigel, a type of hedgehog named after the Czechs who first deployed it in the Sudetenland border with Germany shortly before the war – and a very familiar site on the beaches of Normandy. In front of it, a wooden Hemmbalk – another obstacle against landing craft, made of two short wood beams and a longer third put together in a pyramid arrangement. To the right, two more basic upright anti-glider obstacles, one is concrete and the other just a wood beam. The French, Belgian and Dutch coasts were literally covered with such obstacles during the Axis occupation, many of which still remain visible on various coastal sites.
Conveniently, there’s a helpful site map outside the Führungsbunker , directing visitors to the location of the other bunkers. And just as well, because some of the remaining ones aren’t that easy to spot, as they were originally part-buried into the park’s fertile soil, which through decades of accumulation and exposure have made entire hillocks out of the massive concrete hulks, entombing them in a veritable jungle – like mysterious undiscovered Mesoamerican temples, with fully grown trees and lush vegetation from top to bottom.
There are 5 of those VF52A-type Troopsbunker, lined up about 50 to 100 meters behind the command bunkers. These are smaller fortified barracks as their name suggests.
Although any visible entrances were either shut or walled in, their firing points could still be approached and a limited view of the space inside is possible.
At the end of the bunker line, one can find what appears as the best preserved VF52A. It’s main entrance is fully excavated although the blue door doesn’t appear to be the original armored type… it has been added post the restoration, as well as the handrails.
The brick chimneys adjacent to the entrance encase two steel tubes of different sizes : these are probably some sort of chimneys or exhausts for the bunker’s power plant. It is also typical for such bunkers to have periscope or radio antenna shafts built in topside – either could be extended when is use and then retracted back to safety as needed – but the VF52A type doesn’t appear to have these interesting features. I’ve read that this one has been fully restored, and is usually open to the public.
Just across, another well preserved example, usually also open to the public : a Hospitalbunker, the installation’s infirmary, which is easy to tell just by looking at the red on white cross painted on the steel door – this one looks like the real deal !!
All German WW2 bunkers were built with exceptional Teutonic efficiency according to the Regelbau, the “Standard Build” concept : A regulation manual outlining the specifications pertaining to utility, positioning, wall thickness, steel casing, layouts, construction techniques or materials – in short, everything required to put such a defensive position together was researched and then prescribed. About 700 individual German bunker types, designed to deliver in a variety of specific missions have been identified – with the ones here in Antwerp being quite unique, as I haven’t heard of similar examples anywhere else.
Regelbau regulations, for example, stipulated that all external steel doors should be 30mm thick and lined with a rubber seal to make them gas proof. I had the chance to swing such doors in Normandy recently – and I can tell you, they must have been quite good exercise for the troops inside : they were very heavy and clunky to operate, much like a ship’s bulkhead door, but that’s what also made them a safety feature.
The Regelbau concept was conceptualized during WW1, and developed further during the 1930s, underpinning the German field fortification mentality and vision : it was that of a highly mobile combat force, well protected from the perils of a front line such as shelling or aerial bombardment, but equally prepared, or rather compelled to eventually come out of their bunker to connect with the rest of their unit and make contact with the enemy. This meant a dispersal of smaller fortifications connected by trenches, that certainly provided adequate protection in combat, but were neither suitable nor designed for longer stays. As a result, German WW2 bunkers were exceptionally designed, and extremely functional, but also generally smaller, cramped and decidedly spartan. This design philosophy was fundamentally different than the French or Belgian vision of static deterrence, which can be seen as applied at the Maginot Line or Eben-Emael – reputedly impregnable, multi-story fortresses with expansive facilities and all possible comforts for the troops, designed for a protracted defensive action. Well, Herr Hitler rather preferred his soldiers well protected, and also ready to come out of their comfort zone (literally) and fight. Anyway – you probably know the rest of that story.
One of my greatest regrets from that visit was being unable to go inside. Not as much for being unable to admire the bunkers from within (Regelbau made sure that once you see one, you could probably say you’ve seen them all), but mostly because I didn’t get the chance to view the Museum’s extensive collection of artifacts related to another, often overlooked wartime story : the desperate defense of Antwerp during the winter of 1944 from the German V-weapon attacks. The museum is holding a notable collection of rocket and flying bomb bits, however I’d have to postpone that visit for another time, along with my on location reporting of the engrossing series of intertwined late war events with Antwerp at the epicenter : the the Battle of the Scheldt, the Battle of the Bulge, and the fascinating story of the Antwerp X force and its defense of the skies over the city and port !
It was past dawn by that time, already daytime. The rain had stopped, my headache was gone, and I was emerging from Park den Brandt, just a tiny bit wetter and muddier than a businessman should look – but certainly happier, and ready to face the day ahead with a big smile and an indelible connection to the soul and history of this great city !!
All photos © explorabilia, except where otherwise indicated
Other Sources :
- The Atlantik Wall and Air War Bunker Museum : http://www.bunkervliegtuigarcheo.com, with special thanks to Mr Olivier Vilain, the Museum’s Secretary-Treasurer / Advisor for his help and input
- On the Regelbau Concept : http://www.regelbau.com
- On the V-Bombing of Antwerp : http://www.flanderstoday.eu/living/seventy-years-antwerp-remembers-v-bomb
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