Amidst the Ruins of Military Replicas

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

After blogging two years ago about the ruins of a simulated fragment of the WWII Atlantic Wall—the notorious Nazi coastal defensive system—now slowly crumbling in the woods of Surrey, I finally had an opportunity to go hike it in person with my wife and in-laws.

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The ruins themselves are both larger than you’d expect and quite compact, forming a ridge of lichen-covered concrete, jagged with rebar, nearly hidden in the vegetation.

A Dutch family was also there climbing over the ruins, and as we headed slightly further up the hillside into the trees smaller test-obstacles emerged, including “dragon’s teeth” and monolithic cuboids of stained concrete.

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

We arrived during a live Ministry of Defence training exercise, with soldiers wandering out across the terrain, speaking to one another on radio headsets, their movements interrupted here and there by Sunday hikers out for an afternoon stroll.

[Image: A soldier at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

This led to the surreal scene of seeing fully outfitted military figures crouched down behind shrubbery, holding machine guns, while kids, their dogs, and their grandparents noisily ambled by. It felt like some sort of stage play gone wrong.

[Image: Hiking at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Then the soldiers disappeared again over the next ridge and we were left looking out over an empty landscape of heather and gorse, the ruins now behind us somewhere in the thicket waiting for next weekend’s hikers to come by.

Bunker Simulations

[Image: A replica of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall defenses in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

The continent-spanning line of concrete bunkers built by the Nazis during WWII, known as the “Atlantic Wall,” was partially recreated in the United Kingdom—in more than one location—to assist with military training.

These simulated Nazi bunkers now survive as largely overlooked ruins amidst the fields, disquieting yet picturesque earth forms covered in plants and lichen, their internal rebar exposed to the weather and twisted by explosives, serving as quiet reminders of the European battlefield.

The various wall sites even include trenches, anti-tank ditches, and other defensive works carved into the ground, forming a kind of landscape garden of simulated fortification.

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

As the Herald Scotland reported the other day, one of these walls “was built at Sheriffmuir, in the hills above Dunblane, in 1943 as preparations were being made to invade Europe. The problem was the Nazis had built a formidable line of concrete defenses from Norway all the way to the Spanish border and if D-Day was to have any chance of success, the British and their allies would have to get over those defenses.”

This, of course, “is why the wall at Sheriffmuir was built: it was a way for the British forces to practise their plan of attack and understand what they would face. They shot at it, they smashed into it, and they blew it up as a way of testing the German defences ahead of D-Day.”

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

It would certainly be difficult to guess what these structures are at first glance, or why such behemoth constructions would have been built in these locations; stumbling upon them with no knowledge of their history would suggest some dark alternative history of WWII in which the Nazis had managed to at least partially conquer Britain, leaving behind these half-buried fortresses in their wake.

Indeed, the history of the walls remains relatively under-exposed, even in Britain, and a new archaeological effort to scan all of the defenses and mount an exhibition about them in the Dunblane Museum is thus now underway.

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

The story of the Scottish wall’s construction is also intriguingly odd. It revolves around an act of artistic espionage, courtesy of “a French painter and decorator called Rene Duchez.”

Duchez, the newspaper explains, “got his hands on the blueprints for the German defences while painting the offices of engineering group TODT, which [had been hired] to build the Atlantic walls. He hid the plans in a biscuit tin, which was smuggled to Britain and used as the blueprint for the wall at Sheriffmuir.”

But Scotland is not the only UK site of a simulated Nazi super-wall: there were also ersatz bunkers built in Surrey, Wales, and Suffolk. In fact, the one in Surrey, built on Hankley Common, is not all that far from my in-laws, so I’ll try to check it out in person next time I’m over in England.

[Images: An Atlantic Wall replica in Surrey; top photo by Shazz, bottom three photos via Wikipedia].

Attempts at archaeological preservation aside, these walls seem destined to fade into the landscape for the next several millennia, absorbed back into the forests and fields; along the way, they’ll join other ancient features like Hadrian’s Wall on the itinerary of future military history buffs, just another site to visit on a slow Sunday stroll, their original context all but forgotten.

(Spotted via Archaeology. Previously on BLDGBLOG: In the Box: A Tour Through The Simulated Battlefields of the U.S. National Training Center and Model Landscape].

Starfish City

[Image: A Starfish site, like a pyromaniac’s version of Archigram, via the St. Margaret’s Community Website; view larger].

A few other things that will probably come up this evening at the Architectural Association, in the context of the British Exploratory Land Archive project, are the so-called “Starfish sites” of World War II Britain. Starfish sites “were large-scale night-time decoys created during The Blitz to simulate burning British cities.”

[Image: A Starfish site burning, via the St. Margaret’s Community Website; view larger].

Their nickname, “Starfish,” comes from the initials they were given by their designer, Colonel John Turner, for “Special Fire” sites or “SF.”

As English Heritage explains, in their list of “airfield bombing decoys,” these misleading proto-cities were “operated by lighting a series of controlled fires during an air raid to replicate an urban area targeted by bombs.” They would thus be set ablaze to lead German pilots further astray, as the bombers would, at least in theory, fly several miles off-course to obliterate nothing but empty fields camouflaged as urban cores.

They were like optical distant cousins of the camouflaged factories of Southern California during World War II.

Being in a hotel without my books, and thus relying entirely on the infallible historical resource of Wikipedia for the following quotation, the Starfish sites “consisted of elaborate light arrays and fires, controlled from a nearby bunker, laid out to simulate a fire-bombed town. By the end of the war there were 237 decoys protecting 81 towns and cities around the country.”

[Image: Zooming-in on the Starfish site, seen above; image via the St. Margaret’s Community Website].

The specific system of visual camouflage used at the sites consisted of various special effects, including “fire baskets,” “glow boxes,” reflecting pools, and long trenches that could be set alight in a controlled sequence so as to replicate the streets and buildings of particular towns—1:1 urban models built almost entirely with light.

In fact, in some cases, these dissimulating light shows for visiting Germans were subtractively augmented, we might say, with entire lakes being “drained during the war to prevent them being used as navigational aids by enemy aircraft.”

Operational “instructions” for turning on—that is, setting ablaze—”Minor Starfish sites” can be read, courtesy of the Arborfield Local History Society, where we also learn how such sites were meant to be decommissioned after the war. Disconcertingly, despite the presence of literally tons of “explosive boiling oil” and other highly flammable liquid fuel, often simply lying about in open trenches, we read that “sites should be de-requisitioned and cleared of obstructions quickly in order to hand the land back to agriculture etc., as soon as possible.”

The remarkable photos posted here—depicting a kind of pyromaniac’s version of Archigram, a temporary circus of flame bolted together from scaffolding—come from the St. Margaret’s Community Website, where a bit more information is available.

In any case, if you’re around London this evening, Starfish sites, aerial archaeology, and many other noteworthy features of the British landscape will be mentioned—albeit in passing—during our lecture at the Architectural Association. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood…

(Thanks to Laura Allen for first pointing me to Starfish sites).

War Sand

[Image: Geologist Earle McBride‘s microscopic images of war sand on the beaches of Normandy].

A short piece in the September/October 2012 issue of Archaeology magazine highlights the presence of spherical magnetic shards—remnants of the D-Day operations of World War II—found hidden amongst natural sand grains on the beaches of Normandy. “Up to 4 percent of the sand is made up of this shrapnel,” the article states; however, “waves, storms, and rust will probably wipe this microscopic archaeology from the coast in another hundred years.”

This is not a new discovery, of course. In Michael Welland’s book Sand, often cited here on BLDGBLOG, we read that, “on Normandy beaches where D-Day landings took place, you will find sand-sized fragments of steel”—an artificial landscape of eroded machines still detectable, albeit with specialty instruments, in the coastal dunes.

I’m reminded of a line from The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, a speculative look by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz at the remains of human civilization 100 million years from now. There, we read that “skyscrapers and semi-detached houses alike, roads and railway lines, will be reduced to sand and pebbles, and strewn as glistening and barely recognizable relics along the shoreline of the future.”

The oddly shaped magnetic remains of World War II are thus a good indication of how our cities might appear after humans have long departed.

Ball Games: The Great Escape (1963)

[Image: The Great Escape from MGM].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley, written as part of Breaking Out and Breaking In: A Distributed Film Fest of Prison Breaks and Bank Heists.

Alongside The Dam Busters and The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape was shown on British TV at least once a month when I was growing up. It is such familiar, comforting fare that, in a 2006 poll, Britons voted The Great Escape their third choice for a film worth watching on Christmas Day (It’s A Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz were first and second choice, respectively).

A large part of its appeal, at least for me, lies in the Boy’s Own adventure-style spirit and Heath Robinson-esque ingenuity of the Allied POWs.

The movie begins with the most experienced and determined Allied escapologists arriving at the newly constructed, supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III. Its resistance to casual, opportunistic break outs is demonstrated in the first few minutes, as POWs unsuccessfully attempt to slip out hidden under tree branches, disguised as Russian laborers, and in the blind spots of the guard towers.

[Image: From The Great Escape, courtesy of MGM].

An altogether more rigorous approach is required, and, under the direction of Richard Attenborough’s Squadron Leader Bartlett, the entire camp is organized into a tunnel-digging machine, with a strict division of labor, assembly-line document- and clothing-production techniques, and a suite of redundant underground infrastructure (tunnels “Tom,” “Dick,” and the ultimately successful “Harry”).

As in A Man Escaped, breaking out requires “the strategic dismantling and reassembly of all designed objects that aren’t architecture”: powdered milk cans, socks, and bunk bed slats are transformed into tunnel ventilation pumps, supports, and trouser-mounted soil disposal devices.

And, as in Grand Illusion, there is a distinct sense that tunneling is a codified sport, bound to be played in prison camps. Certainly, the Allied POWs seem to be motivated as much by a boyish delight in outwitting the Germans through their own ingenuity and teamwork as by a sense of duty or passionate desire to return home. Stalag Luft III, in this view, is something like a game level, challenging seasoned players to apply their existing tunneling techniques in innovative new ways. (Intriguingly, the camp was used as the basis for Dulag IIIA in the first installment of Call of Duty).

If the design of prison camps and the sport of tunneling have co-evolved from World War I’s Grand Illusion to World War II’s Great Escape, then so, too, has the theater of war, from the defined battlefield of the trenches to a total war embedded into and dispersed throughout civilian landscapes.

The second half of The Great Escape, following the trajectories of those who successfully tunneled out of Stalag Luft III, reveals that, in fact, most of the European continent is a prison camp of sorts, booby-trapped with English-speaking Gestapo, and with its safe havens (Switzerland and Spain) ring-fenced with barbed wire and mountain ranges.

[Images: From The Great Escape, courtesy of MGM].

Finally, Steve McQueen, the “Cooler King,” provides future generations of filmmakers with an iconic image of the spatial and temporal experience of solitary confinement: a rubber ball, repetitively bounced off cell walls as if both defining and testing the limits those walls pose to free motion. From The Shining to The Simpsons to Ryan Reynolds in Safe House, the endlessly bouncing ball has since become visual shorthand, indicating that a character is trapped, whether their prison is mental, physical, or both.

(Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography).

The Enemy by Design

[Image: The Berlin Reich Chancellery, designed by Albert Speer].

Jim Rossignol’s recent guest post about the architecture of “evil lairs” reminded me of a brilliant vignette from Deyan Sudjic’s 2005 book The Edifice Complex.
In a chapter called “The Long March to the Leader’s Desk” – a virtuoso example of architectural writing, and easily the best chapter in the book – Sudjic describes how Emil Hácha, Prime Minister of what was then Czechoslovakia, came to visit Adolf Hitler in his Albert Speer-designed Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
The Chancellery – Hitler’s “evil lair,” if you will – proved so psychologically overpowering that Hácha, “a short man in his late sixties with thinning and receding hair,” according to Sudjic, suffered a heart attack and very nearly died after walking through it.

[Image: Hitler’s office in the Chancellery].

Quoting Sudjic at length:

Hácha was white faced, anxious, and dizzy as he made his way across the entrance lobby, completed just eight weeks earlier. He was exactly the kind of visitor the Chancellery was designed for. If ever architecture had been intended for use as a weapon of war, it was here. The grandeur of the Chancellery was an essential part of Hitler’s campaign to browbeat Hácha into surrender. Beyond the courtyard, itself a kind of summation of the Nazi state, was an elaborate sequence of spaces inside the Chancellery, carefully orchestrated to deliver official visitors to Hitler’s presence in a suitably intimidated frame of mind. After a quarter-mile walk, visitors were left in no doubt of the power of the new Germany.

Indeed, Sudjic suggests that Hácha experienced the building “like a spelunker, moving from one giant underground cavern to another, never sure exactly where he would find himself, or what he would have to confront next, as an intimidating and bewildering sequence of spaces unfolded in front of him.”

Past the chancellery guards and out of the way of the floodlights, [Hácha was led] across the porch and into a windowless hall beyond, its wall inlaid with the pagan imagery of mosaic eagles grasping burning torches garlanded with oak leaves, its floors slippery with marble. There was no furniture, nor even a trace of carpet to soften the severity of the hall. (…) Under the hovering glass and the massive marble walls, the bronze doors at the far end of the hall shimmered and beckoned and threatened. Visitors were propelled down its length as if being whirled through a wind tunnel. As Hácha walked, he was aware of his heart accelerating in rapid fluctuating beats.

At this point, Hitler’s Chancellery begins to sound like the boss level of a particularly unnerving video game:

The hall that they walked through was thirty feet high. On the left a parade of windows looked out over Voss Strasse, and on the right were five giant doorways, each seventeen feet high. They stopped at the central pair of double doors, guarded by two more SS men in steel helmets. On a bronze scroll above the door case were the initials AH.

Even here, at the very door to Hitler’s study, Speer’s spatial theatrics weren’t finished.
Passing through those gigantic doors, Hácha found himself standing at one end of a 4000-square-foot room, surrounded by “blood-red marble walls.” At the other end, in front of a fireplace, was “a sofa as big as a lifeboat, occupied by Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring” – and nearby was Hitler, seated at his desk.
Incredibly, “To walk from the door to the desk took a nerve-wracking full minute.”
By that point, though, Czechoslovakia’s fate was sealed: Hácha’s will collapsed as soon as Göring began to describe the Nazis’ military capabilities, and he suffered a heart attack.
Not before signing his country over to Hitler, of course – “a humiliation that he had ample time to reflect on,” Sudjic writes, “during his endless walk back through the marble and mosaic halls of the Chancellery.”