In the end these bunkers obtained the role of the prestige monuments, witnessing not so much the power of the Third Reich as its obsession with disappearance.
— Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology
In 2009 I traveled the coast where the North Sea meets the European continent, exploring underground tunnels and concrete fortifications built before and during World War II. I visited structures built by the Allies in France and England, but my principal focus was the 4,500-kilometer network of Third Reich fortifications known as the Atlantikwall. From 1942 to 1944, after the air war in England had failed, Hitler built more than 14,000 bunkers along the coast from Norway to the border of France and Spain, fortifying port cities, small towns and desolate beaches, with special attention to the far north of France, where he was sure the Allies would invade. 1 But instead the Allies landed unexpectedly on the sparsely fortified beaches of Normandy, bypassing the Atlantikwall just as Rommel had sidestepped France’s Maginot Line at the outset of World War II. As General George Patton concluded: “Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man.”
But I did not go to marvel at this colossal waste, as a bunker hobbyist might, observing the salvage gear amassed in bunker museums and collecting photos of bunker art in hard-to-reach interiors. The hobbyist is fascinated by the endless descriptions of battle preparedness and strategic distribution of bunkers into “resistance nests,” “strong-points,” and so on. I was driven instead by a curiosity about how the structures are used today and how they have settled into the everyday landscape. This is not a bunker archaeology or philosophy, as Virilio would have it, but a bunker sociology — a bunker acoustic ecology.
I found a metaphor for my work in an advertisement for “Bunker Recycling Services” from the Dorset County, England, telephone book, which prompted me to think about a systematic way of repurposing these structures. What means of reclamation might the bunker recycler employ? There is very little to be done physically with these heavy structures. It takes quite a bit of firepower to bust them, which is typically done only when they are in the way of new development. Some bunkers make good building foundations, but most of the Atlantikwall is built on dunes or on eroding sea edges. Extending services like water and power can also be a challenge. To transform bunkers’ physical presence seems at odds with their nature; they are embedded in place, destined to erode into sediment, to become part of the geologic strata of rock and sand.
The first step to bunker recycling, I decided, is documentation. I have begun an acoustic taxonomy of bunker sounds, beginning with a database of over 300 bunkers that I visited, two-thirds of them built by Hitler’s regime. Some I spent all day in, and I even camped next to a few. One dimension of a bunker’s acoustic taxonomy involves the physical properties of reverb and timbre. As I collected these sounds, my own footsteps and voice become necessary parts of the recording. Another, arguably more pertinent dimension of the taxonomy involves the inhabited or organic properties, the human and animal presence. Who and what decides to live in a bunker, to spend time in a bunker, to become completely lodged in a bunker? Recorded sound absorbs these traces and permits the recorder to experience them simultaneously with a minimum of technological separation. I have only just begun this acoustic taxonomy of concrete spaces: long arched corridors, broad cylindrical volumes, tight ammo storage chambers adjacent to anti-aircraft pits. There is an acoustic ecology to their current use — the warble of nesting birds layered upon the laugh of playing children. One entry in my acoustic taxonomy looks like this:
Île de Ré, France
Bunker Type 669 – Double Casemate (the official type number used by the Third Reich)
Antechamber, 1/4 submerged in sand, seawater enters at high tide, reverb 1.7 seconds;
Ammo storage inundated with seawater, reverb 1.4 seconds;
Three pigeons warbling at 12:25 pm;
Soft hands and bare feet of children scrambling on roof;
Graffiti artist spraying between 4:24 pm and 5:13 pm;
Daytime ambience from nearby motorway, attenuates toward evening;
Ceaseless, gentle ambience of ocean eroding concrete.
By recording these sounds, I hope to measure what the photograph cannot: the living presence across a duration of time captured by the bunker’s interior. One question persists, nearly two years after making these recordings: is there a way for recorded sound to suggest a kind of reoccupation, where the husk of military form provides fertile space for a new existence? This inquiry may be expanded to include all military fortifications. This question hangs ominously over so many active and closed U.S. military bases — how to recycle these spaces?
Some notes on listening: Headphones are recommended, but channeling the sounds through a bass cannon would work just as well. Many of the recordings are in binaural format, meaning that the placement of stereo microphones near my ears as I was recording has partially preserved the three-dimensionality of the original space. Listening on standard speakers will fail to reproduce that spatiality. Sound is nothing if not movement, and I introduce the sound of bunkers in the context of my arrival to them, as I am concerned with how they are sited and situated as much as with the bunker interiors cut off from the outside world.
Above the Beach, Concrete
Île de Ré is a glamorous island getaway off the western coast of France, where the beaches are dotted with decaying bunkers, upended and sometimes buried. None of these bunkers saw action during the war. They did, however, make a convincing backdrop for several scenes in the 1962 film The Longest Day. Some have found new life. I discovered one that had been converted to a private beach cabana complete with an outdoor fireplace. The ammo storage chamber presumably makes for an effective wine cellar, and a plaster coating over the bulky concrete forms helps the bunker blend in with the coastal vernacular.
A bunker is an odd collector of things: seaweed and shore plants, graffiti art, the detritus of bottles and trash you would expect to find in any abandoned shelter. Children play on bunkers while sunbathers seek respite from the heat in their shadow. This soundtrack captures bunker space as a landscape continuous with the beach, a concrete hole which gathers sand and beachcombers. The soundscape is about recreation and free time, waiting, staring out at the ocean as the soldiers stationed at these forts once did. In the track I walk from the sand to the interior, collecting evidence of the day’s idle occupation.
The Domain of Oostende
Bunker museum curators have baroque tastes, stuffing their bunkers to the roof with uniformed mannequins, guns and gas masks. The more sophisticated museums, such as this one in Oostende, Belgium, often use an audio guide to impart information and render the space in an acoustic sepia tone. The audio guide tells a story about this particular outpost of the Atlantikwall, which began as a “Norwegian Chalet” owned by King Leopold II at the beginning of the 20th century. The site served as a naval battery in the First World War and was upgraded by the Germans in the Second, but the heavily fortified position saw little to no military action.
In bunker space, the visual limitations of vanguard/rearguard give way to a stereophonic redistribution of space. The audio guide’s flattened soundtrack merges with the three dimensional acoustics of real space. I navigated this bunker by putting the audio guide to one ear, letting the other ear absorb the real-time sounds of the tourist experience. I have a newfound appreciation for audio guides because they impart another layer of reality, which can be switched on/off or attenuated as one desires.
For this reason, I have done little processing and layering with the sounds in this track, though it may sound processed. The ambiguous relationship between a narrative and an empty form that I found at the Domain of Oostende was precisely the sort of relationship that drives my interest in these structures.
On the other side of the English Channel, just off the ferry from Calais, I gazed up at the famous chalky white cliffs. I had come to see the miles of tunnels the English carved into the soft rock as a means of defense. The south of England has perpetually been militarized, both as a foothold from which to project power and as a defensive wall to protect the British Isles from continental invaders. Dover during WWII was a key strategic node in Britain’s defense, with a telecommunications headquarters and hospital deep underground and safe from regular bombing by the Luftwaffe.
In this recording I strike up a hill past the bed and breakfasts to the gates of Dover Castle. Inside, the site is teeming with tourists. I march in with them to see part of the vast network of tunnels which contained the headquarters and the hospital. We walk out of a theater and into a triage chamber. A guide sets off triggers for a packaged sensory experience — a flurry of sound effects, distant bombers, footsteps, injured soldiers. Sensational production in the tunnels (the smell of roast beef is piped into the kitchen) gives tourists the feeling of entering a Hollywood blockbuster. At Dover there is a grand narrative of national pride in the role that the hospital and communications headquarters played in defending the country, a marked contrast to the German bunkers, which reside as alien objects on the coasts of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. National myths involved in the production of bunker space are at the heart of the acoustic taxonomy.
Back at the Atlantikwall, I explored many bunkers without a guide of any sort. Such uncurated bunkers are like blank canvases, inviting new interpretations, perhaps having nothing to do with war. Arriving in the dunescape of Hoek van Holland, I observed a number of radar and telecommunication towers, which uncannily overlapped with my map of bunker locations. I discovered that a number of bunkers had been converted to an infrastructural purpose here. Many others remained nearly buried or overgrown in the thick vegetation.
As I hunted for entrances to these bunkers, the clues were subtle. In this track I detect a bunker by the hollow sound of my footsteps on a sandy “dune.” I descend into the bunker, an anti-aircraft type Fl 311 with a sprawling underground network of tunnels, and emerge from a location hundreds of feet away. The track finishes at night in a nearby campground, the lights of television sets beaming out from within little holiday homes.
The final track consists of recordings from visits to two Maginot Line fortresses. This 200-mile long “wall” of fortresses on France’s eastern border differs from the Atlantikwall in that it was planned and built over a period spanning two decades between the world wars. Miles of tunnels link individual fortresses and supply depots far beneath the surface of the earth. Each Maginot Line fortress could project enough firepower to cover a neighboring, beleaguered outpost. The news media circulated propaganda about the great depths and compared the vast network of fortresses to an underground city.
Unlike the bunkers on the coast, these fortresses are locked, and the ones that have been restored cannot be visited without a guide. I organized a tour with the President of the Alsace Association, a man I admired for his troglodytic stock: His grandfather fought in the trenches and helped dig the tunnels of the Maginot Line, his father was stationed in a Maginot Line fort during WWII, and his son is now a student at Ecole des Mines in Paris.
Maginot Line preservation societies have revitalized French pride in these structures. Our guide stressed numerous times that the line was not a failure, that it did its job of forcing Germany to find a different way into France. Today, the automatic turrets are well oiled and the underground trains have been restored. Were these forts more advanced in their day than the cities above, a kind of underground utopia? What can we learn from these places of mythical progress about the way we continue to militarize today?
The bunker-landscapes of World War II, hidden in backyards and quietly occupying beaches, embody a fleeting moment of certain ruination. Humankind managed to save itself from that cataclysm, but since so little remains to remind us physically of the war, these bunkers are among its great monuments.