The Bienwald, a forest in the Southern Palatinate region of Germany, is marked by trenches and bunker ruins from World War II. The bunkers are not accessible to the public, since the massive concrete structures suffer from decay, begin to sink and could collapse. Undiscovered tread mines still pose danger in some parts of the woods.
My friend Markus and I had the chance to go on a bunker expedition with ranger Rüdiger Sinn. He showed us a world that the public normally never gets to see. The bunker sites carry a historic heaviness. You have to remember that a lot of people died on this ground.
In March 1945, the U.S. VI Corps and the French First Army attached the Siegfried Line fortifications and destroyed most military bunkers. After a week of heavy combat, the German defense was penetrated. The artillery had to destroy the extensive bunker systems quickly, since the Germans were famous for their counter-attacks.
The bunkers were constructed to stand against bombs, bullets, gases, and fire. The standard structure “Regelbau 10” has 1,5m (5ft) strong walls and could accommodate 15 soldiers, while the smaller bunkers only have 1m (3ft) thick walls. The floor plan was designed with a crew room, gas locks and emergency exits. The bigger bunkers are 10qm (107sqft) and have a separate fighting room, which is connected with the crew room through a speech tube. Gun embrasures are shaped as an inverted step-pyramid to prevent bullets from entering the bunker.
The U.S. VI Corps and the French First Army used powerful explosives to destroy these massive bunker structures. Some bunkers were covered with a layer of soil, while others were filled with water, to increase the explosive force. We were pretty impressed by the immense power that lifted one of the roofs vertical.
When you enter the bunkers, you find dripstones that hang from the ceiling and that are growing upward from the floor. These stalactites and stalagmites are formed by lime and water dripping from fractures on the ceiling for the last 70 years. Rusty air ventilation tubes are sticking out of the concrete. Bullet wholes in walls show evidence of involvement in heavy combat. Wildcats, bats and agile frogs are using the destroyed structures for shelter and can commonly be seen in the area.
Today, the abandoned bunkers are reclaimed by nature. World War II is a fading memory. The bunkers are forgotten and without purpose. There is an eerie calmness to the sites. The ruins are overgrown by ivy and moss. Surrounded by mighty oaks, beeches and dense undergrowth, the structures almost look like a romantic idyll. They are relicts from the past that became a haunting reminder of violence.