Forts of the Maginot Line

Soon after the end of WWI, the government and the top-ranking officials of the victorious French Army set plans for a defensive system along the eastern border, which would protect the nation from future invasions. The ambitious plan was initially based on a line of reinforced concrete forts placed along the border with Italy, Germany, Luxembourg. Construction started in the last 1920s, and the defense system was named after Henri Maginot, ministry of war at the time and a major advocate of the project, who died well before its completion in 1932.

Construction works continued till at least 1935 on the Italian and German sectors. Soon after, in 1936 due to the re-negotiations of the alliance with Belgium, the line was partly extended along the border between France and Belgium, but it never reached completion, thus failing to seal that sector of the border – which might have been possible only by reaching the coast of the Channel.

When the first thunders of war resounded in Europe in 1939, the forts of the Maginot line were reinforced further. The German Army planned an attack accounting for the presence of the line, and when the invasion of France was enacted in May 1940, a small diversionary army was sent against the French forts, while most of the Wehrmacht moved quickly through the forests of southeast Belgium – the Ardennes – finally entering France in the region of Sedan, next to the western extremity of the French defensive line. So the immense defensive system was outflanked in about three weeks, and an armistice between France and Germany followed soon in June 1940.

The Maginot line is composed of 108 major forts – ‘ouvrage’ in French – plus many more smaller installations. These bunkers had often different characteristics depending on the region, and were interred to an extent depending on the local characteristics of the terrain. Typical features of these forts are turrets with cannons and periscopes. Larger forts have usually two separate entrances for the troops and for supplying goods – shells, grenades, kerosene for the electric generators, food, medical supplies, etc.. These forts could house more than 1’000 troops each. Larger bunkers were often connected by a network of underground tunnels with smaller observation or firing positions, or reinforced barracks. There was also a dedicated telephone communication network all along the line.

Many forts of the line never sustained attacks, while some did. Some were even used in the closing months of the war by the US Army, as strongpoints during field battles against the retreating German Army.

Today, many forts of the line are preserved as national monuments. Some of them are open as top-ranking museums, some have been entrusted to local societies of enthusiasts which allow to visit them on a regular or limited basis. Some are usually shut and inaccessible except by arrangement.

This chapter is about a few forts of the Maginot Line in northeastern France visited in 2016. These highlights provide an insight on the typical construction of these defensive installations. Featured are many photographs taken during these visits.

Sights

Ouvrage de la Ferté

This smaller fort is probably the one in the Maginot Line which saw the most intense action. Located in the beautiful countryside north of historical Sedan, on the border with Belgium, this fort is where the invading Wehrmacht inflicted a first major blow, entering French territory in Spring 1940. It was in the focus of a direct German attack between May 18th-19th, 1940, and no one of the French soldiers in the fort survived.

This installation, located on top of a hill, is composed of two main blocks, connected by an underground tunnel. The interior can be visited only on a guided tour, while the exteriors can be walked freely. The visit starts in the visitor center,  with a very nice animated movie telling the story of the fort, and of the momentous events of May 1940 it was involved in.

Then you are taken to the entrance of the bunker nearby. Getting closer, you are shown original defensive obstacles originally placed along the perimeter of many forts of the Maginot Line. There are six lines of rail beams stuck vertically in the ground, to stop tanks and vehicles, plus lines of barbed wire against attacking troops.

The entrance is through a bunker – Block 1 – emerging from the side of a hill. On top there are thick metal turrets for observation and rifle/machine gun firing. The entrance is through a smaller drawbridge, leaning over a dry moat. This is a distinctive feature of many similar forts of the line. An attacker close to the main door would find himself on the line of fire of anti-tank and lighter arms shooting through sealed loopholes in the wall of the bunker, and vulnerable to grenade attacks, which could be slipped through specially built inclined tubes. From the apron ahead of the bunker you can spot in the distance another concrete bunker part of the same group, about 1 mile away to the southeast. It cannot be visited.

Once inside you can see the shooting chamber opposite the wall close to the main door. Original light weapons are still in place – an anti-tank cannon and a machine gun. Close by there are the dormitories for the troops, the office of the commander and other service rooms, including bulky filters for the ventilation system.

During the fight, a grenade exploded inside the bunker, and this produced an extensive damage. Some non-structural walls collapsed, and what remains can be seen today. The ensuing fire was the final cause of the French disaster during the German attack, as the gas masks of the French troops were not designed against carbon monoxide resulting from a usual fire – most soldiers died from asphyxia.

The guide will drive you to the other block, walking along the connection tunnel. Block 2 features a revolving turret, which could be also retracted for sealing the bunker when necessary. When extracted, it exposed the barrels of various light weapons. This turret can be accessed if you are sufficiently agile. It was put out of combat by applying explosives which stuck the revolving mechanism – the turret has since then assumed a slightly banked attitude.

The guided tour ends after exiting through the door of Block 2. Moving around on top of the construction, you can see the clear signs of the German shelling on top of the turrets. Also the print left by a pack of explosive stick to the side of the revolving turret, but causing little damage, can be clearly spotted.

Between the two blocks, on the side of a local road crossing the site, a further concrete bunker with a small door – this time totally inaccessible – can be found. Opposite the road, there is a monument to the French soldiers who were killed in the attack.

Getting there and moving around

This site is really worth visiting also for those with a general interest for history, and it offers a very good insight on the specific features of the Maginot Line for technically minded people as well. The guide is very knowledgeable, and provides explanations in English also during visits in French. The place is managed as a modern museum, website here. The guided tour will last approximately 45 minutes. Allow more for touring the outside on your own and taking pictures. It can be reached along the road connecting Villy and La Ferté-sur-Chiers, less than 20 miles southeast of Sedan.

Ouvrage Simserhof

This is one of the big forts – ‘gros ouvrage’ – of the Maginot Line, located close to the German border. It was dug in the side of a hill, with two separate gates. The lower one at the foot of the hill was for supply, where the top one, close to the top of the hill, was for the troops. Both gates are reinforced concrete bunkers with loopholes for light artillery to defend the apron ahead of the entrance.

The place has a modern visitor center. The visit – only possible with a guide – is articulated in two parts. The first is a tour of the lower level, which used to be the storage for ammunitions as well as anything needed to supply the activities going on in the fort. This level has been converted into a dynamic exhibition, with sounds, a narrating voice, some visual effects. It is toured conveniently sitting on a cable car. The second part is a classic guided tour of the top-level, and it will start from the top entrance.

The inside of the fort is huge, and the tour is pretty extensive. You are shown the firing chambers besides the entrance, many tunnels, dormitories, living quarters for the troops, medical rooms, the rooms for the electrical generators, and many other service rooms. Remarkably though, you are not shown the artillery installations in the peripheral blocks.

Getting there and moving around

The museum is a prominent tourist attraction in the area. The visit to the lower level is more for children and people with a very general interest for 20th century history. The original setting was changed deeply to host a modern dynamic exhibition, which may not appeal to more technically minded subjects. The visit to the top part lasts about 1.5 hour, and is maybe too hard for kids. Many technical details are provided here and many items shown. Yet the fact that you cannot access any artillery position – at least when I visited – is a bit disappointing. Everything in French only when I visited. Info and timetables for visiting from their website. The closest sizable town is Saarbrücken, Germany, about 30 miles northwest of the site.

Ouvrage du Four à Chaux

This is an intermediate size fort, which hosted around 600 men in the days of operation. The visit – only possible with a guide – is very interesting, as the fort has many characteristics typical to larger installations of the Maginot Line – like Simserhof, see above – but it is more compact and easy to visit. Furthermore, during the visit you are shown all areas of major importance, covering the housing part, as well as the artillery control and firing part.

Much like larger forts, there are two entrances at two different levels on the side of a hill. You get inside through the top one, for troops. Access is by a drawbridge over a small artificial dry moat. From there, you are shown a series of long corridors and tunnels, along which you can find the dormitories and technical rooms.

A special feature is an escape tunnel, built vertically and reaching the top of the hill from the core of the fort. The tunnel is actually made of two twin parts, where the first was designed to be filled up with debris coming from the top of the hill in case of an attack, leaving the other free. This way escape was possible even after the emergency exit had been specifically targeted you enemy fire, causing the debris to fall inside. Further features include the big filters of the ventilation system.

The firing control area can be reached following a corridor going gently uphill. Here you are shown the technical situation rooms from where war operations were coordinated. Several panels and cutouts provide an idea of the structure of the fort.

Then you get access to the ammo storage. Here ammunitions for bigger calibers were put in canisters which were moved thanks to a rail hanging from the ceiling. Larger used shells were conveyed from the cannon to a storage area throwing them on a slide.

One of the retractable turrets is still perfectly working. The guide will operate the mechanism, showing how the turret can be moved up and down, and also how it can rotate. A closed circuit camera shows the turret from outside, thus allowing to better appreciate the effect of the mechanisms you see standing inside. This part is very interesting, and provides a good idea of how the fort worked during a battle.

The guide will finally drive you to the exit through the lower entrance originally for resupply, which is reached going down an inclined tunnel, used to load trolleys full of ammunitions moving them from the storage level to the operative quarters of the fort.

Close by the exit you can find an American M41 tank used as a gate guardian!

Getting there and moving around

The visit of this fort takes about 2 hours and it is very interesting. The museum is possibly less famous than others in the Maginot Line, which makes it more enjoyable, as groups are smaller and the staff is more dedicated. On the other hand, opening times are more limited, you can find information on their website. The visit was in French, but the guide answered my questions in English, plus you are provided a detailed paper guide in English – and probably other languages as well – for the time of the tour. The fort is on the premises of the town of Lembach, about 20 miles north of Strasbourg in the northeastern corner of France, right on the border with Germany.

Casemate Esch

This smaller reinforced artillery position is only rarely open to the public. Yet even from the outside it makes for a pretty unique sight. Actually this installation found itself in the middle of a storm in January 1945, when the 14th Armored Division of the US Army was stopped by the German army in the area of Haguenau during operation ‘Nordwind’, conceived by the Wehrmacht to repeat the success of the offensive in the Ardennes of May 1940. Many found shelter in this fort as a fierce tank battle raged all around.

Heavy damage resulting from intense shelling can be clearly spotted on this relatively small reinforced concrete building. A M4 Sherman tank has been placed on top of the bunker as a memorial.

Getting there and moving around

The barracks can be visited only on Sunday during the warm season. A view of the outside may be interesting, especially if you have already an idea of what a Maginot fort looks like from the inside. The place can be spotted easily on the side of D-28 less than 1 miles southeast of the small village of Hatten, some 15 miles north of Strasbourg. Information through the website of the larger Schoenenburg fort. For the outside, a tour of 15 minutes should be enough.

Abri de Hatten

This site is actually an extremely interesting WWII and Cold War museum, centered on the reinforced barracks in the village of Hatten, part of the Maginot Line. Inside the barracks, which can be toured on your own, you can find some of the original rooms rebuilt with their original furniture, especially a dormitory, a kitchen, medical facilities, air filters and power generators.

Due to the big size of the bunker, some rooms have been used to host extremely interesting exhibitions. These are about the life in the area in the times of the German occupation. Pictures and rare original artifacts with Nazi insignia are part of the collection. A unique German map of the world from 1941 is displayed – showing with the Swastika as the national flag of Germany, and many borders in Europe looking very different from now!

A room is dedicated to the wreck of a Messerchmitt Me-262 Schwalbe, the worlds first operative jet engined fighter. This aircraft was downed nearby the fort in the closing days of WWII. The two jet engines make for an interesting sight, plus there are many components of the avionics system originally on board this very aircraft, really futuristic at the time.

Another room showcases detection and communication gear from the Cold War years, and from both sides of the Iron Curtain. This recalls the fact that, soon after WWII, France decided to keep the largely untouched Maginot Line as a defensive installation against the Soviets. Having grown obsolete after nuclear stockpiles had begun to be produced also in France, the line was finally decommissioned by the early 1960s.

The premises of the reinforced barracks are scattered with further interesting items, including cannons of several makes and bores, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and heavier field cannons, from France, Germany, the US and the Eastern Bloc.

There are a MiG-21 and a Mil helicopter from the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), a French Dassault Mirage, several antennas, a Soviet surface to air missile, more trucks from the GDR. There is also what appears to be a partly authentic border control booth with national insignia from the former border between possibly West Germany – maybe somewhere in Berlin – and the GDR.

There is a small memorial building dedicated to a group of soldiers of the French Army which after the armistice with Germany in 1940 were integrated in the Wehrmacht, and later sent to fight on the side of the Germans against the Soviets on the European Eastern Front. Due to the very harsh conditions of that sector of the front, many would never come back.

There are also two further buildings in the museum. The first is about the Maginot Line, with a comprehensive – and very interesting – collection of models of its various types of forts and reinforced structures. The second is on WWII, with remains of a downed Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, German transport vehicles, and many artifacts and weapons.

Among the most peculiar items on display there is a parachute for pigeons. These birds were extensively used for communication between occupied France and Britain. British birds were parachuted in France. If they fell in the right hands, they could be loaded with a message and launched. Their instinct would then guide them back to their home base across the Channel. Some of these birds even received military decorations for their bravery in this vital service!

Finally, a small collection of heavy army vehicles are kept in operative conditions by a local society of enthusiasts. These include US half-tracked vehicles, trucks, an American M60 and a Soviet T-34 tank!

Getting there and moving around

This unique, one-of-a-kind collection can be visited on a self-guided basis. Depending on your interest, a visit may take from 45 minutes to more than 2 hours. A website with some visiting information is here. There location is on Rue de l’Abri, immediately to the west of the village of Hatten, 15 miles north of Strasbourg. Most explanations are in French and German, plus scant signs in English. Please note that they accept only cash.

Fort de Mutzig – Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II

While not a part of the Maginot Line, the history of this fort is interesting, for it was erected by the Germans at the end of the 19th century, when the regions of Alsace and Lorraine – now part of France – had been lost to the German Reich following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. It was designed and built as the most technologically advanced fort of its time. The construction was based on concrete instead of masonry, which made it capable of withstanding heavy shelling from the most modern and powerful howitzers of its age. It was made of three sectors, erected on top of a hill not far from Strasbourg, and was part of a defensive line built around that city against the French. It was dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm II.

This immense structure featured two batteries of four heavy 150 mm howitzers and fourteen 105 mm cannons in specifically designed turrets, plus lighter observation and firing turrets. About 1’000 men stationed in the fort, which saw limited action in WWI and was ceded to France in 1918. Correspondingly, it changed name to Fort de Mutzig. At the beginning of WWII, it was regained by the invading German Army, which occupied it but later sent the cannons to the Atlantic Wall. It was bombed by the Luftwaffe in the closing days of WWII, but it basically went through the turbulent first half of the 20th century without sustaining any major damage. It was later abandoned and re-opened as a museum, frequently updated as more sections are restored.

It is today one of the largest and best preserved examples of early concrete forts – actually a good example of WWI military architecture, as construction techniques remained very similar until after WWI.

Visiting is possible only in guided groups. The visit will take you to the northern sector, where you can see the firing chamber for defending the gate, and a series of rooms including the living quarters of the troops stationed there. There are a the dormitories, a medical room and even a bakery. Most writing from the time is in German, and most machines bear the name of a German brand! You can visit the original toilet – even there, no privacy was allowed, to prevent the troops from committing suicide by always keeping a watch on them.

Inside the many empty rooms, there are exhibitions of artifacts like models of the turrets, reinforced observation posts and weapons from the original supply of the fort.

Interestingly, the original electric generators have been carefully restored together with the power-plant control panel – very nice, really from an older age!

The tour of the exterior will take you to the top of the fort, where observation and firing turrets can be seen from the outside.

Finally, a battery of four 150 mm howitzers is approached and visited.

Getting there and moving around

The fort can be reached on top of a hill about 12 miles west of Strasbourg. The road going uphill starts between the villages of Mutzig and Dinsheim-sur-Bruche. The guided tour – the only way to visit – takes about 1.5 hours. The visit will be extremely interesting for the general public and more technically minded people as well. Website with information here.

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