The Border Forts of Czechoslovakia Against Nazi Germany

The Maginot line – a line of forts running along the French border with Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium – is a widely known example of military engineering from the inter-war period (see this chapter). The adopted construction technique, based on reinforced concrete pillboxes with walls several feet thick, half interred to decrease visibility from above, field cannons and anti-tank defensive guns, witnesses the great consideration given to tanks and aircraft as attack weapons.

Due to the fast movements typical to the new strategy of the German army since the beginning of WWII, the Maginot line is mainly remembered for having not been involved in any major action, and having being largely bypassed. As a matter of fact, the German opted for a bypass also because the line was in place, so it was not as ineffective as it is often thought.

What is possibly even less known is that similar defensive lines were built in earnest in other European countries, before and even during WWII, after the Maginot line had failed to stop the invading German army. The enormous Salpa line, built by Finland against the Soviet Union, was probably the last and most effective to be completed (see this chapter). The Stalin line, prepared by the Soviets against Germany in Belarus, is another example. Another country who invested much in this type of deterrent was Czechoslovakia.

To understand the drivers of the design of the huge line of forts envisaged by the Czechoslovakian government of the mid-1930s, one should take a look at a map of Europe from the time. After the defeat of WWI Germany had managed to keep significant parts of todays Poland. The border between Germany and Poland ran close to Gdansk – aka Danzig in German -, and the province of Lower Silesia with the town of Wroclav – Breslau in German – were undisputed German territory. This means that todays border between the Czech Republic and Poland used to be actually a border between Czechoslovakia and Germany in the years before WWII.

With the turmoil preceding the infamous Munich Agreement and Nazi Germany claiming the right to control ‘Sudetenland’ – a large part of the peripheral territories of todays Czech Republic – in 1937 the Czechoslovakian government quickly started the construction of a huge system of forts to protect the border.

The concept was pretty similar to that of the Maginot line, with extensive underground tunnels to shelter soldiers and ammos, facing to the surface with reinforced concrete bunkers with different purposes, including observation, artillery shelling with field cannons, mutual protection with short range anti-tank cannons, machine guns and grenade-throwing tubes. There were also bunkers for accessing the tunnel system with resupply. About 10’000 light fortifications were actually built, more than 200 heavy fortified positions and a handful of heavy artillery positions.

The geopolitical situation in Europe got worse quickly in 1938, with the annexation of Austria in spring and finally the Munich Agreement, which caused the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. As a result of this internationally approved de facto German invasion, the works on the defense line were halted by the Wehrmacht. A relevant part of the hard construction had been completed, but most of the bunkers were still unarmed or lacked some software – air filters, ammo supplies, everyday items for the troops, etc. – and were not serviceable.

Most of the ironworks, including especially all heavy-metal turrets, were salvaged by the Germans. Some of the cannons found their way to the Atlantic Wall. The most massive concrete bunkers were used to test new weapons. As a result, the majority of the most sizable structures are still today in a partly damaged shape.

Some of the bunkers came to life again in the 1970s, when re-founded Czechoslovakia, that time a satellite country of the USSR living under a repressive and hard communist dictatorship, started a low-paced conversion of some of the structures into nuclear shelters for top ranks of the military and political hierarchies.

Notwithstanding these incidents, todays Czech Republic is duly proud of the significant work which was carried out in the difficult late Thirties. Very much was done for the little time available, and the quality of the design and construction is remarkable. While most of the sites are open only rarely, there are some where you can step inside and enjoy an interesting visit. This chapter covers with photographs and text five larger fortified complexes along this anti-German defensive line, from a two-days visit taken in August 2018.

Map

The following map shows the highlights of each of the five sites listed in this chapter. Please zoom in for greater detail. For the Bouda fort I could not spot and pinpoint on the map all the pillboxes you can easily visit from the outside – this are covered by vegetation.

Sights

Stachelberg

The Stachelberg site is located about three miles north of the small city of Trutnov. The fort should have consisted of a main entrance and peripheral shooting positions, some of them linked by underground tunnels, to defend the area of the Giant Mountains. Construction works were terminated much before completion, so the surface bunkers forming the ensemble are actually not connected. Yet the major installation, a bulky infantry positions with provision for anti-tank artillery, provides access to an extensive system of half-prepared tunnels, which gives you a clear picture of the size and capacity of the complex.

The site is open to the public, and the ticket office can be found right inside this huge major bunker. From the outside, the volume of this pillbox is particularly stunning. Also interesting are the anti-tank obstacles, which used to be placed along the border line and between the forts, to trap invading columns in a position where anti-tank guns could be most effective.

This multi-level bunker is also place for a little museum on the fortifications, mainly based on explicative panels and scaled models of weapons and of the entire bunker complex. It covers the history of the fortifications, and explains most technical features of their construction. There are no weapons or other software – they were either not installed before the construction works were stopped, or salvaged by the Germans.

The tunnels can be visited on a guided tour only, starting from inside the main bunker with a descent of several tens of feet along a flight of stairs, originally made at the time of construction. The tunnels unfold on the sides of a major, perfectly straight initial track. Some of the lateral halls, intended to store ammos as well as for sleeping the troops, are very large and close to completion, whereas others are just sketched.

The tunnels were dug in the rock with the help of explosives. The next step in the construction works would have been a layer of concrete from the pavement up to the ceiling of the tunnels. This is present today only close to the entry point, at the bottom of the access stairs.

There are at least other five smaller pillboxes which have been preserved to some extent in the Stachelberg complex. They are accessible with different timetables, and do not provide access to the underground – by design, some of them should have.

One of the pillboxes has been colored in a very bright camouflage. I could not find out whether this used to be the standard, but it looks pretty unusual and not really mimetic… There are also refurbished connecting trenches between the smaller bunkers.

The concrete base of a never built bunker can be found not far from the parking area.

Getting there and moving around

Getting close to the complex is really easy, the area is very scenic and a popular destination skiing, and for nature trail hiking in summer. There is a parking on road N.300 from where the museum-fort can be reached with an almost flat, 0.3 miles track.

The complex can be toured on the outside without restrictions. The main bunker has opening times, and the underground part can be toured only with a guide. The guide speaks Czech, but you are provided a leaflet with explanations in English, upon request. The tour takes about 30 minutes, and is offered on a regular basis, with several entries per day. They warn you about the inside temperature, but I found it pretty easy to bear with normal summer clothes. Website here, but you will need some Google translation to find the info you need.

Voda, Brezinka and Lom

These three forts are actually parts of the same system, built on the eastern end of the town of Nachod-Beloves, the major center in a local valley ending in Poland. Three items in the complex are typically accessible to the public.

The one closest to the town, on the bottom of the valley, is the Voda bunker. This is very convenient to reach, and is basically composed of a preserved typical infantry pillbox with provision for machine guns. The bunker has been painted in a credible camouflage. On one end it is possible to note the damage inflicted by the Germans, when they took out the metal observation turret. This kind of treatment – and damage – can be observed on a great many bunkers of the line.

Inside, the bunker has been turned into a local museum on the armed forces. There were border guards operating in the area, involved in skirmishes before and after the end of the war. The weapons originally intended for the fort are not in place, but there is an interesting collection of weapons, uniforms, motorcycles and other gear from the army corps operating around there over the years.

The Brezinka fort is possibly one of the most famous of the entire defensive line. The reason for that is that it was recently restored to look like it should have looked, if only it was completed back in the late Thirties. In the restoration process, weapons and system parts from other locations in todays Czech Republic were brought to the Brezinka site.

The visit of the interiors is really exceptional, even compared to the forts of the other defensive lines in Europe. The fort really looks like it could be put in operation today!

The first part of the visit of this two-levels artillery bunker will take you downstairs, where you can find the sleeping quarters for the troops with a food storage.

Close by, there are two rooms for the electrical generator and for the ventilation system. Here you can see the electrical compressor, with backup manual handles, and the huge air filters. These are multi-stage filters, where each stage was designed to stop different poisonous components in the air. The system is working, so you are given a demonstration of the compressor – interesting to get an impression of the incredible noise this system produced!

On the same floor there is also a telegraph system, which was used to communicate with other bunkers in the complex in case of failure of the telephone link. This system was capable of transmitting Morse signals to the other pillboxes next to it, projecting the signal into the ground and using it as a medium – there were no cables! This allowed it to work even if a direct electrical link was lost.

The upper floor is even more surprising, cause basically all weapons have been restored to their original positions. The Brezinka bunker featured two main firing chambers. The one pointing uphill features two heavy 7.92 mm machine guns Zbrojovka Brno Mark 1937, a very widespread and reliable weapon, with an operational range of 1’000-2’000 ft at 500-300 rounds per minute. These were used to target infantry movements along the border line, pinpointed by anti-tank obstacles. Fire direction was from the observation turret or via an optical aim system. The latter was extremely precise, but more expensive than the machine gun!

In presence of an impenetrable smoke curtain or at night, an open-loop aiming system could be used. This consisted of a board with a precise sketch of the view of the outside from the firing point, mounted on top of the machine gun. A calibrated needle pointer was used to align the machine gun with respect to the target, by simply pointing the needle on the intended target on the board!

The third machine gun is a light ZB vz. 26, a very popular light 7.92 mm machine gun. This was used for close defense of the fort access. There are also grenade throwing tubes for the same purpose.

The other firing chamber points downhill, and is supplied with a machine gun as in the first chamber, plus the assembly of an anti-tank cannon and another machine gun. The cannon is a 4.7 cm Skoda KPUV vz. 38, with an up to 1-mile range at 35 rounds per minute. It could pierce a 50 mm armor from 0.7 miles apart, and was a very effective weapon. This very cannon was already in place before the German invasion, and was taken by the Wehrmacht to the Atlantic Wall in Norway. It has been returned to its original location in recent times.

There are other two metal-reinforced embrasures in the bunker for other two ZB vz. 26s. On the same floor you can find a kitchenette and toilets for the troops, ammo storages, and two observation turrets. The latter feature a working movable floor, to allow tailoring to the height of the observer. The turrets were fitted with a periscope, and were used to direct fire. They weighed 21 tonnes each, and could withstand direct close fire from anti-tank guns!

Finally, the room of the commander and the telephone room – with an original machine from the Thirties – conclude the tour.

The Lom object, five minutes uphill with respect to the Brezinka fort, is another infantry bunker. It has not been refurbished to the level of Brezinka, but nonetheless it is used to showcase construction pieces, weapons and memorabilia from WWII years. The armored turret was taken away by the Germans.

Between the Brezinka and Lom bunkers you can find a section of anti-tank obstacles. The concrete base used to support them can be spotted in several places here and other sites of the defensive line.

Getting there and moving around

These bunkers, and especially Brezinka, are surely among the most interesting of the kind to visit, considering also their counterparts in France, Finland and Belarus.

The Voda site is easily accessible by car. The Brezinka and Lom bunkers cannot be reached by car. You can park on a street close to the trail-head and take the trail. Unfortunately, the road going uphill, albeit not uneven, is extremely steep and about 1 mile long. You should definitely take this into consideration when planning your excursion, even if you are physically well-trained. Very few beverages are available at the Lom site, which is five minutes farther uphill from Brezinka. Nothing is sold at Brezinka.

It is a pity they didn’t prepare a better access road, cause the site is surely worth a visit, and may appeal to the specialist and to the general public – especially children! – as well.

Only cash is accepted in all these sites. The Brezinka site is accessible only with guided tours. Tours were offered every 20 minutes in late August when I visited. You are given a detailed leaflet in English or German, in case you can’t speak Czech. The guided tour of Brezinka takes about 50 minutes.

The Lom site can be toured in 10 minutes, whereas the Voda bunker is worth a 20-30 minutes self-guided visit. Explanations are partly also in English and other languages in the Voda bunker.

Information on these three forts can be found from this website.

Hanicka

The Hanicka site features an extensive underground tunnel system, actually connecting the main entrance to some major peripheral forts. The ensemble includes one of the few most imposing firing units in the entire defensive line.

But what makes this site even more unique is the fact that, after having fallen into oblivion since the end of WWII, in the 1970s it was selected to be developed into a nuclear-proof governmental bunker – codenamed ‘Kahan’. The ensuing modifications altered greatly the appearance of the entrance bunker, and most of the systems you can see today in the underground part are actually dating from the 1980s.

The works on the conversion were carried out at a slow pace, and were actually not completed before the end of communism in Czechoslovakia, the collapse of the Czechoslovakian federation and the birth of the Czech Republic in the early 1990s. The bunker was soon opened to the public as a unique specimen of military building engineering from both WWII and the Cold War.

The tunnels can be be visited only with a guided tour. The original entrance to the tunnel, modified in the 1980s, is the starting point of the visit. The entrance to the bunker looked totally different before it was developed into a nuclear shelter. The modifications at the level of the entrance included the construction of a soft service building, with room for storages of trucks, armored vehicles and other material.

In the first hall giving access to the tunnels you can find weapons, communication systems, scale models of the site, maps and much more from both the ‘two lives’ of the bunker, in the 1930s and 1980s.

Access it through a thick, typical soviet nuclear-blast-proof gate. Inside, you see the nuclear-proof system allowed to seal a section of the entry tunnel close to the gate. The bunker was designed to allow long-term survival and operations for 300 people also in case of total insulation from the world outside.

A modern energy production system was put in place and can be seen together with water and gasoline tanks. The structure of the bunkers was not altered significantly, but the various systems date clearly from more recently than the Thirties.

There are also extensive sleeping quarters and a medical facility to the far end of the main tunnel, which was built in the side of a hill.

You finally come out in a former infantry bunker, reached climbing upstairs to the top of the hill. Here the embrasures and reinforcing panels of the firing chambers are still in place.

The next part of the visit will take you to some other smaller bunkers, visible only from the outside.

The visit ends in front on the major RS-79a bunker, a top of the line artillery bunker. This was provided with three embrasures for field guns. The size of this installation is really striking. You cannot visit inside this bunker.

It was somewhat damaged by weapons testing by the Germans, and never refurbished. You can see a nuclear-proof door substituting one of the original embrasures.

Back to the parking, it is possible to see from the outside an infantry bunker and examples of anti-tank barriers. This bunker is a rare example of a totally undamaged fort of the line – even the metal turrets are original and have been left in place by the Germans.

Getting there and moving around

The Hanicka complex can be explored outside with no restrictions, but the inside can be toured only with a Czech-speaking guide. They provide you a leaflet in English. The visit lasts about 60 minutes. Info on their website.

The entrance is via the original entrance bunker, modified in the 1980s. Reaching this point from the parking on road N.319 is a bit demanding, cause you need to walk on an unpaved road going uphill with a relevant grade for about 0.7 miles, then you have about another 0.7 miles walking on an easy, flat road. Differently from Brezinka (see above), they have a facility selling food, beverages and souvenirs close to the entrance. It’s a pity they just did not prepare a good road and a parking nearby the entrance.

Anyway, this site has much to offer and the visit is highly recommended, both inside and outside, for children and adults as well.

Bouda

The two nearby forts of Bouda and Hurka share a basically similar construction, and represent possibly the best examples of almost-complete forts in the defensive line. They are articulated around a straight tunnel, mined in the side of a mountain. The section of the tunnel next to the main entrance bunker features a narrow gauge railway, used to transport ammos and various supplies to the storage units inside. Deeper in, there is provision for sleeping quarters for the troops. To the far end of the tunnel you can get access to a group of fortified installations and artillery bunkers.

The Bouda installation can be visited thoroughly. The site is very big but more remote to reach than Hurka. Besides the access bunker, where the ticket office can be found, you can see a specimen of a metal turret. None of the original turrets has been left in this site, all have been salvaged by the Germans.

Soon after the beginning of the tour, you will see the terminal of the narrow gauge railway. The double track goes through a short incline. At the base of the incline the main tunnel starts.

Not far from the entrance you meet slots for sealing doors and related actuation systems. These were installed by the Germans and used to test their reliability and the effectiveness of their weapons on them. They had some cannons installed further in along the tunnel, and shooting on the armored doors they had installed.

The railway turns single-track, until you reach a major storage for weapons with a loading platform. One of the storage chambers has been reused to display a collection of weapons used in the forts and the corresponding armored embrasures.

Further on you visit a group of chambers originally intended to be fitted as sleeping quarters. The dividing walls and metal frames have been demolished at some point – or may be they were never installed – but some of them can be seen, original or reconstructed. In this area there is also a memorial to Czechoslovakian troops.

Further in the tunnel you reach another set of chambers, one of them with pieces of armored constructions and other heavy material from around the site. Then you get access to the stairs leading to a heavy artillery bunker.

What you see here is the cylindrical concrete box where the actuation mechanism and reinforced cupola should have been installed. The size of the construction suggest the total intended size of the field cannon assembly, really big! This should have been very similar to some of the installations in the Maginot line (see this post). There is also a firing chamber for lighter weapons where nothing remains except some metal coating.

The guide will lead you back to the bottom and inside the main tunnel, and ascending along another stairwell you can reach an observation bunker with provision for light weapons. This bunker is in a better shape, and significant traces of the original soft construction are clearly visible.

Damage is due also to weapons testing carried out by the Germans, clearly visible from the outside.

Upon reaching the surface, you will be directed along a walk through the exteriors of the bunkers in the fortress, including the incomplete heavy artillery bunker, with the large concrete pit from visible above.

Finally, you access one of the bunkers, which appears pierced and heavily damaged from the outside. On the inside the firing chamber is fairly well conserved, with the original embrasures for machine guns still in place. The wall is pierced presumably by a shell or mine.

This very bunker was used also for testing high-yield explosives, and as a result of a huge explosion it shifted sideward of a few feet, without collapsing and with no alterations to its general shape – really sturdy! You can clearly appreciate the shift by going down in the stairwell!

You will then return to the main entrance with the ticket office where the visit will finish.

Getting there and moving around

The bunker parking can be found very easily driving north of the road N. 11 between Cervena Voda and Cerkovice. The area is popular for nature trail hiking, and the fort is also a popular attraction. Following the road signs, you will be driven to an observation tower on top of a mountain.

From there, the entrance to the bunker can be reached only by taking a trail which descends along the northwestern side of the mountain. The distance to cover by foot is a good 1.5 miles, so this should be taken into consideration when planning your trip. You have to go uphill on your way back to the parking, so the trail is more demanding when you are leaving. There are signs on every crossing, so you should not get lost. By the way, the walk is really nice, going in the trees with some bird-eye views on this beautiful countryside!

Once at the entrance of the bunker you can find refreshments and souvenirs. The bunker can be visited only with a guide. They are offering three options for the visit, each of them adding something to the other, yielding a difference in time. I took the most complete tour, and it took about 180 minutes.

You are provided jackets for staying inside – even though the temperature is not extremely low, especially if you are wearing technical trekking clothes, which are recommended for the preliminary trail to the entrance. The jackets are dirty, so it’s better to bring one of your own, as they almost force you to have something to cover in!

The tour is offered in Czech, with explanations in English provided on all panels and on a leaflet you can borrow inside. There is a fee for taking pictures, but both this and the entry ticket are rather cheap. Further info on their official website.

Hurka

The Hurka fortress is an installation pretty similar to the Bouda site, at least considering the inside part. After some years of closure following WWII, the Hurka site was converted into an ammunition depot in the 1960s. The modifications inside include some demolition work on the soft walls and frames, so the structure is mainly composed of large vaults.

The tunnels can be visited only with a guide. The visit starts from the original gate of the underground facility, where all supplies could be placed on a narrow-gauge convoy. An external loading platform can be spotted, together with specimens of anti-tank devices and of the reinforced observation turrets.

Inside, an incline leads to the initial part of a long straight tunnel. The exhibitions provide an impressions of an ammo storage, and there are also weapons and armored embrasures from the fort.