JFK’s Last Trip to Fort Worth and Dallas

The murder of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963 is possibly one of the most well-known news stories from the 20th century. Since then, most theories put forward by both the official prosecutors and wannabe investigators after the crime never appeared completely acceptable.

The main defendant, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot dead by likely-mafia-affiliated Jack Ruby, two days after Kennedy had been shot. This happened before any court hearing of Oswald, who always protested his complete innocence.

But Oswald was spotted on the crime scene, and his life before that fatal day had not been normal in any respect. Grown up a very poor man from the New Orleans, he enlisted in the USMC, spent years in Japan, changed home at a high pace in the continental US, between New York and Louisiana, learned Russian, applied for Soviet citizenship, established himself in an fantastic flat in Minsk, Belarus (see this account about Minsk), at the height of the Cold War, married a lady from the USSR, moved back to the US with his wife and their baby, collaborated with  communist movements in America while living of nothing in the south of the Nation, appeared in Cuba and Mexico in the years of the Kennedy administration, and finally decided it was time to kill President Kennedy, accused by a part of the military and political establishment of being excessively left-leaning during his years at the White House.

Maybe this man materially acted alone on the day of the shooting – something strongly adversed by many eyewitnesses and even scientists and analysts, based on ballistics – but with a curriculum so pointed of oddities, especially for the geopolitical situation of the 1950s and early 1960s, it is hard to imagine he was not part of something bigger.

An excessive number of pretended coincidences in the reconstruction by the investigators have largely discredited the official theories, in turn creating a mystery around the actual crime.

As time is passing and people involved are disappearing, chance to find the truth about the intricate plot behind the assassination are waning. Yet this unsolved crime has fueled decades of controversy, with tens if not hundreds of books written, as well as TV series and blockbuster movies produced – and it is still an intriguing topic for many, who come to see the famous Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where the shooting took place, making the local museum in the Texas School Book Repository one of Texas’ five all-time most visited attractions.

Being in the exact place where the famous Zapruder movie was recorded produces of course a strong impression. Yet there are more places in Dallas and Fort Worth related to the famous last visit of JFK to this major industrial focus of the nation, which albeit less impressive than the actual crime scene, may be interesting to find and visit for the most committed visitors.

This post portrays some of the most famous and of the least known places connected with Kennedy fateful 1963 trip to Texas. Photographs were taken in summer 2018.

Map

This map reports the focal points of President Kennedy’s visit to Texas on November 21st-22nd, 1963.

Kennedy flew in and out Fort Worth from Carswell AFB (now NAS Fort Worth reserve base), arriving on November 21st, and departing in the morning of November 22nd to Dallas Love Field – a very short hop for Air Force One.

You can see places in Fort Worth and Dallas connected with both the actual and scheduled route of Kennedy’s visit (blue placeholders), plus the route of the motorcade from Love Field to Dealey Plaza and back (blue line), with a stop at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where JFK was pronounced dead at 1:00 pm, November 22nd.

Orange placeholders are locations connected with the shooting – where JFK was (surely) hit, famous spots on the crime scene, etc.

The movements of L.H. Oswald have been partly reconstructed by the prosecutors, where some have been ascertained based on sightings by witnesses. These are shown in yellow and red respectively on the map. Red placeholders show the location of Oswald sightings or places connected with his story.

Green placeholders show the positions of notable monuments connected with the assassination of President Kennedy.

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Sights

Sights are listed going along the time-line of the days of JFK’s visit.

Hotel Texas (now Hilton) & JFK Tribute, Fort Worth

President Kennedy spent the night between November 21st and 22nd in the Texas Hotel, located on Main Street in central Fort Worth. Today this nice, early 1920s building is still there, listed among historic landmarks. It has changed hands more times in the last decades, and is now run by Hilton, with the name Hilton Fort Worth. Built on the opposite side of the square where the convention center is located, it is still today a primary business hotel in town.

In the square ahead of the hotel is a monument dedicated to JFK, with a statue and citations. This was the location of the last public speech the President gave, before breakfast on November 22nd.

Later on that day, he held a scheduled speech in a hall of Hotel Texas, before going to Carswell AFB (now NAS Fort Worth), west of downtown, to board Air Force One to Dallas Love Field. Air Force Two soon followed.

Dealey Plaza, Dallas

Monuments in Dealey Plaza

The curious composition of white colonnades and pergola-shaped monuments in Dealey Plaza is the result of an architectural master plan for the area, completed in 1940.

Despite the weird aura that will enshroud the square for many years to come, the composition is actually very nice, with two opposing fountains ahead of the colonnades welcoming you when entering the square from Main Street. This is exactly what the motorcade did, turning right on Houston Street and first left on Elm street, where JFK was hit (see map).

The pergola on the ‘grassy knoll’

The northernmost part of the composition in Dealey Plaza is a curved white pergola, placed on top of a knoll, at an elevation of roughly 10 ft above the road. This is a vantage point for watching Elm street, which starts descending gently from Houston Street towards the railway triple underpass. It was here that Zapruder was standing, together with many eyewitnesses, shooting his now super-famous video (see map).

You can get a 360° view from close where Zapruder was standing from this video.

Here you see an example photo sequence of a car passing by along Elm Street, following the same route of the presidential motorcade.

A crowd was standing also on the southern side of Elm Street, at the level of the road, from where the pergola and the wooden fence on top of the grassy knoll can be seen very clearly. Looking uphill towards Houston Street, you can see the Texas School Book Repository, and the half-open window from were somebody fired at the motorcade.

‘X-marks’ on Elm Street

Two white X-marks have been painted on the ground where, based on official investigation and findings, President Kennedy was hit, while his motorcade was driving along Elm Street.

The first is located immediately after the crossing with Houston Street, where the motorcade turned left. The pictures below shows the window on the sixth floor of the book repository from the spot of the hit (actually behind a tree), and the wooden fence under the trees on top of the grassy knoll. The wooden fence has been indicated by many as the position of a second shooter, and some have sustained they saw shots coming from there.

Taking into account the elevation from the ground of the window on the sixth floor of the book repository, the total distance to this first X-mark is similar to that from the fence. Yet the trajectory of a shot from the fence would have come dangerously close to Zapruder and all folks between the knoll and the sidewalk.

The second X-mark, that of the fatal shot to the President’s head, is located further west. Looking from here again to the window on the sixth floor and to the fence, it is apparent that the latter spot would be a far easier point for shooting – very close -, while on the other hand recording a hit from the former would be a real challenge.

Close by the X-mark corresponding to the fatal shot, the National Historic Landmark placard of Dealey Plaza has been placed on the sidewalk.

You can get a clear impression of how fast everything must have happened watching this video of my car running along the route of the motorcade, from Main Street down to under the triple underpass.

The wooden fence on top of the ‘grassy knoll’

The fence on top of the grassy knoll divides the grass on the northern end of Dealey Plaza from a parking area on the side of the book repository. The elevation over Elm Street and the little distance from it, makes this place a good spot for targeting a car passing on the position of the second X-mark – that corresponding to the fatal shot.

To the back of the fence, the old railway switching tower from the 1910s played a part in the mystery. On the morning of the assassination, Lee Bowers was on service in the tower. He reported to the prosecutors that about 15 minutes before the shooting he had noticed a car slowly circling in the parking. At the time of the shooting two figures were standing by the fence, and he saw fire and smoke coming from their position. He provided details about the cars and an these men.

Lee Bowers died in a car crash without witnesses in summer 1966, when he gently launched his car out of the road while driving alone in the countryside somewhere near Midlothian, south of Dallas.

The triple underpass

This Art Deco railway bridge, dating from older times than the monuments in Dealey Plaza, is another good vantage point for a comprehensive sight of the stage of the assassination.

It has been supported that a witness standing on the grass south of Elm Street and close to the underpass was wounded by a fragment of the curb, produced by a bullet hit. This might have been a missed shot.

Texas School Book Repository & Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas

The building of the book repository, located on the northern side of the crossing between Houston and Elm, has been taken over by the city government for administrative functions. A museum has been opened on the sixth floor, from where shots were allegedly fired against the motorcade.

The museum is very modern. After paying by the entrance, you are given an audio-guide and you are directed to an elevator going up to the sixth floor.

You can walk along a nice exhibition mostly based on tons of photographs and reproductions of original documents, papers, agencies, documents, dossiers, and so on. Before showing the chronicle of events during the last trip of JFK and the events of the assassination, you are told about the general political and social situation in the years of Kennedy administration, so as to reconstruct the big picture and the meaning of this trip. There was much criticism about it, and you can see some unwelcoming headlines from newspapers, telling about a tense political situation in Texas. There are several videos playing loop.

Of course, an accurate reconstruction of the shooting is the main topic of the exhibition. Frames from the many videos recorded by the witnesses allow to have an almost second-by-second account of the last minute in the life of JFK.

Far less known than others are some pictures of the motorcade taken seconds after the shooting, when the cars accelerated under the triple underpass, with men of the secret service bent over the wounded President. Witnesses on the opposite side of the underpass had not noticed the shooting, and they were probably stunned watching the motorcade rushing away.

There is a dinner set from the scheduled luncheon Kennedy was heading to, prepared in the Dallas Trade Mart. A picture of the announcement of the assassination to the attendees of the luncheon waiting for the President is particularly striking. Detailed maps are displayed of the motorcade route, of the movements of L.H. Oswald, and of the emergency rooms of the Parkland Memorial Hospital where JFK, Vice President Johnson and Governor Connelly were given medical assistance.

A highlight of the museum is the area around the corner window from where shots were fired. An accurate reconstruction of the exact position of the boxes around the shooter’s position has been set up, based on photographs from the time.

Access to the window is interdicted, but you can get an idea of the view enjoyed from there from the third window from the corner.

Further items of interest include cameras and video recorders used by the witnesses, and a detailed map of the standpoints of most witnesses who made a video recording, or did take pictures.

An area of the exhibition is dedicated to Oswald, his arrest and his murder in the Police headquarters, which took place on November 24th, 2 days after JFK was killed. You can see copies of official documents, a ring belonging to L.H.Oswald, and the suit worn by Detective Jim Leavelle – the man portrayed in the video of the assassination of L.H. Oswald by Jack Ruby, leading Oswald out. At the time of writing, Texas-borne Jim Leavelle, borne 1920, is one of the few living primary witnesses of that dramatic episode.

Finally, the place where the old rifle used to fire at the motorcade from the window was found soon after the shooting, with Oswald fingerprints, has been reconstructed with the same accuracy of the firing position.

Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dallas

After the shooting, the motorcade accelerated keeping on the scheduled route (see map). It is noteworthy that the Trade Mart, where JFK should have had lunch, is not far from the Parkland Memorial Hospital, which is between the Trade Mart building and Love Field (see map).

President Kennedy and Governor Connelly were quickly drawn into emergency rooms, whereas soon-to-be-president Lyndon B. Johnson received medical attention in another area.

Officer Tippit’s Murder Scene, Dallas

Soon after he was spotted in the Texas School Book Repository minutes after the shooting, L.H. Oswald left for home. Initially caught in the traffic after taking a bus, he moved around pointlessly not far from Dealey Plaza, finally taking a cab to go home. He got off some blocks past his house, where he returned by foot (see map). He soon left, and at about 1:15 pm, 45 minutes after the assassination of JFK, he reportedly killed police officer Tippit in a quiet residential area. The place is marked by a placard (see map).

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested less than an hour later, on account of Tippit’s murder. Only hours after his arrest, during the night of November 22nd, he was accused of the assassination of President Kennedy.

Texas Theater, Dallas

After shooting officer Tippit, Oswald left along Jefferson Boulevard, presumably walking to the Texas Theater. This movie theater, with a flamboyant front facade, used to be owned by Howard Hughes, and it was the first in Texas with air conditioning.

L.H. Oswald was arrested at about 1:50 pm, about ten minutes after he had entered the theater, 1 hour and 20 minutes after the murder of JFK.

JFK Memorial Plaza, Dallas

A monument to President Kennedy, designed by Philip Johnson, was erected in 1970 one block east of Dealey Plaza (see map). The monument, made of concrete, resembles an empty tomb.

Getting There and Moving Around

The JFK monument in Fort Worth is in a public park, as well as the JFK memorial in Dallas. They can be neared at all times.

Dealey Plaza is regularly open to car traffic, as you can see from the videos above. Parking is possible in the many public parkings around the area. Once there, you can move around freely at all times.

I drove along all the route of Kennedy’s motorcade, which except for a few closed roads can be done still today. Very nice indeed, as you will cross beautiful downtown Dallas. Of course, you can follow the route of Kennedy’s car in Dealey Plaza, as shown in the videos above.

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is a world-class, up-to-date museum, and one of the most visited attractions in Texas. Website here.

Base Tuono – Cold War Surface-To-Air Missiles in Italy

Just like West Germany, post-WWII Italy found itself on the border with a communist dictatorship, Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. Even though Tito and the government of the USSR were never close friends, from the viewpoint of the western alliances Yugoslavia represented a potential threat.

This mistrust was also a result of the aggressive policy Yugoslavia had adopted against Italy after WWII, imposing the cession of a piece of traditionally Italian territory in the northeast part of the country as a war compensation. This had triggered a significant migration of the local population, who was trying to escape from communism to mainland Italy and abroad. This added to the bitterness of the Italian-Yugoslavian relationship, to the point that the new border was not formally settled until the 1970s.

Italy was among the founding members of anti-communist NATO in 1949. This meant the chance to take part in a coordinated defense effort against the eastern bloc. Among the tangible results of this cooperation was the adoption of American war material, including aircraft and, as soon as they became a reliable war asset, missiles.

Considering air defense, besides a number of manned aircraft, the airspace of western Europe was protected by two defensive lines of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) extending roughly from the North Sea to the area around Venice on the Mediterranean. This was studied especially to counteract bombing raids carried out by a great number of enemy bombers simultaneously attacking from the east. This huge defense system was based on the US-designed Nike and Hawk missile platforms, and deployment started in the late 1950s.

SAM installations in Italy comprised the low to intermediate altitude Hawks, with a quick reaction capacity against low-level intruders. These were managed by the local Army. High altitude Nike-Ajax and later Nike-Hercules missiles were operated by the Italian Air Force against high-altitude targets, typically bombers. New dedicated groups were established since 1959, trained in the US to work with the new missile platform. At its height, the Nike force in Italy counted on 16 such groups, apparently corresponding to as many launch bases.

Concerning the effectiveness of the Nike defense line, it soon became obsolete, in the sense that a significant part of the strategic deterrent was transferred to ICBMs by both the NATO countries and the USSR. As a result, SAM defensive lines conceived against aircraft intrusion and low-level attacks would turn out more useful than the high-altitude and high-yield Nike-Hercules. As a matter of fact, all Nike platforms were deactivated in Italy and everywhere in Europe by the early 1980s, well before the end of communism in Europe.

Following deactivation, most bases, stripped of all hardware of any value, were simply locked up and abandoned. In Germany very few traces of this extensive system remain to this day (see this post). Together with the US, Italy is possibly the only country where this fragment of military history is documented through the active preservation of one of the former SAM launch bases.

The Nike-Hercules base preserved in Italy is called ‘Base Tuono’ – ‘tuono’ meaning ‘thunder’ in Italian language – and was operated between 1966 and 1977. It is in a gorgeous mountainous setting in the northeastern Alps, about an hour from the little town of Trento. After years of disrepair, a part of it has been refurbished with original material and opened as a beautiful, partly open-air museum, where you can get a lively impression of how the base would have looked like in the years of operations.

The following photographs are from a visit to ‘Base Tuono’ in Autumn 2018.

Sights

Nike batteries were composed of two connected but geographically separated areas, an integrated fire control area (IFC) and a launch control area (LCA). In the first resided the electronic aiming part, comprising all the antennas and electronic gear necessary to collimate the target, compute the expected kill point of the missile, and to track and guide the missile to that point. The launch area was composed of an array of three flat concrete pads, each supplied with a hangar for storing the missiles, gantries for putting typically three missiles at a time (per pad) in launch position, and a concrete shelter to oversee and trigger the launch sequence. An extensive description of the Nike SAM system can be found on this excellent dedicated resource website.

Due to the features of the radar guidance system, the IFC had to stay in line of sight from the LCA, and at a higher – but not excessively higher – elevation. At ‘Base Tuono’, due to the mountainous setting, the two areas are not far, yet they are not easily accessible from one another. Furthermore, what remains today of the former base is all concentrated in the launch area. One of the three original pads – ‘Alpha’ – has been preserved, where the other two – ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ – and other ancillary buildings as well, have been completely demolished, and a water basin can be found in their place. All installations and housing in the former control area on top of a local peak – Mount Toraro – have been wiped out, but you can get an impression of the original plan of this part of the base walking around on your own.

Launch Control Area

The launch pad ‘Alpha’ is the focus of the museum. Approaching from the parking, which is located close to the site of the former barracks and canteen, you can spot from the distance three Nike-Hercules missiles aligned in vertical launch position. A water basin covers a large part of the former base, as you can see from historical pictures. Launch pads ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ are totally gone, similarly to the original outer fence delimiting the large perimeter of the installation.

Getting closer to the launch pad ‘Alpha’ you can notice an array of radar antennas, which were originally in the IFC area on top of Mount Toraro. The area of the launch pad features a reconstructed inner fence, which was in place around each pad in the original base.

The pad is basically rectangular in shape, with a hangar on one side, a protection rim and the launch control bunker on two opposing sides and a free side where today you can find the ticket office.

Three missiles are placed on top of their launch gantries. The gantries are part of a sophisticated rail system, designed to allow an easy side motion of the missiles from inside the hangar to their respective launch positions outside. The missiles were stored horizontally in the hangar to the far top of the rail on trolleys. When being readied for launch, the trolleys were pushed along the rail to the launch position, where the trolley was joined to the gantry. The missiles were raised to a vertical attitude together with the trolley with the help of a lift, which was a movable part of the gantry.

While the pavement is covered in asphalt, you can see the gantries and the rail system are staying on hard concrete foundations. These are among the few remains you see in the German Nike site covered in this post.

Inside the hangar you can spot a Nike Hercules missile, with lateral cutouts to expose the inner structure. These reveal the four-canister solid-propellant booster stage, which was ignited first and was separated from the bullet-shaped second stage when exhausted. The latter features the warhead, the electromechanical rigs of the guidance system, and a single solid-propellant sustainer rocket engine. The rocket had a range of about 25 miles, and a top speed over Mach 3, making it a really remarkable piece of technology especially compared to the soviet counterparts of the time.

All around the missile in the hangar you can see inner parts of the missile itself and of the ground fire control system as well. There are also panels with the history of the base, and original warning signs and instructions painted on the inner walls of the hangar – and similarly on other walls of the base. These writings are in double language, both in Italian and English. While the base was managed by the Italian Air Force, such installations were integrated in the NATO defense line, so many procedures of the Italian Air Force were in English. Furthermore, US military staff was required on site ‘by design’ in case of operations with nuclear warheads, which the Hercules could optionally carry. Nuclear warheads were never deployed to this base though.

Further items on display around the three missiles on the open apron include an old Nike-Ajax missile, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – the Italian Air Force was the last in the world to retire this model from service, as late as 2004 – and two trailers aligned in a row. The trailers are the battery control trailer, or BCT, and the radar control trailer, or RCT. Both trailers were originally in the IFC area of the base, and were operated by the staff responsible for offensive operations. In the days of operation, there was always somebody on duty in the trailers.

The BCT is, roughly speaking, where targets were designated, the kill point computed and the launch sequence triggered. The most notable feature are the two computerized plotting boards used to identify the target and to define the flight trajectory of the missile. The LOPAR detection radar and the identification friend-or-foe (IFF) radar reported information to this trailer, which coordinated the attack.

In the RCT stood the operators of the TTR and TRR radars, which were responsible for keeping trace of the target and for monitoring the missile during the flight towards the designated kill point.

To the back of the two trailers, it is possible to spot the rectangular shapes of the LOPAR radar and of the smaller IFF radar. The two round-shaped antennas are the TTR and TRR radars. In many pictures they are portrayed inside a bulbous cover, conferring them a distinctive spherical shape.

The concrete bunker to the opposite side of the launch pad with respect to the trailers is a protected room for the launch section panel, which is a kind of control panel for triggering the launch sequence of the missiles. The bunker served as a shelter for the operators of the launch section, for remaining on the outside in the vicinity of the missiles during launch operations was extremely dangerous.

During the guided visit, you are given a demonstration of the launch sequence from inside the control room, which is insulated from the outside with double tight doors. The firing procedure was quite complicated. Actually, it was a direct signal traveling along a cable connection from the battery trailer that gave the go to the missiles. Yet there were redundancies for increased safety, and it was possible to trigger the entire launch sequence from within the firing section, in case communication with the BCT was lost. During normal operations, the OK from the operator of the control panel in the bunker had the function of a further go/no go safety layer for the launch.

A trailer with a panel similar to that in the bunker can be found outside. This likely represented a further redundancy, or like the F-104 it is a piece coming from somewhere else.

To the back of the bunker with the fire section panel you can find an original watchtower from a US base in northern Italy, similar to the towers originally in place around the missile base. Close by, there is a nice example of the canisters used to the transport the stages of the Nike-Hercules, as well as the crane used to assemble it. There is also a further example of the second stage of the missile.

Getting there and moving around

The ‘Alpha’ battery of the launch control area is open as a museum, called ‘Base Tuono’. It is located on the road SP143, which departs from Folgaria, a small town about 12 miles south of the regional capital town Trento. You can find clear roadsigns leading to the site from Folgaria.

The museum has opening times, visiting is generally possible on a self-guided basis. Access to the bunker and the trailers is possible only on guided tours. All information on their website (in English). Large free parking about 0.2 miles away from the entrance.

There is much to see for technically minded subjects, but the visit will be surely appealing for children too. I would recommend to allocate at least 45 minutes for the visit, and up to 2 hours if you want to take a guided tour and take all the pictures on your own. The scenery around is gorgeous, so it will be easy to combine this destination with a nature trail or with other tourist destination in the area.

Integrated Fire Control Area

This is where the radars and trailers used to stay, together with barracks and service buildings. It can be found about 2 miles south east direct line of sight from the launch pad, on top of Mount Toraro. Differently from the launch control area, this area has been demolished and sanitized. No buildings remain in place, yet some of the former foundations and platforms to anchor the trailers can still be seen.

Reaching to the top of the peak is interesting to appreciate the view of the launch site from here. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit low clouds obstructed the sight.

Getting there and moving around

Even though the wide original road to reach this part of the base still exists, for some reason access to the top of the mountain is not allowed by car. In order to get to the trailhead from the museum, you can take your car and keep going southeast along the SP143 for about 1.5 miles. As you go ahead, the road will change the name to SP92 on your nav. Soon after the road starts descending, you will find the trailhead to your right, with a horizontal obstacle and a prohibition sign for cars. You may park there. It is likely the trail to the top of Mount Toraro will be on your nav too, for it is basically a normal road. The distance to walk to the top is about 1 mile, along the former service road to the base – covered in asphalt, gently ascending, no risk of any kind.

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.

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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.