The Maginot Line, named after the Minister of War André Maginot, is a line of fortifications built by France along its border with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy from 1928 to 1940.
The term “Maginot Line” sometimes refers to the entire system, i.e., the line from the English Channel to the Mediterranean Sea along the French borders, but more often to the defenses against Germany alone (i.e., those in the Northeast theater of operations), while the defenses against Italy are sometimes called the “Alpine Line” (in the Southeast theater of operations). In addition to these two sets of defenses, there were fortifications in Corsica, Tunisia (the Mareth Line) and Île-de-France (the Chauvineau Line). Along the French-German border, the line consisted of an almost continuous obstacle of barbed wire, defended by a crossfire of machine guns, themselves covered by artillery, all protected by thick layers of concrete and armor. The mission of these fortifications was originally to protect the French territory from a sudden attack, giving the army time to complete its mobilization.
Although used during the fighting of May-June 1940, these fortifications did not prevent the French defeat, so much so that the expression “Maginot Line” became synonymous with a defense that was believed to be impassable, but which proved to be ineffective.
Partially reused by the German occupant, notably during the fighting of 1944-1945, several works were restored after the war in the context of the beginning of the Cold War. Most of them have since been abandoned, except for a few elements preserved by associations.
The line owes its name to André Maginot (1877-1932), the Minister of War from November 3, 1929 to February 17, 1930, who obtained the vote in December 1929 of the law allowing the financing of fortified regions. Indeed, the governments and the general staff no longer really considered active military operations. Static positioning appeared to be preferable, while an army of manoeuvre appeared to be contrary to France”s new diplomatic positions.
For the French army of the time, the official designation was “permanent fortification” or “fortified regions”. The term “Maginot Line” originated in the press, where it began to be used in 1935, and was used again by the Minister of War, Jean Fabry, in August 1935 at the inauguration of the Maginot monument near Verdun.
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The Maginot Line is a complex device that extends in depth on different levels from the border.
The line is not designed in a homogeneous way and its realization is not generally in conformity with the original projects for essentially budgetary reasons. In the parts that are most in line with the original plans (the Thionville sector in particular), there are four distinct parts:
The “main line of resistance” was based primarily on a barrage of machine gun fire along the obstacle formed by the two networks of barbed wire and anti-tank rails, almost continuously from the North Sea to Switzerland.
The network of barbed wire is 12.5 meters wide, consisting of six rows of pigtail-shaped stakes one meter high that support the wire in waves, with barbs planted in the ground and protruding 20 cm. The role of the network was to slow down the attacking infantry so that the machine guns could mow them down.
The network of rails is composed of three-metre sections of rails buried vertically in six rows, projecting 60 cm to 1.3 m above the ground. Its role is to stop the attacking vehicles while the anti-tank guns destroy them.
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The barrage of machine-gun fire was carried out in flanking mode (the fire crossed each other, coming from the flanks) by infantry pillboxes, theoretically built every 1,200 meters (the useful range of the machine-guns). The main armament, composed of twin machine guns (one cools while the other fires), was completed from 1934 onwards with anti-tank guns (47 mm or 37 mm). The works were integrated into this line, with infantry blocks serving as casemates and turret blocks equipped with a machine gun turret or for mixed weapons (including machine guns and 25 mm anti-tank guns).
The casemates, called “interval casemates” to differentiate them from the casemates of the works, come in several models depending on the terrain and the date of construction:
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Blocks and galleries
A Maginot Line structure is a set of blocks (concrete constructions) on the surface connected by underground galleries. The number of these blocks and therefore the size of each structure depends on its mission, the terrain and the available funds.
In general, one finds blocks intended to be used as entrances either for the troops (called “men”s entrance”), or for the ammunition and the material (“ammunition entrance”). Sometimes these two blocks are grouped into one for practical reasons (notably for mountain works) or for small works without artillery (in this case the ammunition entrance is not useful), it is then called “mixed entrance”.
These entrances give access to the network of galleries that connect the different elements of the structure. Indeed, Maginot works are buried, generally at a depth of 30 meters, in order to be sufficiently protected and as little visible as possible. Only the entrances and the combat blocks are visible from the outside of a structure. The entrances of the works are always rejected well behind the active blocks, sometimes several kilometers away for the works on the plain. A structure can thus have several kilometers of galleries (about ten for the biggest ones) but everything depends on its geographical situation. In this case, narrow-gauge trains with electric traction are used to transport equipment and ammunition to the combat blocks.
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Places to live
Nearly 20 meters underground, we find a complex infrastructure with dormitories for the troops, a kitchen, an infirmary with sometimes an operating room, a filter room (air filters in case of a gas attack), an electricity production plant (everything in a structure runs on electricity) that can have up to four generators, food reserves, water and fuel tanks, an ammunition bunker, and sometimes a main ammunition store (known as the M 1 store). All these elements are located close to the entrances of the structure and are connected by a gallery to the combat blocks.
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On the side of the combat blocks, one finds in each one a command post, ammunition stores (M 2 under the block and M 3 near the weapons) and of course the armament of the work. These combat blocks are spread out over an area large enough to limit the effectiveness of the bombardments (at least 50 meters between each one). There are several types of combat blocks:
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From the border to the rear of the line: outposts right at the border, strongholds (in the Ardennes forest and in the Wissembourg forest), roadblocks, observatories (CORF or field), interval shelters, command posts, artillery positions (gun emplacements and concrete shelters), military railroads (to supply the ammunition entrances of the largest works), strategic roads (running along the line and linking the entrances), ammunition depots, buried electrical and telephone cables, switch boxes, transformer stations, security barracks, etc.
In order to avoid the weapons being withdrawn to reinforce the maneuver army (the French forts had been disarmed in 1915), the armament of the line was specific to the fortification (on special carriages). The low number of weapons was compensated by high rates of fire, the pre-setting of shots and the organization of ammunition supply.
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The artillery under concrete of the line counts a total of 343 pieces of artillery and is limited to three calibers, the 135, 81 and 75 mm :
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The majority of the armament is composed of machine guns and machine guns, supplemented by anti-tank guns:
It can be seen that the armament of the Maginot Line is based on machine guns and the 75 mm gun, which was very efficient in 1914-1918 and which showed once again its value in the Maginot Line: for example, a 75 mm R model 1932 turret could fire at a rate of 30 rounds per minute while being extremely accurate thanks to pre-established fire plans.
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Concreting and armouring
Reinforced concrete was used massively to protect the armament and the troops: tens of thousands of cubic meters of concrete and tons of steel bars were necessary for the construction of a structure, whose slabs and exposed walls are up to 3.5 meters thick. But armour was also used to protect the artillery and infantry pieces. The ensemble is based on the experience of the fighting around the Verdun forts in 1916, by improving the previous fortifications. The surface of the fortifications is composed of combat blocks only.
There were two types of protection for machine guns and artillery pieces: either under casemates or under turrets. A casemate allows firing through crenellations installed on one of the facades (single casemate) or two facades (double casemate) but the angle of fire is limited, while an eclipsable turret allows firing at 360° but is more vulnerable once in battery.
The protection by concrete can be completed by armouring (steel armouring) on all openings. These armorings can be divided into four categories: doors (armored and often waterproof), crenels (closed by hoppers), bells and turrets.
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The fixed breastworks called “bells” are placed on the slab and were used for close protection or observation: they could be equipped with binoculars, different types of periscopes or even infantry weapons depending on the model. In addition, the mushrooms were used as air intakes. There are six types of bells:
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The mobile armour-plating called “eclipse turrets” are capable of eclipsing to protect the armament, leaving only a special steel cap of 300 to 350 millimetres thick (varying according to the model) on the surface. In firing position, the turret rises about one meter, thus clearing the firing embrasures. It can rotate 360° and offers the advantage of being very compact for a very important firepower (each one has two weapons). A total of 152 turrets were installed, of eight different models:
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Crew and support
The Maginot Line required specialized troops to man the works and casemates, as well as interval troops:
In addition, there were other specialized units attached to the fortress troops:
Finally, in addition to the specific fortress units, the Maginot Line is also covered by the large units of the maneuver army, namely :
For the portion from Sedan to Nice, this represents 28 infantry divisions deployed on May 10, 1940, including three in the Alps, with twenty other divisions in close support, as well as the groups of tank battalions, the heavy artillery of the army corps, the artillery reserve, the cavalry units, the fighter, bomber and reconnaissance squadrons of the Air Force, etc.
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The fortification crews (works, casemates or blockhouses), the interval troops (infantry, artillery, engineering, reconnaissance and border guard units) and the various services (train, health, quartermaster”s office, training, etc.) were grouped together by geographical zone under the orders of one of the 24 fortified sectors (or defensive sectors in the least developed cases) that made up the line.
The division of the commands is made from 1928 according to the limits of the military regions and their subdivisions:
Two “fortified regions”, that of Metz (sectors of Crusnes, Thionville, Boulay and Faulquemont) and that of Lauter (sectors of Rohrbach, Vosges and Haguenau), covered the northern border of Alsace and Lorraine. In addition, there was the fortified region of Belfort (sectors of Mulhouse, Altkirch and Montbéliard), which disappeared at the time of mobilization, and the fortified region of southern Tunisia (nicknamed the “Mareth Line”).
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Following the general mobilization (from September 2, 1939) and the declaration of war (on September 3, at 5:00 p.m.), the fortified and defensive sectors came under the command of the units (armies, army corps and divisions) that covered them. During the winter of 1939-1940, the command of the fortifications in the Northeast was reorganized: the fortified regions were dissolved to become fortress army corps (CAF), the less powerful sectors became fortress infantry divisions (DIF).
At the beginning of the German offensive on May 10, 1940, the French fortifications depended on the large maneuver units:
Remaining independent: the 45th CAF (SF du Jura), the defensive organization of Corsica and the fortified region of southern Tunisia.
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The conception of the Maginot Line during the 1920s, and its construction during the 1930s, were a direct result of the First World War. Indeed, this war had worsened the demographic situation of France, which was thus at a serious disadvantage against Germany: in the event of another war, it was necessary to save as much “French blood” as possible. In addition, France had undergone major destruction that affected large cities, fertile agricultural land and major industrial basins; to avoid this, it was necessary to guarantee the integrity of the national territory.
These new fortifications have several missions in case of war:
The first projects for the Maginot Line were created in 1925 with the creation of the Commission de défense des frontières (CDF), which drew up the first projects. This body was replaced in 1927 by the Commission d”organisation des régions fortifiées (the Commission was composed of engineering and artillery officers, with the Inspector General of Engineering as its chairman, initially General Fillonneau, and then from January 1929 until 1935 General Belhague.
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The first works began in the face of Italy, because Italian fascism was more threatening than the German Republic at the time: the first worksites were opened in September 1928 in the Alps (for the Rimplas work), then in 1929 in the Northeast (Rochonvillers, Hackenberg and Hochwald). The credits voted in December 1929 (Maginot law) to finance a five-year fortification program (from 1930 to 1934) amounted to 2.9 billion francs at the time (1.6 billion euros), then increased to 3.4 billion thanks to additional credits. Because of the economic crisis and constant inflation, the expenses are compressed to the maximum, which is felt on the quality of the achievements: numerous plans of works are revised by the Commission, numerous elements are – at best – postponed, at worst removed. The construction of this first phase continued until 1933, when the main structures were completed.
In 1934, following the vote of a new program law of one billion 275 million francs, a new series of construction sites opened in the French Saarland and around Montmédy facing Belgium. CORF was dissolved in 1935. In 1936, after the remilitarization of the Rhineland by Hitler and Mussolini”s claims on Nice, additional funds were allocated to cover the entire border. These works were carried out under the authority of the commanders of each military region and under the control of the general inspectors of engineering (Generals Huré from 1936 to 1938, Griveaud from 1938 to 1939 and Philippe from 1939 to 1940), but these constructions did not have the efficiency of the first works and, above all, were not completed by May 1940. The result was that the most solid portion of the line stopped at the edge of the Ardennes massif, which some experts, such as Marshal Pétain (hero of Verdun, general-in-chief of the army from 1918 to 1931 and Minister of War in 1934), considered “impenetrable” to mechanized troops, in the same way as the Meuse and the Albert Canal in Belgium.
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In 1927, the commission had considered that the defense of the North should be done on Belgian territory (then allied). Between 1931 and 1934, only a few infantry casemates were built in the forests of Raismes (twelve CORF casemates) and Mormal (thirteen casemates). From 1934 onwards, the “new fronts” sections of the fortified sectors of the Escaut (with two CORF casemates and a small structure: Eth) and Maubeuge (seven casemates and four small structures: Les Sarts, Bersillies, La Salmagne and Boussois) were built.
The return to neutrality of Belgium on October 14, 1936 will make the absence of a fortified cover worrying. This led to the construction from 1937 to 1940 of a continuous front along the border, composed of STG casemates and a host of small MOM blockhouses.
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Fortified area of Metz
The fortified region of Metz is one of the two most successful areas of the line: on the one hand because of the history of the city of Metz, the presence of iron and steel industries, but also because it is one of the first areas where it was built. The region is divided into four sectors.
The fortified sector of the Crusnes is of the “new front” type with three large works (Fermont, Latiremont and Bréhain) four small ones (Ferme-Chappy, Mauvais-Bois, Bois-du-Four and Aumetz) and a series of 35 casemates at intervals.
The fortified sector of Thionville is the best fortified sector of the entire line, the only one to have been built entirely according to plan, with seven large works (Rochonvillers, Molvange, Soetrich, Kobenbusch, Galgenberg, Métrich and Billig), four small ones (Immerhof, Bois-Karre, Oberheid and Sentzich) and 17 casemates.
The fortified sector of Boulay consists of a powerful western part, but the eastern part is incomplete. In total there are four large works (Hackenberg, Mont-des-Welches, Michelsberg and Anzeling), eleven small ones (Coucou, Hobling, Bousse, Berenbach, Bovenberg, Denting, Village-de-Coume, Annexe Sud de Coume, Annexe Nord de Coume, Coume and Mottenberg) and 17 casemates.
The fortified sector of Faulquemont is of the incomplete “new front” type, with five small works (Kerfent, Bambesch, Einseling, Laudrefang and Teting) and eight casemates.
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In 1935, the Saarland became German again after a plebiscite, hence the creation of the Saarland defensive sector, under the 20th military region, because there was nothing between the RF of Metz and that of the Lauter. Due to a lack of funds, in 1939-1940 only a line of STG casemates protected by flooding was built (this sector is referred to as the “aquatic Maginot line”). On March 15, 1940, the sector changed its name to become the fortified sector of the Saar, under the 4th army.
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Fortified region of the Lauter
The fortified region of the Lauter River owes its name to the river that marks the border between Wissembourg and the Rhine. The region, 70 kilometers wide, is divided into three sectors.
The fortified sector of Rohrbach is composed of two large works (Simserhof and Schiesseck), three small ones (Welschhof, Rohrbach and Otterbiel) and 25 casemates in between.
The fortified sector of the Vosges, benefiting from the protection of the relief, is less powerful than its neighbors, with two large works (Grand-Hohékirkel and Four-à-Chaux), one small (Lembach) and 33 casemates.
The fortified sector of Haguenau has a powerful western part with two large works (Hochwald and Schœnenbourg), its right side being a simple line of casemates up to the Rhine, with a total of 54 casemates.
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The crossing of the Rhine (more or less 200 meters wide) was prevented by the construction of two lines of defense as early as 1930, on the one hand a first line of casemates on the bank of the left bank of the river (“bank line”), and on the other hand a second line a little further back, made up of shelters and casemates (known as the “shelter line”). In 1931, the construction of a third line (known as the “line of villages”) began, also consisting of CORF casemates. There were a total of 85 CORF infantry casemates, supplemented by a number of MOM blockhouses, but no artillery works. The whole is divided into three sectors from north to south.
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In the hypothesis of a German attack from Switzerland, the Commission had envisaged in 1926 the construction of a powerful fortified region from the bank of the Rhine to the Jura, in front of the place of Belfort; the hypothesis being considered implausible, the construction was delayed, then abandoned. The remilitarization of the Rhineland (March 7, 1936) by the Germans led to the reinforcement of the Séré de Rivières forts around Belfort on the one hand, and on the other hand to the construction of a line of STG casemates in an arc twelve kilometers around Basel in Upper Alsace. The fortified region of Belfort was replaced by two defensive sectors in September 1939.
The French-Swiss border in the Doubs department is very lightly fortified (seven STG casemates and mostly MOM blockhouses), based on the relief of the Jura, the Doubs and the old Séré de Rivières forts.
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Natural defence of the Alps
Compared to the Maginot Line of the North-East, the Maginot Line of the South-East (Alpine) is organized differently. Indeed, the mountainous relief of the Alps facilitates the defense. It is more difficult to advance an army in the high mountains than in the large plains of northeastern France. The works of the Alpine line were therefore set up to lock the important points of passage (passes and valley outlets) and not in a continuous line. It was not, as in the Northeast, a continuous line of fire, but rather a solid, punctual barrage, either in frontal action or in flanking.
However, it should be noted that these large works are less heavily armored (heavy artillery is almost impossible to set up in the mountains) and some of them do not even have air filtration systems against combat gases (a gas attack at altitude has almost no effect). The south-eastern part of the Maginot Line is subdivided into four sectors.
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Fortified sector of the Savoie
Organized around Bourg-Saint-Maurice and the Maurienne valley, the Savoie sector concentrated essentially on the defense of the accesses to the Maurienne valley around Modane, in particular with the large works of Sapey, Saint-Gobain, Saint-Antoine, Lavoir and Pas-du-Roc, the small works of Arrondaz and Rochilles, as well as several outposts.
The defense of Bourg-Saint-Maurice was limited to a few small infantry works (Versoyen, Châtelard and Cave-à-Canon), covered by old forts.
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Fortified sector of Dauphiné
Centered around Briançon and the Ubaye valley, the structures in the Dauphiné sector lock the important passage points to Briançon (Montgenèvre and Echelle passes, etc.) and the entry points to the Ubaye (Larche pass, Stura valley outlets, etc.).
We find around Briançon the big work of Janus as well as the small works of Col-de-Buffère (unfinished), Col-du-Granon (also unfinished), Aittes and Gondran E.
The position of the Ubaye is more important with the large works of Roche-la-Croix, Saint-Ours Haut, Restefond (unfinished because of its altitude: more than 2,700 m, the highest of the line) and the small works of Plate-Lombarde, Saint-Ours Bas, the outpost of Larche, the small works of the Col-de-Restefond, the Granges-Communes and the Col-de-la-Moutière
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Fortified sector of the Alpes-Maritimes
The SFAM ends the line from the Col de la Bonette to the Mediterranean Sea at Menton by stretching along the valleys of the Tinée and Vésubie, around Sospel to end at the foot of Cap Martin near Menton. This strongly defended sector locks all the accesses along these valleys.
We find the following works (from north to south): Col-de-Crous, Col-de-la-Valette, Fressinéa, Rimplas (the first work of the Maginot line started as early as 1928), Valdeblore, Séréna (unfinished), Col-du-Caire-Gros (unfinished), Col-du-Fort (unfinished), Gordolon, Flaut, Baisse-Saint-Vérant (unfinished), Plan-Caval (unfinished), of La Béole, of the Col-d”Agnon, of La Déa, of the Col-de-Brouis, of the Monte-Grosso, of the Champ-de-Tir-de-l”Agaisen, of the Agaisen, of Saint-Roch, of the Barbonnet, of Castillon, of the Col-des-Banquettes, of Sainte-Agnès, of the Col-de-Garde, of the Mont-Agel, of Roquebrune, of the Croupe-du-Réservoir and finally of Cap-Martin. These different forts were completed by sixteen outposts (the most southerly being those of Collet-du-Pilon and Pont-Saint-Louis).
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Mobilization in 1939
The first mission of the line was to prevent a sudden attack during mobilization (which lasted two weeks), so it had to be operational with all its personnel before the declaration of war. Consequently, the works were put on alert as soon as the international situation became tense, i.e. the works and casemates were occupied within an hour by active personnel (echelon A, composed of conscripts and professionals) and half of the armament was put into service. This was the case from March to April 1936 (remilitarization of the Rhineland), from March to May 1938 (Anschluss), from September to October 1938 (Sudeten crisis) and from August 21, 1939 (Danzig corridor crisis).
The next measure was the reinforced alert, corresponding to the recall of border reservists (B1 level), which allowed the entire armament to become operational in one day. This was followed by the order to secure, corresponding to the recall of non-border reservists assigned to the fortress units (level B2) and the occupation of all positions with wartime personnel within three days. Then it was the general coverage order, i.e. the recall of all reservists assigned to active units, allowing the establishment of 25 divisions along the border within six days. This partial mobilization had already been triggered from September 23, 1938 to October 6 of the same year. On August 24, 1939, the reinforced alert was ordered at the same time as the security system.
On August 25, Germany decrees the general mobilization for the 26th. On the 27th, at midnight, the application of the general coverage begins. On September 1st, following the German attack against Poland, the French general mobilization is decided, applicable from midnight on the 2nd; the border with Germany is closed, the inhabitants of the border zone are evacuated (notably Strasbourg). On September 3, 1939, France declared war on Germany.
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During the first days of the war, the French forces and the German Wehrmacht remained in their respective positions, several kilometers from the border. From 9 to 21 September 1939, the 4th and 5th French armies, including some elements of fortress infantry, were engaged in the Saar offensive.
The works did not intervene, due to the lack of objectives to be destroyed, apart from a few shots from the turrets to support the Corps Francs (from the Simserhof, Grand-Hohékirkel, Four-à-Chaux and Hochwald works).
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On 10 May 1940, the Wehrmacht went on the offensive through Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Its main axis avoided the most powerful sectors of the Maginot Line, skirting the advanced position of Longwy (May 11 to 13, finally evacuated by the French) before breaking through the defensive sector of the Ardennes (at Monthermé) and the fortified sector of Montmédy (at Sedan) from May 13 to 15.
The fortifications to the northwest of this breakthrough were attacked as the Germans advanced: first the Maubeuge sector (from May 16 to 23), then the Scheldt sector (from May 22 to 27) and finally the Flanders sector (during the Battle of Dunkirk, from May 25 to June 3). These different sectors were weakly fortified and had no artillery works: the casemates were quickly taken by the German troops attacking on their rear while the few infantry works (Les Sarts, Bersillies, La Salmagne, Boussois and Eth) had to be surrendered after being neutralized by firing into the embrasures and destroying the air vents.
There was one particular case, the La Ferté fortress, which was located at the end of the Montmédy sector: it was a small infantry fortress (two blocks), which was isolated, and all of its armour (seven bells and one turret) was destroyed by German pioneers armed with explosives (17-19 May), and its crew died of suffocation.
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On June 5 and 9, the German armies broke through the front again on the Somme and the Aisne. On 12 June, the French troops in Lorraine were ordered to withdraw progressively to the south to avoid encirclement. At the same time, German Army Group C was ordered to launch a frontal attack on the weakest sectors of the Maginot Line in Alsace-Lorraine, i.e. in the Saar gap and on the Rhine. The attack thus encountered a weakened system because, contrary to the initial defense plan, some of the interval troops, who were supposed to protect the area between the fortifications, had been withdrawn to avoid being encircled on the spot.
In the Saarland (operation Tiger), the 1st German army attacked the first line of STG casemates on 14 June, before taking both lines on 15 June following the evacuation of the French interval troops during the night of 14-15 June. The German forces deployed on the rear of the Lorraine works from the 17th: the evacuation of the works was cancelled. On the Rhine (operation Kleiner Bär), the German 7th army established bridgeheads on the left bank between Rhinau and Neuf-Brisach on June 15th, just before the French evacuated (on the 17th), which allowed the capture of Colmar, then of Belfort on the 19th. As for the French troops retreating to the south, they finally surrendered between June 21 and 25. The works were now surrounded, which made it easier for the Germans to attack them.
On 19 June, a breakthrough was achieved in the Vosges sector, despite the fire from the Four-à-Chaux. On the 20th, it was the turn of the pillboxes on the Aschbach plateau, which resisted thanks to the support of the Schoenenbourg artillery. The casemates and especially the works were bombarded by stukas and heavy artillery (the Schoenenbourg received 160 bombs, 50 420 mm shells and 33 280 mm shells).
In the other sectors, the Germans mainly limited themselves to shooting at the rear walls and the embrasures of the blocks, which, after several hours of shooting, finally pierced the concrete and steel of the bells. In the Faulquemont sector, the Bambesch was attacked on the 20th, an 88 mm gun pierced block 2, which led to the surrender of the structure. On the 21st, it was the turn of the Kerfent, whose block 3 was pierced by 88 mm guns, while at the Einseling an assault on the top was repelled by the 81 mm mortars of the Laudrefang. The latter, as well as the Teting, were heavily cannonaded until the armistice was signed.
In the Crusnes sector, the works of Ferme-Chappy and Fermont were attacked on the 21st: after a heavy artillery preparation (210 mm Krupp and 305 mm Skoda), stukas bombardments and 88 mm cannon firings, the assaulting sections were pushed back by the Latiremont fire (1,577 shells fired in one day). In the Boulay sector, the Michelsberg structure was attacked on 22 June, but fire from the neighbouring structures (Hackenberg and Mont-des-Welsches) quickly cleared the approaches. In the Rohrbach sector, after the surrender of the Haut-Poirier on the 21st (block 3 pierced by a 150 mm armour-piercing shell), the same thing happened at the Welschhof on the 24th with block 1.
The armistice between France and Germany was signed on June 22, 1940, but it did not come into effect until June 25 at 12:35 a.m., after an armistice between France and Italy had been signed (on the evening of the 24th). The Germans took possession of the works in the North-East from 26 June to 2 July, the Italians of those in the South-East, and the crews were taken prisoner; the plans of the works were handed over to the occupying forces.
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In peacetime, the fortified sectors of the South-East depended on the 14th and 15th military regions (their respective headquarters were in Lyon and Marseille). They were put on alert at the same time as those of the North-East on August 22, 1939, and the following day the reservists of the fortress units were called up; general mobilization began on September 2, bringing the 6th army (also called the army of the Alps), which was entrusted with the defense of the South-East border, to its maximum strength in two weeks. The troops then occupied their positions facing the kingdom of Italy, with which the French Republic was not at war. This situation continued until Italy declared war on France and the United Kingdom on 10 June 1940. From the first day of hostilities, all the bridges and tunnels in the passes were destroyed by the engineers. Given the late snowfall for the season, the Italians delayed their attack. The offensive did not begin until June 20, despite the bad weather (which prohibited aerial bombardments).
In Savoie, the attacks of the Corpo d”Armato Alpino in Tarentaise (Seigne and Petit-Saint-Bernard passes: Bernardo operation) and of the 1° Corpo d”Armata in Maurienne (Mont-Cenis pass) were blocked by the outposts and the artillery of the works until the armistice.
In the Dauphiné sector, the 4th Corpo d”Armata, in charge of taking the Briançonnais, was also blocked at the Montgenèvre pass; on 21 June, four French 280 mm mortars neutralised the Italian fort of Chaberton (whose eight artillery turrets bombarded the Janus structure). In Ubaye, the 2nd Corpo d”Armata (operation Maddalena) was stopped just after the Larche pass by the outposts supported by the fire of the works of Saint-Ours Haut and Roche-la-Croix.
In the mountainous part of the Alpes-Maritimes, the outposts were almost untroubled, quickly cleared by fire from the works (of Rimplas and Flaut). The attacks were more significant along the coast, from 14 June, due to the lack of snow (operation Riviera led by the 15th Corpo d”Armata): the support points along the border had to be evacuated on the 22nd, part of Menton was taken by the Italians, but there too the French outposts resisted thanks to the support fire from the works (in particular those of Mont-Agel and Cap-Martin) and the interval batteries.
The armistice of June 24, 1940 between Italy and France was signed in Rome, with application on June 25 at 0:35 am. The fortifications in the South-East were in the Italian occupation zone in France and were evacuated (with some of their equipment) before 5 July.
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Following the armistice, the works in the North-East were occupied by the German Army, which kept small teams of prisoners of war on site to ensure mine clearance, maintenance and to explain the operation of the equipment. At the beginning of 1941, the German propaganda services organized several filmed re-enactments of the 1940 battles: heavy bombardments, shooting in the embrasures and assault with flame throwers.
From the summer of 1941, operations began to recover part of the armament and equipment, to equip German fortifications (including the Atlantic Wall) or to be stored. The following were removed:
From 1944 onwards, following the Anglo-American bombing raids on Germany and France, some of the structures were reused, three of them were transformed to serve as underground headquarters for headquarters (Rochonvillers, Molvange and Soetrich), two others as depots (for the Reichspost at Mont-des-Welsches, for the Kriegsmarine at Simserhof) and five others as arms factories (Métrich, Hackenberg, Michelsberg, Anzeling and Hochwald). These factories were located in the ammunition stores of the works and employed prisoners or Soviet deportees.
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Fighting in 1944-1945
Following the German defeat in August 1944 during the Battle of Normandy, the German High Command ordered the restoration of the fortifications along the western borders of the Reich, i.e. not only the Siegfried Line, but also those in Alsace-Moselle (territories annexed in July 1940): the old forts around Metz and Thionville (forming the “Metz-Thionville Arsenal”) and elements of the Maginot Line.
American forces arrived in Lorraine at the beginning of September 1944: they were elements of General Patton”s 3rd Army, which was blocked in front of Metz until the beginning of November. Some elements of the line were then used by the Germans to delay the American advance, the others were sabotaged. On 15 November 1944, the Americans of the 90th ID were repulsed by fire from block 8 of the Hackenberg fortress (three 75 mm guns in casemates served by elements of the 19. VGD): the block was neutralized on 16 November by a 155 mm self-propelled gun that pierced the façade, before the fortress was occupied on 19 November. On the 25th, the pillboxes and works in the fortified sector of Faulquemont defended by some elements of the German 36. VGD were taken by the American 80th ID after shelling with 90 mm anti-tank guns (particularly against block 3 of the Bambesch work). On 7 December, the casemates of the fortified sector of the Saar between Wittring and Achen were taken by the 12th AD and the 26th ID.
In Alsace, most of the plain was liberated in November 1944, except for the Colmar pocket. The pillboxes on the left bank of the Rhine were useless for the Germans and were systematically neutralized. In the north of Alsace, it was General Patch”s 7th American Army that had to break through; its XV Corps had to pass through the Bitche area, where the defense was much more serious. The 44th ID took charge of the Simserhof fortress from 13 to 19 December 1944 and the 100th ID of the Schiesseck fortress from 17 to 21 December: After important bombardments with shells and bombs, then shooting in the embrasures by Tank Destroyers (block 5 of the Simserhof), it is necessary to cover with earth the armour-plating with tanks (M4 Dozer-Tanks) and to launch infantry assaults on the tops so that the German garrisons (elements of the 25. PGD) to evacuate. The Americans immediately rendered the various blocks unusable.
All offensive operations were suspended following the German counter-offensives in the Ardennes and in the north of Alsace. The concern was so great that General Charles Griveaud was called in to inform the Americans on how to put it out of action or how to use it; the American forces were even evacuated from Alsace. During this new occupation between January and March 1945, the Germans systematically sabotaged the casemates and the works that were still in good condition (Hochwald and Schoenenbourg). The Bitche region was taken over by the Americans of the 100th ID during Operation Undertone on 15 and 16 March 1945.
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After the war, the French army reinstated the line, which was no longer operational due to the damage suffered during the fighting in 1940 and 1944, and also due to the dismantling (for the Atlantic Wall) and the tests. From March 1946, after an inventory, the engineers undertook a partial restoration of some of the lines (using spare parts), while for others, conservation measures (cleaning and closing) were taken.
From 1949 onwards, the start of the Cold War and the creation of NATO in the face of the Soviet threat led to an acceleration of the refurbishment of the Maginot Line (priority was given to power generators and artillery turrets). In 1950, an organization in charge of fortifications was created: the Technical Committee for Fortifications (CTF). In addition to refurbishing the line, the Committee had to modernize it, notably through projects to protect it against the blast of nuclear explosions, to develop new equipment (replacement of 75 mm cannons by 105 mm), to level the bells, to improve the transmission networks, to install minefields, to take air through the rock, etc.). Within the theoretical framework of the rear system of the NATO forces, the French planned three “fortified hubs” to be rehabilitated as a priority between 1951 and 1953: the hubs of Rochonvillers (Rochonvillers, Bréhain, Molvange and Immerhof), Bitche (Simserhof, Schiesseck, Otterbiel and Grand-Hohékirkel) and Haguenau (Four-à-Chaux, Lembach, Hochwald and Schœnenbourg). Three other hubs are planned as secondary priorities: Crusnes (Fermont and Latiremont), Thionville (Soetrich to Billig) and Boulay (Hackenberg to Dentig). The works were not limited to these poles, the works in the south-east (Alps) were repaired, the flooding area of the Saar sector was repaired (reservoir ponds and dykes), and many blocks of works that had been bludgeoned by shells were concreted over again. As part of the armament was missing, the production of the different models was restarted in 1952.
Two structures were transferred to the Air Force to be used as radar bases: in 1954 the Mont-Agel (became in 1960 the 943 air base of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin) and in 1956 the Hochwald (became in 1960 the 901 air base of Drachenbronn).
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In 1960, all work was stopped, the projects were cancelled, before the works were progressively decommissioned from 1964 onwards, as they “had no role to play in NATO”s plans”: the context was one of Détente, with nuclear-tipped missiles (explosion of the first French nuclear weapon in February 1960) serving as a deterrent, making linear fortifications obsolete. The army abandoned the works (except for the Hochwald, Rochonvillers, Molvange and Soetrich), initially only guarding them, before beginning to sell the land (first sale of casemates in 1970, the Aumetz work in 1972, the Mauvais-Bois in 1973, etc.). The majority of the casemates and blocks had their armour dismantled and sent for scrap, they were generally vandalized and looted (especially the copper cables), hence the filling in of certain entrances. In the case of Rochonvillers, the underground installations were used by NATO from 1952 to 1967 (CENTAG HQ: Central Army Group (en)), before undergoing work in 1980 to transform it into an underground HQ for the 1st French Army: NBC protection for the entrances, modernized factory and barracks, the ammunition store transformed into an operational center and antennas placed on top. In May 1997, the HQ was dismantled.
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Openings to the public
If some works are still owned by the army, the majority has been bought by municipalities or is privately owned.
Today, several associations have taken charge of certain works, have restored them and have thus opened to the public a part of French history that is still largely unknown today. Some works are open almost every day, others only on certain days. The main sites open to the public are from west to east and from north to south:
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Jean-Luc Seigle, in the novel En vieillissant les hommes pleurent (2012), places in the mouth of the character Gilles Chassaing a lecture to his students: L”Imaginot ou Essai sur un rêve du béton armé (pp. 217-247) which is a virulent rehabilitation of the design and use of the Maginot Line.
In the collaborative work by Tristan Garcia (short stories) and Alexandre Guirkinger (photography): The Line, (July 2016) published by RVB Books, there are texts dealing with the Maginot Line and the notion of the border.
At the beginning of his novel Miroir de nos peines, Pierre Lemaître describes through the eyes of his two characters, Gabriel and Raoul Landrade, the daily life of the military garrison of an important (fictitious) defense block, the Mayenberg, during the phoney war (until the start of the German offensive in May 1940).
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