Maginot Line Explained

Maginot Line
Location:Eastern France
Built:1930 - 40
Materials:Concrete, steel
Used:1935 - 69
Type:Defensive line
Battles:Battle of France

The Maginot Line (IPA: [maʒi'noː], French: Ligne Maginot), named after French Minister of Defense André Maginot, was a line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates, machine gun posts, and other defenses, which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy, in the light of experience from World War I, and in the run-up to World War II. Generally the term describes either the entire system or just the defenses facing Germany, while the Alpine Line is used for the Franco-Italian defenses.

The French established the fortification to provide time for their army to mobilize in the event of attack and/or to entice Germany to attack neutral Belgium to avoid a direct assault on the line. The success of static, defensive combat in World War I was a key influence on French thinking. The fortification system successfully dissuaded a direct attack. However, it was an ineffective strategic gambit, as the Germans did indeed invade Belgium, flanked the Maginot Line, and proceeded relatively unobstructed.[1] It is a myth however that the Maginot line ended at the Belgian border and was easy to circumvent.[2] The fortifications were connected to the Belgian fortification system, of which the strongest point was Fort Eben-Emael. The Germans broke through exactly at this fortified point by airborne assault, against which the fortifications had little defense, which made it possible for them to invade France.

Planning and construction

The defenses were first proposed by Marshal Joffre. He was opposed by modernists such as Paul Reynaud and Charles de Gaulle who favoured investment in armour and aircraft. Joffre had support from Henri Philippe Pétain, and there were a number of reports and commissions organised by the government. It was André Maginot who finally convinced the government to invest in the scheme. Maginot was another veteran of World War I, who became the French Minister of Veteran Affairs and then Minister of War (1928 - 1931).

Part of the rationale for the Maginot line stemmed from the massive French losses during the First World War, and their effects on French demographics. The drop in the national birth rate during and after the war, resulting from a national shortage of young men created an "echo" effect in the generation that would provide the French conscript army in the mid-1930s. Faced with inadequate personnel resources, French planners had to rely more on more elderly and less fit reservists, who also would take longer to mobilize. Static defensive positions were therefore intended not only to buy time, but also to defend an area with fewer and less mobile forces.

The line was built in a number of phases from 1930 by the STG (Service Technique du Génie) overseen by CORF (Comission d'Organisation des Régions Fortifiées). The main construction was largely completed by 1939, at a cost of around 3 billion French francs.

The line stretched from Switzerland to Luxembourg, although a much lighter extension was extended to the Strait of Dover after 1934. The original line construction did not cover the area chosen by the Germans for their first challenge, which was through the Ardennes in 1940, a plan known as Fall Gelb. The location of this attack, probably because of the Maginot line, was through the Belgian Ardennes forest (sector 4) which is off the map to the left of Maginot line sector 6 (as marked).


The Maginot Line was built to fulfill several purposes:


Although the name "Maginot Line" suggests a rather thin linear fortification, the Line was quite deep, varying in depth from between 20 to 25 kilometers. It was composed of an intricate system of strong points, fortifications, and military facilities such as border guard posts, communications centers, infantry shelters, barricades, artillery, machine gun, and anti-tank gun emplacements, supply depots, infrastructure facilities, observation posts, etc. These various structures reinforced a principal line of resistance, made up of the most heavily armed "ouvrages", which can be roughly translated as fortresses or major defensive works.

From the front and proceeding to the rear, the Line was composed of:

The anti-tank obstacle system was immediately followed by an anti-personnel obstacle system made primarily of very dense barbed wire. Anti-tank road barriers also made it possible to block roads at necessary points of passage through the tank obstacles.



There are 142 ouvrages, 352 casemates, 78 shelters, 17 observatories and around blockhouses in the Maginot Line.[3]

Armoured cloches

There are several kinds of armoured cloches. The word cloche is a French term meaning bell due to its shape. All cloches were made in an alloy steel. Cloches are non-retractable turrets.

See main article: GFM cloche.

See main article: JM cloche.

See main article: LG cloche.

See main article: VDP cloche.

Retractable turrets

The Line included the following retractable turrets.

Anti-tank guns


The specification of the defences was very high, with extensive and interconnected bunker complexes for thousands of men; there were 45 main forts (grands ouvrages) at 15 kilometres intervals, 97 smaller forts (petits ouvrages) and 352 casemates between, with over 100 kilometres of tunnels. Artillery was coordinated with protective measures to assure that one fort could support the next in line by bombarding it directly without harm. The largest guns were therefore 135mm fortress guns; larger weapons were to be part of the mobile forces and were to be deployed behind the lines.

The fortifications did not extend through the Ardennes Forest (which was believed to be impenetrable) or along France's border with Belgium, because the two countries had signed an alliance in 1920, by which the French army would operate in Belgium if the German forces invaded. When Belgium abrogated the treaty in 1936 and declared neutrality, the Maginot Line was quickly extended along the Franco-Belgian border, but not to the standard of the rest of the Line. As the water table in this region was high, there was the danger of underground passages getting flooded, which the designers of the line knew would be difficult and expensive to overcome.

There was a final flurry of construction in 1939 - 1940 with general improvements all along the Line. The final Line was strongest around the industrial regions of Metz, Lauter and Alsace, while other areas were in comparison only weakly guarded. In contrast, the propaganda about the line made it appear far greater a construction than it was; illustrations showed multiple stories of interwoven passages, and even underground railyards and cinemas. This reassured allied civilians.

Czech connection

Czechoslovakia also was in fear of Hitler and began building its own defenses. Being co-belligerent with UK and France, they were able to get advice on the Maginot design and apply it to Czechoslovak border fortifications. The design of the casemates is similar to the ones found in the southern part of the Maginot Line, and photos of such are often confused with the Maginot ones. With the Munich Agreement the Germans were able to use the Czech fortifications to study and plan attacks that proved very successful against the western fortifications (Fort Eben-Emael is the best known example).

German invasion in World War II

The World War II German invasion plan of 1940 (Sichelschnitt) was designed to deal with the Line. A decoy force sat opposite the Line while a second Army Group cut through the Low Countries of Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as through the Ardennes Forest which lay north of the main French defences. Thus the Germans were able to avoid a direct assault on the Maginot Line. Attacking on May 10, German forces were well into France within five days and they continued to advance until May 24, when they stopped near Dunkirk.

During the advance to the English Channel, the Germans overran France's border defense with Belgium and several Maginot Forts in the Maubeuge area, whilst the Luftwaffe simply flew over it. On 19 May, the German 16th Army successfully captured petit ouvrage La Ferte (southeast of Sedan) after conducting a deliberate assault by combat engineers backed up by heavy artillery. The entire French crew of 107 soldiers were killed during the action. On June 14, 1940, the day Paris fell, the German 1st Army went over to the offensive in "Operation Tiger" and attacked the Maginot Line between St. Avold and Saarbrücken. After hard fighting, the Germans broke through the fortification line as defending French forces retreated southward. In the following days, infantry divisions of the 1st Army attacked fortifications on each side of the penetration; successfully capturing four petits ouvrages. The 1st Army also conducted two attacks against the Maginot Line further to the east in northern Alsace. One attack successfully broke through a weak section of the Line in the Vosges Mountains, but a second attack was stopped by the French defenders near Wissembourg. On 15 June, infantry divisions of the German 7th Army attacked across the Rhine River in Operation "Small Bear", penetrating the defenses and capturing the cities of Colmar and Strasbourg.

By early June the German forces had cut off the Line from the rest of France and the French government was making overtures for an armistice, which was signed on June 22 in Compiègne. As the Line was surrounded, the German Army attacked a few ouvrages from the rear, but were unsuccessful in capturing any significant fortifications. But the main fortifications of the Line were still mostly intact and manned with a number of commanders wanting to hold out; and the Italian advance had been successfully contained. Still, Maxime Weygand signed the surrender and the army was ordered out of their fortifications, to be taken to POW camps.

When the Allied forces invaded in June 1944 the Line, now held by German defenders, was again largely bypassed, with fighting only touching a part of the fortifications near Metz and in northern Alsace towards the end of 1944.

After World War II

After the war the Line was re-manned by the French and underwent some modifications. However, when France withdrew from NATO's military component (in 1966) much of the Line was abandoned. With the rise of the French independent nuclear deterrent by 1969 the Line was largely given up by the government, with sections auctioned off to the public and the rest of it left to decay. Ouvrage Rochonvillers was retained by the French Army as a command center into the 1990s, but has recently been closed. Ouvrage Hochwald is the only facility in the main line that remains in active service, as a hardened command facility for the French Air Force known as Drachenbronn Air Base.

Generally considered one of the great failures of military history, the term "Maginot Line" is now sometimes used as a metaphor for something that is confidently relied upon, but in the end proves ineffective. External observers came to believe the French propaganda: the Line would make France impervious to invasion. When France fell in only a month, the blame was squarely laid upon the Line for preventing the French military from developing modern warfare and equipment - choosing to instead rely on bypassable fortification.

However, it could be argued that this association is inaccurate, as the Line achieved the specific task it was intended to do, rendering a direct assault against France's eastern border impossible (the few Maginot forts which were directly attacked by German armored troops held very well). Consequently, the French High command expected it to be bypassed and had therefore massed the bulk of its troops on the Belgian border.

See also


External links

Notes and References

  2. Mosier, J. The Blitzkrieg Myth: How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II, HarperCollins, 2004, pp. 2, 38.
  3. There are 58 ouvrages, 311 casemates, 78 shelters, 14 observatories and around blockhouses on the North-West and 84 ouvrages, 41 casemates, 3 observatories and around blockhouses on the South-West.