Maginot Line Explained

Maginot Line
Native Name:French: Ligne Maginot
Partof:Maginot Line
Location:Eastern France
Type:Defensive line
Built:1930–1940
Builder:Andre Maginot, Paul Painlevé
Materials:Concrete and steel
Used:1935–1969
Open To Public:Yes
Controlledby:France
Battles:World War II

The Maginot Line (French: Ligne Maginot,), named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, was a line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates, machine gun posts, and other defences, which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy, in light of its experience in World War I, and in the run-up to World War II. Generally the term describes only the defences facing Germany, while the term Alpine Line is used for the Franco-Italian defences.

The French established the fortification to provide time for their army to mobilise in the event of attack, allowing French forces to move into Belgium for a decisive confrontation with German forces. The success of static, defensive combat in World War I was a key influence on French thinking. Military experts extolled the Maginot Line as a work of genius, believing it would prevent any further invasions from the east (notably, from Germany). It was also a product of a historical inferiority in population and birthrate, exacerbated by the losses in World War One, which had been developing for three generations.[1] The fortification system successfully dissuaded a direct attack. It was strategically ineffective, as the Germans indeed invaded Belgium, defeated the French army, flanked the Maginot Line, through the Ardennes forest and via the Low countries, completely sweeping by the line and conquering France in days.[2] As such, reference to the Maginot Line is used to recall a strategy or object that people hope will prove effective but instead fails miserably. It is also the best known symbol of the adage that "generals always fight the last war, especially if they have won it".[3]

The Maginot Line was impervious to most forms of attack, and had state-of-the-art living conditions for garrisoned troops, including air conditioning, comfortable eating areas and underground railways. However, it proved costly to keep, consumed a vast amount of money and subsequently led to other parts of the French Armed Forces being underfunded.

Planning and construction

The defences 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 severe 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 provided the French conscript army in the mid-1930s. Faced with inadequate personnel resources, French planners had to rely more on older and less fit reservists, who would take longer to mobilise, and would diminish French industry because they would leave their jobs. Static defensive positions were therefore intended not only to buy time, but also to defend an area with fewer and less mobile forces. In practice, France deployed about twice as many men, 36 divisions (roughly one third of its force), for defence of the Maginot Line in Alsace and Lorraine, whereas the opposing German Heeresgruppe C only contained 19 divisions, or less than one seventh of the total force committed in Fall Gelb.

The line was built in several phases from 1930 by the STG (Service Technique du Génie) overseen by CORF (Commission 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, and 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).

Purposes

The Maginot Line was built to fulfil several purposes:

Organisation

Although the name "Maginot Line" suggests a rather thin linear fortification, the line was quite deep, varying in depth (i.e., from the border to the rear area) from between 20to. It was composed of an intricate system of strong points, fortifications, and military facilities such as border guard posts, communications centres, 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.

Inventory

Ouvrages

There are 142 ouvrages, 352 casemates, 78 shelters, 17 observatories and around blockhouses in the Maginot Line.[4]

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.

Retractable turrets

The line included the following retractable turrets.

Anti-tank guns

Features

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 intervals of 15km, 97 smaller forts (petits ouvrages) and 352 casemates between, with over 100km of tunnels. Artillery was coordinated with protective measures to ensure 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 by Commander in Chief Maurice Gamelin) 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. After France failed to counter Germany's remilitarisation of the Rhineland, Belgium, thinking that France was not a reliable ally, abrogated the treaty in 1936 and declared neutrality. France quickly extended the Maginot Line 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.

When the British Expeditionary Force landed in France in September 1939, they and the French reinforced and extended the Maginot line to the sea in a flurry of construction in 1939 - 1940 accompanied by 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 defences. As an ally of 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 those of the Maginot. 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 (the Belgian 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 by violating the neutrality of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Attacking on 10 May, German forces were well into France within five days and they continued to advance until 24 May, when they stopped near Dunkirk.

During the advance to the English Channel, the Germans overran France's border defence 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 was killed during the action. On, 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. The Germans then 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 defences 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 22 June 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. During the German offensive "Operation Nordwind" in January 1945, Maginot Line casemates and fortifications were utilized by Allied forces, especially in the region of Hatten-Rittershoffen, and some German units had been supplemented with flamethrower tanks in anticipation of this possibility.[5] At one point during the fighting, General Martin, commander of the IX Corps, was ordered to advance from the Maginot Line against a German division, and thus locked the concrete bunkers and left the keys with a colleague. While his colleague's unit was ordered south to reinforce French cities, Martin was forced to retreat from his unsuccessful attack and found himself pursued by a German tank division, and locked out of his own fortifications. He was forced to employ French engineers and sappers to break into the bunkers, which were subsequently overrun by the Germans.[6]

After World War II

After the war the line was re-manned by the French and underwent some modifications. With the rise of the French independent nuclear weapons by 1960 the line became an expensive anachronism. Some of the larger ouvrages were converted to command centres. When France withdrew from NATO's military component (in 1966) much of the line was abandoned, with the NATO facilities turned back over to French forces and the rest of it auctioned to the public or left to decay.[7] A number of old fortifications have now been turned into wine cellars, a mushroom farm and even a disco. Besides that, a few private houses are built atop some of the blockhouses.[8]

Ouvrage Rochonvillers was retained by the French Army as a command centre 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.

In 1968 when scouting locations for On Her Majesty's Secret Service, producer Harry Saltzman used his French contacts to gain permission to use portions of the Maginot Line as SPECTRE headquarters in the film. Saltzman provided art director Syd Cain with a tour of the complex but Cain said that not only would the location be difficult to light and film inside, but that artificial sets could be constructed at the studios for a fraction of the cost.[9] The idea was shelved.

See also

References

External links

Notes and References

  1. http://www.strategypage.com/cic/docs/cic66b.asp#one Strategypage
  2. http://www.dushkin.com/text-data/articles/23427/23427.pdf
  3. Book: Kemp, Anthony. The Maginot Line: myth and reality. 26 April 2011. 1988. Military Heritage Press. 9780880292436. 14.
  4. 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.
  5. Zaloga, Steven J. "Operation Nordwind 1945: Hitler’s last offensive in the West", June 2010; 96 pages; ISBN 9781846036835
  6. Regan, Geoffrey. "The Guinness Book of Military Blunders", 1991.
  7. Web site: Histoire de la Ligne Maginot de 1945 à nos jours. Seramour. Michaël. Revue Historique des Armées. 86–97. French. 19 February 2010.
  8. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/maginot-abstract.html The Maginot Line
  9. Cain, Syd Not Forgetting James Bond 2005 Reynolds and Hearn