As 1939 came to an end, France awaited a seemingly inevitable attack from Nazi Germany. The country had prepared a line of defenses, however, and it was confident that they could stop an invasion. And today, what remains of the Maginot Line can still be visited in eastern France.
Costing several billion French francs – an enormous amount for the day – the Maginot Line took 11 years to build. The outcome of that effort was about 800 miles of fortifications. Once bristling with machine guns and artillery pieces, now the Line is barely recognizable as anything to do with war, blending into the French countryside.
Widely thought to be a massive waste of money, the Maginot Line stands as a monument to World War II. But it had its birth from what had happened in the past, when France had suffered at German hands. Now, with the threat of its neighbor undiminished by its defeat in WWI, the forlorn hope remained that France could avoid again suffering an attack from the east.
Of course, France’s anxiety about invasion was well-founded. With little in the natural environment to stop them, the Germans had rolled into France many times in the past. In the previous century, Paris itself had faced German arms no fewer than five times. In 1914 some French politicians and generals still recalled with horror at the 1870 war with Prussia that had ended in humiliation.
In times gone by, though, France had found a way to deter invaders and had spawned many great builders of fortifications. One of them, Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, had built a group of forts in the late 1600s that had defended dozens of settlements, including the cities of Briançon and Strasbourg.
So it perhaps was not surprising that when the question of defense came up after World War I, one group of thinkers favored a fortified line in the east. They were opposed by others who believed that war would be much more rapid and would emphasize mobility. Planners assumed that if trenches had kept the Germans largely at bay during WWI, a powerful fortress such as the one at Douaumont in Verdun would prove to be even more effective against a future attack.
Discussions on France’s defense, which began in 1922, were strongly influenced by Marshal Philippe Pétain, his star very high after WWI. He won support for his favored defensive approach, thanks to his success in the previous conflict with defensive ideas. Others, such as Marshall Joseph Joffre, another war hero, favored fewer bases with more mobile troops to stop attackers.
In the end, Pétain’s plan won the day – there simply were not enough Frenchmen to create the large forces that Joffre’s defense would need. Too many had perished in WWI, and a low post-war birthrate meant that France could not supply the manpower for a massive army. Consequently, a line of forts on a massive scale would keep the Germans out.
One man who very much favored a line of forts was André Maginot. A gigantic figure, scaling six feet and six inches, he had suffered an injury to his knee in World War I that had left him with a disability. His fighting spirit had brought him commendation for his bravery, and now he turned it to achieving his dream of a defensive line.
Appointed war minister in 1929, Maginot worked tirelessly to convince those around him to support the line. And once he had the money, he poured it into the project. He would not live to see the line that would bear his name, however. On New Year’s Eve 1931, he ate infected oysters and soon after passed away from typhoid.
Even so, once the project had the green light, it was unstoppable. Different organizations were set up to control the different functions needed to create the Maginot Line, as it would come to be known. And construction would last right up until 1940, when the line would at last see action in the defense of France.
The Maginot fortifications began in three sections – régions fortifiées. The Metz R.F. sat in the Moselle Valley, defending the valley and a region of industry within it. The Lauter R.F., meanwhile, covered the gap between the Rhine and Saar rivers, where the Germans had invaded in 1870, and the Belfort R.F. blocked the Belfort Gap, near the Swiss border.
Consequently, the suggestion has arisen that the planners did not site the line well. According to National Interest, William Shirer, an expert in Nazi history, suggested, “The trouble with the Maginot Line was that it was in the wrong place. The classical invasion route to France which the Germans had taken for nearly two millennia, since the earliest tribal days, lay through Belgium. This was the shortest way and the easiest, for it lay through level land with few rivers of any consequence to cross.”
During the construction, French planners began work on four forts to guard the industries of Alsace-Lorraine. A mammoth project, it was believed that the fortifications at Rochonvillers, Simserhof, Hochwald and Hackenberg would take five years to finish. While they took shape, Edouard Daladier replaced the unfortunate Maginot, and the project had a new, equally as devoted champion.
The idea of the Maginot Line was to confront invaders with a deep, challenging defense. It began with outposts right on the border called maisons fortes – or “strong houses.” Once the enemy had been spotted, the men in these posts would alert the main forces and harass the attackers before withdrawing, destroying bridges and creating blockages at crossroads as they went.
A mile or two behind them sat pillboxes, known as casemates, that carried armaments to fight tanks as well as machine guns. They lay about three-quarters of a mile apart from each other, so that they could create interlaced patterns of fire. A lot of the casemates also had turrets of steel that could pop up and down as needed.
Some of these casemates hid in hillsides, practically invisible to attackers. However, the turrets resembled nothing so much as huge steel mushrooms and hid an array of weaponry and soldiers. These installations had walls as much as seven feet wide, and even the entrance at the back was heavily guarded and featured a drawbridge and moat.
The casemates’ troops lived on site – up to five dozen men stayed in their lower sections, sustained by stores and a well. Air conditioning kept it cool, powered by a diesel generator, which also kept the lights on. Some of these buildings were connected to their neighbors by tunnels, while above ground the spaces between them were set up as killing grounds for tanks.
Should the enemy pass these formidable obstacles, he’d find the backbone of the Maginot Line: the ouvrages, or fortresses. These structures came in two varieties: small, which held just troops, and big, which sheltered field guns. The bigger of them had underground electric railways for soldiers and supplies to travel to and from their entrances, which lay more than a mile away.
The fortresses were immensely strong structures, sheltered by reinforced concrete more than ten feet thick. Nothing the Germans could hurl at them could possibly get through to the men inside, up to 250 of them in a smaller fort. These too had rising steel turrets, which would keep gunners safe while they poured fire on enemy forces.
However, life in the fortresses didn’t prove welcoming for the soldiers. The underground sections suffered from damp, and the aircon left the air with something of a chill and unpleasant to breathe. In contrast, the men in the turrets had plenty of fresh air: it hurtled past them out of the vents that served the men underneath.
The men did have some comforts, though. Mess halls served by big kitchens kept them fed, and if they fell sick, there were hospitals and dentists at hand. There was even an area to store wine. And they doubtless needed it: in the large Simserhof fort, 800-plus men spent months hidden underground. But they didn’t let it get them down: at least if the Germans did come, they would be safe down there.
If the invader should somehow get past those defenses, their troubles were not over, however, because even more casemates sat a few miles further back. Behind them lay all the infrastructure needed to maintain and supply the forts, including food and ammo dumps, along with guns mounted on railway carriages and other pieces of artillery.
But not everyone favored this approach to defense – Paul Reynaud begged his fellow politicians to stop building the forts and instead put the cash into planes and tanks. His view found support from Charles de Gaulle, a rising star in the French military, who wrote a book about the need for mobile forces. Not many at home paid his book any mind, but it met with success in Nazi Germany.
Nevertheless, the Germans themselves built a fortified line – named the Siegfried Line – before the war, although it didn’t match the scope of the French defenses. And the Nazis weren’t alone in being impressed by the Maginot Line. Fortifications soon sprang up in Greece and Czechoslovakia, with the latter hoping to keep the Nazis out too.
The line did have gaps, though, by design. The idea was that the intervals would be killing grounds for the invaders, funneled into spots that favored defense. At the same time, the Ardennes Forest received only light fortifications, the belief being that the trees and poor trackways made it impassable with only meager strengthening.
By March 1936 troops had moved in to the first completed forts on the Maginot Line. Some believed that the Germans would avoid it altogether and come through Belgium and could be fought there. However, the Belgians dashed France’s plans, insisting on neutrality, and Daladier had to rush to push the Maginot Line all along its border with the country.
In the meantime, France decided that it would also need to defend against Italy, so fortifications even appeared in the mountains between them. Even the island of Corsica, sitting in the sea south of France, gained fortifications to deter the Italians. Consequently, when war did break out, the French felt that they were ready.
When the Nazis invaded in May 1940, they came in three army groups. One did assault the Maginot Line, but it did so merely as a feint, with the hope that it would suck French troops into a defense of the line. In the meantime, a northern group sliced through Holland and Belgium, while the third army attacked in the Ardennes.
Massive German forces proved that the Ardennes was far from impassable, strolling into France almost unopposed. In the north, the Allies could not hold back the Nazis in Belgium, and they fell back to Dunkirk. By June the Germans approached the Maginot Line in force, but from the “wrong” side, and soon the French sued for peace.
Where the Maginot Line came under attack, it did perform as expected in some respects, though. The fort at La Ferté, near Sedan, met a furious assault by the Nazi infantry. One of the little ouvrages, it had only 104 men to defend it. They held out bravely for four days, fighting to the last man to keep the Germans out of France.
A big problem the Maginot forts faced was that the interval troops, who should have been engaging the Germans along the line, shifted to fight on the main front. With the French plans in chaos, the forts received the order to struggle on without support. And, despite being pressed by the Nazis, they did so bravely.
At Hackenberg, the Maginot Line’s biggest fort, the men resisted a massive onslaught. And when its interval troops disappeared in early June, the fort had to face the Nazis alone. A week’s heavy shelling could not shift the gallant Frenchmen, and eventually the Germans left Hackenberg in search of easier prey. It was actually only in July, a while after France had surrendered, that the defenders finally gave in and flew the white flag.
Hackenberg was by no means alone – up and down the Maginot Line, the forts resisted the massive German attacks. Only when orders came down from the top did they finally capitulate. One fort commander believed that they would not have done otherwise until the food ran out – and that could have taken another three months.
In reality, the Germans did not conquer a single one of the bigger forts. And although some see the Maginot Line as a massive, costly blunder, others are not so quick to rush to judgment. It had worked – both to defend France and to force Germany to attack through Belgium. The defense had failed because the main army simply couldn’t stop the Nazi Blitzkrieg.
In the meantime, in the south, the defenses against the Italians proved impenetrable. Although Mussolini hurled 340,000 men at the 35,000 French defenders, he had very little joy. French guns smashed the Italian attackers, who retreated in tatters. At one point, eight Frenchmen in one outpost spent an entire day holding off a whole Italian division.
Elsewhere, the Maginot Line continued to prove useful – the Germans used several forts to keep stores in and would themselves occupy them to try to fight off the Allies. Once liberated, the French put the forts to use too. But by the end of the 1960s, their military days had ended, and many forts had passed into private hands.
Since then, some forts have fallen into ruins, visited by adventurers who explore their underground secrets. But others live on: some host discos, others mushrooms – they are apparently marvelous places to grow them. A number of them have simply melted into the landscape, but some have been rescued to serve as museums.
The eerie empty forts at Fermont, Immerhof, Simserhof and Zeiterholz, mostly near to either Verdun or Metz, can all be visited, as can the site of the heroic defense at Hackenberg. Visitors to the south can also see fortifications at Ubaye, where the French army halted the Italians.
Back in eastern France, a local group gives tours of the fort at Schoenenbourg, where visitors can learn what day-to-day life was like for the more than 600 men who defended France here. All the facilities are on view, going down to 100 feet beneath the ground. It is perhaps not too hard to imagine this massive complex ready for war, just as André Maginot envisioned.