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Breaching the Westwall / Siegfried Line 1944

A little work on the original West Wall between the Moselle and the Rhine was done during the succeeding years; however, no real effort was made to strengthen the entire line prior to 20 August 1944, when Hitler issued a decree for a levy of "people's" labor to put these fortifications in repair. Concrete, steel, machinery, and manpower-not to mention the heavy arms required for antitank defense-all were in very short supply in the autumn of 1944, but by December the West Wall had been somewhat strengthened in those areas where the Allied forces had not won an early foothold.

The West Wall's value as a fortress had been vastly exaggerated by Hitler's propagandists, particularly as it stood in September 1944, after four years of neglect. In 1944 it was something of a Potemkin village. Dr. Todt and the German Army had never intended the line to halt an attack, merely to delay it until counterattacks by mobile reserves could eliminate any penetration. In early fall of 1944 no strong reserves existed.

The West Wall, as it existed in 1944, had its northern terminus at Roermond, near the southeastern corner of the Netherlands. The fortified zone extended south through the Aachen sector, where a second zone backed up the first as a double barrier to any advance into the Cologne Plain; continued along the eastern border of Luxembourg; looped to the east bank of the Sarre, which it followed to a point northeast of Forbach; then turned gradually east until it reached the Rhine in the vicinity of Karlsruhe. Here the West Wall followed the German bank of the Rhine, coming to an end at Basel and the Swiss frontier.

Breaking out of the narrow confines of the Cotentin, Allied forces swept northward and eastward through France and Belgium. By 12 September 1944 Allied forces extended from Switzerland to the North Sea, and were disposed generally along the Maginot Line in the south and the West Wall in the north. By mid-September 1944, the Allied drive through northern France ground to a halt as the tanks, out of gasoline, sputtered to a stop against he German West Wall.

When the first American patrols probed the border in September 1944, Allied intelligence on the West Wall was sketchy. Because four years of neglect had given the works a realistic camouflage, aerial reconnaissance failed to pick up many of the positions. As early as 11 September 1944, advance guards of the 5th Armored Division operating on the right wing of the First Army had captured the first bunkers in the West Wall position. This initial penetration was made in a sector some eighteen miles northeast of Trier, near Wallendorf, which, like many parts of the West Wall at the beginning of September 1944, had not yet been fully manned. Subsequent German reports indicate that CCR (reinforced) of the 5th Armored Division went clear through the West Wall before being driven back by a hastily organized counterattack.

It is not clear whether the Americans on the spot realized at the time what they had done. Aerial reconnaissance failed to show many of the overgrown positions in the West Wall, and most of the intelligence reports on the subject dated back to 1940. As a result the Allied maps of September 1944 possessed only very general tracings of the West Wall and often were in disagreement with one another. Then, too, the Germans had built fortifications in various positions forward of the West Wall proper. The resulting complex puzzled even the German staffs: on 21 September, for example, OB WEST was forced to give Army Group G a ruling as to what really constituted the West Wall.

Throughout its length the West Wall zone had been planned with an admirable eye for ground. Where the terrain denied cross-country movement by large mechanized forces the German fortifications were relatively weak and scattered. Where the ground offered a corridor to the attacker the fortifications were the strongest and provided mutual support by works in great density. It is true that the West Wall was of 1940 vintage and that warfare had made considerable advances by the fall of 1944.

German staff officers recognized several weaknesses in the four-year-old system. First, it lacked the antitank defenses necessitated by the newer, heavier tanks. Second, many of the smaller works were not adequately protected against aerial bombardment, and the whole line had insufficient antiaircraft artillery. Next, the bunkers seldom were built to mount guns of calibers larger than 75-mm, and the smaller pillboxes could not use the 1942 model machine gun in embrasures constructed for the MG 34. Even the 75-mm. antitank gun, which could be mounted in a few of the pillboxes, was basically inadequate to cope with the new, heavier armor.

Furthermore, the entire system was so complex as to require a considerable familiarity with the individual works by those who manned them. Germany's lack of manpower in 1944 forbade the necessary training period in the West Wall; as a result most formations entered the fortifications with the Allies hot on their heels and with no time to coordinate the defense of their own particular sector. In addition, co-ordination of fire plans and tactical dispositions was made, difficult by the lack of communications equipment-switchboards, wire cables, radios, and the like-in the fortified zone. Finally, the original German plans had been predicated on one division in each four miles of the line, plus large field forces in reserve. In early December 1944, however, the First Army would defend the West Wall with an average force of one division-much under the 1940 strength-per ten miles of front. Elsewhere single German divisions held as much as twenty-mile sectors in the West Wall.

Expecting to find a strong defensive position in being, the troops falling back on the West Wall from France and Belgium saw only a five-year old derelict. There were no mines, no barbed wire, few communications lines, and few fortress weapons. Field fortifications had been begun only at the last minute by well-intentioned but un-co-ordinated civilians. The West Wall in September 1944 was formidable primarily on the basis of an old, unearned reputation. All these factors contributed to a reasonable skepticism by many German field commanders as regards the "impregnable" nature of the West Wall. Rundstedt, for example, freely characterized the West Wall fortifications as "mouse traps."




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