Westwall / Siegfried Line
The Reich had need of a ground defensive system to secure its Western flank while its armies mobilized or in the event its armies were already engaged elsewhere and the French were to attack. Hitler had set the Third Reich to building an "impregnable" wall in the West in 1936, after he had sent German troops back into a demilitarized Rhineland. Construction work on the Westwall (sometimes referred to is the "Siegfried Line") commenced in 1937. Work on the West Wall had begun in earnest in May 1938, after Czechoslovakia had taken a somewhat defiant attitude toward German indications of aggression.
The original plan envisaged a 12-year project and the building of a defensive system the length of the German frontier facing France. It was originally to have been a short stretch of fortifications along the Saar River, opposite the French Maginot Line. Unlike the French position, it was to be no thin line of gros ouvrages-elaborate, self-contained forts-but a band of many small, mutually supporting pillboxes.
The Director of the Bureau of Roads (Generalinspekteur fuer das deutsche Strassenwesen), Dr. Todt, was made responsible for the construction project. Personnel assigned to the work included road construction crews grouped under a force identified after the director of the project as the Organization Todt, a large force of the German Labor Service (youths of premilitary age groups), Army engineers, and other troops. Todt, an able engineer, had supervised construction of the nation's superhighways, the Reichsautobahnen. By the end of September 1938 more than 500,000 men were working on the West Wall. Approximately a third of Germany's total annual production of cement went into the works.
In 1936 only the fortifications reaching from the Moselle south and east to the Rhine were called the "West Wall." A short time later Hitler directed an acceleration of the work and the extension of the Westwall to the north, to include the Luxembourg and Belgian frontiers and a part of the Dutch frontier in the Aachen area. In 1938 Hitler extended the name "West Wall" to the entire system - a fact probably unknown to the composers of the popular marching song of 1940 when they immortalized the "Siegfried Line." A series of extensions had been planned at either end of the West Wall in 1940, but the quick German victory in France and the necessity of moving the defenses of the Third Reich forward to the Channel and the Atlantic forced these plans into the discard.
The new West Wall was to extend from a point north of Aachen all along the border south and southeast to the Rhine, thence along the German bank of the Rhine to the Swiss border. More than 3,000 concrete pillboxes, bunkers, and observation posts were constructed. In contrast to the elaborate fortifications of the French Maginot Line, the Westwall was a series of smaller bunkers, tank traps and obstacles, and defenses distributed in depth. Adjacent bunkers could support one another with protective fire, and camouflage was extensive and thorough. The Luftwaffe supplemented this ground defensive system with one of its own to secure the border area to a depth of 30 miles against air penetrations.
As much because of propaganda as anything else the West Wall came to be considered impregnable. It contributed to Hitler's success in bluffing France and England at Munich. In 1939, when Hitler's designs on Danzig strained German-Polish relations, Hitler ordered a film of the West Wall to be shown in all German cinemas to bolster home-front conviction that Germany was inviolate from the west. Although some additional work was done on the West Wall between 1938 and 1940, Germany's quick victory in France and the need to shift the defenses of the Third Reich to the Atlantic and the Channel brought construction to a virtual halt.
The depth of the fortified areas of the West Wall ranges from 8 to 20 miles. The length of the line is about 350 miles. Within these limits the whole great project in 1939 encompassed 22,000 separate fortified works—which means an average density of about 1 fort on each 28 yards of front. The average distance between works, in depth, is 200 to 600 yards. The actual spacing of the works depends, of course, on the nature of the terrain. The West Wall consisted of a series of deep fortified zones rather than a line of forts and includes individual steel and concrete works, field entrenchments, belts of wire, and tank obstacles.
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.
In 1939-40 any threatened sector of the line was to have been manned by an infantry division for every five miles of front. Adequate artillery had been available. Although few of the pillboxes could accommodate guns of larger caliber than the 37-mm. antitank gun, this piece was standard and effective against the armor of the period. In 1944 the situation was different. The most glaring deficiency was lack of troops either to man the line or to counterattack effectively. Artillery was severely limited. 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. The smaller works could not accommodate the standard 1942 model machine gun because embrasures had been constructed for the 1934 model.
The strongest portion of the line was the segment constructed in 1936 along the Saar River between the Moselle and the Rhine. Lying mainly in the zone of the Third U.S. Army, this portion would be spared until December because of the fighting in Lorraine. The next strongest portion was a double band of defenses protecting the Aachen Gap. Here the First U.S. Army already had reached the very gates.
The extreme northern segment of the West Wall—from Geilenkirchen, about fifteen miles north of Aachen, to Kleve—consisted only of a thin, single belt of scattered pillboxes backing up natural obstacles. South of Geilenkirchen, the pillboxes began to appear in a definite pattern of clusters on a forward line backed up by occasional clusters a few hundred yards to the rear. At a point about halfway between Geilenkirchen and Aachen, the density of the pillboxes increased markedly and the line split into two bands about five miles apart. Aachen lay between the two. Though two bands still were in evidence in the forest south and southeast of Aachen, the pillboxes were in less density. At a point near the northern end of the Schnee Eifel, the two bands merged, to continue all the way south to Trier as a single line with pillboxes in medium to heavy density. The greatest concentration in the Eifel was near the southern end of the Schnee Eifel where the terrain is relatively open.
In many places the West Wall depended for passive antitank protection upon natural obstacles like rivers, lakes, railroad cuts and fills, sharp defiles, and forest. In other places, the German engineers had constructed chains of "dragon's teeth," curious objects that looked like canted headstones in a strange cemetery. In some cases the dragon's teeth were no more than heavy posts or steel beams embedded in the ground, but usually they were pyramid-shaped reinforced concrete projections. There were five rows of projections, poured monolithic with a concrete foundation and increasing in height from two and a half feet in front to almost five feet in rear. The concrete foundation, which extended two and a half feet above the ground on the approach side, formed an additional obstacle.
Roads leading through the dragon's teeth were denied usually by a double set of obstacles, one a gate and another three rows of steel beams embedded diagonally in a concrete foundation. The gate consisted of two 12-inch H-beams welded together and hinged at one end to a reinforced concrete pillar. The beams could be swung into place horizontally and bolted to another concrete pillar on the opposite side of the road. The second obstacle consisted of three rows of 12-inch H-beams offset like theater seats. Embedded in the concrete foundation at an angle of about 45 degrees, the beams were attached at their base by a flange connection which hooked over an iron rod in the bottom of the recess. Though this and other obstacles conceivably could be removed or demolished by an attacking force, it presumably would prove difficult under fire from nearby pillboxes.
Pillboxes in general were 20 to 30 feet in width, 40 to 50 feet in depth, and 20 to 25 feet in height. At least half of the pillbox was underground. The walls and roofs were 3 to 8 feet thick, of concrete reinforced by wire mesh and small steel rods and at times by heavy steel beams. Each pillbox had living quarters for its normal complement, usually about seven men per firing embrasure. Few had more than two firing embrasures, one specifically sited to cover the entrance. Although fields of fire were limited, generally not exceeding an arc of 50 degrees, pillboxes were mutually supporting.
Bunkers usually were designed to house local reserves and command posts and had no firing embrasures except small rifle ports to cover the entrance. Bunkers used as observation posts usually were topped by a steel cupola.
Most pillboxes and bunkers had several rooms, one or more for troop quarters and one or more either for ammunition storage or for firing. All were gas proof and equipped with hand-operated ventilation devices. Only a few installations had escape hatches. Heat might come from a small fireplace equipped with a tin chimney, both of which might be closed off by a heavy steel door. Each entrance usually had a double set of case-hardened steel doors separated by a gas proof vestibule. Bunks were of the type found on troop ships, oblong metal frames covered with rope netting and suspended in tiers from the ceiling. Sanitary facilities were rarely provided. Though both electric and telephone wires had been installed underground, it is doubtful that these were functioning well in September 1944. Some installations were camouflaged to resemble houses and barns. Except in the sparse sector north of Geilenkirchen, pillbox density averaged approximately ten per mile. Most pillboxes were on forward slopes, usually 200 to 400 yards behind the antitank obstacles.
Without question, these fortifications added to the defensive potentiality of the terrain along the German border; but their disrepair and the caliber of the defending troops had vitiated much of the line's formidability. It could in no sense be considered impregnable. Nevertheless, as American troops were to discover, steel and concrete can lend backbone to a defense, even if the fortifications are outmoded and even if the defenders are old men and cripples.
The climate in the region of the West Wall is characterized during autumn and winter by long periods of light rain and snow. Although less rain falls then than during summer, there are more days of precipitation likely to curtail air activity and maintain saturation of the fine textured soils found in the region. Even in winter temperatures are usually above freezing except during seven to eight days a month when snow covers the ground.
The primary mission of the fortifications in the west was to serve at the proper time as the springboard for an attack; however, until that time came, they were to protect Germany's western flank while she waged offensive war in the east. Thus the West Wall was conceived as a great barrier against Prance and the Low Countries. But it is essential to realize that the conception of the West Wall, far from committing the German High Command to a passively defensive attitude, gave all the greater scope to the offensive character of its doctrine. The entire German Army, including the units assigned to the West Wall, was indoctrinated with the offensive spirit and thoroughly trained for a war of movement. The role of fortifications in the German strategy was summarized in the following statement of General von Brauchitsch, then German Commander-in-Chief, in September 1939: "The erection of the West Wall, the strongest fortification in the world, enabled us to destroy the Polish Army in the shortest possible time without obliging us to split up the mass of our forces at various fronts, as was the case in 1914. Now that we have no enemy in the rear, we can calmly await the future development of events without encountering the danger of a two-front war." But the West Wall in September 1944 was formidable primarily on the basis of an old, unearned reputation.
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