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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.

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