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Maginot Line

The first French Army staff work on a design for what became the Maginot Line began in 1919, with World War I scarcely over. The designs werein an advanced stage by 1926, but the first funds for constriction were not available until 1928. By 1930, construction and the propaganda campaign accompanying the Line were in full swing. Well thought-out and strongly constructed, it was in many ways like the defensive system designed by Sere de Rivieres. Like its predecessor, it was a limited defensive system extending only along certain portions of the French border, even though this was directly contrary to the beliefs of the general public in France and other allied countries.

Like its predecessor, it too was destined to be outflanked. Also like its 19th century predecessor,the strongpoints of the Maginot Line were often sunken fortresses with mutually self-supporting fire. In addition to the underground strongpoints, its integrated design included minefields, barricades, and prepared fields offire. It did differ significantly from the line of Sere de Rivieres in its design location, since its position was determined more by political than military considerations. It was a forward defense line sited to defend the very border of France and its adjacent industrial resources from a frontal German assault.

While the army occupied the Rhineland, France was secure. Should Germany attack again, and this was considered highly unlikely at the time, the early battles would be fought on German soil and the time gained would be used to mobilize the reserves. This advantage was, of course, lost when France began to withdraw from the Rhineland in 1929. By then plans were ready for creating a series of fortifications along the eastern border. In 1929 André Maginot, the French minister of war and a veteran of Verdun, began pushing for the creation of massive defenses that would cut off German invasion routes into France. He preferred physical structures because, as he said, "concrete is better . . . and is less expensive than a wall of chests". The wall that France built would carry his name.

The existence of a 100,000-man professional German Army forced the French to develop plans to counter a sudden invasion by that army. The postwar French Army was huge, but ill prepared to stop a surprise attack by even the small German. force. It was basically a cadre for reservists, who required weeks or even months to mobilize. After 1918, French war weariness eliminated the highly developed mobilization system of 1914 and, in 1928, reduced conscripted service to a bare twelve months of training.

To protect itself from a sudden attack by the small German Army, France chose to construct a sophisticated version of the defenses that had apparently worked so well at Verdun. The Maginot Line was a string of self-contained concrete forts with gun turrets. It was built between 1930 and 1936 in Northeastern France; its function was to protect the land regained in 1918 and to force any German invasion to pass through Belgian territory before reaching France. This extra distance would give France time to mobilize.

The Maginot Line of 1930s France were massive fortification of its border with Germany that proved futile when Germany launched its blitzkrieg in World War II. The Maginot Line was composed of many forts of different sizes: from simple blockhouses, manned by a few soldiers and one machine gun, to powerful fortresses manned by 1,500 soldiers and artillery. The much publicized Hochwald, set on the first hill of the Vosges Mountains, was one of the greatest of these fortresses. It may be described as an enormous plant, with its repair shops, its storage rooms, its hospitals, and its underground railway - all built at a depth of two or three hundred yards under the surface, and from which emerged artillery turrets and infantry battlements with their machine guns and antitank guns.

Firepower had dominated the battlefields of the Great War, slaughtering an entire generation in the blood-soaked trenches. After the war, reducing casualties became a prime directive for the French military, which devoted considerable effort to create the best possible and most modern doctrine. The results were clear: overwhelming firepower,centralized control, detailed planning and fixed defenses reduce casualties. Enemy penetrations of the defensive line would be slowed, attritted and ground to dust by well placed, overwhelming firepower. In the French Army, the ascendancy of fires replaced maneuver. Highly accurate cannon fire, placed in the concrete and steel bunkers of the Maginot Line, would provide victory. The Germans, on the other hand, understood the necessity for a balance between firepower, mobility and protection.

The decision in 1930 to begin construction of the Maginot Line came to symbolize the character of the army-indeed, the French national mind. The Maginot Line came to be not just a component of strategy, but a way of life. Alistair Horne noted, "Feeling secure behind it, like the lotus-eating mandarins of Cathay behind the Great Wall, the French Army allowed itself to atrophy, to lapse into desuetude. A massive combination of factors-complacency, lassitude, deficiencies of manpower and finance - combined to rust the superb weapon the world had so admired."

The guns of the Maginot Line, though remarkably well protected, were of small caliber. The Hochwald artillery, for example, included eight long-range semi-automatic 75's and four semi-automatic 135 howitzers. The other forts which were part of the main line were spaced at an average distance of six or seven hundred yards, and were connected by a continuous barrier made of rails, barbed wire and deep ditches. These forts had infantry armament but no cannon. The artillery and particularly the heavy artillery was on the surface behind the Line.

The Maginot Line consisted of a sophisticated set of bunkers, tunnels, and gun turrets which represented a huge advance over the fortifications of World War I. Everyone who visited the Maginot Line brought back the impression of great strength, which was justified. True test of this strength was never made. The only blockhouses which were attacked and taken were not in the main Maginot Line, but in advance of it, sometimes not even connected by telephone and not protected, by material barriers, against close approach. Their purpose was merely to give the alert and to slow up the enemy advance.

The Maginot Line was built by France along the border with Germany to protect industry in Alsace-Lorraine. The French halted the Maginot Line at the Belgian border, partly because of financial constraints, but also as part of their strategy. By deflecting German forces into Belgium, France believed they could guarantee both Belgian and British participation in the war. In addition, France hoped to avoid the devastation of another invasion of its territory.

While plans for the Maginot Line went forward, French tank doctrine did not. The armor warfare field manual published in 1929, "Instruction sur l'Emploi des Chars de Combat," stated that tanks were "only a means of supplementaryaction temporarily set at the disposal of the infantry" and that they "considerably reinforce the action of the latter, but they do not replace it." French armored units lacked mechanized support, thus preventing their use in breakthroughs.

Colonel Charles De Gaulle gained a reputation as a military intellectual, publishing several books. One work, The Army of the Future (1934), criticized France's reliance on static defense and mass armies, as embodied in the Maginot Line, calling instead for a mechanized, mobile, and highly professional force. The 1937 manual rejected the exploitation mission. In 1940 France had 3,000 tanks and Germany had only 2,400. The French had the better tank. But the Germans structured their military to support Blitzkrieg. Every German tank had a radio, demanded by a doctrine that emphasized maneuver and combined arms. Few French tanks had radios.

Before the war the great question was: how good will the mighty defense system of the Maginot Line be? Will it be possible to break through quickly or will a war of position on a large scale develop here? Will modern heavy artillery be able to crack these defenses?

The Maginot Line has frequently been criticized because, in retrospect, it appeared child's play for the Germans to outflank these fortifications. Yet, quite apart from the political reality that France could not abandon Belgium by building a major wall between the two countries, the Maginot Line concept was much less defensive than popular wisdom suggests. In addition to providing security during mobilization and protecting critical areas near the French frontier, the Maginot Line was a secure anchor, a base around which the mobile rield forces of the French Army would maneuver. More specifically, in the later 1930s, both France and Britain expected that any future war with Germany would be a repetition of 1914, with Germany advancing through all of Belgium and possibly the Netherlands as well. Because Belgium was neutral, France and Britain could not enter that country to help defend it until the Germans had already invaded. Thus, the majority of French and British mobile forces planned to make a headlong rush into Belgium. The surprise to the Allies in 1940 was the German penetration through Luxembourg towards Sedan, a penetration that out the hinge between the mobile forces and the Maginot Line.

On 01 September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, war once more engulfed Europe. The first months of the war were called the "phony war" in Europe. The campaign against Poland was followed by a period of calm. Only in the air and at sea did some minor engagements take place, which no one regarded very seriously. The winter of 1939/40 was unusually cold, one of the coldest in recent memory. The French, sitting in the relative comfort and security of the Maginot Line, sustained 12,000 cold injuries during the first winter of the war.

In August 1939 it was possible to get a photograph of a French map showing all forts, barriers, obstacles, communications routes and communications points of the Maginot Line and of its extension to the coast. This showed how imperfectly the French had developed their system of defense along the Belgian frontier and one did not need to study the map long in order to put his finger on the weakest point in this system of defense. This map was reproduced in Germany and was the basis for planning the campaign in France.

Lieutenant General Erich von Manstein, believed that Germany could not afford to attack France again with anything but total victory in mind. In late October 1939 he prepared a Plan which shifted the weight of the German armored drive to the upper Meuse, near Sedan. Once the panzers had crossed that river and traversed the Ardennes Forest, they would sweep northwestward to the Channel. The drive, called Sichelschnitt (sickle slice), would cut off the First French Army Group from the Maginot Line and the armies defending it. In February 1940 Manstein got an opportunity to explain it to Hitler, and the Führer took it as his own. Here was a plan such as the one he imagined but had not been able to articulate in detail. Here was a plan to annihilate the enemy and secure the decisive victory.

In the spring of 1940 the Allies were positioned with a strong right flank on the Maginot Line and a powerful left flank facing Belgium; but in the center, along a front of less than a hundred miles and behind the "impenetrable" forest of the Ardennes, there were only four light cavalry divisions and ten reservist divisions.

The Maginot Line did what its planners expected. The Germans were forced to circumvent the Maginot Line, which allowed France to concentrate its army on a narrow front and ensured both Belgian and British participation in the war. Yet France still lost. The German attack through the weakly defended Ardennes forest, was not a simple drive through the woods by German panzers. The German armored spearhead drove through the Ardennes at Sedan, the hinge in the French line between the Maginot Line and the French and British armies advancing into Belgium. Only second-rate, newly deployed units defended this essential linchpin in the French operation. The Germans massed their armor into ten divisions with a corps focused directly on the hinge at Sedan. The German blow fell precisely on the most poorly defended spot. Unprepared mentally to respond to the battle's fast pace, the French Army suffered defeat in only six weeks - but the battle was decided in the first seven to ten days.

By the terms of the armistice between Germany and France the Maginot Line became a part of the German western defenses. In October 1941, the Germans had discussed the possibility of using the Maginot Line in the event of an Allied invasion on the Continent. At that time it was concluded that the reconstitution of the fortified works would require too much labor and money. Interestingly enough, some of the German experts also raised the point that their own victories had called into question the value of any permanent fortifications. However, recommendations were made that certain parts of the Maginot Line be used to block the road nets leading to the West Wall.

By 1943 all reports agreed that some portions of the Maginot Line had been abandoned while others which were strategically and tactically useful to the Germans had been steadily reinforced and incorporated into the West Wall system. Reports that the Maginot Line had been altered to face westward were patently false, since most of the French works were sited on forward slopes facing eastward. It was assumed by the Allies, however, that every effort had been put forth by the Germans to incorporate useful. French fortifications into their West Wall system.

In the late summer and early autumn of 1944 some attempts were made to carry out this last recommendation and rearm the line in the Faulquemont and Wittring sectors, but no work was done cast of Metz. So little attention had been paid to the French fortifications since 1940 that on 4 September 1944 the Metz commander had to send a wire to the German Army historians asking for a detailed plan of the Maginot Line. On 16 November 1944 Hitler got around to the question of the Maginot Line and asked his staff how it was armed, to what extent its works had been oriented to face westward, and like questions. However, it was too late to take any action.

After World War II, the Maginot Line was typically described as a white elephant that created a false sense of security - a "Maginot mentality" that doomed France to defeat. A few analysts took the opposite stance, suggesting that the Maginot Line fulfilled its purpose and gave French authorities an opportunity to mass their combat power in the face of the Nazi onslaught.

The problems in designing and constructing a defensive line in peacetime for use at some uncertain date in the future afflicted the Maginot Line just as that of Sere de Rivieres, which had suffered neglect and abuse in the years subsequent to its initial construction. The Maginot Line, which was started in 1928 according to a plan initiated in 1919, was not actually tested until 1940, when several technical transformations in the art of war had greatly altered its value. During the period 1935 to 1939, when the ever more threatening actions of Germany came at an increasing tempo, a series of alerts for France and the defenders of the Maginot Line did provide it with sometrial periods which revealed some of the weaknesses of the initial construction. Many of these defects in lighting, heating, etc., were rectified by the time actual war broke out in 1939. Other defects in environmental conditions remained until the time of the French surrender.

More significantly, the little-used or tested offensive systems within the Maginot Line fortresses, their artillery, exhibited some major problems when the time came for their actual use in combat. At the beginning of the "Phony War," in September 1939, only one of the 75-mm French guns situated in one of the Maginot Line's forward positions at Hochwald-Est could reach German territory with its fire. This gun jammed and became unusable after firing only a few rounds. Investigation revealed that the old, stored ammunition was defective. Similarly, during the winter of 1939 to 1940, two-thirds of the rounds fired from the larger 135-mm guns had defective fuses. As a result, when they hit the frozen ground, they failed to explode, and instead would simply skid for hundreds of yards until their forward momentum was expended.

Despite these problems, the fortresses of the Maginot Line performed quite well in a tactical sense during the 1940 campaign in France. They were intended to withstand a German attack for up to 3 weeks to permit time for French mobilization. By the time the rest of the French forces had collapsed and a surrender negotiated, more than 7 weeks had passed, and none of the major Maginot forts had been captured by the Germans. The defenders within those fortresses surrendered only under the strongest of orders fromtheir new governmental and military leadership, as the Maginot Line positions they occupied were virtually unscathed and their morale high. Their survival was partly due to the inherent strength of the well-designed positions, and partly due to the nature of the German attack, which was pointed especially at rendering this great defensive work nearly irrelevant to the course of the war.

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Page last modified: 17-02-2017 19:32:21 ZULU