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March 13, 2006

La Ligne Maginot

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

According to one scenario, World War 2 would have begun as follows:

German poison gas and explosive artillery shells rained down on the French hillside peppered with hidden emplacements. At the appointed minute Panzerkampfwagen IIs and IIIs lurched into motion toward the fortifications accompanied by squads of pionieren and sturmtruppen. Encountering anti-tank ditches and rows of railroad rails embedded in the ground, the tanks swerved to an open area to continue their advance. In fact they had been channeled into a killing-ground. Pre-registered artillery in camouflaged casemates and retractable armored turrets opened fire at the poorly armored Germans. Soon the field became obscured by smoke from the flaming vehicles. Meanwhile the combat engineers and storm troopers scrambled up to the observation cupolas, pillboxes and casemates, explosive charges and grenades at the ready. But before they could begin disabling the fortress, 75s from the next fortress to the east began pouring registered fire on them, killing half the attackers on the first salvo. Less than an hour after the attack began, remnants of the assault force began straggling back to the German front line, crushed by the Maginot Line defenders.

This alternative-history snippet describes how the French Maginot Line was intended to perform.*

It is fantasy. It never happened (though it could have).

There was a lot of fantasy associated with the Maginot Line in the years leading up to the war. It is interesting, but so is the history of the Line, not to mention the Maginot Line as it exists today. I experienced the fantasy, read the history and visited one of the fortresses. If this intrigues you, read on.

The Fantasy

Not long after I was born my father (or someone in my family) bought a Rand McNally "War Map of Europe." Besides a political map of Europe it has a lot of add-ons in the form of special-subject maps, data tables and other handy reference information related to the war that started on 3 September when Germany invaded Poland.

Eight or ten years later, when I was old enough to begin assembling a picture of recent history in my mind, I came across that map and was astonished by the following illustration.

Maginot cutaway -- NYT imaginary - 2.jpg
New York Times artist's pre-war impression of the Maginot Line.

When the drawing was made, details of the Maginot Line were military secrets. Even though the Germans had aerial photos of some of the fortresses under construction and might have had spies in the work crews, the public was told about the Line only in broad-brush form. For example, it was revealed that it was a system of underground fortresses placed near enough to one another that their artillery fire would be mutually-supporting. The fortresses were self-contained, troops living in underground barracks with support facilities such as command-posts, kitchens, mess-halls, dental clinics, operating rooms and recreation facilities. Each fort had its own electrical power generation system for use in case the national power grid (and its buried lines to the fortress) was disrupted. Also underground were artillery magazines and other storage facilities. Gun emplacements were on the surface, but heavily protected by reinforced concrete and steel. Tying it all together were underground electric railroads.

The illustration shows this in entrancing detail. Too bad almost all those details are wrong.

Nevertheless, I began a life-long interest in all things Maginot. Below is another pre-war "artist's conception." It too is wrong, but closer to reality than the picture above.

Imaginary cutaway view.jpg
Another pre-war Maginot Line impression.

The History

Military staffs are constantly planning for contingencies both real and notional. Following the Great War the French began consideration of a future war with Germany even though French troops were occupying that country west of the Rhine River and the Germans were left with only a 100,000-man army under terms of the Versailles Treaty. The treaty obligated the Allies to remove troops from Germany by 1936 (later changed to 1930 at Locarno) so the French frontier would become more vulnerable to attack after that date, imposing a deadline for the staff planners.

France's fundamental problem was demographic. Germany's population was already substantially larger than France's and German birth rates were higher. This meant that Germany's ability to field troops would increasingly outstrip that of France if trends continued.

But all was not hopeless for the out-numbered French: they could fight and perhaps win a defensive war where a smaller number of defenders could prevail against a larger number of attackers provided the ratio of attackers to defenders was less than two or three to one at the point of attack. Moreover, the defensive advantage could be greatly enhanced by appropriate fortifications.

So the French studied Great War actions against fortifications, from assaults against the Hindenberg Line to the battles around Verdun. They drew upon their vast experience in fortification from the time of the great Vauban. The distilled result was the conception of what became the Maginot Line, a linked system of mutually-supporting underground fortresses (ouvrages) that could be sealed up and left self-sufficient for weeks if necessary. The recently revealed risk of poison gas attack could be neutralized by maintaining higher air pressure inside the forts than in the surrounding atmosphere.

The definitive line would not be uniform along France's eastern borders. The largest fortresses would be placed on and near the main invasion routes. Smaller forts would cover places with more difficult terrain.

Map showing French fortification belts.
Heavy lines are the fortress zones. Dotted lines indicate smaller forts.

The Maginot Line did not extend much farther west than the border with Luxembourg, ending miles short of the famous fortress-city of Sedan, where Louis-Napoléon surrendered to the Prussians in 1870. The Line was truncated for a number of reasons. An important reason was cost: what was built was already very expensive. Another reason was practicality: as the French-Belgian border approached the sea, the ground became flat and had a high water table that made underground forts difficult to build. The border zone near Lille cut through an important industrial area that the French didn't want to become a war zone. Rather than fighting along the Belgian frontier, the planners and generals instead hoped to send mobile forces to a defensive line someplace in central Belgium, setting up a much-shortened version of the Western Front. So most of the Franco-Belgian border was spottily fortified. Older fortifications around cities were modernized and, as war approached, a system of pillboxes and strongpoints went under construction.

The term "Maginot Line" was unofficial, a popular name for the system, taking the name of the defense minister (André Maginot) at the time construction got underway at the end of the 1920s. The main construction surge was completed and the fortresses equipped and manned by the late 1930s.

As we know, the Germans never seriously attacked the Maginot Line in their 10 May 1940 invasion, capturing one small, vulnerable fort late in the campaign just to show that such a task could be done (under ideal conditions). Instead, the Germans aimed their first blow at the Netherlands and northeastern Belgium. When French, British and Belgian troops were engaging this threat, the main German blow fell in the sector Sedan-Dinant against inferior French divisions. Cracking the French defenses, German armored (panzer) divisions sliced through to the French plain and then to the English Channel near the mouth of the Somme, cutting off the Allied armies in Belgium and northern France from lines of support. This was followed by Belgian surrender, the famous Dunkirk evacuation and the French capitulation in June.

I'm among the school of history students holding the Maginot Line to be a success. It did what it was supposed to do: forestall a major German attack in the fortified zone. The mistakes that led to France's fall lie elsewhere.

The Maginot Line Today

Some Maginot Line forts and fortresses are open to the public. Hackenberg, the one I toured, is one of the largest and among the first built. It's also one of the easiest to get to, though to see it you'd probably have to go by rental car as I did.

Hackenberg lies 20 kilometers east the city of Thionville (off the A31 Autoroute -- the main connection between Luxembourg and Metz). Take Route Départementale 918 to the town of Metzervisse and then follow signs to the smaller town of Veckring, where the fortress and its main barracks are found.

(Although Maginot Line emplacements could quarter troops, that would only happen during training exercises or if the fort was under attack. This was because underground living was hard to bear due to dankness and smells. So troops normally were barracked outside and commuted to their inside duties.)

Thanks to its impressive size and handy location, Hackenberg was often the fortress shown to distinguished visitors. Below is a photo of King George VI sitting on a "underground railroad" car.

George VI at Hackenberg.jpg
King George VI touring the Hackenberg ouvrage.

Note that the train His Majesty is riding isn't one of those subway-like coaches depicted in the first illustration above. The electricity-powered railroads were tiny, narrow-gauge affairs with little cars containing a couple bench seats each. These cars were for transporting personnel. Other trains has similarly small cars configured to carry munitions and supplies. Here's a view of a tunnel showing rails and a switch point. Electricity was delivered via an overhead wire and a trolly attached to a coach.

Rail switch at Fremont Ouvrage.jpg
Railroad switch point.

The train system was vital because the fortresses sprawled across dozens or even hundreds of acres. Below is a diagram showing one layout.

Michelsberg Ouvrage plan.jpg
Plan of Michelsberg fortress.

Unlike the fanciful illustration's depiction, almost all of a Maginot Line fortress was on one level. This was because its vital rail system needed to run on nearly-level ground. The only vertical elements were the connections between the "flat" infrastructure and the fighting units scores of feet above, on or near the surface.

We arrived at Hackenberg shortly after the afternoon tour had started. We caught up with it just after they had visited the magazines, so I missed seeing that part. As it happened, the tourists were a group of high school age Germans and the guide was speaking in German (which I barely comprehend); fortunately I was familiar enough with the Maginot Line that the guide's patter was unnecessary -- though I had to whisper about what we were seeing to my wife.

After walking a ways in the main tunnel we hopped on a rail car (the very one that supported the Royal Tusch?) and screeched our way out to the base of a retractable turret for 75-mm artillery.

There was an elevator/hoist system for getting gunners and munitions up to the turret base, but we took a spiral stairway instead; in retrospect, I'd take the elevator. At the turret base, the guide then activated the mechanism that raised the turret a few feet so that the guns could fire. Then we were led to the surface to view the turret from that point of view. Maginot Line artillery turrets are cylindrical with a shallow domed top that lies tightly against the reinforced roof of the emplacement when lowered.

Not all guns were 75-mm artillery. There were mortars and anti-tank guns as well as machine guns to protect entrances. All guns were pre-registered in peacetime so that fire would be laid on-target immediately in an actual attack. The fire control center would simply have to phone the map-grid coordinates to the gun layer before firing.

Lots of Hackenberg pictures are here. The armament displays and mannequins you'll see are found in fortress galleries set aside as a museum area.

Here are a few other Maginot Line views:


Entrance to fort.
Observation cupolas in foreground are display items.

Good surface pic.jpg
Surface view.
Observation cupola in foreground, retracted artillery turret to right.

Hackenburg turret-raising mechanism.jpg
Turret-raising mechanisms.

Turret on surface - tilted.jpg
Raised turret.
Note that turret is slightly tilted due to damage of some kind.


If you want to learn more, some good books are here, here and here. They all are in French, but the first two are richly illustrated and could well be interesting even if your grasp of French is slight. (There are three books in that illustrated series, but I cannot find one on, so maybe it's out of print.)



*(I half-recall reading something like this someplace, so apologies if my idea-borrowing happened to come close to the almost-forgotten original. Then again, maybe I'm imagining.)

posted by Donald at March 13, 2006


In my reading of military history, I've come across two main notions about the Maginot Line. The first is that it made sense, but wasn't taken far enough to really succeed. It was a sort of prefabricated Western front (which had held, after all, for four years in WWI) and incorporated the huge advantage of reinforced concrete fortifications, which had been shown to have resisted bombardment quite successfully at Verdun, the most heavily bombarded spot on the face of the earth (probably every single square meter had received a ton or more of high explosive during the battle.) The shortfall in this view is how vulnerable it was to a German end-run; it was a good idea but without fortifying the Franco-Belgian line it was a strategic waste of money that would have been better spent on mechanizing the French army. The other view is that such fixed defenses are always vulnerable to enough force being brought to bear at one point or another, and thus are always a bad idea, at least in strategic terms. Anyone out there more sophisticated in things military to help me sort this out?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 13, 2006 12:46 PM

The Maginot Line is a great illustration of the fact that history is determined more by mental states than by anything else.
After all, the Germans had taken as much of a pounding (in terms of war dead) as the French had in WWI. And yet their vitality had not been impaired, or impaired nearly as much as had the vitality of the French. The French were filled with dread. They became like the man who lives his whole life defensively, waiting for the next blow. But if life teaches us anything it's that we can never know where or how the next blow will fall. If their posture had not been so utterly defensive the French, with an assist from the British, could have called Hitler's bluff when he occupied the Rhineland in '36. That might have stopped him. The Line might never have had to be tested. But we'll never know.

Posted by: ricpic on March 13, 2006 12:55 PM

It's not as if the French could never have imagined a German end-run through Belgium, because Germany had tried the same barely 25 years earlier.

Posted by: Peter on March 13, 2006 01:41 PM

Friedrich -- The Maginot Line stirs an historical controversy that'll never really be resolved. Up to around 20 years ago I sided with the waste-of resources view. Nowadays I think the Line was a rational response to the demographic situation, as I note in the post.

Further, it can be seen as a rational response to France's post-Great War psychology of exhaustion, even anticipating the political situation of the Thirties with its pacificst-militarist, communist-fascist and other forms of tension that could (and maybe did) sap ardor for defense of la patrie. Indeed, the Line would have been very hard to crack, and properly trained and equipped "interval troops" might well have been able to seal any ruptures. (Some critics claim there were too many interval troops ... divisions that might have been put to better use elsewhere.)

The French, desipte Maginot Line expenditures did have more and better tanks than Germans did. Commonly cited problems with their armor were (1) lack of onboard radios for tactical communication and (2) too few armored divisions where tanks would be concentrated rather than dispersed in penny-packets within other kinds of units.

Technically, France's weakest point was its air force, particulary a lack of dive bombers and fighters that were inferior to the German Bf-109 (excepting the new Dewoitine, which arrived too late to affect the outcome). The Germans were battle-tested in Spain and used formations in multiples of two, rather than three as with the RAF (I'm not sure regarding this point of French air tactical doctrine).

I still hew to Alistair Horne's ("To Lose a Battle") contention that the war was lost on the front where the Germans achieved their breakout. He indicates that the French placed poor-quality divisions in the Sedan-Dinant sector and that the army commanders were not good generals. The Germans were also able to exploit the point where the armies adjoined (a traditional weak-point). Even so, the Germans had troubles leading up to their breakthrough, so Horne concludes that higher-quality divisions and better generalship might have held the front long enough for proper reinforcement.

But the key French failing was generals who lacked nerve, who panicked. They needed another Joffre, and had none.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 13, 2006 02:15 PM

Friedrich -- A couple more quick points.

As I noted in the post, the Line couldn't be extended all the way to the Channel for technical reasons. Though in retropect, if it had gone another few score miles alomg the Belgian frontier, the Ardennes breakout would have been impossible. I've read that one problem was diplomatic sensitivities to Belgium -- the Belgians would have been given the idea that the French were willing to write them off in case of a new war. Toward the late 30s the Belgians under Leopold became more neutral, but by this time it was too late to extend the Line properly -- all that was done was soldier-built pillboxes, not many actually completed.

The French plan was to advance into Belgium with their best, most mobile, most armored forces. From what I read, the Belgians didn't really have good defense line built for the French to help man following their planned advance. Again, the infuence of Leopold. The French did advance and had some successes. But the advance was poorly planned (a last-minute diversion towards the Netherlands). And if the Germans had thrown all their weight into northern Belgium (instead of the Ardennes offensive) they still might have succeeded.

No the French did not forget 1914.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 13, 2006 02:31 PM

Fascinating subject, Donald.

My high school world history class barely touched the subject. My knowledge of the French La Ligne Maginot has just been greatly expanded!


Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on March 14, 2006 11:17 AM

That was interesting reading.

Posted by: Paul Worthington on March 14, 2006 02:09 PM

Someone mentioned Horne's "To Lose A Battle," which I would second as a good treatment of the
early stages of the 1940 campaign. I'd also recommend Ernest May's more recent "Strange Defeat." May points out that in the two cases where the French and German armored forces clashed head-on (Gembloux, and I forget the other one) the French came out on top; he argues that the German strategists got inside the decision cycle of the French high command, and stayed there.

I have to say also that it's refreshing to find a discussion of French military history by English speakers that isn't powered by sneers. If one "annualizes" the losses suffered by both sides in the six weeks of campaigning in 1940, one sees that the potential was there for a bloodbath. 1940 was anything but a walkover.


Posted by: Narr on March 14, 2006 04:11 PM

There's no doubt about it - the individual French soldier actually fought well in 1940, at least as well as did the British, Americans and Russians in their first encounter with the Wehrmacht. The French failure was higher up, in the General Staff and in the political leadership of the country. If France had found a Churchill (or had found DeGaulle earlier) the history of WWII might have been very different.

I'm no great fan of the positions that France has taken over the last 40 years, but the French Poilou of 1940 was no coward, and it defames the dead to pretend otherwise.

Posted by: tschafer on March 15, 2006 11:50 AM

The biggest problems that the French Army had were doctrinal. Specifically, they didn't have an organization designed for maneuver warfare (divisional armored units, for example), their OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop was far too slow for the exigencies of blitzkrieg warfare, and their strategy was fatally dislocated by the German attack on the hinge of their line.

I should perhaps note that the French decision to defend the Ardennes weakly was rational (as was the Allied decision to do the same in 1944). The problem was that they misjudged the appropriate level of defense. When that was combined with a very slow decision cycle, the result was catastrophe.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on March 15, 2006 05:58 PM

I would love to find books, urls, etc -- references containing details of the blueprint, plans, maps etc of La Ligne Maginot. Any leads would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by: Maps sought after on April 6, 2006 10:35 AM

The series books I linked to include one (the first, I think) with lots of diagrams, etc. and you should order it if you are a Maginot Line fan. Any engineering maps were classified at first, and I don't know if any have been reproduced in recent years.

There are French enthusiast groups that have web sites. Do some Googling and contact those that seem potentially useful to you.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 6, 2006 11:08 AM

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