How the Nazis Broke France's Fortress Line

The War Illustrated, Volume 3, No. 45, Page 6, July 12, 1940.

From time immemorial Man has sheltered in fortresses designed to withstand a long siege and to resist the strongest weapons of the age. Though every Great War in Europe for generations past has shown up the futility of the fortress against heavy artillery, skilfully handled, military engineers continued to construct such systems. Here is the story from German sources of the taking of Maubeuge.

One of the major surprises of the German advance through France and Flanders was the comparative ease with which the enemy subdued or isolated some of the huge fortresses constructed by the French and Belgians especially to halt-if not to hold up the Nazi advance. Profiting, presumably, from the lessons of the First Great War, the military engineers took steps to render these strongholds "impregnable." The latest resources of the civil engineers were employed immensely strong steel and concrete construction, deep underground chambers for the personnel, ventilated and air-conditioned so that men might live safely in them for weeks; all the most advanced mechanical equipment for working the armament and feeding the guns. The fortress systems were planned so that by cross-fire one fort could aid its neighbour, and in fact all that science could do was done to strengthen these works.

The fortress idea was extended to Use entire frontier between France and Germany. France constructed her Maginot Line, and Germany in emulation built the Westwall. Along the Franco Belgian frontier extended a lighter zone of defences that had been called the semi-Maginot Line. Here, then, were the fortifications that should have rendered France safe against the Nazis.

Along the Maginot Line were individual fortresses that had existed for many years, and had been specially modernized. One of these was Maubeuge, which in the First Great War had been invested on August 25, 1914, and had capitulated on September 7; during this period it had immobilized the German VII Reserve Corps, but after its surrender only two battalions had been needed to act as garrison, and the rest of the corps was freed for the attack on the French army. It might well have been expected that the modernized Maubeuge would put up a better show.

The Onslaught on Maubeuge

After the Nazis secured passage over the Maastricht bridges, across the Meuse and the Albert Canal (May 11), they pushed on and isolated Liege (May 13), subduing a number of the forts and continuing their advance southward. Namur was reached and isolated by May 15, and the enemy was able to cross the Upper Meuse in several places. A salient was forced in the Allied line near Sedan (May 16) and quickly widened out until it extended as far as Maubeuge (by May 18), its loop running near Rethel, Laon, St. Quentin, Le Cateau and Landrecies. The enemy then turned westward, after breaking through, and there ensued the "Battle of the Bulge." Maubeuge, then, played a vital part in these events. Had the fortress been able to offer a prolonged resistance the course of history might have been different? The town of Maubeuge was taken by storm troops on May 21. German airplanes destroyed numbers of tanks with which the French had hoped to stay the enemy onrush.

A terrific artillery bombardment was directed at the forts, and airplane dropped large-calibre bombs. Under cover of the artillery support the German storm troops crept nearer. Taking advantage of natural cover afforded by trees and the undulating nature of the ground the artillery, both heavy and light, was able to get within less than a mile of the perimeter of the defensive, system, and eventually the main fort were silenced. Most of the barbed wire had been broken down by the bombardment and the infantry, with "pioneers" or field engineers, thus approached the forts.

A terrible scene of destruction met their gaze. The massive concrete walls had cracked like nutshells, and the steel reinforcing bars protruded. The cupola of the fort formed of 11-inch plate was gouged out as if it had been a piece of cheese, and was twisted and torn under the impact of the giant shells.

Forts or posts that continued to resist were attacked by the infantry. Unless the defenders promptly surrendered they were next dealt with by the field engineers who piled sandbags to block up the entrance, laid a heavy charge of explosive, and fired it. If this did not suffice, holes were bored in the walls and dynamite exploded to shatter the structure. Systematically all the outlying posts were reduced, and by May 24th this giant fortress of the Maginot system had capitulated.

In effect, two days earlier, Maubeuge had ceased to impede the German onrush. So fell this modern wonder of ferro-concrete, on whose staying power and that of others so much hope had been based. It seems that the French people had been afflicted with what has been called "Maginot folly," and were lulled into a false security. Borrowing from the terminology of A.R.P, we might almost say that "deep-shelter mentality" was responsible for bringing about the collapse of the French defence.