Maginot Line at War 1939-1940

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Combat Operations

"If you entrench yourself behind strong fortifications, you compel the enemy to seek a solution elsewhere."                   Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), Prussian Military Theorist  

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A 42cm Skoda howitzer used by the Germans in the Haguenau Sector to bombard the Maginot Line

Success or Failure?

The Maginot Line is commonly associated with failure.  Critics consider it the primary reason for France’s stunning military loss in 1940.  The fortifications, they say, drained the French Army of money and created a defensive mentality that set the French Army up for defeat.
 
Recent historical scholarship (since the 1990's) provides a contrary view; arguing that the Maginot Line did exactly what it was supposed to do by forcing the German Army to attack through Belgium rather than from across the Franco-German border into Alsace and Lorraine. These historians believe the fault of France’s defeat lies with the senior French commanders’ lack of understanding of modern warfare and flawed operational plans, not with the Maginot Line.
 
For two articles that reflect the opposing views, click on these links:1

"Putting a Stop to the Hearsay about the Maginot Line" by Col. Lalanne-Berdouticq

"Gamelin Stresses Maginot Defects" (The New York Times: July 19, 1945)

As is typical with many historical controversies, the truth lies somewhere between the two opposing views; neither of which seriously considers the actual performance of the Maginot Line in combat.  Clouding the matter is that many histories draw heavily upon the same secondary sources that lack objective analysis of the battles involving the Maginot Line.  Lacking is the study of primary historical sources and battlefield analysis to fill gaps and correct errors in the Maginot Line’s history. 
 
For a more recent review (1988) of the performance of the Maginot Line click on this link:

"The Strategic Performance of Defensive Barriers" (US Army Corps Of Engineers: 1988)

Campaign in the West

The German campaign in the West consisted of two major operational plans: Fall Gelb (Operation Yellow) and Fall Rot (Operation Red).  Fall Gelb was the destruction of Allied forces in Belgium, Netherlands, and Northern France.2  Fall Rot was the invasion of France proper.  During Fall Gelb, German forces intentionally avoided a direct assault the Maginot Line, except against defenses in the vicinity of the cities of Sedan, Maubeuge, and Lille, which were located along the panzer formations’ route of advance to the English Channel.

 

Fall Gelb’s main effort was Army Group A’s attack through eastern Belgium and the Ardennes forest.  Army Group A’s advance was supported by Army B’s attack further north in the Netherlands and western Belgium.  To the south, Army Group C, also provided support by defending the Franco-German border opposite the Maginot Line and holding French formations in place away from the main attack in the Ardennes.

 

After defeating Allied Forces in Belgium, the German Army conducted Fall Rot; destroying the remainder of the French Army and occupying most of the country before the French government capitulated on 25 June.

 

For an account of German planning for the invasion of the West written by Generaloberst Franz Halder, click here:

 

For a brief description of the Campaign in the West, click here:

"The Fall of France and Summer of 1940" by Thomas D. Morgan (The Association of the United States Army, 2006)

During the Campaign in the West, the German Army conducted five offensive operations against the Maginot Line – one during Fall Gelb (10 May-4 June), and four during Fall Rot (5-25 June).  Therefore, most of the Maginot Line’s combat action occurred late in the campaign; after the evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk (26 May-4 June) and the fall of Paris (14 June).  Even so, the Maginot Line was engaged in several noteworthy battles.

 

By 19 June, German forces had cut the Maginot Line off from the rest of France.  Many fortresses remained intact and surrendered well after the armistice.

 

maginotlineoperations.jpg

Major Combat Operations  (The paragraph headings are links to more information)

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Turret of Casemate Heronfontaine: a dual with an 88mm Flak

During the advance to the English Channel, four panzer corps of Army Groups A and B crossed the Meuse River and overran French border defenses, as well as several fortified works in the Maubeuge area.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

laferteturret1.jpg
Destroyed turret of Fort La Ferté

After the German breakthrough at Sedan, an infantry division of the 16th Army seized the western-most fort of the Maginot Line, precipitating abandonment of several neighboring forts.  Later during the invasion of France, several infantry divisions flanked the western end of the main fortification line.
 
 
 
 

c13graves.jpg
Graves of German soldiers killed at Casemate C13 near the village of Francaltroff

Nine infantry divisions of the 1st Army attacked four entrenched fortress infantry regiments in the Sarre Gap.  After hard fighting, the Germans broke through the fortification zone, splitting the Maginot Line into two parts.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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The aftermath of hard fighting at Casemate Markolsheim Nord

Five infantry divisions of the 7th Army conducted an assault crossing of the Rhine River against two fortress infantry divisions, penetrating the defensive zone and capturing the cities of Colmar and Strasbourg.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Impacts from 88mm Flak at Casemate Oberroedern Nord

The 1st Army conducted two division-sized attacks in northern Alsace.  One attack in the Vosges Mountains pierced a weakly defended section of the Maginot defenses.  A second attack in the Haguenau sector was repulsed by the defending fortress infantry regiment.
 
 
 
 
 
For a description of the JUne 1940 Italian attack againist French Maginot Line fortifications in the Alps, click here:  

Battle of the Western Alps, June 1940 (Military Review)

Summary of Attacks

Eleven Maginot Line forts (all petit ouvrages) were attacked and captured by the German Army before the French government signed the armistice on 22 June 1940.  A further four forts, two of which were fortresses, or gros ouvrages, were abandoned by their crews.

Fort
Date of Capture
Capturing Division
La Ferté
19 May
71st ID
Bersillies
21 May
28th ID
La Salmagne
22 May
28th ID
Boussois
22 May
28th ID
Les Sarts
23 May
28th ID
Eth
26 May
28th ID

Maulde

26 May

253rd ID

Chenois

13 June

Abandoned
Thonnelle
13 June
Abandoned

Veslosnes

13 June

Abandoned

Bois de Bousse
???
Abandoned
Bambesch
20 June
167th ID
Kerfent
21 June
167th ID

Haut Poirier

21 June
262nd ID
Welschoff
24 June
262nd ID

Three forts successfully withstood attacks by infantry with artillery support.

Fort

Date of Attack

Attacking Division

Fermont
17-21 June
183rd, then 161st ID
Chappy
21 June
161st ID
Einseling
21 June
167th ID

Eight forts were attacked only by aerial or artillery bombardment.

Fort
Date of Attack
Attacking Division

Mont-des-Welches

21 June
 95th ID
Michelsberg
21 June 
 95th ID
Laudrefang
20-24 June 
167th ID
Teting
20-24 June
167th ID

Lembach

18 June  
215th ID  
Four-a-Chaux
19 June
246th ID
Hochwald
19-22 June
246th ID
Schoenenbourg
20-22 June
246th ID

Notes:

1.  It should be noted that Colonel Lalanne-Berdouticq's article contains several serious errors.  Especially noteworthy is Footnote 20 which incorrectly states that the entrance block of Fort Welschhof was subjected to five consecutive days of 88mm cannon fire.  Even so, it provides a good overview of the view that the Maginot Line performed as designed. 

2.  Perhaps the single best history of Fall Gelb is The Blitzkreig Legend:  The 1940 Campaign in the West by Karl-Heinz Frieser and John T. Greenwood (Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 2005).  Although the text contains several mistakes concerning the technical details of the Maginot Line, overall, the book is a solid historical re-interpretation of how the German Army defeated the Allies.