Maginot Line

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"The Maginot Line" during the Sitzkrieg (phony war) March 1940:
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This series of fortifications on the French German border contributed significantly to French complacency in the face of resurgent German military might after Hitler's rise to power in 1933.

Running from Longwy in northeast France to Basel, Switzerland, the Maginot Line was named after French war minister André Maginot (1877-1932).
Because certain modern fortresses had held out against German artillery during World War I, and saved military manpower too, Maginot urged the French government to build a permanent fortified line to guard against German attack. In 1929, during Maginot’s second term as minister of war, construction began on the French northeast frontier. Maginot died in early 1932, but his project continued and was completed in 1938.

The Maginot Line had concrete thicker than in any fortress ever built, and its guns were heavier. It had air-conditioned areas for the troops, and was said to be more comfortable than a modern city. There were recreation areas, living quarters, supply storehouses, and underground rail lines connecting various portions of the line. Strong-points could be defended by troops moved through its tunnels by rail. The tunnels extended over 150 km, with 39 military units, 70 bunkers, 500 artillery and infantry groups, and 500 casemates (gun fortification chambers), shelters, and observation towers.

But the Maginot Line had one glaring defect: It was, in fact, half a line. It covered the French-German frontier, but not the French-Belgian. In 1940, the Germans simply went around it. They invaded Belgium on May 10, crossed the Somme River, and on May 12 struck at Sedan, the French city at the northern end of the Maginot Line. German tanks and planes broke through the supposedly impassable Ardennes terrain, and continued to the rear of the Maginot Line, making it useless.

On May 16, Winston Churchill flew to Paris to meet with French leaders. Churchill demanded to know the whereabouts of the strategic reserve of French troops, the masse de manoeuvre, to repel the German invasion. General Maurice Gamelin, “the world’s foremost professional soldier,” replied “aucune” (There isn’t any).

The Wehrmacht did not capture many parts of the Maginot Line until after the French capitulated. One of the last strongholds to fall was the fortress of Marckolsheim, adjacent to the Rhine near Strasbourg. The thirty defenders fought from June 15 to June 17, 1940. Hitler came to inspect this fort after the surrender. Today the Marckolsheim fortress houses a military museum. Its casemates, guns, and armor have been carefully preserved.

Hitler inspects the shattered Maginot Line, July 1940.
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