16 interesting facts about the Maginot Line

We present you 16 interesting facts about the Maginot Line, one of the many symbols of the French military failure in World War 2.

The contrast between how much effort and resources were invested by the French and the ease with which the Wehrmacht manage to simply flank it is too great to simply go unnoticed.

The Maginot Line was meant to be part of a bigger strategy to defeat a future German invasion. Because it didn’t play a significant role during the Battle of France today it remains known as one of the failed megaprojects in history.

By studying these facts about the Maginot line you can learn more about the importance of this massive defense system, its role in the French strategy, the invested resources, and not only…

16 interesting facts about the Maginot Line – the audio version of the article

I. Historical background and early plans.
battle of verdun

In 1918, France emerged as one of the victors of the First World War(also known as the Great War), but the victory came at a high price for the French people.

From a grand total of 7.9 million soldiers mobilized during the war, 1.4 million lost their lives, which represents 17.6% of the total mobilized conscripts, or 10.5% of the active male population of France in 1918.

The military losses were exacerbated by the economic disaster left behind by the German occupation of Northern France and the huge debts accumulated after the end of the war.

The question that many French leaders asked themselves then was how to prevent a new disaster?

The French politicians and military commanders came up with different plans.

While the politicians focused on punishing and isolating Germany, both economically and military, through the punitive treaty of Versailles, the Army focused on finding the necessary steps to prevent the Germans from repeating their military success.

The demographic situation generated by WWI in France had a serious impact on the strategy adopted by the French High Command.

At the beginning of the 1920s, there was a rift in the French High Command about which strategy should be followed: offensive or defensive.

The group that supported the offensive strategy, considered that an early offensive over the Rhine river would be the best move to prevent Germany from rising again. The biggest supporter of the idea was Ferdinand Foch.

Unfortunately for Foch and the supporters of the offensive doctrine, the demographic crisis in France generated by WWI, helped the commanders who supported the Defensive strategy like Joffre and Petain to win the strategy debate in the early 1920s.

The result was that France was already gearing for a new war, even before Hitler’s rise to power.

II. Andre Maginot’s important role

Andre Maginot, French Minister of War (1922–1924, 1929–1930, 1931–1932)

Before 1936 when the working on the fortifications wasn’t yet completed, the official name was not the Maginot Line.

You may wonder how the Maginot Line got its name?

Entering the scene, Andre Maginot, hero of World War I who would later become the Minister of War(1922–1924, 1929–1930, 1931–1932).

During his term as Minister of War, Andre Maginot, proved that he had good political skills by winning the support of both the left and the right-wing parties for this grand project, by using a very good combination of both nationalistic and employment arguments.

The law regarding the financing project for the defensive line was approved by both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the National Assembly with over 90%.

In the first phase, the allocation was only 3 billion francs for over 5 years between 1930-1935, which would later be extended to a total of 5 billion francs.

Unfortunately for the Minister of War, Andre Maginot, he would not live to see his dream completed.

In 1932, the Minister of War would pass out because of typhoid fever. His works would be continued, and because the people remembered his dedication to the project, the new defensive line would be named in his honor.  

The official term of Maginot Line was adopted in August 1935.

III. Most ambitious military project of its time.
Maginot Line map

The construction and designing of the fortification works were coordinated by a special commission created solely for this purpose, shortened CORF( Commission d’Organisation des Regions Fortifiees), between 1929 and 1936.

With the financing of 5 billion Francs obtained with the energetic support of Andre Maginot, a large number of civilian construction companies employed by the French government managed to build an impressive new defensive line.

With the massive involvement of the French construction industry, the fortification works were almost completed by the end of 1935.

Here are some relevant numbers: 12 million cubic meters of earthworks, 1.5 million cubic meters of concrete, 100 km of tunnels, 150.000 tons of steel, and 450 km of roads and railway systems.  

344 artillery guns of various calibers(75, 81, and 135 mm) were mounted in all forts, 150 turrets, and 1500 clotches.

Just to put in context, with 150.000 tons of steel, the French could’ve instead produced approximately 5.300 Char B1 heavy tanks and be ready for mobile warfare in 1939.

It is important to note, that the above-mentioned numbers are not definitive, because the French worked on extending the Maginot line even after 1935, on both the Italian and the border with Belgium.

IV. The costs were impressive.
maginot line structure

The overall cost of the Maginot Line when completed reached 5 billion Francs, which in today’s money would be 9 billion dollars.

To put the number in context, the entire military budget of France in 1937 was 12.8 billion Francs. 

The exact cost for building a single Ouvrages(fort) is not exactly known because the various sources present different numbers.

It is estimated, that for the largest forts the costs are between 100 and 130 million francs, of course, there are also some notable exceptions, the Hackenberg and Hochwald forts, where the costs to build were 172 and respectively 150 million francs.

The petit Ouvrages(infantry forts) costs were only between 6 and 24 million francs.

Overall the costs for building the fortifications in the Alpine Mountains represented only 50% of those for building the North-East Front forts which faced the Germans, the main reason being that the forts in the area were smaller than those on the other fronts.

When analyzing the overall distribution of the expenses on the Maginot Line, only between 5-10% of the total funds were allocated to the Alpine Defenses which stopped Benito Musolinni’s offensive.  

V. Defense in depth

Anti-tank defenses of the Maginot Line

The Maginot Line had a total width of approximately 20-25 kilometers. From the border to the rear the defensive line it consisted of border post lines, outposts, a principal line of resistance, infantry casemates, Petit Ouvrages, Gros Ouvrages, Observation Points, Telephone Network, Infantry reserve shelters, heavy rail artillery, flood zones, and multiple supply and ammunition depots.

Petit Ouvrages: in general they consisted of several infantry bunkers that were connected with the help of network tunnels. Usually, the weapons used was lighter than the one used in the Gros Ouvrages.

The Petit Ouvrages were armed with 81 mm mortars, and machine guns, and the garrison size was between 100-200 soldiers.

Gros Ouvrages:  the piece of resistance of the entire fortification system, they were the largest fortresses.

Primarily equipped with 75 mm, 135 mm artillery guns, and 81 mm mortars.

Like the Petit Ouvrages, the bunkers were connected with the help of a vast network of tunnels.

The bunkers of the Gros Ouvrages were positioned strategically, in case one bunker was captured by the enemy army, the remaining one would be able to immediately fire against the position captured by the enemy army.

The average size of the garrisons for the Gros Ouvrages was between 500-1000 soldiers.

Side note: both the Petit Ouvrages and the Gros Ouvrages were designed and equipped by the French Army engineers to be almost self-sufficient.

All these fortifications were supported by a vast electric and telephone system to ensure the best communications between the defenders. The French engineers also added barracks, ammunitions stores, and many other facilities to ensure that the defending army will not run out of supplies or ammunition.

In total there were 142 Ouvrages.

Infantry casemates: usually they consisted of 2 fortified concrete structures with 2 floors, each manned by 30 soldiers.

They were equipped with twin machine guns and anti-tank artillery guns of 37-47 mm.

Generally, the Infantry casemates were also equipped with 1-2 turrets.

Like the Ouvrages, the infantry casemates were equipped and designed to be self-sufficient with generators, air filters, and stores for ammunition, food, and water.

VI. Attitude of the French towards the Maginot Line
Charles de Gaulle

Though praised by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, not everyone from the French High Command was impressed by the Maginot Line.

Remember the supporters of the mobile warfare doctrine? They didn’t give up.

In 1934, colonel De Gaulle wrote his famous book called “Towards a Professional Army”, in which he proposes and supports the expansion of the armored forces and their use in modern armored warfare.

Unfortunately for France, De Gaulle was outmaneuvered by his superiors, especially Philippe Petain who supported the supremacy of the defensive strategy and the Maginot Line above anything else.

De Gaulle’s only ally at that time was only Paul Reynaud, but it wasn’t enough for the victory of the mobile warfare supporters.

VII. Source of inspiration for other countries

Being a great military and technological achievement of its time, and benefiting from the support of the military propaganda, many other military powers attempted to copy the Maginot line.

This phenomenon is known today as the “Concrete Mania”. 

Nation after nation joined the grand race of securing their borders with steel and concrete bunkers, here are a few examples: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and not last Germany.

Belgium: following the French model, the Belgians started to improve their existing Forts in the early 1930s, while also building new ones.

While focusing their efforts on consolidating the forts around Liege, the Belgians restored the old forts from Antwerp and Namur and also build new bunkers along the strategically important Albert Canal.

Czechoslovakia: with the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Czechoslovakians started to fortify their borders in 1935, the ring of fortifications would become known as the Benes Lines after the name of president Eduard Benes. 

The French aided the Czekoslovkian defensive works by sending General Charles Belhague, president of CORF, as military advisor to Czechoslovakia.

At the same time, a Czech military mission studied the Maginot Line in 1934.

Greece: following the French example, the Greeks began in 1936 the construction of a 155 km defensive line which would remain known in history as the Metaxas Line.

The purpose of this defense system was to protect Greece in the event of a Bulgarian invasion.

Like the Maginot Line, the Metaxas line also consisted of Forts, bunkers, machine guns, and a complex underground network.

Ironically, the Metaxas Line had the same fate as the Maginot Line, flanked by the German army during the invasion of Greece in 1941.

Germany: as a response to the development of the Maginot Line, the Germans began the construction of the Westwall(also known as Siegfried Line), a defensive line that consisted of 18.000 bunkers and various anti-tank traps. It wasn’t as complex as the Maginot Line, being primarily built to slow down a potential French invasion so that the Panzers can later deliver the decisive strike.

VIII. It did stop Mussolini’s invasion

Benito Mussolini colorized photo

When the German campaign against France was nearly over, and the result was very clear, Benito Mussolini decided to declare war against France and officially join the Axis.

Il Duce thought that the Italian Army could quickly overrun the French Forces defending the fortifications from the Alps and conquer as much land as possible from Southern France.

Though the main Maginot Line failed to stop Hitler’s invasion of France, its counterpart from the French-Italian border had done a very good job.

Nicknamed the” Little Maginot Line of the Alps” the 4 French divisions, under the command of General Rene Olry who manned the Alpine fortifications on the Italian-French had stopped a massive Italian invasion force of 32 divisions.

From the initial force of 50.000 soldiers, the Italian invasion force lost 5.500 troops(1231 were either killed or missing), while the French defenders lost only 40 troops.

The only success of the Italian army in this campaign was the capture of the coastal town of Menton.

IX. The fate of the Maginot line during the occupation?

During the German occupation of France, the Nazis converted approximately 10 of the Gros Ouvrages(large Ouvrages) from the Maginot Line into bombproof weapons factories or ammunition depots.

At the same time, the heavy weapons, electrical equipment, and other parts from the Maginot line were removed and later reused for the construction of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, the defensive system built to stop future naval invasions from the Western Allies.

With the success of Allied landings in June and August 1944, followed by the quick collapse of the Wehrmacht in France, portions of the Maginot Line were quickly refitted by the Wehrmacht in an attempt to slow the American and British advance toward the German border.

In the Alpine sector of the Front in August 1944, German units attempted to organize a strong resistance by using the Ouvrages from this sector against the Allies but failed to slow them down.

Patton’s, Third Army initial advance was slowed down by Maginot fortifications which were defended by the Germans.

Approximately 10 Sherman tanks were destroyed in an attempt to destroy the Ouvrages.

The Americans quickly realized that attempting to destroy the fortifications with tanks was not a good strategy, so they had to be creative and find other ways.

The American 7 Army in December 1944, had a very difficult job when attempting to defeat the German defenders from the forts of Simserhoh, Freudenberg, and Schiesseck, near Bitche.

The battles around the Ouvrages from the former Maginot line in 1944 helped the American army to gain experience in fighting against heavy fortifications.

Overall, the Maginot fortifications failed to help the German defenders slow the Allied advance, first because the Allies were attacking the Line from the rear side which was less fortified, the second reason is that the Wehrmacht lacked the required manpower to defend all the fortifications.

X. Repaired and garisonned again after WWII.

By the end of World War 2, as a result of the German occupation and extensive fighting, most of the Maginot Line was heavily damaged.

A team of 200 experts, under the leadership of General Fortin, evaluated the damage in 1945.

Fortin’s experts discovered that only one 81 mm turret was still operational, while only half of the total number of turrets could be manually operated.

At the same time, nearly half of the total number of Ouvrages suffered important damage and become unserviceable.

Although the Blitzkrieg and the 1944 battles had done significant damage, this didn’t stop the French from reoccupying and repairing the Maginot Line.

With the escalation of the Cold War and the threat of a massive invasion of the Western World by the Soviet Union, the French High Command took steps to restore and modernize the Maginot Line.

Some of the Maginot Bunkers were later converted to NATO Command Centers.

When France joined the Nuclear Power Club in the 1960s, the Maginot Line quickly become obsolete, and investing money and work into modernizing it was abandoned.

More important, in October 1960, the French decreed that the Maginot Line would no longer play a significant role in the defense of the country.

XI. Total failure? It depends on the perspective
Hitler in Paris

The answer to this question is not definitive and it depends on the perspective.

If we look at the final result, the quick collapse of France in 1940, then it is easy to say that the Maginot Line from the strategic point of view failed to achieve this objective.

If we analyze from a tactical point of view, we find that the Maginot Line was not really a complete failure.

Let’s look at the below objectives of the Maginot Line according to various historical sources and analyses over time:

–         To prevent any major German surprise attack

–         To protect the vital regions of Alsace and Lorraine and their industry

–         To buy time so that the French Army could mobilize

–         To force the Wehrmacht to attack through different routes(Belgium of Switzerland)

–         To be used as a base for a future large scale counter-offensive

–         To save the lives of the French soldiers

–         To prevent the heavy fighting on the French soil

The fortification system did prevent any major surprise attack and forced the Germans to take the detour to Belgium as the French anticipated.

It did save a lot of manpower, many of the Petit and Gros Ouvrages who were attacked by the Germans inflicted important casualties to the attackers while preserving the forces of the defenders.

Alsace and Lorraine, which were important industrial regions for the French economy were saved from direct destruction by the Maginot Line.

By studying the above tactical and strategic results we can conclude that the Maginot Line was not totally responsible for the Fall of France.

Another aspect worth analyzing is how much of the total defeat of France in 1940 is due to the Maginot Line and how much is the fault of the French Army which had an obsolete military doctrine at that time.

The Fall of France cannot be attributed exclusively to either the Maginot Line or the French Army, it is rather the result of the combination of both elements. Separately they cannot explain the surprising downfall of France in 1940.

The Maginot Line from this perspective, if we study the big picture of the Blitzkrieg against France, is more like a scapegoat.

XII. It lacked proper anti-aircraft artillery

For a defensive line that was meant to stop the German Blitzkrieg, the Maginot Line did have a weak spot.

Though it had the best artillery France could offer, the few anti-aircraft positions of the Maginot line could do little to stop the dive-bombing attacks of the German Stukas.

Worst, the Germans knew about this flaw, and the fighter pilots continued to dive-bomb even after releasing their bombs so that the French anti-aircraft crews could not offer any response.

During the war, the French forces on the Maginot line improvised their own air defenses with the artillery batteries from the fortifications. The result was that some Luftwaffe planes were shot down by the defenders.

The overall weakness of the Maginot Line against the Luftwaffe was recognized by some politicians of the time including the British Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon who stated that: “Against military aircraft the extensive fortifications of the French frontier [the Maginot Line] cannot avail … civilian populations must be organized and drilled in preparation for air bombardment and gas attack.’”

XIII. It was not a secret for the Wehrmacht

The existence of the Maginot Line was not meant to be kept secret. The French government even attempted to exaggerate the real strength of the fortifications for propaganda purposes, a move that didn’t achieve the desired effects.

The German forces, especially the Intelligence Services were one step ahead of the French.

The exact strength of the Maginot Line was presented in various military reports of the Wehrmacht in 1935-1936. Those reports not only contained the exact locations of the bunkers and forts, but they also correctly identified the artillery type used in those forts/bunkers.

XIV. German workers participated in the construction of the Maginot Line

It is not exactly known how the Germans manage to obtain so many details about the strength of the Maginot Line. Most probably spying, played a crucial role.

Due to the scale of the project and the required resources, the French were forced to use foreign laborers, some of them were Germans.

The Germans could’ve used the knowledge of the foreign workers who directly participated in the project.

Not a very smart move from the French.

XV. No Gros Ouvrages(large forts) were captured by the Wehrmacht

With the British Army evacuated at Dunkirk and the French Army in full retreat, the Wehrmacht started the attack from the rear of the Maginot Line in early June 1940.

Most of the attacks from the rear and flanks of the Maginot Line were focused against the Saar and Metz sectors.

The Wehrmacht manage to capture several Petit Ouvrages with the help of explosive charges, 88 mm guns, and Luftwaffe bombings.

Though successful against the Petit Ouvrages, the Wehrmacht failed to conquer any Gros Ouvrages, despite using the “Big Bertha” 420 mm gun, Luftwaffe bombings, and explosive charges.

While defiant, the Gros Ouvrages were also capable of fighting back. On June 15, the artillery from Fermont Ouvrage devastated a German supply convoy.

When the Armistice was signed on June 23, 1940, the French Commanders of the Gros Ouvrages from the Maginot Line were amongst the last who accepted to capitulate, and even then they protested to the surrender terms.

XVI. The Maginot Line was part of a great trap, which failed
Manstein Plan , Battle of France 1940

With the Maginot Line completed, the French thought that the only option left for the Germans was to bypass it through Belgium and thus repeat the Schlieffen Plan of WWI.

When the German attack against Belgium would commence, the French Army would rush to link with the Belgians and by doing so would prevent the war from reaching the French soil.

The Wehrmacht, and especially one great commander, Erich von Manstein, didn’t want to repeat the 1914 Schlieffen Plan scenario.

Erich von Manstein, the mastermind behind the Fall of France, came up with a bold and ingenious solution.

You may wonder what was Manstein’s plan?

While a significant German force would attack Belgium and try to lure as many French forces in Belgium, the real offensive with the majority of the Panzer divisions would start further South, in the Ardennes Forest.

The Ardennes forest was considered impossible to be crossed, so the French Army didn’t concentrate in the area any serious tank defenses.

When the French realized this great mistake it was too late, the 1222 Panzers under the command of General Heinz Guderian got past the Ardennes and reached the English Channel in 5 days after the Battle of France started, effectively cutting the French Armies from Belgium from the others.

Sources:

1. William Allcorn, The Maginot Line 1928-45, Osprey Publishing

2. J.E.Kaufmann and H.W.Kaufmann, Fortress France – The Maginot Line and the French Defenses in World War II, Praeger Security International, 2006

3. J.E.Kaufmann and H.W.Kaufmann, The Maginot Line – History and Guide, Pen&Sword Military.

4. Charles River Editors, The Maginot Line: The History of the Fortifications that Failed to Protect France from Nazi Germany During World War II.

5. Vivian Rowe, The Great Wall of France – The Life and Death of the Maginot Line, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

6. Michael Seramour, Histoire de la ligne Maginot de 1945 à nos jours,

7. Philip Nord, France 1940 Defending the Republic, Yale University Press, New Haven, and London

8. Dhirubhai Patel, Battle of France – The History of Blood.

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