The German Siegfried Line—called by the Germans Der Westwall—was
being probed by Allied patrols as this was being written. By the
time this publication reaches the reader the Westwall may have been
flanked, breached, or jumped by an airborne Allied Army, relegated to
the limbo of outmoded military works, and forgotten except in military textbooks.
On the other hand, the Westwall may prove to be a formidable
barrier. In 1939 the Germans boasted the Westwall zone—8 to 20
miles deep—was "ready to crush every attack in the bud and tear to
pieces with its gigantic shells every hostile lineup of troops, not only
close to the Rhine but also far behind the enemy's deployment zone"—where
Allied forces are at this writing.
But whatever happens to this modern version of an ancient Chinese
idea, it will be useful to know how the Westwall was built, and why,
and to note the lessons to be drawn from its success or its failure.
The frontispiece illustrates a Westwall dragon's-tooth tank obstacle.
The drawn insets show (1) 1 of 36 surface exits of a typical closed
troop shelter, (2) an armored embrasure with stepped apron, (3) stepped
embrasure opening with steel shield down, (4) illustrating
how most Westwall weapons are moved to open emplacements for
combat, (5) machine-gun crew leaving a bunker to fight from field
fortifications, (6) antiaircraft gun-tower in an air-defense zone, (7) soldier
coming out of a firing-chamber entry.
|Westwall tank obstacle and fortification details.|
Ostensibly a defensive barrier which would immobilize the Western
Powers while the Germans moved East, the massive Westwall system
was primarily designed, according to German doctrine, for offensive
purposes—a springboard from which the German armies could plunge
with relative impunity into the heart of France. Burt this was a purpose
held in abeyance while Germany moved in other directions—into
Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
NEITHER A LINE NOR A WALL
The strategic principle of the Westwall is entirely different from
that of the French Maginot Line. The latter was to be "invincible,"
a continuous wall of mammoth, connected underground fortifications,
extending from the Swiss frontier to the Belgian border—where it
stopped. But the Westwall—neither a line nor a wall—is a fortified
zone some 400 miles long and 8 to 20 miles in depth. Within that area,
Germany ingenuity worked with natural terrain to create a defensive
as impregnable as humanly possible. Thousands of forts and pillboxes
of reinforced steel and concrete—smaller than the forts of the Maginot
Line—stud the region, carefully camouflaged as farmhouses, barns,
country residences, and built deep underground.
Some of the works have been equipped with long-range guns, howitzers,
mortars, antitank guns, flame throwers, and batteries of field
artillery. Each fort and pillbox is located, not in a belt as in the
Maginot Line, but integrated into the terrain to command a wide
field of fire and cover the approaches to other fortifications. Difficult
terrain along the French-German border—as well as the Rhine
River—provides excellent cover for permanent as well as field
The front zone, in general, consists of mine fields, barbed-wire
entanglements, elaborate tank traps and barriers, and machine-gun
nests. Behind this zone, which the French and British Armies did
not attempt to penetrate in 1939-40, are the stronger reinforced
fortifications in depth. And behind this second zone—in the original
plan—was the "air wall," where Goering's Luftwaffe was to be
The original Westwall extended only from Basel to Kleve, opposite
Rotterdam. Since the war, the Germans are supposed to have
extended the wall northward to Emden on the North Sea—how well
may be revealed before this is read.
In technical detail, a sector of the Westwall is normally four
independent zones deep:
1. Forward zone (Vorfeldzone)—contains field fortifications
including trenches, barbed-wire entanglements, machine-gun
emplacements, observation posts.
2. Main defense zone (Grosskampfzone)—comprises fortified
structures such as shelters, pillboxes, casemates, and forts, and
antitank obstacles covered by antitank guns. In addition, this zone has
intermediate areas, front and rear, in which isolated works are placed
at critical points along natural avenues of enemy approach.
3. Rear defense zone (Rückwärtige Zone)—much the same as No. 2,
but not as strong.
4. Air defense zone (Luftverteidigungszone)—since antiaircraft
defense in all areas was to be the responsibility of the Luftwaffe,
this zone included both main and rear zones, as well as a strip
extending 10 to 30 miles behind the rear zone. While AA defenses
are scattered throughout this rearmost zone, most matériel is in the
area immediately behind the rear zone.
TWO TYPES OF WORKS
Fortified works of the Westwall can be grouped into two classifications,
shelters and emplacements, the latter comprising open emplacements,
pillboxes, turrets, casemates, and forts. Shelters are
strong, underground concrete works, with no emplacements for guns,
designed to shelter large bodies of infantry and reserves from air
and artillery bombardment. The German doctrine is to commit troops
fresh as a unit, without casualties and without having had to endure
the strain of hostile air bombing and artillery fire while waiting to
attack. Some personnel shelters in the rear of the line of forts have
turrets for observation and close defense.
Emplacements are either open or closed. Open emplacements,
which reinforce permanent, closed fortifications, are designed for
mobile artillery. Closed fortifications have four main designs: pillboxes,
turrets, casemates, and forts. Pillboxes are small fortified
positions designed primarily for light automatic weapons, mostly
machine guns, although some light AT positions may be found. The
embrasures are usually stepped to prevent the ricochets of enemy
projectiles entering the port.
The majority of steel turrets are six-port types, with armor 7 to 10
inches thick. The turrets do not revolve; the Germans, unlike the
French, do not consider revolving or disappearing turrets practical
because they are complicated mechanisms easily jammed by hostile
gunfire. One type of turret known to exist in the Westwall has steel
inserts fitted into the ports to provide additional protection for
instruments and small arms. Turrets may occasionally be mounted
individually, particularly along ridge lines, but they are more often
mounted in the roofs of concrete pillboxes to provide all-around
observation and small-arms fire. The armament of a six-port turret is
normally 2 AT guns and 4 MG's, with a crew of 6 to 10 men.
Casemates are strong, fortified closed emplacements primarily for
artillery, with much thicker concrete protection than pillboxes. A
group of interconnected casemates, pillboxes, and accompanying
shelters, often with open emplacements nearby, constitutes a fort.
There is usually provision for kitchens, ammunition storage, power
facilities, etc., so the fort can operate independently of others if cut
off. Underground passages to adjacent forts may be provided to
facilitate relief of personnel, ammunition supply, and the care and
removal of the wounded.
All pillboxes, casemates, and forts in the Westwall are so spaced
as to provide interlocking fields of fire between adjacent works, yet
they are not so close together that hostile artillery fire which misses
one structure will hit another. Moreover, in accordance with German
doctrine, concrete and steel works are supplemented by extensive field
fortifications, to lend flexibility and mobility to the defense, to engage
the enemy before he gets close enough to carry out close reconnaissance,
direct fire, or demolitions, and to facilitate counterattack.
The majority of the works are linked with each other by communication
trenches. For signal communication, there is a fairly extensive
network of double cables between the works buried 6 1/2 feet in the
earth. This telephone system is supplemented by other means of
communication, such as radio and messengers.
Forts of the Westwall are to a great extent gasproof. The critical
defending weapons can still fire through concentrations of gas, because
they have gun shields which are made with fairly close
tolerances. Rubber gaskets at the points of contact of metal on metal
improve the sealing.
INDIVIDUAL FORTIFIED LINES
For readers who want to follow the fortunes of the Westwall on a
map, here is a brief description of the wall and its features, from
Basel on the Switzerland border northward to the Kleve-Munich
(München) region. Several individual fortified lines are to be
distinguished in the Westwall system:
1. Rhine Line—from Basel to Karlsruhe. Reserve position (Black
Forest Line)—runs along the crest of the Black Forest (Schwartzwald),
roughly from Säckingen to Baden-Baden.
2. Saar-Pfalz Line—runs from Bienwald through Bergzabern, a
point south of Pirmasens, point south of Zweibrücken, St. Ingbert,
Dudweiler, Merzig, Saarburg, to a point on the Mosel River southwest
of Trier. Advance position (Saarbrücken Line)—extends from St.
Ingbert through Saarbrücken to Merzig. Reserve position (Hunsrück
Line)—runs from a point on the Rhine River south of Germersheim
through Landau, a point south of Landstuhl, St. Wendel, to a point
east of Trier.
3. Eifel Line—from junction of the Mosel River and Luxemburg
border at Wasserbillig, along the frontier to the Belgian border, then
along the crest of the Schneifel Hills to Schleiden.
4. Aachen Positions. Main line—from Schleiden through
Steckenborn and Stolberg to Herzogenrath. Advanced line—from Monschau
through Rötgen, a point east of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), to
Herzogenrath north of Aachen where it joins the main line.
5. Holland Position—from Herzogenrath through Geilenkirchen, a
point east of Erkelenz, to a point 12 miles east of Munich-Gladbach.
At the southern end of the Westwall, the River Rhine marks the
Franco-German border. Swift and wide. it has been considered a
major obstacle. Here, the German defenses consist mostly of a double
line of forts on the east bank at approximately 400-yard intervals.
The first line enfilades the river. The second places its forts between
gaps in the first line. Intervals between forts are shorter at bridges
and likely crossings. Back of this double line are occasional short
reserve positions blocking entrances to valleys leading into the Black
Three of the wall's strongest sections are in the strip from Karlsruhe
to the Mosel, covering the Pfalzer Bergland on each side of the
Saarbrücken Forest and the Weissenburg Gap. Strongest of these 3 sectors
is that covering Saarbrücken: Here the line is double—the forward
line continuous but in no great depth: the rear line a dense zone of
forts approximately 2 1/2 miles deep.
The southern reach of the section from the Mosel River north to
Kleve runs through mountainous and wooded terrain. Forts are
placed in little depth. At Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) a double line
rings the town. North of Aachen the line is reportedly weakest; in
the Goch area, for instance, just south of Kleve, there are only four
forts in 8 miles.
Prior to occupation of the Rhine in 1936, the Germans began work
on defenses in the German interior on it secondary line running along
the east bank of the Neckar River, from Heilbronn north to the River
After the full of France, some of the Westwall wire entanglements
were dismantled and some field works plowed in. Recently, however,
they have been reported restored.
Great Wall of China, built in the Third Century B. C. by Emperior Ch'in
Shih Huang Ti to keep out the Mongols, was 1,600 miles longer than the Westwall.
Faced with granite blocks and bricks, it was 20 to 50 feet high, 15 to 25 feet
thick. Much of it still stands.