The troops' entrance to the giant underground fortress, which the French hoped would save them before the Second World War
We’ve crossed into France now, mooring at Strassbourg. The French and Germans have fought over this part of the world ever since Louis XIV’s day. I’ve just returned from the starkest memorial to the Second World War – a vast underground fortress system that riddles the picturesque countryside here, called the Maginot Line.
In 1930, the French realized that war was coming again – a grim prospect since they’d been invaded by Germany twice in the last 60 years. So they decided to build the world’s longest defensive line over their entire western border, to stop the enemy in its tracks. It was named after the foreign minister who dreamed it up, Maginot, and nothing like it had ever been seen; it was longer than the Great Wall of China.
Part of the underground railroad system, in this case carrying an all-important vat of wine for the French soldiers...
This afternoon, we went to a section called Four à Chaux, ‘Limekiln,’ in northern Alsace, and for an hour and a half wandered enormous concrete corridors and gun emplacements in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. For years, 580 men lived and slept like moles in this self-contained subterranean world, with their own hospital, dentist, cinema and mess hall (the food was apparently excellent, and a quarter of a liter of wine was included in the rations – this was France, after all). There were trains to transport ammunition around, and a complicated pulley system to get the shells up to the gun emplacements.
The underground kitchen, serving 580 men -- apparently, the food was excellent.
It’s all still there, and much of it in working order, which makes for a fascinating visit. The guide was able to use to original levers to lift the 80-ton turret protruding from a hillside with two enormous guns, which had the power to shoot 60 shells a minute for 6 miles distance. In June, 1940, the Nazis did attack the Maginot line here, and were driven back. They then bombed it for days, and tried again – failing dismally.
But on a larger level, the Maginot Line was a colossal failure for the French. Military historians often say that a generals plan for the last war – and in this case, the French had planned for a rematch of the First World War, where armies camped for years in trenches shelling one another. But the Nazis had developed tank warfare to a new level, calling it blitzkrieg, “lightning war.’ They didn’t concentrate their attacks on the Maginot Line but an area of the frontier that the line didn’t cover at all – along the Belgian frontier. With terrifying speed, the German panzers swept through northern France and arrived in Paris.
France surrendered, and most of the soldiers in the Maginot Line gave up without firing a shot.
Today, it’s an eerie afternoon trip into a wierd lost world. Even though there was a heat wave this afternoon, it was quite freezing and damp within the underground tunnels, a steady 50 degrees winter or summer. I went with Henry, my eleven year old, who repeated found the whole experience “awesome.” I couldn’t have put it better…