“Now you see me, now you don’t”

German officers are sight-seeing along the Maginot Line, summer of 1940. The strange-looking fortification is a pop-up turret housing a 75 mm cannon. The idea was to provide as small a target as possible, raising the turret when the gun was ready to fire. It was part of the massive line of fortifications and bunkers along the Franco-German border, intimidating enough to deter any German frontal assault. It is said that generals fight the last war, but it is more a question of what conclusions they draw from it. The French didn’t want a repeat of the grueling trench war of 1914-18, so they aimed at stopping the Germans on the border by building static defenses. The Germans didn’t want a repeat either, but their solution was to become more mobile. With hindsight, it was obvious: if there’s an obstacle, you take an alternate route. The French military planners counted on Belgium and the hilly, heavily forested Ardennes to protect their northern flank, and that the large army would be mobilized in time and ready to fend off the smaller German army. Unfortunately for France, the Germans didn’t want to play by their rules…

We know the result. The Maginot Line was bypassed and only saw some action when the fate of France was already sealed. It was used by the Germans, and after WW2 some of the fortifications became command centers. It was finally abandoned in the mid-1960’s. By then, nuclear weapons had become the new deterrent.

Manoeuvre_tourelle

How the pop-up gun turret worked. Source: Wikipedia.

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Seaside property

Half a platoon of soldiers – two squads – and the bunker they man. The place is somewhere on the coast of continental Europe, probably France or Denmark. The bunker is one of the more than 15,000 bunkers, fortifications, strongpoints and gun emplacements built by the Germans between 1942 and 1944, intended to stave off an Allied invasion. It was called the “Atlantic Wall”, but it wasn’t an unbroken chain of fortifications. As the German High Command didn’t know where an invasion would take place, there were bunkers all the way from the northernmost point of Norway all the way to the Franco-Spanish border. The heaviest defenses where in the Pas-de-Calais region, where the distance between France and Britain is the shortest. As we all know, the Allies let the Germans believe that they would invade there, all the while they prepared for the landings in Normandy.

The artillery installed was a plethora of captured guns from several European armies, which – with the many differing calibers involved – presented a logistical nightmare. The 300,000 troops manning the Atlantic Wall were mostly second-line units, usually older soldiers, or soldiers with slight health problems, or “volunteers” recruited from Soviet prisoners of war. They had low mobility, often lacking motor vehicles entirely, and little in the way of artillery. The defenses were not limited to bunkers, but consisted of minefields and obstacles, too. In the end, the defenses were breached in the one spot where it mattered – Normandy.

SAM_2667

When some friends and I visited Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, we looked at several sites with German bunkers, like this one on Utah Beach in the photo above. The remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall are something for tourists to visit today, and a trip to Normandy provides ample opportunities for study of bunkers, a few of which have been restored and kept as museums and memorials over a time long gone, yet still present today.

Tucked in for the winter

In my series of posts on fieldworks and dugouts, you could see dugouts both neat and rough. This one, probably from the winter of 1941-42, belongs to the “neat” category. Partially dug under a big, stout barn and heated by a woodburning stove, it provides a nice shelter for the soldiers. Having a warm, safe place to stay in meant the difference between life and death during that harsh winter. Tens of thousands of soldiers suffered frostbite, and thousands more froze to death. Those not fortunate enough to be dug in like the soldiers in the photo had to find winter quarters that kept them out of the worst cold. That usually meant cramming themselves into a Russian farmhouse, sharing it with the peasant family, their livestock, fleas and lice. In worst case, the owners were thrown out and left to fend for themselves in the snow. War is cruel, and war in wintertime doubly so.

Fieldworks, part 7:

As a contrast to my post two days ago, this is what most other dugouts looked like. While it might to cosy inside, the outside is serviceable and nothing more. This photo is probably from the later half of 1943, showing a dugout on the Eastern Front. The writing on the back says it’s in a place called “Botchkari”, which probably is Bochkary in Belarus (about halfway between Vitebsk and Minsk), and which was in German hands until the massive Red Army offensive known as Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944. The soldiers in the photo were lucky if they managed to escape the Soviet onslaught.

As already noted, this dugout isn’t as tidy as the previous one. A two-man saw lies behind the man on the left. A stovepipe leans out of the dugout, and a field telephone wire spool holds the last meters of the phone wire leading to company headquarters. Some spruce boughs serve as camouflage, but the overturned sandy soil makes spotting the position from a reconnaisance airplane easy. Today, there’s probably just an overgrown mound with some rotting logs and whatever items the soldiers had to leave behind.

Fieldworks, part 6: “In a hole in the ground…

…there lived a Nazi.” Of the many photos of dugouts and other temporary accommodations used by German soldiers that I own, this is the only one where a swastika is used. Most others have simple signs with unit designations or slightly ironic names like “Villa Bellevue”. Several are almost excessively tidy, though, with little fences and other features more commonly associated with summer houses. It was probably a way of making life on the frontline a little more bearable. Also, if there wasn’t much combat, improving your dugout and making it look less like a hole in the ground gave you something to do.

Fieldworks, part 5: Can you dig it?

When taking up static positions, a good dugout is a must. The Red Army artillery was feared for the heavy barrages it delivered, so it was prudent to dig in as soon as possible. The Germans were known for well-built, cosy (relatively) dugouts, a craft that appears to have originated in WW1. A half-squad dugout was 3.1 x 3.9 meters, with 2 meters from floor to ceiling. Walls and floor were covered with boards like in the photo above or built from logs (like a loghouse), while the roof consisted of c. 30 cms thick logs in two layers (one single layer and a double layer with the logs crosswise) with 40-50 cms of earth between them, and then a meter of dirt on top of it all. That gave decent protection against most artillery shells.

Inside, there were bunk beds, a table, chairs or stools, a stove for heating and simple cooking, a weapons rack, and a radio (if available). Candles and kerosene lanterns provided lighting, and in some cases electrical lighting. Dugouts varied in size and layout depending on what they were used for, like headquarters, cooking, etc. Soldiers tended to add personal items like photos of girlfriends in order to make the dugout more like a home. If they were to spend time living underground, they wanted to do the best of it.

Fieldworks, part 4 (yeah, Bitche)

Rows upon rows of dragon’s teeth, trapetzoid concrete plinths between 90 to 120 centimeters tall, intended to stop tanks and other vehicles from crossing. There are minefields in front of them, and barbed wire obstacles will be added later. Mines are probably dug down between the “teeth”, too. In this open landscape, there are few natural points for bunkers or pillboxes, but those were probably added later. This is the view from the “enemy” side of the Westwall, or the “Siegfried Line” as the Allies called it, near the town of Bitche in Lorraine, France.

Dragon’s teeth were common tank obstacles in locations where the defenders had time to prepare the defenses. They could be seen in Normandy as part of the Atlantic Wall, and the British placed a lot of them in strategic locations when a German invasion was still a possibility. Beams, poles or large rocks were other obstacles used, usually in conjunction with minefields.

Lorraine (and the neighboring Alsace) has been contested over the centuries, passing between French and German ownership several times. The region became German after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, but reverted to French ownership in 1918. It was occupied by Germany in 1940-44. In March 1945 the U.S. 100th Infantry Division broke through the Maginot Line in the Bitche area and liberated the town, which had been occupied by German troops.