Bunker on the Siegfried line
The original Siegfried line was a line of defensive forts and tank defences built by Germany along their border with France in 1916-1917 during World War I. However, in English, Siegfried line more commonly refers to the similar World War II defensive line, built during the 1930s, opposite the French Maginot Line, which served a corresponding purpose. The Germans themselves called this the Westwall, but the Allies renamed it after the First World War line. This article deals with the second Siegfried line, the Westwall.
The Siegfried Line or Westwall was a defence system stretching more than 630km (392 miles) with more than 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps. It went from Kleve on the border with the Netherlands, along the western border of the old German Empire as far as the town of Weil am Rhein on the border to Switzerland. More with propaganda in mind than for any strategic reason, Adolf Hitler planned the line from 1936 and had it built between 1938 and 1940. This was after the Nazis had broken the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties by remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936.
Origin of the name "Westwall"
Dragon's teeth - tank traps in the Eifel
Today we can no longer know for certain the exact origin of the German name "Westwall" ("West Wall"). It is most likely that the name simply came into popular use from the end of 1938. Nazi propaganda did not initially use the term very much, but the name was well-known from the middle of 1939, as Hitler sent an "order of the day to the soldiers and the workers at the Westwall" on May 20 1939. The official name for the line until then had depended on the programmes described in the next section of this article. The name "Limes Programme" for example was a deliberately misleading cover name, chosen to make people think of the archaeological research that had just finished at the Upper Germanic and Rhaetian Limes.
Construction programmes, 1938 – 1940
There were several distinct construction phases on the Siegfried Line:
- Border Watch programme (pioneering programme) for the most advanced positions (1938)
- Limes Programme (1938)
- Aachen-Saar Programme (1939)
- Geldern Emplacement between Brüggen and Kleve (1939 - 1940)
- Western Air Defence Zone (1938)
These programmes were all pushed forward with the highest priority, using every resource available.
Typical basic construction types
At the start of each construction programme, basic construction prototypes were laid out on the drawing board and then built, sometimes by the thousands. This standardisation of the bunkers ("pillboxes") and tank traps was necessary because of the lack of raw materials, transport and workers.
For the main part of the pioneering programme, small bunkers were set up with three embrasures towards the front. The walls were only 50cm thick and provided no protection against poison gas. Soldiers stationed there did not have their own beds but had to make do with hammocks. In exposed positions, similar small bunkers were erected with small armoured round "lookout" sections on the roofs. All these constructions were already considered outdated when they were built and at best offered protection against shrapnel from bombs and grenades. The programme was carried out by the Border Watch (Grenzwacht), a small military troop which took up activity in the Rhineland immediately after it was remilitarized. The bunkers were set up near the foreign border.
Type 10 Limes programme bunker seen from the back
The Limes Programme began as a result of an order by Hitler to strengthen fortifications on the western German border. Bunkers built in this phase starting in 1938 were more strongly constructed. The framework for each of this programme's Type 10 bunkers probably took around 20 man years to build and required around 287 m3 of concrete, very close to the amount needed for a small block of flats.
The bunkers had a ceiling and walls 1.5m (5 feet) thick, but this was proved completely insufficient even before construction was finished. A total of 3,471 Type 10 bunkers were built along the entire length of the Siegfried Line. The bunkers had a central room or shelter for 10 to 12 men with an entrance, stepped embrasures facing backwards and a combat section 50cm (19 inches) higher. This section had embrasures at the front and sides for machine guns, and a separate entrance. More embrasures were provided for carbines and the entire structure was constructed so as to be safe against poison gas, based on experiences in the First World War.
The bunker was heated with a safety oven, and the chimney, which led to the outside, was covered with a thick grating. Every soldier was given a sleeping-place and a stool; the commanding officer had a chair. There was very little space: each soldier had about 1 m2 of space, which meant that the rooms were packed full.
Inside the bunkers of this type still remaining today are the signs hung up to prepare the men for their task: "The walls have ears" or "Lights out when embrasures are open!"
The bunkers built under this programme were similar to those of the Limes programme: Type 107 double MG casemates with concrete walls up to 3.5m thick. One difference was that in this case there were no embrasures at the front, only at the sides of the bunkers. Embrasures were only built at the front in special cases and were then protected with heavy metal doors. The programme included the towns of Aachen and Saarbrücken which were initially west of the Limes Programme defence line.
Western Air Defence Zone
The Western Air Defence Zone (Luftverteidigungszone West or LVZ West) continued parallel to the two other lines toward the east, and consisted mainly of concrete flak towers. These weapons were designed to force enemy planes to fly higher, thus using more fuel and lowering the distance they could fly. These towers were protected at close range by bunkers from the Limes and Aachen-Saar programmes.
Geldern Emplacement bunker near Kleve
The Geldern Emplacement lengthened the Siegfried Line northwards as far as Kleve on the Rhine, and was only built after the start of World War II. The Siegfried Line originally ended in the north near Brüggen in the Viersen district. The primary constructions were unarmed dugouts which were, however, extremely strongly built out of concrete. For camouflage they were often built near farms.
Aachen-Saar programme Type 39 tank barrier with 5 "teeth"
Tank traps were also built for miles along the Siegfried Line and were known as "dragon’s teeth" or "pimples" (in German Höcker, "humps") because of their shape. These blocks of reinforced concrete stand in several rows on a single foundation. There are two typical sorts of barrier: Type 1938 with four teeth getting higher toward the back, and Type 1939 with five such teeth. Many other irregular lines of teeth were also built, however. If the lie of the land allowed it, water-filled ditches were dug instead of tank traps. An example of this kind of defence is those north of Aachen near Geilenkirchen.
Water-filled trench near Geilenkirchen
Working conditions during construction
The bunkers constructed during the pioneering programme were mostly built by private firms, but the private sector was not able to provide the number of workers needed for the programmes that followed. This gap was filled by the Todt Organisation named after its founder, Fritz Todt. With this organisation’s help, huge numbers of workers - up to half a million at a time - were found to work on the Siegfried Line. Transport of materials and workers from all across Germany was managed by the Deutsche Reichsbahn railway company, which took advantage of the well-developed strategic railway lines built on Germany’s western border in World War I.
Working conditions on the building sites were highly dangerous; for example, the most primitive means had to be used to handle and assemble extremely heavy armour plating weighing up to 60 tonnes. Life on the building site and after work was monotonous and many people gave up and left.
Armour plates and arms
German industry could not deliver as many steel armour plates as were needed for the mounting of weapons in the bunkers, meaning that the bunkers were not of great military value. The armour-plated sections included the embrasures and their shutters as well as armoured cupolas for 360-degree defence. Germany depended on other countries to provide the alloys required in producing armoured plates (mostly nickel and molybdenum), so either the armour plates were left out or they were produced with low-quality replacement materials. This deficiency was visible even on official photographs.
The bunkers were still fitted with guns, which proved inadequate in the first war years and were therefore dismantled, but the high-calibre weapons necessary for efficient defence could not be built into the existing bunkers.
The role of the Siegfried Line at the beginning of the war
Despite France’s declaration of war on Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, there was no major combat at the Siegfried Line at the start of the campaign in the west. Instead, both sides remained stuck in the so-called Phony War, where neither side wanted to attack the other and both stayed in their safe positions. When the campaign finished, all transportable weapons were removed from the Siegfried Line and used in other places. The concrete sections were left in place in the countryside and soon became completely unfit for defence. The bunkers were instead used for storage, for example for farming equipment.
Reactivation of the Siegfried Line, 1944
With the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, war in the west broke out once more and a new situation arose. On August 24, 1944 Hitler gave a directive for the renewed construction of the Siegfried Line. 20,000 forced labourers and members of the German National Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst, RAD) attempted to reequip the line for defence purposes. Local people were also called in to carry out this kind of work, mostly building anti-tank ditches. It all ended in failure as a result of Allied air superiority.
During construction it was already clear that the bunkers could no longer begin to withstand the newly developed armour-piercing weapons. At the same time as the actual Siegfried Line was reactivated, small concrete "Tobruk" bunkers (named after Tobruk, the seaport in eastern Libya) were built along the border to the occupied area. These bunkers were mostly dugouts for single soldiers.
Clashes on the Siegfried Line
- Main article: Battle of the Siegfried Line
American soldiers cross the Siegfried Line
In August 1944 the first clashes took place by the Siegfried Line. The section of the line now fought over the most was the Hürtgenwald area in the Eifel, 20 Km (13 miles) southeast of Aachen. The confusing, heavily forested area claimed 12,000 German lives; 55,000 U.S. soldiers died, nearly as many as in the whole Vietnam war.
After the Battle of Hürtgenwald, the Battle of the Bulge began, starting at the area south of the Hürtgenwald, between Monschau and the Luxembourgian town of Echternach. This offensive was a last-ditch attempt by the Germans to reverse the course of the war. It cost the lives of many people without resulting in any lasting success.
There were serious clashes at other parts of the Siegfried Line. Soldiers in many bunkers refused to give up fighting, afraid of German courts-martial. Many German soldiers paid for this decision with their lives, as the group shelters in particular did not protect them in the slightest from attack.
In Spring 1945, the last Siegfried Line bunkers fell at the Saar and Hunsrück.
The Siegfried Line as a propaganda tool
The Siegfried Line was much more valuable as a propaganda tool than as a military defence. German propaganda, both at home and abroad, repeatedly portrayed the line during its construction as an unbreachable bulwark.
For Germans the building of the line represented the regime's defensive intentions, whereas for neighbouring countries it appeared threatening and reassuring at the same time. This strategy proved very successful from the Nazi point of view both at the start and at the end of the World War II. At the start of the war, the opposing troops remained behind their own defence lines, allowing the Germans to attack Czechoslovakia and Poland, and at the end of the war, the invading forces spent more time than necessary at the half-finished, now-gutted Siegfried Line, thus allowing military manoeuvres in the east. In this light, the Siegfried Line can be seen as the Nazis' greatest propaganda success, with wide-ranging consequences.
That the Siegfried Line was, despite its real weakness, seen as a major obstacle by the Allies is shown by the fact that they even went to the trouble of making up a defiant song about it:
- We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line.
- Have you any dirty washing, mother dear?
- We're gonna hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line
- 'Cause the washing day is here.
- Whether the weather may be wet or fine
- We'll just rub along without a care.
- We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line
- If the Siegfried Line's still there...
During the post-war period, many sections of the Siegfried Line were removed using explosives. This work, as well as removal of land mines, once again cost the lives of many people.
"The unpleasant as a memorial"
In North Rhine Westphalia, about 30 bunkers still remain intact; most of the rest were either destroyed with explosives or covered with earth. The tank traps still exist to a large extent; in the Eifel, for example, they run over several kilometres, giving an impression of what was probably the greatest Nazi propaganda success.
Since 1997, with the motto "The value of the unpleasant as a memorial" (Der Denkmalswert des Unerfreulichen), an effort was begun to put a preservation order on the remains of the Siegfried Line as an historical monument. This was intended to stop propagandistic use of the Siegfried Line by radical right-wing groups. The idea was furthermore to take away the myth of the line's impermeability: if it is a memorial everyone interested will be able to visit it and judge matters for themselves.
At the same time, state funding was still being provided to destroy the remains of the Siegfried Line. For this reason, emergency archaeological digs took place whenever any part of the line was removed, for example for road building. The archaeological activity was not able to stop the destruction of these sections but furthered scientific knowledge and revealed details of the line's construction. It is still a very controversial question whether or not it is justifiable to preserve these military structures – similar to the Roman Limes – given that they were built by the Nazis.
Nature conservation at the Siegfried Line
The Siegfried Line as a chain of biotopes
In this discussion the nature conservationists also have something to say. They consider the remains of the Siegfried Line valuable as a chain of biotopes where, thanks to its size, rare animals and plants can take refuge and reproduce. This effect is magnified because the concrete ruins can not be used for farming or forestry purposes.
- Siegfried Line song as MP3 (http://www.jilldaniels.com/seigfried.htm) and as MIDI file (http://www.rienzihills.com/SING/seifriedline.htm)