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Map of the Siegfried line

The original Siegfried Line (German language: Siegfriedstellung) was a line of defensive forts and tank defenses built by Germany as a section of the Hindenburg Line 1916–1917 in northern France during World War I. 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 World War I line. This article deals with this second Siegfried line.

The Siegfried Line was a defence system stretching more than 630 km (390 mi) 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 Nazi propaganda in mind than for any strategic reason, Adolf Hitler planned the line from 1936 and had it built between 1938 and 1940.

Origin of the name Westwall

Dragon's teeth - tank traps in the Eifel.

The origin of the name is unknown, but is likely from popular use from the end of 1938. Nazi propaganda did not initially use the term, 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 20 May 1939. The official name for the line until then had changed several times depending on the phase of construction:

  • 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 (popularly known as Pillboxes) and tank traps was necessary because of the lack of raw materials, transport and workers.

Pioneering programme

Small bunkers were set up with three embrasures towards the front. The walls were 50 cm (20 in) thick. 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 round armored "lookout" sections on the roofs. The programme was carried out by the Border Watch (Grenzwacht), a small military troop activated in the Rhineland immediately after it was remilitarized.

Limes programme

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 than the earlier border fortifications.

The bunkers had a ceiling and walls 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) thick. 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 10-12 men with a stepped embrasures facing backwards and a combat section 50 cm (20 in) higher. This section had embrasures at the front and sides for machine guns. More embrasures were provided for carbines and the entire structure was constructed so as to be safe against poison gas.

The bunker was heated with a safety oven, and the chimney 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 (11 sq ft) of space, which meant that the rooms were packed full.

Inside the bunkers of this type still remaining today are signs hung up to prepare the men for their task: "Walls have ears" or "Lights out when embrasures are open!"

Aachen-Saar programme

The bunkers built under this programme were similar to those of the Limes programme: Type 107 double MG casemates with concrete walls up to 3.5 m (11 ft) thick. One difference was that 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 foundations. Scattered MG42s and MG34s were also placed for additional defence, against both air and land targets. Flak turrets were designed to force enemy planes to fly higher, thus decreasing the accuracy of their bombing. These towers were protected at close range by bunkers from the Limes and Aachen-Saar programmes.

Geldern Emplacement

Geldern Emplacement bunker near Kleve.

The Geldern Emplacement lengthened the Siegfried Line northwards as far as Kleve on the Rhine, and was 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 extremely strongly built out of concrete. For camouflage they were often built near farms.

Tank traps

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. Another design of tank obstacle, known as the Czech hedgehog, was made by welding together several bars of steel in such a way that any tank rolling over it would get stuck. If the lie of the land allowed it, water-filled ditches were dug instead of tank traps. An example of this kind of defence are those north of Aachen near Geilenkirchen.

Water-filled trench near Geilenkirchen.

Working conditions during construction

The early fortifications 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. With this organisation's help, huge numbers of workers — up to 500,000 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 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 (66 short tons). Life on the building site and after work was monotonous and many people gave up and left. Most workers received a medal depicting a bunker for their service.[1]

Armour plates and arms

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German industry could not deliver as many steel armour plates as were needed for the mounting of weapons in the bunkers. The armour-plated sections were designed to include the embrasures and their shutters as well as armoured cupolas for 360° 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.

The bunkers were still fitted with guns, which proved inadequate in the first war years and were therefore dismantled, but the large-calibre weapons necessary for efficient defence could not be built into the bunkers.

The role of the Siegfried Line at the beginning of the war

The Siegfried Line at the start of the war had serious weaknesses. German General Alfred Jodl said after the war that it was "little better than a building site in 1939", and when Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt inspected the line its weak construction and insufficient weapons caused him to laugh. Fortunately for Germany,[2] 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 Phoney War, where neither side attacked the other and both stayed in their safe positions. The Reich Ministry of Information and Propaganda drew foreign attention to the unfinished Westwall, in several instances showcasing incomplete or test positions to portray the project finished and ready for action.[3] During the Battle of France, French forces made minor attacks against some parts of the line but the majority was left untested. When the campaign finished, transportable weapons were removed from the Siegfried Line and used in other places.[citation needed] The concrete sections were left in place in the countryside and soon became completely unfit for defence.[citation needed] The bunkers were instead used for storage.

Reactivation of the Siegfried Line, 1944

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With the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944, war in the west broke out once more.[4] On 24 August 1944, Hitler gave a directive for renewed construction on the Siegfried Line. 20,000 forced labourers and members of the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service), most of whom were 14-16-year-old boys, 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.

During construction, it was already clear that the bunkers could not withstand the newly developed armour-piercing weapons. At the same time as the Siegfried Line was reactivated, small concrete "Tobruk" bunkers were built along the border to the occupied area. These bunkers were mostly dugouts for single soldiers.

Clashes on the Siegfried Line

American soldiers cross the Siegfried Line and march into Germany.

In August 1944, the first clashes took place on the Siegfried Line; the section of the line where most fighting took place was the Hürtgenwald area in the Eifel, 20 km (12 mi) southeast of Aachen. An estimated 120,000 troops—plus reinforcements—were committed to Hürtgen. The battle in this confusing, heavily forested area claimed the lives of 24,000 troops plus 9,000 non-battle casualties.[5] The German death toll is not documented.

After the Battle of Hürtgenwald, the Battle of the Bulge began, starting at the area south of the Hürtgenwald, between Monschau and the Luxembourgish 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 without producing any lasting success.

There were serious clashes at other parts of the Siegfried Line and soldiers in many bunkers refused to surrender, often fighting to the death. By early 1945 the last Siegfried Line bunkers had fallen 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. [according to whom?] German propaganda, both at home and abroad, repeatedly portrayed the line during its construction as an unbreachable bulwark.

For the 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. [according to whom?] This strategy proved very successful from the Nazi point of view both at the start and at the end of World War II. At the start of the war, the opposing troops remained behind their own defence lines, allowing the Germans to attack 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.

The Siegfried Line was the subject of a popular British song of 1939 which fitted the mood of the time for the troops marching off to France:

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 ...

((Kennedy/Carr) Peter Maurice Music Co Ltd 1939)

General George S. Patton—when asked about the Siegfried Line—reportedly said "Fixed fortifications are monuments to man's stupidity."[6]

Post-war period

Bunker ruins near Aachen.

Bunker on the Siegfried line.

The Siegfried Line as a chain of biotopes.

During the post-war period, many sections of the Siegfried Line were removed using explosives.

"The unpleasant as a memorial"

In North Rhine Westphalia, about 30 bunkers still remain; most of the rest were either destroyed with explosives or covered with earth. Tank traps still exist in many areas; in the Eifel, for example, they run over several kilometres.

Since 1997, with the motto "The value of the unpleasant as a memorial" (Der Denkmalswert des Unerfreulichen), an effort has been made to preserve the remains of the Siegfried Line as a historical monument. This was intended to stop radical fascist groups making propaganda out of the Siegfried Line.

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. Archaeological activity was not able to stop the destruction of these sections but furthered scientific knowledge and revealed details of the line's construction.

Nature conservation at the Siegfried Line

Nature conservationists 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.

See also


  1. Kaufmann JE, Kaufmann HW: "Fortress third Reich", page 134. DA Capo Press, 2003.
  2. Atkin, Ronald (1990). Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited. pp. 28. ISBN 1 84158 078 3. 
  3. Kaufmann JE, Kaufmann HW: "Fortress third Reich", page 130-5. DA Capo Press, 2003.
  4. "Video: Dragon's Teeth". U.S. Army Pictorial Service. Retrieved 21 February 2012. 
  5. MacDonald, Charles B. (1961). The Roer River Dams. The Siegfried Line Campaign.
  6. James F. Dunnigan. The World War II Bookshelf. Citadel Press, 2005 p 110

External links

Further reading

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