The Maginot Line, a set of defenses that France built along its border with Germany in the 1930s, was designed to prevent an invasion. Built at a cost of up to today’s $ 9 billion, the 280-mile-long line included dozens of fortresses, underground bunkers, minefields, and gun batteries.
The Maginot Line was fortified with reinforced concrete and 55 million tons of steel driven deep into the earth. It was designed to withstand heavy artillery fire, poison gas, and anything the Germans might throw at it.
“The Maginot Line was a technological marvel, by far the most sophisticated and complex set of fortifications built at the time,” as William Allcorn wrote in his 2003 book The Maginot Line 1928-1945.
However, after the outbreak of World War II, the fortified border that was supposed to serve as a salvation for France instead became the symbol of a failed strategy. The rulers had focused on combating the tactics and technology of past wars and failed to prepare for the new threat of fast moving armored vehicles. Instead of being blocked by the Maginot Line, Hitler’s forces bypassed it, driving their tanks through a wilderness area of neighboring Belgium that the French mistakenly believed would be impenetrable.
WATCH: Modern Marvels: Maginot Line
Barrier designed to counter a future German attack
The French decision to build the Maginot Line was in part the result of centuries of invasions along its border with Germany, where France had few natural barriers to prevent armies from entering its territory. After World War I, in which France fought a bloody and desperate struggle for survival that claimed the lives of nearly 1.4 million soldiers, military leaders began to debate how best to counter Germany in a future war they saw inevitable, according to 2011 book The Maginot Line: History and Guide, by JE Kaufmann, HW Kaufmann, Aleksander Jankovic-Potocnik and Patrice Lang.
Marshal Joseph Joffre, hero of the Battle of the Marne of 1914, argued that the best approach was to build some strong fortifications inside France to protect key areas from invaders, while leaving it to the French army left room for maneuver and thwart an attack. On the other hand, Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, who led the French to victory at Verdun in 1916, favors a continuous line of lighter fortifications.
In the end, the designers of the Maginot Line mixed the two concepts and came up with a plan for a single continuous line, featuring towering fortresses with other defenses between them.
French engineers also studied the belt of forts around Verdun, which had been bombarded by artillery in the Battle of 1916. Although the military leaders of the time expected them to fail, engineers found that the walls had held up well and that the scattered turrets had been effective. They developed plans for concrete and steel fortifications with great firepower and extensive underground passages.
One of the big proponents of a heavily fortified border was André Maginot, a French politician who suffered injuries so badly during World War I that he needed crutches to walk. During his two terms as Minister of War in the 1920s, Maginot succeeded in convincing the French Parliament to allocate funds to the project. Journalists began to call it the Maginot Line, in recognition of its role.
Maginot Line designed to fortify France after the losses of the First World War
Besides the likelihood of a future conflict, Maginot had another very compelling argument on his side. The toll that World War I left on the French population meant that the country faced a future shortage of soldiers to defend the country against Germany, which also suffered heavy losses but had almost twice the population. Heavy fortifications seemed like a good way to provide protection until the workforce returned to normal.
Construction began in the late 1920s and by 1936 the Maginot Line was largely completed. When French authorities gave Winston Churchill a tour of the Maginot Line in August 1939, he was impressed with what he saw. “The French front cannot be surprised”, wrote the future Prime Minister, according to the biography of Paul Addison in 2007 Winston Churchill. “It cannot be broken at any time, except by an effort that would cost a lot of life and take so long that the general situation would change along the way. ”
But despite all its steel and concrete, the Maginot Line had at least one glaring flaw. While the border with Germany was protected, the fortifications stopped at the beginning of the border with Belgium, which in the 1930s was an ally of France. After Belgium declared neutrality in 1936, French Defense Minister Edouard Daladier requested additional funds to extend the Maginot Line along France’s border with Belgium, but these fortifications were never completed. .
The Germans enter France through Belgium
With the Maginot Line preventing the Germans from crossing the Franco-German border directly, the French army knew the Germans would have to go through Belgium to attack. But they relied on the natural barrier of the Ardennes, a dense wooded area with rough terrain and few roads, to narrow the area the Germans could pass through.
But Lieutenant-General Heinz Guderian, the highest German tank commander, had spent time in the Ardennes during World War I and knew the area well enough to map the terrain and find a way to cross, as Bevin Alexander describes it. in Inside the Nazi war machine. It encouraged the German military to take the gamble of crossing the wilderness – and it paid off. As French historian Michael Bourlet explained in an interview in 2020, the Germans were able to outwit the French army that had been deployed north to fight them. As a result, the Germans were able to surround the French and their British allies and push them back to the coast, then move south to Paris.
Once behind the Maginot Line, the Germans were also able to attack it from the rear and seize the fortifications, taking more than 500,000 prisoners.
Today, the “Maginot Line” has become a slogan used to describe a barrier that gives a false sense of security.