The Maginot Line: The 'F-35' of World War II Never Stood A Chance

November 9, 2019 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IINazi GermanyMaginot LineFranceWar

The Maginot Line: The 'F-35' of World War II Never Stood A Chance

According to the standard telling of the tale, the Maginot Line, the most expensive military project ever undertaken at the time—the F-35 of its day—was a mighty, nigh-unassailable fortification, whose only flaw was that it did not extend along the whole French frontier. That thinking is wrong.

The petit ouvrages had three or four blockhouses each, in a rough hemisphere to the front, still vulnerably to being bypassed and attacked in the flank, while the grands ouvrages had six to eight, in a more elaborate and mutually supporting, but still limited layout. Only these would last prove able to hold out.           

The Maginot Line was enormously over budget, with estimates of its total cost ranging from 5 to 7 billion francs, (2019 USD 6.45 to 9.05 billion). It had only been allocated 3 billion. (2019 USD $3.88 billion), and was behind schedule too, taking nearly 11 years to finish, and even them it was not complete, Plans to build ouvrages on the portion of the line before Verdun, or the two end sections, were abandoned, as were ideas to more thoroughly equip the blockhouses and casemates with weapons. Most were left with only the small arms there defenders carried. Of five major attacks the Germans launched against it, four broke through, and none of these were part of the German main effort. The claim, widely made, that the Maginot Line was successful in that it forced the Germans to bypass it is unsubstantiated by the actual results when it was assaulted, as well as technically incorrect, since the area of the Ardennes the Germans broke through was technically part of the Line too. 

It is often said that an army fights the last war. In the case of the Maginot Line, they seemed to have reverted to the one before that. No doubt it would have given the German Confederation armies of 1870 some trouble. By the standards of the German Army if 1917, it was antiquated, though it had not yet been built. Its design ignored the tactics and heavy artillery of the very army it was made to hinder. The designers seem to have expected nineteenth-century skirmish lines, not individually manoeuvring squads using smokescreens, and imagined that the attackers would stop to demolish each blockhouse rather than simply sweep around them, as the Germans had done before. 

Not only did it free up French forces to fight elsewhere. Two entire Army groups, the 2nd and 3rd, were deployed behind it. 52 percent of France’s combat divisions on the continent. All that money, which could have been spent enhancing the combat capability of the army itself, was instead sunk in static defences, to resist an army which, since 1864, had demonstrated itself the foremost experts on breaking fortifications. France could not have done more to play to Germany’s strengths.

In the end, the Maginot Line was not merely a well-intended idea, overcome by clever German strategy. It was a complete waste of France’s money, that could have been spent on much-needed modernisation, such as adequate radios, heavier medium artillery, or enough transport vehicles to give French troops strategic mobility. The most expensive military project of its day, yet it offered ‘a moderate local [defensive] value’, and was “far inferior to many defence systems developed later in the war.” Cheaper and more quickly constructed defensive systems, it may be added. The Maginot Line stands as a sobering warning about taking the snake oil salesman claims of today’s defence conglomerates at face value. If history is anything to judge by, they may not just be exaggerating. They may be giving the lie direct. 

Rune Scott has had a passion for military history since he was 5.  At 18 he discovered Trevor Dupuy, and acquired a consuming interest in operations analysis and statistical modelling.  After years of merely accumulating knowledge and commenting on articles, he decided to venture into professional writing in defence and foreign policy analysis.  When not writing and researching, he can be found wargaming, practising several martial arts, and raising children in the southwest desert that inspired Dune.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.