Belgium Declares its Neutrality
By 1935, France sensed that a new war with Germany was rapidly approaching. Besides Hitler’s armed reoccupation of the Rhineland, the unexpected return of the Saar region to Germany caused major shockwaves throughout the Republic. Assuming that the Saarland would either vote to become French or would remain under the control of the League of Nations, France had not planned to fortify the region between the Metz R.F. and the Lauter R.F. When the populace voted in January 1935 to become part of Germany, France hurriedly began filling in the gap with casemates and ouvrages. Furthermore, dams were constructed in the area so that, in the event of a German assault, they could be destroyed and the entire region flooded and rendered impassable.
The initial phase of construction of the Maginot Line was completed in late 1935, and the first troops occupied the positions the following March. French Commander-in-Chief General Maurice Gamelin correctly guessed that the Germans, if war came, would avoid the Maginot Line and slice through Belgium into northeast France, just as they had done in the Great War. Gamelin had great faith in Belgium, whose Fort Eben Emael on the Belgian-German border near Liège was reputed to be the strongest fortress in Europe and perhaps the world.
France’s hopes that Belgium would request a French counterattack were dashed when Belgium declared its permanent neutrality. No foreign armies—French or German—would be permitted to enter Belgium, declared Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak. Discarding France’s earlier desire to avoid offending the Belgians, Daladier responded by announcing that France would extend the Maginot Line defenses all the way to the North Sea. Several thousand pillboxes, bunkers, minefields, and other obstacles were hastily thrown up along the French-Belgian border from Longuyon northward to Dunkirk. France then looked south toward another possible threat.
Following Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922, France saw Italy as a potentially worrisome opponent, and some effort was made to fortify the mountain passes along the French border nearest the Alps. Even the island of Corsica, located in the Mediterranean between France and her African colonies, was fortified against invasion.
The Eight-Month ‘Sitzkrieg’
While France continued to strengthen and lengthen the Maginot Line, the world marched closer to war. With lightning speed, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Although woefully unprepared, France and Great Britain lived up to their treaty obligations by declaring war on Hitler’s Reich. But war did not immediately come to France; first came an eight-month “Sitzkrieg,” or “Phony War,” during which the two sides glared at each other as if daring the other to make the first move.
Almost lulled to sleep by this period of tense inaction, France was caught off guard when, on Friday, May 10, 1940, 136 German divisions—including armored spearheads commanded by Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian—struck violently in the West, plunging into Holland and Belgium and driving unexpectedly through Luxembourg and the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest, emerging near Sedan. Twenty-five hundred German aircraft controlled the skies and destroyed opposing military aircraft before they could take to the air. Sixteen thousand parachutists descended upon Rotterdam, Leiden, and The Hague, while still others landed on the massive Eben Emael fortress to begin its reduction. The French city of Nancy was bombed.
British bombers struck back at the Germans crossing the Meuse River near Sedan, but a number were downed by the Luftwaffe and antiaircraft guns. A desperate French attempt to seal off the breakthrough was thrown back. As French units retreated, so too did the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). A wedge was being driven between the two Allies.
Holland capitulated on May 15. Two days later, the Germans took Brussels, although Belgian troops continued to resist elsewhere in the country. By May 21, the Germans had reached the English Channel and the mouth of the Somme River. French and British forces were effectively split, and German pressure began pushing the remnants of the BEF toward the coastal town of Dunkirk.
Pulling Apart the Maginot Line
On May 15, one of the minor Maginot Line fortresses at La Ferté, in the Montmedy sector not far from Sedan, was the first to fall as the 104 defenders became the focus of a blistering attack by elements of the German 71st Infantry Division. Subjected to bombardment from 88mm flak guns and 210mm heavy mortars, the petit ouvrage was nearly pounded into submission, but an infantry counterattack threw back the attackers. The German assault was unrelenting, however, and by May 19 all of the fort’s gallant defenders had been killed, their fortress becoming their tomb.
The Germans next began to systematically pull apart the Maginot Line. In early June, six minor fortresses to the north, in the Escaut, Maubeuge, and Montmedy sectors, fell to the advancing Germans.
To save his forces, General Maxime Weygand, who had replaced Gamelin as commander-in-chief on May 19, ordered a general withdrawal, which robbed the northern portion of the Maginot Line of much of its vital interval forces. During the night of June 12, the French abandoned the casemates and fortresses in the Montmedy sector to the oncoming Germans; further German advancements over the next few days led to additional abandonments. General Charles-Marie Condé, commanding the French Third Army, ordered the retreat to end and the fortresses to resist. Although shelled heavily by the Germans, the ouvrages held out, at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, the strategic situation for all of France was worsening by the hour. By late May, the BEF had been driven into the sea at Dunkirk. The German juggernaut was now swinging southward toward Paris, crushing all opposition. General Weygand was running out of options with which to contain the German onslaught. He had but 60 divisions available to hold off an overwhelming enemy force. The dike was bursting at many points, and France had only a limited number of fingers with which to stem the flood. About the only source of fresh troops was those detailed for interval duty along the Maginot Line. Weygand began pulling them out and throwing them into the ever-widening breaches in the front lines. Without these troops, the forts of the Maginot Line were doomed.
In the La Crusnes sector, between Longuyon and Longwy, the major fortress of Fermont was attacked by German forces on June 11. Here, about 25 miles north of Verdun, 19 officers and 553 men stood to their guns and put up a valiant defense against the encircling enemy, knowing that their interval troops were gone and that reinforcements would not be coming to their aid. A German 88mm gun was brought up and proceeded to fire shell after shell at a single point on the rear of the fortress in jackhammer-like fashion. Eventually, the repeated firings penetrated the concrete and nearly touched off a magazine full of 75mm shells inside. The German gunners inexplicably ceased firing. That night, the defenders patched the hole in their bunker with iron plates and fresh concrete and waited for the next assault.
For three more days, even as Paris fell on the 14th, Fermont remained under enemy assault but refused to yield. Finally, the Germans ringed the fortress with six batteries of 105mm artillery, two 88mm batteries, three 210mm mortars, and four 305mm mortars. For two solid hours on the morning of June 21, German shells splattered the helpless fortress, but when German infantry attempted to storm the position, they were met with a lethal hail of fire from its gun ports. Later that day, the Germans, under a white flag, asked for a brief cease-fire in order to collect their casualties. The French commander, Capitaine Daniel Aubert, agreed. The attackers had suffered about 80 men dead or wounded; the French had one man injured and another killed.
Although their communications with the outside world had been cut, the defenders of Fermont held out until France agreed to armistice terms with Germany on June 22. It was only after receiving written orders from his superior to abandon the fortress and be taken prisoner by the enemy that Aubert and his men marched out of their scarred and battered fortress, the French Tricolor flying at the head of their proud column.
One of two major ouvrages in the Rohrbach Fortified Sector, the fortress of Simserhof, located near Bitche, was under the command of Lt. Col. Raoul Bonlarron and had a complement of 28 officers and 792 men. On June 12, the interval troops guarding Simserhof were withdrawn and the Germans began infiltrating the area. Realizing that he and his men were on their own, Bonlarron announced to them, “The hour is grave for France, the hour is grave for Simserhof … We shall fight … Take heart!”
Resistance Lingers in the Boulay Sector
The Germans began their usual artillery bombardment and managed to knock out a petit ouvrage on June 21. With no interval troops to stop them, the German 257th and 262nd Infantry divisions poured around to the rear of the imposing fortress complex and began their assault. Another minor fortress fell victim, but the gros ouvrage’s guns blazed on. On June 25, after firing some 30,000 defiant shells, the guns of Simserhof went quiet and the defenders reluctantly surrendered.