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Map of the Siegfried line
The original Siegfried line (Siegfriedstellung) was a line of defensive forts and tank defenses built by Germanymarker as a section of the Hindenburg Line 1916–1917 in northern Francemarker 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 this second Siegfried line.

The Siegfried Line was a defence system stretching more than with more than 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps. It went from Klevemarker on the border with the Netherlandsmarker, along the western border of the old German Empiremarker as far as the town of Weil am Rheinmarker on the border to Switzerlandmarker. 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 Nazi had broken the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties by remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936.

Origin of the name Westwall

Today we can no longer know for certain the exact origin of the German name Westwall (Western Rampart). 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 Limes Germanicus (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)
  • Aachenmarker-Saarmarker Programme (1939)
  • Geldern Emplacement between Brüggenmarker 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 Program

For the main part of the pioneering programme, small bunkers were set up with three embrasures towards the front. The walls were thick but 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 round armoured "lookout" sections on the roofs. All these constructions were already considered outdated when they were built and at best offered protection against small arms fire and shrapnel from bombs and grenades. The programme was carried out by the Border Watch (Grenzwacht), a small military troop activited in the Rhineland immediately after it was remilitarized. The bunkers were set up near the foreign borders.

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. The framework for each of this program's Type 10 bunkers probably took around 20 man hours to build and required around of concrete, the equivalent of two floors of an average size office block.

The bunkers had a ceiling and walls 1.5 m (5 ft) 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 50 cm (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 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: "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 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 Aachenmarker and Saarbrückenmarker 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. Scattered MG42s and MG34s were also placed for additional defense, 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 only built after the start of World War II. The Siegfried Line originally ended in the north near Brüggen in the Viersenmarker district. The primary constructions were unarmed dugouts which were, however, 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, however. Another design of tank obstacle was made by welding together several bars of steel in such a way that any tank rolling over it would be penetrated in its weak bottom armor. 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 Geilenkirchenmarker.

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 . 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 in constructing the west wall.

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 cupola 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 Phoney War, where neither side wanted to attack 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. During the Battle of France, French forces made minor attacks against some parts of the line but the majority of it and incomplete fortresses such as Isteinmarker were left untested. 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 laborers and members of the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service) most of whom were 14 to 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. 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 Tobrukmarker, the seaport in eastern Libyamarker) 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 Hürtgenwaldmarker area in the Eifel, 20 km (13 miles) 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. The German death toll is not documented, but Hans von Luck estimates it at around 9,000.

After the Battle of Hürtgenwaldmarker, the Battle of the Bulge began, starting at the area south of the Hürtgenwald, between Monschaumarker and the Luxembourgishmarker town of Echternachmarker. 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 spring 1945, however, the last Siegfried Line bunkers had fallen at the Saar and Hunsrückmarker.

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 Polandmarker, 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.

The Siegfried Line was the subject of a popular British song of 1939 which fit 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."

Post-war period

Bunker on the Siegfried line

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. Tank traps still exist in many areas; 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 has been made to preserve the remains of the Siegfried Line as a historical monument. This was intended to stop radical right-wing groups making propaganda out of the Siegfried Line. The idea was also 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. 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.

The Siegfried Line in popular culture

One of the missions in the first Medal of Honor computer game takes place in a Siegfried fort secretly manufacturing mustard gas.

The Siegfried Line is the last chapter of the computer game Call of Duty 2: Big Red One.

Billy Joel wrote a song called The Siegfried Line as a demo in the 1970s, which has only recently released as part of his "My Lives" album. The song describes the period during the so-called Phoney War, where neither side attacked the other, until May 1940.

The Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy wrote the song We're Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line whilst serving as a Captain in the British Expeditionary Force. The song was used particularly during the Battle of France as a morale-booster. Vera Lynn, known as the forces sweetheart would later sing the song.

See also

External links


  1. Kaufmann JE, Kaufmann HW: "Fortress third Reich", page 134. DA Capo Press, 2003.
  2. Kaufmann JE, Kaufmann HW: "Fortress third Reich", page 130-5. DA Capo Press, 2003.
  3. MacDonald, Charles B. (1961). The Roer River Dams. The Siegfried Line Campaign.
  4. James F. Dunnigan. The World War II Bookshelf. Citadel Press, 2005 p 110

Further reading

  • Kauffmann, J.E. and Jurga, Robert M. Fortress Europe: European Fortifications of World War II, Da Capo Press, 2002. ISBN 0-306-81174-X

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