Operation Siegfried-Linie

Siegfried Line

This was the German major defence line in the west of Germany, essentially a counterpart to the French 'Ligne Maginot' but constructed to slightly more modern concepts with better anti-tank defences and less reliance on fixed fortifications mounting heavy-calibre guns (1940/45).

The line ran from Kleve on the Dutch/German border to the east of Nijmegen (where the Rhine river crosses into the Netherlands) and then to the south along the German frontier toward the town of Weil-am-Rhein on the German/Swiss frontier in the area just to the north-east of Basle. The ‘Siegfried-Linie’ was also known to the Germans as the ‘Westwall’, especially after it had been modified and developed from July 1944, following a period of neglect, as the major check to the Allies’ eastward offensive toward Germany.

The ‘Siegfried-Linie’ was built during the 1930s opposite the French 'Ligne Maginot', and served essentially the same operational role. The Germans themselves called this the ‘Westwall’, but the Allies renamed it after the primary portion of the ‘Hindenburg Line’ defences built during 1916/17 as Germany’s most important protection against offensives from the west in World War I.

The 'Siegfried-Linie' was thus a defence system stretching more than 390 miles (630 km) and including more than 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps.

With propaganda rather than specifically military requirements in the forefront of his thinking, Adolf Hitler planned the line from 1936 and ordered its construction between 1938 and 1940. This was after the time the Nazi government of Germany had broken the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and Treaty of Locarno by remilitarising the Rhineland in 1936.

As initially completed in 1938/40, the 'Westwall' was built in several phases comprising the Grenzwach Programm(border watch) programme for the most advanced positions in 1938, the Limes Programm (Latin for frontier) in 1938, the Aachen-Saar Programm in 1939, the Geldern-Stellung between Brüggen and Kleve in 1939/40, and the Luftverteidigungszone ‘West’ Programm (western air-defence zone programme) in 1938. These programmes were implemented with the highest priority, using every resource available. Each programme began with the design and construction of a prototype, which on approval was then manufactured in large numbers as the structural core of the programme, which could then be identified by the standardisation of its bunkers and tank traps. This fact reflected not so much Germany’s belief in standardisation as such, but the country’s lack of the raw materials, transport and workers for the creation of more fully optimised structures reflecting the needs of any particular location.

In the Grenzwach Programm, small bunkers were set up with three embrasures facing toward the front. The walls were only 19.75 in (0.5 m) thick and provided no protection against gas attack. Soldiers stationed there did not have their own beds but had to make do with hammocks. In exposed positions, similar bunkers of very modest size were erected with small armoured look-out sections of circular section on their roofs. All these constructions were considered obsolescent even as they were built, and at best offered protection only against bomb, shell and grenade fragments. The programme was carried out by the Grenzwacht, which was a small military organisation activated in the Rhineland immediately after this region’s remilitarisation.

The Limes Programm began as a result of Hitler’s order for a strengthening of the defensive fortifications on Germany’s western frontier. The bunkers constructed in this programme were more robust than those of the Grenzwach Programme. The structure for each of this programme’s Type 10 bunkers probably required 20 man years to build, and required a volume of concrete similar to that needed for the building of a small block of apartments. The ceiling and walls of each bunker were 5 ft (1.5 m) thick, but this was proved completely insufficient even before construction was finished. Even so, some 3,470 such bunkers were built along the entire length of the 'Siegfried-Linie', each based on a central room or shelter for 10 to 12 men with an entrance, stepped embrasures facing backward and a combat section 19.75 in (0.5 m) higher. This section had embrasures at the front and sides for machine guns, and a separate entrance. More embrasures were provided for small arms and, as a result of German experience in World War I, the entire structure was protected against gas attack. The bunker was heated by a solid-fuel stove whose chimney, leading to the structure’s outer surface, was protected by a thick grating to prevent explosive charges from being dropped down it. Every soldier was given a sleeping place and a stool, and the senior man also had a chair. The bunker was comparatively small for its complement, and space was therefore at a premium.

The bunkers of the Aachen-Saar Programm were similar to those of the Limes Programm, but these Type 107 bunkers had double machine gun casemates with concrete walls up to 11 ft 6 in (3.5 m) thick. One difference was that in all but a few examples of this type of bunker there were no frontal embrasures, the only such units being located on the sides to cope with flanking attacks. Embrasures were built in the front only in special cases and were then protected with heavy metal doors. The programme included the towns of Aachen and Saarbrücken, which were initially to the west of the line planned for the Limes Programm.

The line of the Luftverteidigungszone ‘West’ Programm continued parallel with the two other lines toward the east, and consisted mainly of concrete towers for Flak (anti-aircraft) guns, whose primary purpose was not so much to shoot down enemy aircraft but rather to force them to fly at a higher altitude, from which the accuracy of their bombing was significantly reduced. The Flak towers were protected from ground attack by the bunkers from the Limes Programm and Aachen-Saar Programm.

The Geldern Stellung lengthened the Siegfried-Linie to the north as far as Kleve on the Rhine river, and was designed and built after the start of World War II to extend Germany’s defence farther to the north from the line’s original terminus near Brüggen. The Geldern Stellung was simpler than the rest of the 'Siegfried-Linie', and for the most part comprised trench lines and weapons pits which were, however, extremely strongly built of concrete. For camouflage they were often built near farms.

Tank traps were also built for miles along the 'Siegfried-Linie' and were known as ‘dragon’s teeth’ or ‘pimples’ in reflection of their shape. These blocks of reinforced concrete extended in several rows on a single foundation, and there were typically two sorts of barrier: Type 1938 with four teeth getting higher toward the back, and Type 1939 with five such teeth. However, many other irregular lines of teeth were also built and, if the terrain made it possible, water-filled ditches were dug instead of tank traps.

The bunkers of the Grenzwach Programm were constructed mostly by private companies, but these could not provide the number of workers needed for the programmes that followed. The construction gap was therefore filled by the Organisation ‘Todt’, so-named for 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-Linie' despite the fact that working conditions were both arduous and dangerous, and the monotony of the work persuaded many of the pre-war workers to leave the Organisation ‘Todt’.

The German armaments industry was never able to deliver the quantity of armour which was required for the mounting of weapons in the bunkers, which greatly reduced the bunkers' military value. The armour-plated sections included the embrasures and their shutters, as well as armoured cupolas for 360° defence. Germany depended on other countries to provide the metals (most importantly nickel and molybdenum) other than iron for the manufacture of armour, so the armour was either omitted or replaced by lower-quality materials. The bunkers were nonetheless completed with pieces of artillery, but these were older weapons which other wartime experience revealed to be inadequate, and were therefore often removed. The larger-calibre and more modern weapons required for an effective defence capability were too massive for retrofitting in the bunkers.

Despite the fact that it was France which declared war on Germany in September 1939, there was no major combat along the 'Siegfried-Linie' at the start of the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939/40. After the end of Germany’s ‘Sichelschnitt’ and ‘Rot’ (iii) offensives to the west in May and June 1940, all the transportable weapons were removed from the 'Siegfried-Linie' for other service, and the concrete bunkers and tank traps were effectively abandoned, the bunkers often being adapted for storage.

With the start of ‘Overlord’ in June 1944, Germany faced war in the west once again, and on 24 August Hitler ordered renewed construction of the 'Siegfried-Linie'. Some 20,000 slave labourers and members of the Reichsarbeitsdienst (national labour service, mostly 14/16-year old boys) tried to recreate the line as an effective defence for Germany’s western frontier. Local persons were also conscripted for the work, mostly in the construction of anti-tank ditches. The work was greatly hampered, and indeed rendered virtually impossible, by the attentions of the Allies’ overwhelming tactical air power. During construction it was already clear that the bunkers could no longer hope to withstand the altogether more capable armour-piercing weapons which had been developed in the war.

As the 'Siegfried-Linie' was being reactivated, small concrete ‘Tobruk bunkers’ (one/two-man dugouts) were added along the edge of the defended area.

It was in August 1944 that the first clashes took place along the 'Siegfried-Linie'. The section of the line which saw the most widespread fighting that of the Hürtgenwald, in the Eifel region some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the south-east of Aachen. The battle in this confusing, heavily forested area claimed large numbers of lives on each side. After the Battle of the Hürtgenwald, the focus of combat on the Western Front switched to the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, starting at the area to the south of the Hürtgenwald between Monschau and the Luxembourgois town of Echternach. There were major clashes in other parts of the 'Siegfried-Linie'. Soldiers in many bunkers refused to surrender, fearing German courts martial for cowardice more than Allied attack, and in such attempts at sustained defence most German soldiers paid with their lives as the bunkers were no effective defence. It was during the spring of 1945 that the last 'Siegfried-Linie' bunkers fell to the Allied advance in the Saar and Hunsrück.