Abri Des Welches
PO Bois Karre
Having been based in Thionville in 2000 and 2001, we returned to the town for this yearís excursion. Our mission was to get into the Maginot Line forts that we had been unable to access in previous years and to visit some of the older German fortifications. In order to achieve that ambition we recruited celebrated author and founder member of the Fortress Study Group, Anthony Kemp who now lives in France and has numerous useful contacts. Tony was able to pull a few strings and arrange access to ROCHONVILLIERS, a Gros Ouvrages that is still in the hands of the French military. He also planned visits to various 19th and early 20th Century German forts around Metz and Thionville that provided inspiration for the Maginot Line engineers in the 1930ís and in the 2nd World War, to offer a spirited defence to the advancing American troops.
We arrived in France on Saturday 10th May with most of the day spent on the long drive from Calais to Thionville. We arrived in the area late in the afternoon and before driving to our hotel in the town centre we took a brief look at the Petit Ouvrage at IMMERHOFF. This is one of many restored forts on the Maginot line that are open to the public. Some of them are only open on certain days and in the case of IMMERHOFF itís the 2nd weekend of each month through the summer. It isnít one of the major museum forts and is a very low-key affair with one or two people there to show visitors around. When we arrived there were no other cars in the car park and only one man on duty in the small office. As we had been inside the fort before on a privately arranged tour in 2000 we limited our visit to a surface walk around the four blocks with three mortar turrets and various observation cupolas.
From IMMERHOFF we drove to ZEITERHOLTZ three miles to the west near Entrange. This is another museum thatís open to the public on the 1st weekend of the month through the summer. ZEITERHOLTZ is an interval shelter or ĎAbrií. A two level infantry blockhouse that housed a command centre and dormitories for the troops that manned the small casemates and strongpoints that filled in the gaps and blind spots between the larger fortifications along the Maginot Line. The single block is located in woodland and its only defence is one observation cupola on top and two machine gun positions at the front. From ZIETERHOLTZ we drove 8 miles into of Thionville where we met up with Tony Kemp our guide for the rest of the week and Clayton Donnell an American expert on the line who had joined us in the Alps in 2002. He couldnít resist the temptation to come back for another helping of intensive visits; we like to make an early start each day with lunch on the hoof, often not returning to the hotel till 8pm.
For our first day proper, we visited one major site, FORT DRIANT, in the hills overlooking Metz. The fort was built by the German Empire at the turn of the century. After the Franco Prussian War of 1870 - 1871 Germany annexed Alsace and part of Lorraine. They introduced the German language into the region and expelled many of the French. German engineers looked at the existing French fortifications in a ring around Metz which were traditional polygonal forts. Some were improved and some new forts of a similar design were built but the Germans had developed new ideas in fort design known as the ĎFesteí. This involved fortifying an area of high ground with all the buildings blending in to the surroundings and offering few masonry targets. Guns were located under turrets (cupolas) and the infantry and artillery blocks were separated and linked together by tunnels.
DRIANT was to form part of an outer ring of new Feste type forts around Metz and was armed with 10cm canons and 15cm howitzers in banks for three beneath rotating turrets. For the first time, the fort was also equipped with forced air ventilation, central heating and electricity; French engineers later copied these new concepts during the building of the Maginot Line. During the first world war, the fort only fired in anger once when one of the 10cm canons was fired at the advancing American forces.
In 1918 the fort was handed back to the French and quickly fell into disuse. The Germans captured it in 1940 and much of the artillery was stripped out for the Atlantic Wall and the fort was used as an underground factory. However, in August 1944, General Pattonís forces swept into Paris and through France towards the Rhine. When the army reached the River Meuse at Verdun they ran out of petrol and there was a five day delay while new supplies were brought to the troops. The Germanís used this delay to scrape together three regiments in Metz, from the local officer training school, some of whom were seasoned veterans of the Russian front and some of the turret guns at DRIANT were re-commissioned.
On 5th September 1944, the American forces moved out of Verdun towards Metz. Two German companies were moved into the fort and they opened fire as the US troops attempted to cross the Moselle causing a great loss of life and forcing General Pattonís troops to withdraw. Eventually the Americans formed a bridgehead at Arnaville but they were ordered to hold fire as they were now short of ammunition. Following the humiliating withdrawal, Patton was determined to take the fort and authorized General Irwin to undertake a limited operation against DRIANT. The fort was attacked by two infantry companies with little success and after two days a battalion was ordered forward but they fared little better and the attack was called off in October.
The infantry eventually captured Metz but DRIANT continued to hold out and instructions were issued not to mount another assault with a further loss of life. The fort eventually surrendered to the 5th Infantry Division on 3rd December 1944 and 400 weary German soldiers emerged. The American forces ignored the fort and matched on towards the Rhine.
Today the fort is still owned by the French army and is completely derelict and largely stripped. Most of the barrack blocks are still in good condition although floors have generally been removed and in some places there is obvious damage caused by the attack. The four triple gun batteries are also intact although now also stripped of most original fittings. The tunnels linking the blocks have generally survived in good condition and easily passable although one at the southern end of the fort has received a direct hit and is strewn with rubble although still passable with care. The fort is still used by the French army as a training area although it is doubtful if the buildings and tunnels are used; most of the entrances to the blocks and tunnels have been blocked up with a few bricks now knocked out to allow access. The area is wide open and despite numerous signs indicating that it is military property with entrance prohibited it is used by the local people as a picnic and recreation area when the army are not in residence.
The main entrance through the high earth bank is through a stone archway on the east side at the end of a long steep entrance road. The earth bank was originally topped with barbed wire although this is now largely gone, defended observation posts still remain along the bank at regular intervals. The fort is littered with ammunition of all calibres and from all periods. Much of it is very rusty but many of the shells are still live and should be treated with extreme caution.
Having entered the fort through the archway we made our way to the main block on the West Side. This is a large two level semi sunken structure with a stairway at both ends and several observation cupolas accessed by ladders on the west side. German signs are still visible on many of the walls and many of them are still clearly readable. Although it is known that the kitchen, ventilation plant, generators, boilers, infirmary etc, would have been located on the ground floor everything has been stripped out including the ventilation trunking, electrical fittings and wiring and there is little evidence to indicate what the many rooms at this level were used for. Only the generator room (Usine) is obvious with a number of concrete engine beds still in place.
The upper floor would have been accommodation but again there is little evidence in a large number of empty rooms. Unlike the later Maginot Liner forts these early forts had hammocks rather than bunk beds and their fixings are still visible on the walls on the upper level.
There is bomb damage to the northeastern end of the building that has left a gaping hole in the roof with the debris blocking the entrance to the tunnel to the northeast. At the southern end the tunnel running to the southeast is still accessible. This leads to one of the four gun batteries. The semi sunken battery is on two levels with a caponier defending the ditch to the east. The magazines and crew rooms are on the lower level with an ammunition lift still in place to each of the 10cm canons above. A short flight of stairs gives access to the underside of each of the gun turrets with most of the mechanism for rising and rotating the turret still in place. A ladder gives access to the turret itself where much of the mechanism is still in place although the gun barrel has been removed. There is a chute to one side for disposing of spent shell cases.
From this battery another tunnel, 250 feet in length runs to the southeast to one of the two 15cm batteries. This is in similar condition although a little smaller. At this battery the gun barrels in the turrets are still in place. There is considerable bomb damage to the southern end of the block although this isnít visible externally. Another 250 foot tunnel runs west to a largely destroyed block. This tunnel is badly collapsed along most of its length although still passable with care.
There are two further batteries to the north of the main barrack block, one 10cm and one 13cm, These are both in similar condition to the pair to the south with their guns still in place. A 600 yard tunnel runs from one of these batteries to a well preserved barrack block on the north west corner of the fort and a shorter tunnel runs from a 4th battery to a similar barrack block close to the north east corner of the fort. The 5th 10cm battery lies outside the main area of the fort close to the southeast corner. Any tunnels do not connect this and as we were running out of time it wasnít visited.
Having spent an enjoyable day at DRIANT we drove a two miles to the north to visit OUVRAGE DU BOIS DE LA DAME, one of seven single block fortifications built between 1903 - 1910 as part of the German defences around Metz, these are sited between DRIANT and FORT JEANNE DíARC. Each of these blocks is different in design and they are collectively known as ĎThe Seven Dwarfsí. BOIS DE LA DAME is the middle block of the seven and is by far the best preserved. Itís built of reinforced concrete on 3 levels (one below ground) with a double caponier at the front.
Having been handed over to France in 1918 it was captured by German forces in 1940 and fell to the Americans in 1944 without seeing any action.
It features an experimental metal casemate which is divided into two sections with two machine gun positions on one side and a searchlight position on the other, these are both accessed by ladder from a short tunnel running south for the upper floor of the blockhouse. This type of casemate proved to be too noisy inside and was not used anywhere else.
Although well preserved with no damage or vandalism the blockhouse has been stripped of all fittings apart from a large fuel tank in one of the rooms in the basement. Itís wide open and free for anyone to enter.
On our way back to Thionville we stopped briefly at Gravelott to visit the first military cemetery in Europe containing both German and French soldier from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 -1871 Mance Ravine to the east of Gravelott saw heavy fighting both in 1870 and 1944 with 55,000 French soldiers killed at the Battle of Gravelott in August 1870. The French were repulsed and forced back into the Fortress of Metz and the Germans went on to defeat the French army at Sedan. There is a memorial to the massacred French soldiers on the north side of the N3 road to the east of Gravelott.
Two more Feste forts were on the programme for Tuesday the first at GUENTRANGE is a museum while that at KOENIGSMACKER is derelict and overgrown.
The fortified blocks of GUENTRANGE are 4km west of Thionville on the summit of one of the Moselle hills that dominate the wide valley of the Thionville regain of the Moselle. Work on the fort was started by the Germans in 1899 and the defence works were known to be operational at the end of 1905. After the annexation of Alsace and part of Lorraine in 1871, when the Germans began to reinforce their new conquest over France, GUENTRANGE, like DRIANT was part of their planned outer ring of fortifications of the Moselle between Metz and the Luxembourg frontier. Three forts around Thionville were built to protect the town and its railway network from a French attack. This was part of the Schleiffen-Moltke plan which forsaw that in the event of a Franco-German war, the majority of the German army would invade France by passing through Belgium and Luxembourg and that an offensive of the powerful right wing of the French army would be likely to fail when it came up against the defence works at Metz and Thionville.
Although the fort at GUENTRANGE did not come under attack during WW1 it did play an important strategic role. It was handed back to the French after the Armistice of 1918 and was integrated into the Maginot Line in the 1930ís. In 1940, the Germans recaptured the fort and used it as a depot and workshop without maintaining any troops there. The American army took it over in 1944 and destroyed some of the guns before moving out towards the Rhine. After the war, the French 25th Artillery Regiment, stationed at Thionville, used the fort as a munitions store.
The military moved out of the fort in 1971 and handed it over to the Town Council and to the Friends of the Fortifications of Guentrange, one of many ĎAssociationsí that administer, maintain and restore forts on the Maginot Line. The fort is now open to the public from 1st May Ė 30th September on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month and at other times by arrangement.
The fort has three barracks, a central one, which is the biggest, and two secondary barracks north and south of it. Between the two barracks and at a higher level are two batteries each equipped with four non retractable rotating turret guns armed with short 10cm canons each with a range of 9.7 km. The barracks, which are partially buried to reduce their visibility from the air, were masonry built with walls 1.5metres thick. Originally there were windows but with increasing tension towards the beginning of WW1 the exposed facades of the barracks and the batteries were lined with reinforced concrete and the windows were replaced with iron clad slats for firing.
Infantry parapets surrounded the barracks and batteries with shelters and observation posts for infantry. There was also a network of barbed wire 30 metres thick, overlooked by sentry posts. Underground galleries linked all the defended blocks, barracks and magazines. After 1912 a new line of concrete infantry trenches was constructed with three additional picket shelters. The modernisation continued until 1916 when central heating was installed in the fort.
During the integration of the fort into the Maginot Line the short 10cm canons were replaced by long ones of the same caliber taken from the forts in Metz. This increased the range of the guns to 12.7 km.
For our privately arranged trip we were lucky to have an English speaking guide, who has worked as a volunteer at the fort for the last 20 years and has lived in the area throughout WW2. Our tour started on the lower floor of the main block where room after room contains original equipment still in good order. These rooms included the officersí kitchen, mens' kitchen, bakery, toilets and wash rooms and the boiler room, which provided the hot water for the central heating. Perhaps the most impressive were the three generator rooms each with three gleaming Deutz diesel generators, installed in 1916 and still in good working order. One room on the lower floor also contained a replica of a V1 rocket that had been built by one of the volunteers at the museum.
We then moved into the tunnel network and made our way to one of the ĎLí shaped batteries of four 10 cm canons. In the tunnel we passed through several doors that would have allowed the battery to be sealed off from the rest of the tunnel network. The first room we came to was the battery commanderís room with an observation cupola, speaking tubes to each of the four guns and controls for firing the four guns individually or simultaneously. After the American forces had taken the fort in 1944, a charge was dropped into each of the gun barrels rendering them unusable. One of these has now been replaced and the ammunition lift for that gun from the magazine below has been renovated. The other three guns in the battery have not been restored and are still as left in 1944.
We retraced our steps along the tunnel to a junction where we made our way to one of the defended observation blocks at the north end of the fort. At the end of the tunnel steps took us up into the block and out into the woodland where the concrete trench system was built just before WW1. We snaked our way along the trenches and back into the tunnels through another defended block.
We walked back to the main barracks and along the upper floor, which contained the dormitories. All the hammocks have now gone and the rooms now contain displays of artifacts and photographs relating to the various phases of the fort. These include numerous artillery shells, helmets, machine guns and even three vintage motorcycles. At the far end of the upper level is the infirmary with its operating theatre and dentists room and the only mannequin to be found anywhere in the fort, lying on the operating table awaiting the surgeons knife.
Our tour ended here and we walked back down the main stairs to the ground floor. We took a brief look at some of the buildings from the outside including the battery that we had previously visited where the long barrels with their barrels split by the charges placed inside them were still clearly visible.
This is a well laid out museum with the display areas carefully separated from the original equipment which has been sympathetically restored and gives a good feel of what the fort would have been like during WW1 with no ropes and interpretation boards to detract from the scene. It is highly recommended.
From GUENTRANGE we drove back into Thionville to look at a small bunker at the far end of the station yard that had been built at the turn of the century to defend the railway station. The two level strongpoint with numerous embrasures on all faces came under heavy fire from the American troops in 1944. The Americans on the opposite side of the river came under repeated fire from the Germans occupying the bunker. The Americans eventually brought two 155 mm guns up to the opposite bank and opened fire on the bunker blowing it full of holes, which are still clearly visible today. A similar strongpoint still stands alongside the railway on the opposite side of the Moselle.
We then drove out of Thionville to KOENIGSMACKER another of the three forts built to defend Thionville at the turn of the century (The third is ILLANGE) Like GUENTRANGE, this fort never saw action during WW1 and it was handed back to France in 1918. It too was adapted into the Maginot Line as a headquarters for the senior command of the forts along the around Thionville. At the time it was upgraded with new electrical switchgear and the guns were rebarrelled with 10cm long canons for firing towards Germany.
In 1940 the fort was garrisoned by French troops but they fled in front of the advancing German army but before leaving they removed the breech blocks from the guns and threw them into a sewage pit. The Germans werenít, however, interested in the fort until the summer of 1944; with the threat from the advancing American forces they tidied up the fort. As the US army reached Thionville in September 1944 the Germans retreated to the eastern bank of the Moselle, they were mainly young recruits or elderly soldiers and had little enthusiasm for a fight. In November 1944 when the Americans crossed the Moselle the river was in flood and they were unable to build bridges and found themselves on the east side of the river with no artillery support.
358 Infantry Regiment attacked the fort armed only with the weapons they were carrying and managed to get on top of the fort before the Germans realised what was happening; the German officers were not familiar with the layout of the fort. Learning from their mistakes at DRIANT the Americans proceeded with caution, stopping the Germans getting out by blasting the doors of the blockhouses one at a time and throwing in explosives. Large quantities of petrol were then poured into the fort down the ventilation pipe followed by a thermite grenade; the German troops soon surrendered.
Although the fort is still owned by the French army, the site is now completely overgrown and there has been no obvious post war military use. We entered the fort will permission from the army. The earthworks are surrounded by an earth bank which has a tunnel running inside it most of the way round the perimeter of the fort. There are numerous strong points along the perimeter accessed from this tunnel. We entered the tunnel by the main gate into the compound. After 1000 metres it is blocked, probably as a result of charges set by the Americans. We retraced our steps to the first strongpoint and descended through three levels of rooms to the main tunnel network that runs beneath the fortified hilltop.
After several junctions we came to the main three level barrack block with the tunnel entering at the middle level. This level is treacherous with the floor of the main spine corridor consisting of steel plates, some of which are missing while the rest are loose with many arched upwards. Immediately beneath the plates is the basement corridor, which for most of its length is no more than a service tunnel carrying pipes, and cables. In the middle of this corridor several rooms can be accessed; one of them is the boiler room with its two central heating boilers still in place. Back at ground level, most of the rooms have been stripped although some of the ventilation trunking, cables and radiators still remain and the kitchen still retains its two circular cookers. The upper level was mainly dormitories with hammocks and these rooms have all been stripped of any original fittings.
We retraced our steps along the entrance tunnel and turned right at a crossroads. A few yards further on there was a ĎTí junction with the generators to the left and the gun battery to the right. We turned to the left into another lethal passage with a gaping hole in the floor down to a tunnel below and beyond, rotting timbers above a service duct. Several of the timbers broke as they were stepped on. The first room on the left was the tiled bakery; the oven is still in place although its front is missing. Beyond this is a workshop and then the generator room. The three diesel generators have been removed although the concrete machine beds that supported them are still in place. At one end of the room the large electrical control cabinet is still there although many of its dials and switches are missing. There is a smaller floor standing electrical cabinet in an adjacent room.
The four gun battery has been largely stripped with only cables remaining. Unlike DRIANT where the mechanisms for the turret guns are still intact, here everything has been removed allowing us to look directly up at the underside of the four turrets. As time was pressing we had to cut short our exploration at this point leaving numerous tunnels and strongpoints to be seen at a later date.
We returned to Thionville via a pair of Maginot Line casements defending the railway line at Koenigsmacker. One of the casemates, KOENIGSMACKER SOUTH, had been demolished although we noticed a coupola, which was probably from it in a nearby garden. The other casemate, KOENIGSNACKER NORTH, was flooded and access wasnít possible.
On Wednesday our first destination was the museum of HACKENBERG at Veckring, this fort is one of the largest on the Maginot Line with more than 10km of tunnels and 17 blocks; when fully manned it housed 1000 men. Some of us had visited HACKENBERG before but as half our party hadnít seen the fort it was decided to include it in the programme as it gives a good introduction to the Maginot Line. The fort is normally only open at weekends during the summer but special midweek visits can be arranged for parties of 25 or more.
Most of the larger Maginot Line forts have a separate entrance for munitions and men; we entered through the munitions entrance and quickly reached the heart of the complex visiting the central magazines M1, kitchen, barracks (caserne), hospital and generator and transformer room (Usine). Our guide explained how the four 350HP diesel generators were removed when the Germans captured the fort during the war and reinstalled in submarine pens. After the war the French army demanded that four replacements should be provided and four identical generators were returned to the fort in 1949; it is possible that they were the same generators as those removed.
The caserne has been stripped of all its bunk beds and now houses an impressive display or weapons and military uniforms. We moved back into the main tunnel where we boarded a narrow gauge train, powered from overhead electric lines. This took us over 1 km to the fighting blocks which at Hackenburg are divided into two areas east and west. The public can only visit the blocks to the west; those to the east have not been restored as the floors in the tunnel have lifted due to deposits of gypsum in the rock.
One of the disadvantages of visiting Maginot Line forts is the fact that the fighting blocks are located some distance above the main tunnels and at the derelict forts it is sometimes necessary to climb up to 500 stairs to visit one block. Luckily at HACKENBERG the lifts are still in good order so we were able to go up into block 9, the easy way. The 135cm turret gun is still in good order having been restored in 1953 by the French army following an explosion in the breech. We were told that if they had the ammunition it could still be fired today. We were shown how the turret could be raised and rotated by electric motor. We then went outside the block where there was a further demonstration of the turret being raised. We then walked on the surface to Block 25 which overlooks the deep anti-tank ditch and to Block 8 that had suffered a sustained bombardment from the advancing American forces with the substantial damage caused still clearly visible.
All too soon out trip was coming to an end and we made our way back to the munitions entrance by train having been underground for three hours; the normal public tours only take two.
After lunch at an abandoned Abri or Interval shelter, the ABRI DES WELCHES close to the GROS OUVRAGE MONT DES WELCHES we drove to another museum, the Abri at BOCKANGE. Like most of the museums it is owned by an association and at short notice we were able to arrange a private visit. When the association took over the bunker from the French army in 1991 it had been almost completely stripped and was derelict and abandoned. In the intervening 10 years it has been superbly restored to its original condition with much of the equipment being obtained from various abandoned forts. BOCKANGE is not an artillery block; it housed a command centre and provided barrack accommodation for 100 troops that manned individual casemates along the line. On the upper level we saw the telephone exchange, officers dormitory, filtration and ventilation plant and on the lower floor we saw the kitchen, usine, water tank and well and one of the menís dormitories. The two diesel generators have only just been acquired and are currently being restored; all the other equipment and plant in the bunker is in full working order.
After the tour our guide produced a crate of beer for refreshment and offered us the use of the Abri as a base should we wish to visit the area again, we may well take him up on his kind offer although the beds didnít look that comfortable.
Our final visit of the day was to the Gros Ouvrage of MONT DES WELCHES. Again we have visited this site before but we were close by and being a compact Gros Ouvrage it made a good introduction to an abandoned Maginot Line fort for those newcomers in our party. We entered the fort through the munitions entrance, the door being wide open and free for anyone to enter. There is a short incline down into the tunnel network. Close to the bottom of the incline is the Usine, the four diesel generators are still in place but badly stripped, possibly by the museum forts looking for spare parts for their own generators.
As we made our way along the tunnel towards the menís entrance we noticed the walls were covered in soot, probably from illegal scrap dealers burning the insulation off the copper cables. This was probably done recently as there were no footprints in the soot on the stairs up to the mensí entrance. It was quickly apparent that there had been considerable robbing and vandalism since our last visit to the fort in 2001.
We climbed the stairs to most of the fighting blocks. The two turret guns are still largely intact although many parts have been removed. We were able to raise one of the turrets and change the elevation of the gun although we werenít able to rotate the turret as the mechanism was seized. It is surprising that the 80 ton turret could still be easily raised after so many years of disuse.
On Wednesday we returned to the Metz area to look at FESTE WAGNER, another fort in the outer ring around Metz; it was built by the Germans between 1904 and 1910 and was the last masonry fort to be built. At that time masonry was cheaper than concrete but later this reversed. The fort was handed back to France in 1918 when it was renamed GROUPE FORTIFE LíAISNE. Itís owned by the local authority and is slowly being restored although many areas are still derelict and abandoned and the restoration to date has been little more than tidying up. The fort is open to the public on six Sundays a year through the summer and at other times by arrangement. For our visit we were lucky to have an English speaking guide who included some parts of the fort that are not included in the public tours. Itís not connected to mains electricity but there is lighting in most of the blocks provided by small diesel generators.
The fortified area comprises four infantry works and three batteries, one of four 15cm howitzers, one of four 10cm canons and one of two 15cm long range canons.
We looked first at the latter battery. The two guns were housed in open emplacements with their holdfasts still clearly visible, as are magazines alongside. Close to the emplacements there is a small two room command post but this is empty with only a little wiring remaining. This battery was connected by standard gauge railway to the main line with the track running along the back of the emplacements; there is little evidence of this track today.
There was no tunnel linking this battery with the adjacent battery of four 15 cm turret mounted howitzers each with a range of 7.2 km. This stone built block is externally in good condition with a caponier overlooking the ditch at the back of the battery. This block also housed the Usine for the fort but the six diesel generators were removed long ago with only the concrete machine beds still visible in two tiled rooms. The battery commanderís room still has three original telephones in place, one in an acoustic booth together with speaking tubes allowing the commander to speak to the four turrets and the various strongpoints located around the battery. There is a tunnel linking the caponier with the 10cm battery to the west but our route was on the surface.
The 10 cm battery is another masonry built blockhouse with long barrel guns mounted in turrets. The guns have been removed but the association that administers the fort has recently acquired a replacement for one of them and this lies in the undergrowth alongside the battery. They are hoping that the gun will be mounted in a restored turret later this year.
There is a tunnel linking the battery with the main infantry barrack block to the west but this has been blocked by a brick wall so our route was once again on the surface; passing two dummy concrete turrets in the woods between the two blocks.
The barrack block known as Ouvrage Avigy is of two levels and built of reinforced concrete. Most of the rooms have been stripped of all their original equipment and fittings although the tiled kitchen on the ground floor is well preserved with its four circular ovens and extractors still in place. The four walls in the adjacent room are covered in impressive wall art.
At the western end of the barrack block we were at last able to go underground along a tunnel to a small strongpoint with two quick firing 5.3 cm cannons still in place. The strongpoint also housed a searchlight with a large embrasure located between the two guns, several ammunition racks to the rear and a number of speaking tubes. From here we walked along a further tunnel to the counterscarp whew there is another strongpoint. This is not normally open to the public and it was soon apparent why when rotting floor timbers forced us to climb down a ladder, under the floor and up another ladder the other side. Here we saw an unusual feature, a mantrap consisting of long metal spikes at the bottom of a pit.
We retraced our steps and came out of the tunnel into the open where there are some masonry trenches and a second infantry barrack block with another smaller kitchen, a hospital and a number of rooms containing artifacts and numerous photographs of the fort, many taken before restoration started.
From a partially restored fort our next destination was FORT SAINT-BLAISE,
another of the Festes in the Metz outer ring, located between WAGNER and DRIANT and very close to the tiny FORT SOMMY. These two forts comprised the Verdun fortified group; it was originally built as FESTE GRAF HAESLER at the end of the 19th century. With the advance of the American forces in the autumn of 1944 at least some of the turret guns were got into working order although without optics. When the Americans slipped a battalion across the Moselle at Dornot in early September, their mission was to capture the fort but they were beaten off by troops from the 17th SS Panzergranadier Division and were forced to abandon their bridgehead. A further crossing was made at Arnaville which could not be exploited owing to lack of troops and SAINT-BLAISE remained a thorn in their side. They closed up on the fort, keeping it buttoned down until it surrendered in mid November having suffered severe damage which is clearly visible today. The fort, which is still owned by the French military is now an overgrown ruin.
SAINT-BLAISE is a compact fort with a three level masonry built barrack block and a battery of four turret guns a short distance to the south and a similar battery to the north. Tunnels link the three blocks.
The southern battery is badly damaged with gaping holes in the exposed rear wall and the middle section of the block, including one of the turrets completely blown away. The remaining three turrets still retain their guns and associated machinery and each has an ammunition lift alongside. At the western end of the battery a short tunnel leads to a spiral staircase going down for 50 feet with another short tunnel at the bottom to a detached strongpoint. A similar strongpoint may also exist at the eastern end of the battery. The tunnel linking the battery with the infantry block is at the bottom of a flight of steps; it has been partially blocked by a roof fall in the magazine above but is passable by crawling over the rubble.
The barrack block is also badly damaged with holes in the front of the building and sections of the floors blown away. The block has been largely stripped of any original fittings although the bakerís oven, with its front missing, still remains in one of the rooms on the ground floor. The Usine was also located on this level although the four diesel generators were removed many years ago with only the engine beds and a small section of the main control panel still remaining. The kitchen was on the middle floor and the range is still there although it has been dragged into one of the corridors. At the eastern end of the barrack block there is a well with the pump still in place.
A short tunnel at the rear of the building leads to the second gun battery which has been completely stripped. Not only have the turret guns and all their associated machinery been removed but the four steel turrets have also gone leaving four large holes in the roof of the block. The framework for the ammunition lifts are still in place and there are some German signs still visible on the walls. There are stairs up to an observation cupola at each end of the block and at the front at each end there is a tunnel to counterscarp firing positions from where two spiral staircases lead down to tunnels to detached observation cupolas.
Our final destination was to the Petit Ouvrage BOIS KARRE a single block Maginot Line Infantry ouvrage defending the area between the Gros Ouvrage of KOBENBUSCH to the east and the Gros Ouvrage of SOETRICH to the north west. It was built in 1933 and included three observation cupolas, three firing chambers with twin machine guns and 47mm anti-tank guns and a turret machine gun which distinguishes it from an interval shelter or Abri.
The fort saw no action in 1944 and was kept operational by the French army until the 1960ís when it was abandoned. It has been in private hands since 1983 and is slowly being restored. Much original equipment is still in place including the turret gun which can be wound up and down and rotated by hand, ventilation plant and filters, kitchen range, bunk beds for the 82 men that would have manned the fort (they would have used a hot bed system) and the two 50 hp Renault diesel generators. These are currently not working and are undergoing renovation.
Our first visit on Thursday was to the transformer block of XIVRY-CIRCOURT. The purpose of these blocks was to supply electricity to a number of forts in the area, the high voltage electricity entering the blocks from overhead pylons and then being transformed to a lower voltage and supplied to the local forts by underground cables. The forms were 8 Ė 10 km away. This transformer station supplied electricity to the forts of Fermont. Latiremont and Brehain.
The undefended single story blockhouse is on farmland and it's now used, in part, to store hay. The block is approximately 150 feet in length with a large door at both ends and two large slots in the wall, each with a canopy above them. The overhead power cables would have entered the building at these points and a line of disused electricity pylons can be seen running across the nearby fields towards the block. Inside there is a wide front corridor with rails and a turntable pit at either end. Thereís a large cage on the wall opposite the slots with insulators for securing the power cables.
One half of the block is a mirror image of the other; itís divided into various rooms some with engine beds and others divided into bays. At the back of the latter rooms ladders go down to short tunnels running the width of the building; at the end of each tunnel thereís an exit point for underground power cables. At the back of the block thereís a battery room with a rack of lead acid batteries still in place.
A number of unused porcelain insulators are stacked in one room, one of them five feet long in a six foot wooden crate.
With a couple of hours to spare before our arranged visit to ROCHONVILLERS, we next made a return visit to the Gros Ouvrage LATRIEMONT, where nothing had changed since our list excursion there in 2001. Two generators are still in place, there is a workshop with a large number of tools including a lathe plus, a room with racks of electrical switchgear which is generally in good condition and the caserne area which is largely stripped out. We were able to visit a number of the fighting blocks, each with machinery still in place.
For many of us the Ďstar attractioní for this year's Maginot Line excursion was the visit to the GROS OUVRAGE OF ROCHONVILLERS. This was retained by the army and converted during the 1980ís into a nuclear protected underground control centre, remaining operational until 1998. Visits to the bunker have always been declined in the past but one of Tony Kempís contacts, a Gendarme in Thionville was able to persuade the army at Metz that we should be allowed to visit and photograph the bunker. A lieutenant from the Metz Garrison arrived at the gate promptly at 2pm to let us in. The word had got out that the army had finally agreed to a visit and we were joined by a number of French enthusiasts from the local museums and associations who were also keen to see inside the fort.
When we first looked at the entrance block from outside the perimeter fence in 2000 the French flag was still flying and there were various cameras trained on us so we beat a hasty retreat. When we drove past two years later the flag had gone and the cameras looked as if they were no longer in use. Our army guide came into the bunker with us and stayed there throughout the two hour visit but we were able to wander round freely and photograph anything we saw. The French all stayed with our guide but the Brits soon split away from the main party; the Lieutenant later commented that he wished he had come with us!
We went in through the old mensí entrance, which was rebuilt during the modernisation with a blast wall added in front of the entrance forming a covered entrance porch. Soil has been piled over the bare concrete of the block and the whole structure has been painted in camouflage colours. The munitions entrance has been modified in a similar way with a large blast door allowing vehicles to drive into the block. The mensí entrance has a smaller blast door and just inside it there is a security post with a bank of TV monitors for the CCTV cameras and a large control panel. Beyond this a door on the right leads through an air lock into the decontamination area.
A new lift has been installed in the original shaft and the stairs around it have been renovated. The stairs are very damp and slippery, as are most of the floors throughout the bunker. Since the ventilation has been turned off the bunker has been deteriorating and will no doubt continue to do so unless a new owner can be found; the army is hoping to sell the bunker. At the bottom of the stairs the main corridor runs northwards into the bunker. The original narrow gauge tramway is still there but the overhead traction cables have been removed and tubular ventilation trunking now hangs from the ceiling. The first door on the left opens into the Usine. The original generators have been removed and replaced with four gleaming new Poyaud diesel generators with only 467 hours on the clock. Beyond these is the ventilation plant room, again the original plant has been stripped out and new fans and ventilation plant installed. Beyond this is the plant control room with its impressive operatorís panel. To the right is a long room with gleaming racks of electrical switchgear along both walls.
Back in the main corridor, the next turning on the left leads to the old magazines, these have been completely rebuilt as the hub of the bunker with numerous offices, a briefing room/lecture theatre with raked seats and a projector screen, numerous maps and situation boards on the walls. There is even a bar with two large murals on the walls, one of New York and the other of English phone box! Most of the rooms in this area are completely empty.
Back in the main corridor there is a door on the right which originally led to an emergency exit but plans on the wall show that a number of rooms have been excavated a short distance along the corridor. Unfortunately the door to this corridor was locked and we were unable to gain access. Beyond this corridor the tunnel swings sharply to the left into the caserne with the kitchen on the left and the dormitories to the right. The tiled kitchen areas consisting of four rooms have been stripped of all equipment although two rooms still have extractor hoods.
On the right are the dormitories and toilets. The original toilets and wash rooms have of course been modernised and all the original bunks have been removed and replaced with newer bunks of a similar design, many of these still remain in place. The tiled infirmary is also located in this area but this has also been completely stripped. Beyond the caserne there is a junction with the other main gallery back to the munitions entrance.
Turning right towards the fighting blocks one of the old stations ĎGare Dí is soon reached. Here the tunnel widens to accommodate a passing loop on the railway and a number of trucks are still parked on the track at this point. As there is no locomotive itís unclear if the tramway was actually used after the modernisation.
Beyond the station, just before the junction to Block 9, a wall has been built across the gallery. Although there is a door this has been welded shut and our guide explained that there was bad air beyond and the gallery and fighting blocks had been sealed off and in any case never formed part of the nuclear bunker. Returning to the mens entrance we noticed an original machine guns in one of the alcoves south of Gare D.
Back on the surface we walked up into the woods behind the two entrances, here there is a large ĎTí shaped WW2 building that was used as accommodation for the security guards. There are dog kennels and an exercise area in the woods nearby. The building has shuttered windows along all sides, a main entrance at the front and a larger door for heavy machinery and plant at one end.
New toilets and washrooms have been added but the building appears to have been unfinished; in one large room the walls are still bare concrete.
The building was built by the Germans for the Luftwaffe after 1940 but it is also recorded that it was a ĎFuehrer Bunkerí for Hitler and is known as ĎAnlage Brunhildeí. It seems unlikely, however, that Hitler ever used the bunker although it may have been there for him to use if required. Even that seems unlikely as the building can hardly be described as a bunker. Although it is built of reinforced concrete it has numerous windows. Perhaps it was intended to excavate an entrance into the old Maginot Line fort from the building,
Sub Brit members discovered an identical building at the Osowka complex at Gory Sowie (Owl Mountain) during a visit to Poland in 2002. This too is unfinished and its use is unknown.
We had a 6 a.m. start on Friday morning as we had to drive down towards Strasburg to meet up with a German Maginot Line enthusiast Stefan Artner who had arranged the days programme. Our first destination was the GROS OUVRAGE OF SCHOENENBOURG another museum. We always try and include a mix of sites, some derelict and some restored sites; SCHOENENBOURG turned out to be one of the best we had visited.
Stefan is one of the guides at the fort and he was able to arrange a much longer tour on a day that the fort isnít usually open to the public. The fort has been very well restored over a long period. The Association that now owns and runs it took over the site in 1978 so they have had over 20 years to collect what artifacts they need from the other derelict sites and almost every room has been restored to its original condition with original equipment. Many museums are full of mannequins and interpretation boards which make them look more like a museum than a working fort, this hasnít happened at SCHOENENBOURG and it was possible to get a good feeling of what the fort must have been like in the 1930ís.
We went first to the fighting blocks, which meant an 800 yard, walk; all the blocks are located in close proximity at one end of the main gallery. Perhaps the most impressive part of the fort was the command post and telephone exchange, which are located in side galleries just before the fighting blocks. We were able to visit 3 of the 6 blocks; normally only Block 3 is open to the public. Luckily the blocks are all quite shallow so we didnít have to climb too many stairs. Block 3 is an infantry block with two machine guns and an observation cupola. This block is unlit and hasnít been restored; both machine guns are still in place.
Next we went to Block 4 with twin 75mm turret gun and two observation cupolas. Again this block hasnít been restored although it is lit. Here we were able to climb up into the turret and sit in the gunnerís seat. The magazines below still contain a large number of stillages (ammunition holders); a number of them suspended from an overhead monorail, which is how they are transported around the magazine. We also visited Block 3 where a second 75 mm turret guns has been restored and we were able to wind it up and down by hand and rotate the turret. One of the magazines below is almost completely full with stillages. There is a small museum area in one of the other magazines devoted to motors of various kinds including two large generators, which must have been dismantled to get them along the narrow passage and into the magazine, and then reassembled.
We then walked back towards the entrance block and into the caserne and usine, which are located close to the mens entrance. Most of the dormitories have been completely restored with bunks and a stack of personal artifacts that would have been found in a dormitory. Both the kitchen and infirmary have also been well preserved. The usine was something of a surprise; there are four generators there, all in good working order but they were unusually very small, much smaller than those to be found in similar sized forts. Close by there are two long filter rooms opposite each other, both with banks of cylindrical filter drums along each wall.
After returning to the surface we looked at all the surface features of the fort which, unusually, are all located in one field, devoid of any trees and undergrowth.
In the afternoon we went to the GROS OUVRAGE OF HOCHWALD. This is the largest Maginot Line fort; a claim thatís also made by HACKENBERG. Itís true that Hackenburg does have the more fighting blocks than any other fort but HOCHWALD has the longest total length of tunnels. HOCHWALD, like HACKENBURG is divided into two distinct areas of fighting blocks with five blocks to the west and six to the east. There is also a third section of the fort located between the two known as REDUIT this would have had two entrance blocks but was uncompleted as the money ran out. It is unclear if there was ever any intention to drive an underground connection to the main complex.
HOCHWALD is unique as it has two mensí entrances, each with their own usine. There is also a detached observation Block (Block 20) and a staggered anti-tank ditch with 9 infantry casemates overlooking it.
The fort has been retained by the French army and the caserne, usine and magazines were modernised in the 1980ís and now house one of two NATO command centres in France; with 300 personnel working underground.
Before entering the fort we looked at a number of the eastern fighting blocks, these have the construction date engraved on a metal panel on the front (1932 and 1933), we have not seen this at any other Maginot Line forts.
As HOCHWALD is an active military base we were accompanied at all times and were not allowed to take photographs in certain areas. We entered by the old menís entrance which has been altered in a similar manner to ROCHONVILLERS with a blast wall built in front of the block forming a covered porch. In this case the bare concrete of the block has been retained without any soil cover. Inside the door, thereís a security post with a turnstile alongside for access. Unusually, the main gallery is at the same level as the entrance block. After a short distance, the tunnel turns slightly to the left and here the Maginot Line machine gun position for defending the entrance tunnel has been restored.
A short distance beyond, the tunnel opens out into what would have been one of the stations with a passing loop. The narrow gauge track is still in situ but has been covered over and isnít visible. Three lines of tubular ventilation trunking and cables now hand from the ceiling. A small battery powered fire engine stands in the station.
Just past the stations two tunnels on the right curve round into the main magazine, each of them with a long railway platform. Two of the magazines now house a private museum with an impressive display of ammunition, artillery, photographs and maps relating to the Maginot Line. This museum is not open to the public and looking at the visitorsí book we noticed most of the visitors have been military personnel.
Back in the main gallery, the heavy steel blast door that would allow the rest of the fort to be sealed off is still in place although it can no longer be closed because of the metal ventilation trunking. A section of the door frame and wall has been cut away to allow vehicles to move more freely into the bunker. We noticed a number of small battery powered vehicles.
Beyond the blast door there is a junction to the right with a short section of tramway track still visible. One of the original overhead electric locomotives and a few wagons are stored here. The remainder were donated to the fort at SCHOENENBERG. Beyond this, a wall has been built across the tunnel as the eastern fighting blocks and a second menís entrance do not form part of the current bunker. The door into this older section can still be opened as the disused parts of the fort are sometimes used for exercises. We went through the door a short distance and could see occasional fluorescent lights disappearing into the distance. The atmosphere in this area was very humid.
Unfortunately, our short tour of the bunker ended at this point as the command centre closes for the weekend at 3 p.m. each Friday. As we walked back along the main gallery a large number of military personnel, many of them in Airforce uniforms, passed us on their way home; a number of them were riding bicycles.
Although the fort closed at 3pm our military guide stayed with us for another hour and took us to two derelict parts of HOCHWALD that are located nearby within the military area. First we went to one of the infantry casemates built to defend the anti-tank ditch. Casemate 3 was damaged by the Germans in 1944 and the present entrance door, which was fitted in 1946, came from the Atlantic Wall. As this door is bolted from the inside, we climbed down a series of stone steps into the anti tank ditch and then up a ladder and through a trap door beneath the casemate. Several bunk beds and a ventilation fan still remain on the lower floor while on the upper floor the machine guns have been removed although some telephone junction boxes and other wiring is still in place. A ladder goes up to an observation cupola with its rising wooden platform and winding gear still there.
Next we looked at REDUIT the third unfinished fort of the HOCHWALD complex. One of the two entrance blocks (Block 11) was built although it is now in an overgrown and dilapidated condition; it is kept locked by the army. Inside, initially it looks like a standard Ouvrage but with completely bare concrete walls and only temporary lighting in place; this no longer works. After a short distance the tunnel turns to the left and there is a machine gun position defending the entrance tunnel. Beyond this the gallery opens out into what would have been a Ďstationí. There are a number of alcoves cut into the walls, these are all in unlined rock.
Beyond the station the tunnel walls are lined with masonry blocks. After 150 yards a junction is reached, straight ahead the tunnel continues for another 75 yards but is completely unlined. To the left the masonry lined tunnel leads to what would have been the second entry block (Block 11). There are further unlined alcoves along this tunnel and by going into these the construction of the tunnel can clearly be seen as it is possible to walk behind the masonry lining. After 200 yards there is a flight of stairs and under the stairs a short tunnel. Both of these lead to manhole covers.
Our military guide left us at this point but before leaving we looked at Block 7 from the outside. This is the second menís entrance to HOCHWALD and still retained for emergency egress.
After a very enjoyable day we drove to a nearby restaurant that Stefan had booked, and enjoyed a local Alsatian specialty ďFlamkutchenĒ a Franco-German pizza, before driving 130 miles back to Thionville.
After a week with a very full schedule I feel we were all bunkered out and ready to go home. We left Thionville just after 9 am the following morning and I think everyone was relived when we finally arrived at the channel tunnel and were able to drive on to the first available train back to England.
My thanks to Tony Page for arranging this private trip and to Dan McKenzie for doing the majority of the driving. Also thanks to Tony Kemp and Stefan Artner for their help in arranging the site visits. This is the fourth year there has been a visit to the Maginot Line by Sub Brit members and next years excursion is already being planned.
Those present were Nick Catford, Dan McKenzie, Tony Page, Robin Ware, Jason Blackiston Mark Bennett, Jason Green, Pete Walker, Roy Smith, Bob Lawson, John Burgess, Andy Coutanche, Richard Challis, Clayton Donnell and Tony Kemp.
Report ©Nick Catford 2003 - Edited by Dan McKenzie