Secteur Fortifie Alpes Maritime
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AP Pont St Louis
The Trip Report from our 2002 visit to the Maginot Line in the Alps.
After our first highly successful and enjoyable trip to the Maginot Line forts in Thionville in eastern France in 2000 I and the rest of the party were quickly hooked. Having read about the forts in the Southern Alps I began to arrange another excursion it was going to take a lot of planning with hotels, air transport and hire cars to book and suitable sites to be found so rather than go the following year I decided to buy some time and organise the visit for 2002. In the meantime we all went back to Thionville, a relatively easy and short drive from Calais, in 2001.
Day One - It was eventually arranged that we would fly out to Nice from Stanstead where we would pick up two mini buses and drive to our base at Menton described as one of the most Italian of towns on the French Riviera, right on the Italian border. From there all the forts in the 'Alps Maritimes' sector of the Maginot Line were within relatively easy reach.
14 members of Sub Brit and one American guest
gathered at Stanstead Airport early on 23rd September. Our 'Go' flight
left on time and was only half full. We touched down at Nice Airport on
the Côte d'Azur in the middle of a storm, not a good omen for the week
ahead. We did get some rain during the week but most of it was in the
evenings just as we were walking to a
We headed off in convoy along the motorway
that snakes thorough numerous tunnels high above the Riviera coast, we
even managed to find an English radio station, Riviera Radio, with news on
the hour from the BBC. 30 minutes later we arrived at the ancient city of
Menton and found our hotel overlooking one of the many yacht marinas. By
now it was getting late in the day and although our programme suggested a
'swim in the Med' everyone opted for a quiet evening and a nice meal.
There are literally hundreds of restaurants within easy reach and it was
quickly apparent that half our party were a bit choosy about where they
ate while the rest of us were happy to go to the closest nosherie. The
food was generally good wherever we went and surprisingly cheap. Luckily
we had two fluent French speakers in the party and most of the rest spoke
'un peu' so there were no problems ordering food and drink. A relaxing end
to the day, with the promise of plenty of underground exploration to come.
The fort consists of three blocks with the main road west from Menton passing between Blocks 1 and 2. We parked in a lay-by overlooking the city and looked down on Block 2 with its observation cupola looking over the city and its marinas. We climbed down in front of the block but there was no access into the fort so we climbed back to look at Block 1 on the north side of the road. This was the main entrance to the fort with it's drawbridge over the 12' deep 'fosse' well and truly closed. We made no attempt to climb down the steep cliff to Block 3 which was blown up by retreating German troops in 1944. Although described in books as derelict, the main entrance block to Cap Martin had been fully restored and is in excellent condition. Unfortunately there was no indication of who owned it or how to get in so we moved on to the next fort.
From Cap Martin we drove north to ROQUEBRUNE, another Gros ouvrage close to the D50 road. First we had a look at some abandoned and derelict barrack blocks a short distance from the fort. Roquebrune consists of 4 blocks we looked at Blocks 2 and 3 from the surface but there was no means of access. We found the entrance (Block 1) on the edge of a building site. There were several cars outside and we could see the internal lights were on but nobody was at home. We enquired on the building site and were told that the fort was used as a store by the local garidinare (parks department) and there would be someone there between 12 and 1, unfortunately we didn't have time to wait.
We drove on to COL DES GARDES (111 men) a petit ouvrage on the left hand side (going north) of the D22. Block 1 is right by the road but there was no access at this point so we walked to Block 2 the other side of a low hill. This is not a fighting block and consists of little more than a door with one machine gun embrasure covering it. The footbridge over the fosse was missing but we were able to retrieve it from the pit and get across to the door. Although it was locked we were able to reach through a hole in the door and release a bolt to get in. A short stairway brought us into a long corridor, at the bottom of the stairs there was a bank of carbon filters that would have been used in the event of a gas attack. At the end of the corridor is a 'T' junction with the main corridor to the fighting blocks, Blocks 3 & 4 to the right and Block 1 to the left. In most Gros Ouvrages the blocks are reached by stairs, often several hundred of them, but at Col des Gardes they were accessed by ladder. Some of our members ascended the ladders but the blocks had been stripped of their light arms and were empty. There are several empty rooms accessed from the main corridor including a number of toilet cubicles, dormitory (caserne) and the generator room (usine). The small single diesel generator is still in place and in good condition. It was good to get underground at last even if it was only a small fort.
After lunch at St. Agnes we visited another petit Ouvrage COL DES BANQUETTES (74 men). This is a very small fort with three blocks with Block 2 consisting of nothing more than an entrance door into the hillside with no covering fire. All three blocks are on the same level and are linked by a corridor with a few short side galleries and rooms. Both Blocks 1 and 2 are open (entry into Block 1 involved jumping across the fosse) and the fort has been almost completely stripped and used for parties. There is a makeshift bar and bottles and other rubbish strewn all over the floor. One room just inside Block 1 still retains its filtration plant with one carbon filter cylinder.
Next we drove to MONT OURS. It is unclear what kind of fortification this was but as it was nearby and marked on the current 1:25,000 map we decided to take a look. The fortification was situated at the top of a steep hill accessed by a long and rough winding road with very tight hairpins. It was too far and steep to walk but as the gate at the bottom was open we decided to drive carefully up to the top. It took about 15 minutes to drive what in distance can't have been more than a couple of kilometres. As we got to the top we noticed a blue van parked. It was unmarked but driven by Gendarmes who told us we'd have to drive down again as they were about to lock the gate. There was no problem being there as it was a public footpath but we'd have to walk back. We followed the Gendarmes down to the bottom but declined their invitation to walk up again as it was a long way, very steep and probably not worth seeing anyway.
We retraced our steps to ST. AGNES (2450 feet above sea level) where the Gros Ouvrage museum opens daily (in the summer) at 3pm. We arrived just after 3, just in time to find a rather glum looking stubby Frenchman locking the door. He was obviously a 'jobs worth' we'd missed the first couple of minutes of the tour and he was determined we weren't going to join it. We'd have to wait for the next one at 4.30. We sat down and waited!
About 40 minutes later the visitors returned, all five of them. We approached the tour guide and suggested that as we had a party of 17 he might like to bring forward the time of the next tour he readily agreed and offered us a group discount of about £2 per head which seemed very reasonable. Unfortunately photography and video was strictly prohibited and the stubby glum Frenchman with a hooked nose followed us around at all times. He had a security badge on and his fixed scowl never altered until one of our party tried to descend into one of the areas that were 'off limits'. Several people had already been down there and hadn't been spotted but when Dan tried it the little Frenchman came running up to him shouting "No No No" it could almost have been a scene out of Laurel and Hardy film. Our French guide, Mr. Ray, was very knowledgeable about St. Agnes and interested in the Maginot Line in general. He gave us a very long and detailed tour and by the time we emerged at about 5.45 we had seen almost all of this well preserved and well restored ouvrage. I can't help feeling sorry for anyone waiting for the later advertised tour, they had a long wait and as soon as we returned Mr. Ray went home.
We started the tour with a short film about
the village of St. Agnes and the fort, luckily and surprisingly it had
English sub titles. The fort had been maintained and occupied by the army
until the end of the cold war. It had been retained as it might be
required as a nuclear fallout shelter or a nuclear proof command centre.
In the early 1990's it was handed over to the village and now run as a
tourist attraction. When fully manned the fort would have held 280 troops.
We were able to see three of the 4 blocks, Block 1 is the entrance block.
Day 3 - was bright and sunny. We had a pre arranged visit this day to LE BARBONNET. Before our arranged trip at 11am we had time to drive to the Italian border to look at the 'Avant' Post Pont St Louis on the French side of the Italian/French border. This acted as a look out point to report any impending invasion to the rest of the forts on the line and is only a single casemate built into the rock face overlooking the costal road. We were able to see the single embrasure and a typical Maginot style steel door in the rock face alongside. A little further up the road is the original Maginot road block gate which can be extended out across the road, from its protected enclosure. We drove a couple of miles into Italy to find somewhere to turn round but it was a good excuse to say we had been to another country.
On the way to Le Barbonnet we passed several disused sections of the Menton - Sospel narrow gauge tramway built to link the two towns in 1913. The most impressive section is an inclined viaduct looping round above the abyss below. The thousand yard tramway tunnel now forms one bore of a road tunnel on the new road into Sospel. We took the old road that winds high up into the mountains and took a detour to look at the Gros ouvrage of CASTILLION. The main entrance is immediately alongside a minor road. The men's entrance was welded shut and the drawbridge alongside was in the up position. Somebody had chipped away some concrete from the bottom of the drawbridge and a slimmer member of the party (Jason Blackiston) was able to squeeze through into the pit where the counter weight for the bridge was located. As time was pressing it was decided that a return visit was appropriate at a later date. We drove into Sospel, passed the Gros ouvrage of Saint Roche (a self guided museum) and up another long and winding road to Le Barbonnet
The original fort of Le Barbonnet stands on a mountain top overlooking Sospel.(2752 feet above sea level) It was built between 1883 and 1886 as part of the Séré de Rivières defences. The fort was renovated and rearmed in 1932 and in 1940 the Gros Ouverage of Le Barbonnet (with a linking tunnel to the old fort) was built at a slightly lower level alongside. The main fighting block (B2) is just below the ramparts of the original fort while the entrance, Block 1, is adjacent to the winding access road 80 feet below. The forts main claim to fame is the part it played in the Battle of the Alps in June 1940. It is still permanently occupied by the French army and there was a unit training during our visit. As a result we were not able to visit everywhere in the fort and photography was limited to exterior shots. The main armaments were 2 pairs of 155mm cannons mounted in hydraulically operated raising and rotating turrets known as 'Mougins'. They were installed in 1877 and weighed 150 tons each. Both turrets still remain in place although the guns from the southern Mougin have been removed. The northern turret, named 'Joan of Arc' is one of only two surviving complete examples in France. Between the two turrets there were 4 open emplacements but all the guns mounted in these have now been removed.
Having walked over the top of the fort to see
the turrets and the emplacements we descended into the narrow parade
ground where we could see troops in class rooms under instruction. There
is a small private museum which includes an intact German V1 rocket. We
were able to see inside 'Joan of Arc' which is on three levels with an
ammunition lift to the magazine below. There is a short internal tramway
linking to the forts northern caponier. All the machinery is in excellent
condition and well maintained by the society who look after the fort.
Having toured the old fort we drove down to the 1940 Gros ouvrage.
Although only consisting of two blocks, B1 the entrance and B2 the
fighting block below the ramparts of the 1886 fort,
The entrance blockhouse is on a hairpin bend with little parking available. The layout is fairly standard with all the forts we saw, once inside the entrance there is a long corridor with the generator room on the left and the filter room on the right. There are two marine diesel generators, compressors, compressed air tanks and racks of electrical switch gear, all in good working order. Beyond these on the right of the main corridor is the caserne with another well equipped work shop, water tanks, washing area, telephone exchange, the artillery commanders room with a floor standing telephone switchboard, situation boards and two telephone booths, infirmary, dormitories etc.
At the end of the corridor stairs lead up to block 2 which has two upper levels. The lift was still in place but not working so we had to leg it 80' up the stairs. The lower level houses two 81mm mortars. The mortars are fixed at 45 degrees as they are shooting out of the fosse, but they can be moved from side to side. On the upper level there are two 75mm canons, one original and the other a recent replacement obtained from another fort.
With the lack of manikins and interpretation boards found in many museums and a low lighting level using all the original electrical fittings Le Barbonnet gives a real flavour of what the fort must have been like when it was fully operational.
After a brief lunch break in Sospel it was back to CASTILLION to find out if it was possible to find a way inside for everyone. The two thinnest members of the party managed to squeeze underneath the drawbridge into the counterbalance pit and soon emerged on the opposite side of the bridge and reported that it was welded closed so there would be no access at that Point. There next mission was to climb to the top of each of the 4 blocks in turn to see if the emergency escape hatch was open or operable. In most forts these hatches are secured with four latches on the inside and these latches can usually be released. They struck lucky with Block 3 the emergency escape hatch opened into the fosse which created a problem, how to get the other 15 explorers 12 foot down into the fosse. It wasn't to prove much of a problem however as we'd brought a 25' electron caving ladder, ropes and tackle to rig a safety line. The rest of us slowly made our way 150' up the rock face to Block 3 immediately above us. This was quickly achieved with some puffing and panting from the more portly members of the party.
A number of our party had never climbed an electron ladder before. Being made of stiff wire it's slightly easier to climb than a rope ladder and with Jason Blackiston looking after the safety line (he is a trained and experienced life liner) nobody had any problems. Once inside the block we split in to several parties allowing people to explore the fort at their own pace. Some people like to rush ahead and see everything others, like myself, like to take their time and take a lot of photographs which made it impossible to climb to the top of the four fighting blocks. As it was getting late in the day myself and Dan decided that we would concentrate on one block, the one we were in and then go down to the lower levels.
Castillion is a very compact gros ouvrage spreading over a surprisingly small area. The entrance, generator and caserne are at road level. From there steps lead up 100 feet to an intermediate level, from this level, further stairs rise up to the four fighting blocks. It was soon apparent that few people have entered this fort, the only graffiti is right at the entrance and there is no evidence of stripping, robbing or vandalism of any kind. Although completely derelict and abandoned the fort is in surprisingly good internal condition with many original features remaining.
The final two rooms in the fort are opposite each other just before the corridor curves round through the entrance air lock. The filter room on the right with banks of carbon filters in cylinders along two walls. Opposite this is the generator room with two marine diesel generators, a compressor, fuel tanks and electrical switchgear all in good condition.
It was now getting on for 7pm so after a few
quick photographs around the entrance area we returned to Block 3 and
everyone climbed safely back up the electron ladder. Jason and Tony Page
stayed inside and relocked the escape hatch from the inside finally
emerging from the narrow hole under the drawbridge. We always like to
leave a fort exactly as we found it. By now it was beginning to get dark
so we hurried back to Menton for some well earned nosh.
The first fort was the Gros ouvrage of GORDOLON. The fort which housed 246 men is located close to the western bank of the River Vesubie at the end of a long dead end road off the D2565. As we approached the site the road became more overgrown and rutted and our way was eventually blocked by a land slide. We left the cars and continued on foot, after a further 200 yards reached the main entrance. The drawbridge was up but the men's entrance alongside was open. Again we split into several groups to allow the explorers to visit everything while the photographers went more slowly.
As with Castillion, Gordolon is on two levels with the entrance block, usine and caserne at road level with a stairway up to an intermediate corridor 60 feet above. At each end of this corridor further stairs lead to the two fighting blocks. The initial layout is similar to other forts we have visited, just inside the entrance there is a defended dog leg and beyond that an air lock into the main lower corridor. On the right is the filter room with two banks of carbon filter cylinders along each wall and ventilation trunking running from there into the rest of the tunnels. Opposite the filter room is the generator room. This time there are three marine diesel generators, some parts have been removed but they are generally in good condition. There is electrical switchgear along one wall and compressed air tanks for starting the generators. Back in the corridor the next room on the right is the kitchen. The range has gone but the extractor hood above it is still in place as are the sinks alongside. As usual there is a serving hatch into the corridor.
Beyond the kitchen there is a junction with the caserne straight ahead (all rooms empty) and the stairway to the intermediate corridor a short distance to the right. At the junction their is an original sign on the wall which reads 'Etage Superieur - PC Bloc 2, Bloc 3 Soutes' with an arrow pointing in that direction. There is a single lift with stairs winding around it and alongside it the lift motor room in good condition. The stairs to the fighting blocks are located at either end of the upper corridor and along a side passage is the artillery commanders office with other command officers alongside. All retain their individual telephone booths. The guns are still in place in both fighting blocks. Block 3 has two 81mm mortars and Block 2 has two 81 mm mortars on the lower level and two 75mm canons on the upper level. Alongside the mortars in both blocks there are two ammunition lifts up from the floor below.
Our next fort was the Gros ouvrage of FLAUT located at the end of a long dead end road from the D2565. We were surprised to find two cars parked outside but this fort is slightly closer to civilisation with several public footpaths passing nearby. They turned out to be berry or mushroom pickers. There are five blocks in total at Flaut, the entrance and four fighting blocks. When fully manned the fort was home to 296 men. The men's entrance was again open so we moved quickly inside and as usual split into several groups. Some of the tunnels in the fort are quite long and unusually steeply graded which must have made it difficult for the men pushing the loaded ammunition wagons. It offered an opportunity for some of our party to go for a ride on one of the remaining wagons.
Once inside the entrance airlock the first room on the right is the filter room with the usual banks of carbon filters on opposite walls. Opposite this is the generator room with three marine diesel generators, electrical switch gear, compressed air tanks and a compressor all still in place and in good condition. On the opposite side of the corridor is the kitchen which still retains its large range with an extractor hood above it. There is a compressor mounted at the back of the room but it is unclear why this was here, it's the only time we have seen one in the kitchen.
Beyond the kitchen there is a junction with a long tunnel running off sharply to the left. At the end of the tunnel are Blocks 4 & 5 but as time as pressing we left these to the other explorers and carried on straight head towards the caserne and Block 3. The dormitories and the infirmary are empty but the command offices are in good condition retaining their situation boards and telephone booths. The telephone exchange is also well preserved. Us photographers only had time to visit Block 3 which is the largest block with twin 75 mm mortars still intact on the upper level of the two level block. Alongside them are two ammunition lifts from the floor below.
Our final visit for the day involved a long
and arduous climb up to 6000 feet, some distance above the permanent tree
line. The views at this height were absolutely outstanding but the road
was not for the fainthearted. In order to get to the Gros ouvrage of
PLAN CAVAL we had to drive along a narrow circular one way road for several
miles with sheer drops of many hundreds of feet on one side and no
barriers of any kind. Eventually we made it to the top and parked our cars
close to a collection of abandoned and ruined 19th century barrack blocks.
These had nothing to do with the Maginot Line, but belonging to an earlier
generation of fortifications.
There is a long tunnel straight ahead with a dog leg and a defensive embrasure in a room to one side. The passage continues for about 75 yards eventually opening out into a series of unlined tunnels running left and right. A number of these have wooden pit props and one of them is very heavily propped with vertical supports and cross timbers. A number of passages have collapsed but it's possible to climb over these collapses to reach a series of very high parallel tunnels, the possible location of the proposed caserne and usine areas. From here there was a tunnel to a blocked door, presumably the original planned entrance to Plan Caval. This was later located on the surface on a valley floor below the road.
Having looked at the underground features we explored the surface. There is a Maginot block in the middle of the ruined barrack blocks but the turret and cloche were never fitted and the holes for them were later filled with concrete. There is a trench system on top of the hill with two small machine gun positions.
It was fascinating to see the various phases of construction of a Maginot Line Fort. It is unclear why work on this fort started so late but it is recorded that construction stopped in 1940 because of the war.
From Plan Caval we drove back across country to Menton where we all dined together at a posh restaurant.
On Day 5 - after another less than hearty breakfast we piled into the cars. We didn't have to be at the airport till 5 so there was still time to visit two more forts, one derelict and one preserved.
Our first port of call was to the Gros ouvrage of MONTE GROSSO, an unusually large fort for the Alpine sector more reminiscent of those we were used to at Thionville. The fort which had 7 blocks and 363 men is located at the end of a long dead end road 4 km north of Sospel. Luck was on our side again. Initially it appeared that we wouldn't be able to get in as the drawbridge was up. Although a large hole had been cut in the door of the men's entrance the second door beyond it was welded shut. There was however a small hole and our thinnest member, Jason Blackiston, was able to squeeze through and into the fort. He released the locks on the drawbridge and the rest of us were able to pull it down with a rope. Everyone entered the fort.
It was quickly apparent that this wasn't a
clean and undamaged fort like all those visited earlier in the week. The
walls were covered with soot and everywhere we went there was evidence of
wiring being stripped out. There appeared to be no actual fire damage
anywhere so it can only be assumed that the insulation was burnt off the
wiring underground which must have been very unpleasant for those doing
it. This is one of the few forts in the region with raising and rotating
turrets so as time was pressing the photographic party of myself and Dan
made first for Block 6 which contained twin 135mm guns within its turret.
To our surprise the scrap men hadn't reached that far and the turret and
it's guns were intact and in excellent
Although the lower levels have been badly
vandalised and stripped of any wiring the caserne was in surprisingly good
conditions. Most of the dormitories retain their bed frames and printed
names on many of the doors stating which ranks were in which rooms. There
were several other original wall signs at the entrance to the caserne and
infermarie and one door off the main corridor was labelled 'Chambre des
adjudants de Genie'. The generator room is a disappointment. It is the
biggest we had seen with four large marine diesel generators but they have
all been partially stripped with parts lying all over the floor. The room
was a mess.
Our guide explained that because of the recent bad weather the fort was damp and they were unable to run all the lighting. He was pleased that didn't seem to worry anyone. Once inside the fort we could hear an engine running, as we passed the generator room he explained it was the compressor charging up a compressed air cylinder. He said he hoped there would be enough air to start one of the generators on our way back.
The kitchen and caserne with its dormitories, infirmary and commanders offices are all in excellent original condition as are the two fighting blocks that we entered, Blocks 3 and 2. The lifts to the two blocks are still in good order although we weren't able to use them as the they are only safe to move equipment up and down. Luckily it was only about 50 feet up the stairs. Block 2 is armed with two 75 mm cannons and two 81 mm mortars while Block 3 has a 75mm turret. Unlike the turrets at Monte Grosso this one is in near pristine condition with all of its control equipment still intact. It is currently being restored by the Society.
On our way back to the entrance we called back at the generator room and our guide told us he didn't think there was enough air in the tank but he'd have a go at starting one of the generators. To his surprise it quickly sprung into life and we soon felt the rush of cool air blowing through the ventilation system. Unfortunately this was short lived. After a few minutes sparks started coming out of the alternator, there was a loud band and everything ground to a halt. Our guide didn't seem too perturbed explaining that there was probably no serious damage. The generator was very damp and would need time to dry out.
Our guide explained that the Association that maintains the fort has 400 members but only 10 of them ever do any work (a familiar story) so restoration at the fort proceeds very slowly with working parties one day a month. We offered to send a team over from Sub Brit next year and this was gratefully received.
It was now mid afternoon and time to bring our Alpine visit to a close. We drove in sombre convoy back to Nice Airport, left our cars with the car hire company (I hope they didn't notice the new dent that had appeared in one of them), we though it wise not to tell them the kind of roads we'd been driving on, many of them hadn't seen tarmac or concrete for many years.
My thanks to Dan McKenzie for organising a
superb trip that went virtually without a hitch. We got into a lot more
than I had expected and generally what we saw of the derelict forts was
preserved in surprisingly good condition. At £370 a head for 5 days this
is one of our more expensive excursions but bear in mind a professionally
organised bunker tour (of which there are several) would probably have
cost a lot more than double that amount and we would probably have seen
half of what we saw with Dan. I thought £370 was superb value for money.