The Maginot Line
When telling the story of the 100th Infantry Division, it would be a disservice not to include an explanation of the Maginot Line. It is a unique network of fortresses, linked underground, almost impossible to penetrate and in the hands of the German Army in 1944. The forts defined the nature of the military engagement between two powerful armies and played a central role in the battles that lasted from December 1944 to March 1945, including the day of liberation in Bitche.
This is an excerpt from a book, “The Fall of France”, that explains the intended purpose prior to the German invasion of 1940.
During the 1930s, the French had built the Maginot Line, fortifications along the border with Germany. The line was intended to deter a German invasion across the Franco-German border and funnel an attack into Belgium, which could then be met by the best divisions of the French Army. A war would take place outside of French territory avoiding a repeat of the First World War. The main section of the Maginot Line ran from the Swiss border and ended at Longwy. The area immediately to the north was covered by the heavily wooded Ardennes region. General Philippe Pétain declared the Ardennes to be “impenetrable” as long as “special provisions” were taken. If so, he believed that any enemy force emerging from the forest would be vulnerable to a pincer attack and destroyed. The French commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin also believed the area to be safe from attack, noting that it “never favoured large operations”. French war games held in 1938, with the scenario of a German armoured attack through the Ardennes, left the military with the impression that the region was still largely impenetrable and that this, along with the obstacle of the Meuse River, would allow the French time to bring up troops into the area to counter an attack. (Julien Jackson – The Fall of France 2003)
In summary, from 1935-39, the French build a line of fortresses along their border, except the section of the rugged Ardennes Mountains near Luxembourg, because the mountains are believed to be a natural barrier to invaders. The northernmost border with Belgium also has no fortresses and the French and British will deploy their troops there to stop any invasion.
Unfortunately, in May of 1940, the German Army mounted two major offenses right through the Ardennes Mountains, cut off and isolated the French and British troops north along the Belgian border at Dunkirk. Within six weeks, the German forces were in Paris accepting surrender. Among the most valuable assets gained by the German Army was control of the Maginot line. This network of powerful, protected artillery and weaponry gave the German armies an instant upper hand in controlling the region.
The 100th Infantry Division trained to re-take control of the Maginot Line and push the Germans back to Germany. In December of 1944, they began the march to Bitche.
This fortress was the strongest point in the Maginot Line and the forts and fortifications nearby comprised the “Ensemble de Bitche”, the objective of the 100th Infantry Division. It is located in the High Vosges Mountains, north of Strasbourg. The Citadel is unique because of its prominent and strategic location, overlooking the area. King Louis XIV commissioned the first structure in the 1600’s to defend France. When the Maginot line fortresses were constructed in the 1930’s, they were placed in key observation points to deter and defend. The elaborate design included heavily fortified walls, connecting underground tunnels and railways for supplies and munitions. All the necessary facilities to house and maintain troops were included in the design.
The Ensemble de Bitche was a stronghold of forts including Simserhof, Freudenberg, Schiesseck, Otterbiel and Grand Hohekirkel. They were all interconnected and mutually supported.