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Hitler's Siegfried Line
By Neil Short
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Neil Short
All rights reserved.
January 1919–September 1939
After a superhuman fight he had succeeded in killing a dragon on the Drachenfels, a rock where dragons used to live. ... The blood of the monster immediately congealed, where it came into contact with his body, into an impenetrable, horny skin. Consequently, he took a bath in the blood and became invulnerable.
From the Rhine Saga 'Siegfried and Kriemhilde'
To anyone reading the articles of the peace settlement imposed on Germany at the end of the First World War it would be difficult to comprehend how the Siegfried Line came to be built. Not only was the Rhineland declared a demilitarised zone, which meant that Germany was not allowed to station any troops on her western border, but Germany was also specifically and indefinitely prohibited from building fortifications in the area. Furthermore, the Rhineland was to be occupied by Allied troops for fifteen years and a series of Commissions created which were tasked with ensuring that Germany complied with all the restrictions placed on her. Yet only twenty years after the peace treaty was signed, Germany had constructed a series of fortifications that stretched some 350 miles (560 kilometres) from the Dutch border to the border with Switzerland. To understand how this remarkable turnaround came about it is necessary to take a more detailed look at the terms of the peace settlement agreed at Versailles and the extraordinary series of events thereafter.
In January 1919, the leaders of the victorious nations gathered at Versailles to thrash out the terms of the peace settlement. The issues they faced were many and complex, but one aim was clear – never again should people have to endure the horrors of modern warfare. To this end Germany, who in the eyes of the victorious powers was responsible for the outbreak of hostilities, was to be prevented from waging war in the future. This was to be achieved by imposing on the fledgling democracy a series of conditions, the most significant of which was the emasculation of Germany's armed forces.
The job of formulating the terms of the treaty relating to arms reduction was passed to a military commission under Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch, who in the First World War was Chief of the General Staff and later Supreme Commander on the Western Front. He was deeply affected by the enormous French losses and was keen to impose a 'Carthaginian Peace' on the Germans. This became all too evident in March 1919 when, after only two months of deliberations, the commission finalised the terms of the German disarmament. The army was to be a volunteer army with officers serving for 25 years and other ranks serving for 12 years and it was to be only 100,000 strong. It was prohibited from having tanks, artillery and poison gas and the General Staff, which devised and implemented German strategy in the war, was abolished. The navy was reduced to little more than coastal defence force, with only six obsolete battleships, six light cruisers, twelve destroyers and twelve torpedo boats. It was denied submarines and dreadnoughts. To cap it all the German air force, was scrapped.
Germany was also forced to demilitarise the west bank of the Rhine, and the east bank to a depth of 50 kilometres. This encompassed not only the stationing of soldiers and equipment but also fortifications. These were specifically covered in Article 42 of the Political Clauses for Europe which stated that: 'Germany is forbidden to maintain or construct any fortifications either on the left bank of the Rhine or on the right bank to the west of a line drawn 50 kilometres to the east of the Rhine.' And was expanded in Article 180 of the Military, Naval and Air Clauses which stipulated that: 'All fortified works, fortresses and field works situated in German territory to the west of a line drawn fifty kilometres to the east of the Rhine shall be disarmed and dismantled.'
'Within a period of two months from the coming into force of the present Treaty such of the above fortified works, fortresses and field works as are situated in territory not occupied by Allied and Associated troops shall be disarmed, and within a further period of four months they shall be dismantled. Those which are situated in territory occupied by Allied and Associated troops shall be disarmed and dismantled within such periods as may be fixed by the Allied High Command.
'The construction of any new fortification, whatever its nature and importance, is forbidden in the [demilitarised] zone'.
Significantly, the Allies did not stipulate how long these restrictions should stay in place.
To ensure that Germany complied with the terms of the peace settlement the victorious Allies felt that some kind of leverage was required. It was therefore agreed that the left bank of the Rhine would be occupied and only if Germany met her obligations would this army of occupation be removed; troops from the most northerly zone after five years, those from the middle zone after ten years and those from the most southerly zone after fifteen years.
In spite of this measure, in January 1923, French and Belgian soldiers occupied the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany, in order to extract reparations after Germany had defaulted on deliveries of timber. Forbidden from fortifying her border and with no army to speak of the German government could do nothing to stop the French and Belgian troops entering the country let alone forcibly eject them. Instead the German authorities adopted a policy of passive resistance. This not only prevented the French and Belgians from extracting raw materials in lieu of reparations, but also sent the German economy into decline as industrial production ground to a halt. The result was hyperinflation and a rise in political extremism.
France too suffered politically and economically; her actions were criticised by Britain and the French Franc weakened. Under enormous pressure, France (and Belgium) eventually withdrew her troops and thereafter the French government worked to contain Germany using both military and diplomatic measures.
Militarily, France decided to construct a series of fortifications along her eastern border; the so-called Maginot Line. To the French the First World War had demonstrated that fortifications still had an important part to play in modern warfare. As such they conducted a number of studies to identify what defences would be most suitable to protect the border with Germany when the army of occupation left the Rhineland. These studies generated a lively debate. Some argued that a continuous line of defences should be constructed while others favoured a series of strong points. Other arguments raged about whether strong defences should be built like those at Verdun, or lighter more flexible defences in depth. In the end it was decided to construct a thin line of strong fortifications all along the border with Germany. Work began in 1929, under the new Minister for War André Maginot, and was expected to be completed by 1935 when the French forces occupying the Rhineland were scheduled to complete their withdrawal. Despite the injection of enormous amounts of money and the increased urgency caused by the decision to withdraw the army of occupation in 1930, the defences were not in a position to be manned until 1936.
Diplomatically, France worked to engineer a political solution to the question of Germany's western border. This culminated in a conference held in Locarno, Italy in September 1925 where a number of agreements were made. One of the key conditions was the pledge by Germany, France and Belgium to uphold existing frontiers and Germany's acceptance of the demilitarised status of the Rhineland. Moreover, the signatories also pledged not to resort to force to alter the territorial settlement.
Despite the outward signs of acceptance of the peace settlement evinced by the signing of the Treaty of Locarno, there was evidence to suggest that Germany was trying to circumvent or simply not comply with the provisions by which she was bound and particularly the restrictions placed on her armed forces. Tanks or 'tractors' were built and tested overseas (ironically many of them in the Soviet Union). Glider clubs sprang up all over the country which gave potential fighter and bomber pilots' valuable experience. The General Staff, although forbidden, also continued to operate, albeit surreptitiously. The Allies had anticipated such actions and so as to ensure that the Germans complied with the letter rather than simply the spirit of the peace settlement Inter Allied Military (IAMCC), Naval (IANCC) and Aeronautical (IAACC) Control Commissions were established in June 1919. The IAMCC, by far the largest control commission, was further divided into three sub-commissions dealing with 'Effectives' (or military personnel), 'Munitions and Armaments' and 'Fortifications'. Soon thereafter (September 1919) the Reichswehrministerium set up the Army, Navy and Air Peace Commissions which exactly mirrored the Allied Control Commissions. These commissions were created to act as a focal point for the Allies when requesting documents or when a visit needed to be organised. Initially, the creation of the Peace Commissions was welcomed by the Allies but it soon became clear that they were designed to obstruct and slow the disarmament programme not expedite it with the most trivial of questions referred to higher authorities for consideration.
This was never truer than with fortifications. A British report written at the time noted that as a result of the peace settlement, 'It was ... necessary to survey all works affected and to draw up a dossier on each. The German government, as usual, refused to supply detailed plans, so the reconnaissances were a lengthy business. They also had no intention of allowing the system of existing fortifications to exist in the "existing state". They argued that tactical improvements, modernisation and the installation of additional weapons, were all permissible provided the general system was not altered.'
The report continued: 'In the case of fortresses to be dismantled, the Germans sometimes tried to hide them by burying [them] under rocks. A favourite method was to invoke the need for economy. This always worked well when dealing with the Allied governments, who were hoping for large sums in reparations, because anything spent elsewhere would mean less for reparations.'
Visits by inspectors of the Fortifications Sub-commission of the IAMCC were also organised in such a way that, as General der Artillerie Friedrich von Rabenau noted, 'they did not see what they ought not to see'. In spite of all these difficulties, however, the Fortifications Sub-Commission did ensure that no new fortifications were constructed in the west, as per the terms of the peace settlement.
With the signing of the Locarno Pact and Germany's entry into the League of Nations in the autumn of 1926 there was growing pressure for the Control Commissions to be wound up and eventually in January 1927 they were. A number of British and French military experts remained in Germany to ensure that a number of outstanding issues were resolved – including the demolition of fortifications in the east – and these experts were finally withdrawn in April 1930. The main task of verification now fell to the League of Nations, but its task was never going to be easy and Colonel Gosset, one of the British military experts, noted before his recall that the only safeguard against German rearmament was 'to maintain in power a government in Germany depending in the main on the republican parties.' But this was not to be. Only three years after the last Allied military expert was brought home Hitler came to power and he was determined to restore German military might, righting the wrongs of the diktat agreed at Versailles.
For years the German government had argued, with some justification, that since the victorious powers were not taking steps to disarm, as had been intimated in the terms of the peace settlement, Germany was justified in rearming. Matters came to a head with the inability of the major European powers to implement measures of arms limitation at the Disarmament Conference that had been in session on and off since 1932. This precipitated Germany's exit from the Conference in October 1933 and set Hitler on a collision course with the western powers. He demanded the right to rearm and made it clear that if this demand was not met through a negotiated settlement then Germany would build up her armed forces anyway, in direct contravention of the provisions of the Versailles peace settlement. In 1934 the Disarmament Conference broke up without agreement and gave Hitler a golden opportunity to challenge the resolve of the western powers. In true Machiavellian style he made a series of revelations that took London and Paris by surprise. In March 1935 Hitler declared that Germany had an air force. In the same month he also announced the introduction of conscription, which saw the size of the German Army swell to 500,000 men, and the creation of three armoured divisions.
The western powers condemned these actions, but no direct action was taken for, although still poorly equipped, trained and organised, the German armed forces proved to be a powerful deterrent to nations still haunted by images of the First World War. Buoyed by his success, Hitler now planned a major challenge to one of the main pillars of the peace settlement. With France, Britain and Italy, the three major powers who had until this point worked in concert to check German action, embroiled in the Abyssinian crisis and under the pretext that the Locarno Treaty was rendered null and void by the Franco-Soviet Treaty of May 1935, Hitler ordered German forces into the Rhineland in March 1936.
Britain and France had been expecting Germany to raise the issue of the Rhineland as a topic for negotiation, but were surprised by Hitler's brazen act. As such, they had not developed a common approach to meet this emergency. France had the means to challenge the German move, but would not do so without British backing. Britain for her part felt that Hitler's action was regrettable but was not threatening in substance. This was, after all, Germany's 'backyard' and consequently the British government indicated that it would not support French military action if it precipitated the possibility of war with Germany. Consequently, the German remilitarisation of the Rhineland went unchallenged save for a few token measures by the French as they cancelled leave and moved some units to the frontier to man positions of the Maginot Line.
Hitler later admitted that if France had taken action to challenge the German move 'we would have had to withdraw with our tail between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even moderate resistance.' But France did not act. Hitler had gambled and had won and he was now in a position to mount a genuine challenge to Articles 42 and 180 of the peace treaty.
In 1934, only a year after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, the first tentative steps had been taken to fortify the German border in the west. Still wary of the possible French reaction to any German attempt to bend or break the terms of the peace settlement agreed at Versailles, design work began on two lines of fortifications which were to be built outside of the 50km exclusion zone east of the Rhine – the Wetterau – Main – Tauber – Stellung and the Neckar – Enz – Stellung. In 1936 work on the defences was started but was subsequently abandoned following the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. The focus of fortification construction now transferred to the western border proper. But disagreements emerged, as they had done in France, over the shape that any fortifications should take. Generals Blomberg (Supreme Commander of the new Wehrmacht), Keitel and Manstein believed that Germany would be best protected by a linear defence system that stretched along the German border. Generals Fritsch (Commander in Chief of the Army), Beck (Chief of the General Staff) and Förster, who was from 1933 to 1938 the Chief of the Army Inspectorate of Fortifications and Engineers, favored the construction of fortifications in depth in those areas where the enemy was most likely to attack. Initially the view of Blomberg, the Supreme Commander, held sway. Thus, in 1936 Phase 2 of the West Wall began with construction of a thin line of obstacles – sperrlinien – all along the French border from Switzerland to Luxembourg. This line consisted primarily of small bunkers and cloches which were only suitable for machine guns or observation.
In February 1938 revelations about Blomberg's new bride were made public and he was forced to resign. Hitler now made himself Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and almost immediately sought to fashion the defences to reflect his own ideas. He favoured the fortified area concept and although in March 1938 he gave his permission for the linear defences to be extended further north along the border with Belgium and part of the Dutch border he also ordered construction work to begin on a series of much stronger lines of defence, or stellungen, especially around Aachen.
Excerpted from Hitler's Siegfried Line by Neil Short. Copyright © 2013 Neil Short. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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