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U.S. Army vs. The Maginot Line

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The Maginot Line

Fortress Third Reich

The U.S. Army vs. The Maginot Line
The U.S. Army vs. The Maginot Line
by Bryan J. Dickerson


After having been invaded twice by the Germans in less than fifty years, the French constructed a system of formidable underground defensive positions to deter future German invasions and failing that, defend their country from them. Named for Defense Minister Andre Maginot, the Maginot Line was an astounding feat of military engineering and fortification that stretched for much of France's eastern border. Yet the Maginot Line was defeated twice in just four years. The first defeat occurred in May and June of 1940 as a result of the inevitable German invasion. However, on this occasion, the Maginot Line was defeated not by assault but by a massive German mechanized outflanking maneuver which forced the collapse of the French military, the hasty but miraculous extrication of British and French forces at Dunkirk, and the surrender of the French nation. The Germans were able to overrun or capture only a handful of the smaller Maginot forts and none of the large ones. The majority of Maginot Line defenders surrendered only after their nation had done so first. Four years later, the Maginot Line again was defeated. This time, the U.S. Army overran and captured Maginot Line forts from the Germans in a series of operations during the fall of 1944 and the spring of 1945. Though the U.S. Army had little difficulty with the Maginot Line overall, several of the forts posed a quite challenge to capture. Ultimately the U.S. Army was able to overcome stiff German resistance, difficult terrain and poor weather to capture these several still formidable Maginot Line forts.

The Maginot Line In 1944

As originally constructed, the Maginot Line was one of the most powerful and extensive fortification systems ever built. It consisted of a series of underground fortresses or ouvrages. These ouvrages consisted of revolving steel gun turrets, concrete gun casemates and steel fixed armored fighting and observation positions called cloches. The casemates were up to twelve feet thick in front and four feet thick in the rear and had minimal exposure above ground. The turrets and cloches were made of steel up to ten inches thick. The ouvrages came in two sizes: "petit" or small and "gross" or large. Though both were armed with infantry weapons, gross ouvrages also mounted anti-tank guns, and howitzers. Altogether, the line mounted some 339 artillery pieces of several different types and calibers. Supporting the fighting positions or blocks were underground barracks, ammunition and supply depots, and medical facilities. These were connected by underground tunnels. Underground railroad lines moved troops and supplies to the fighting positions. The Maginot Line was constructed to take advantage of natural terrain features which served to further strengthen its defensive capabilities.[1]

The Maginot Line that faced the U.S. Army in the early fall of 1944 was quite different than the one that faced the German Army in 1940. After capturing the Maginot Line defenses, the Germans allowed them to become dilapidated. Much of their heavy weaponry was stripped for use on the Atlantic Wall. Many of the under-ground facilities were converted into storehouses and in several cases, factories. Ammunition was in short supply. The Maginot Line was designed to counter invasions from the east. As a result, it had limited abilities to defend itself from the rear or west. Resources that could have been used to strengthen the Maginot Line were sent instead to fortresses in Metz and Germany's own West Wall border defenses.[2]

The Maginot Line fortifications had a major weakness which the Germans were unable to overcome: electricity. Though they had some electrical generating capabilities, the ouvrages were heavily dependent upon outside sources for the electricity necessary to operate their complex machinery. Unfortunately for the Germans, the outside generating facilities were located on the wrong side of the line and there was not enough time to run electricity from Germany. Once the power supplies were cut-off by advancing American forces, much of the weaponry, armaments, ventilation equipment and other machinery would be useless.[3]

The German Defenders of the Maginot Line

Army Group G with its 1st Army was tasked with defending the Alsace-Lorraine region. To accomplish this, 1st Army had the XIII SS Corps and LXXXII Corps. But the German Army that defended the Maginot Line in 1944 was a shell of the one that had captured it in 1940. The disastrous routs in Normandy and southern France had left its divisions greatly understrength. Panzers, artillery and supplies of all kinds were all in short supply. Only Allied logistical difficulties had prevented the Germans from being pushed completely back into Germany. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be found and Allied aircraft ruled the skies.[4]

Nevertheless, the German Army had several allies in defending the Alsace-Lorraine region. The first was Allied logistical difficulties. During their rapid drive across France, the Allies had far outrun their own supply lines. As late as November, the Allies were still having to truck the majority of their supplies all the way from the Normandy beaches. The second German ally was the weather. Extra-ordinarily heavy autumn rains sharply curtailed Allied air operations and caused massive flooding which often restricted vehicular movement to roads. The third ally was the Maginot Line itself. Despite their dilapidated condition, many of the ouvrages remained formidable if properly defended.[5]

German commanders, however, had no intention of using the Maginot Line as their primary means of stopping the American advance. Due to the experiences of 1940 and the situation in 1944, German commanders had very low opinions of the Maginot Line. "The defenses of the Maginot Line were of little value to us as they faced the wrong way, but the underground shelters were useful," Army Group G's Chief of Staff Major Gen. F. W. von Mellenthin later wrote. 1st Army commander Gen. Otto von Knobelsdorff found numerous deficiencies with the Maginot Line defenses in his area which rendered them unsuitable for defense. Col. Kurt von Einem, Chief of Staff of the XIII SS Corps, declared that "the fortifica-tions were of significance only as bomb-proof shelters." It was not uncommon for German commanders to deploy some or most of their troops in trenches surrounding the fortifications; neither was it uncommon for them to use trenches instead of the fortifications.[6]

The Germans preferred a mobile defense instead of one based on fortifications. The defense of Metz was a notable exception. The Germans had a particular fondness for counter-attacks. Throughout the Lorraine Campaign the Germans launched frequent counter-attacks whenever they could assemble enough forces and fuel to do so. Once ejected from a particular Maginot Line ouvrage, the Germans often launched immediate counter-attacks to re-capture it.

The U.S. Army vs. The Maginot Line

Geography dictated where battles involving the Maginot Line would be fought. The most significant Maginot Line forts and U.S. assaults upon them occurred in the section that ran from Longuyon near the Belgian and Luxembourg borders to the Rhine River near Haguenau. Because it generally followed the French border from Belgium to Switzerland, the U.S. Army did not strike the Maginot Line simultaneously along its length but rather piece-meal over a period of several months. General George S. Patton, Jr.'s Third U.S. Army first began encountering the Maginot Line in early September but did not fight its toughest battles against it until December. On Third Army's right, Lt. General Alexander Patch's Seventh U.S. Army did not come in contact with the Maginot Line until early December.

To capture the Maginot Line, the U.S. Army would employ its vast array of weaponry and firepower. This included artillery, tanks, tank destroyers, fighter-bombers, infantry weapons, and explosives. Despite the preponderance of supporting firepower, ultimately it fell upon foot soldiers and engineers to capture and destroy the Maginot Line ouvrages.

Third Army's First Battles Against the Maginot Line

Though some of its units first encountered the Maginot Line near the Luxembourg border in September 1944, Third Army did not fight its first significant battle to capture the Line's fortifications until mid-November. Near the Moselle River north-east of Metz, the 90th Infantry Division encountered Fort Hackenberg and several other Maginot Line ouvrages. Fort Hackenberg was one of the largest and most powerful of the Maginot Line's ouvrages. Dug into a heavily wooded ridge some fifty to a hundred meters higher than the surrounding terrain, Fort Hackenberg had nearly ten kilo-meters of underground tunnels and nineteen blocks of fortifications. Turrets that revolved 360 degrees gave the blocks some all-around defensive capabilities.[7]

Opposing the 90th Infantry Division was the 19th Volksgrenadier Division of the LXXXII Corps. The division was very much under-strength. For example, its 74th Regiment only had 58 officers and 218 soldiers available to defend its sector. However, their numerical weakness was offset significantly by the 51 machine guns and 16 artillery pieces emplaced in Fort Hackenberg's steel and concrete fortifications.[8]

As part of XX Corps' drive to encircle and isolate the city of Metz, the 90th Infantry Division assaulted across the Moselle River and advanced along the Maginot Line in this area. Speed was essential so any combat block not easily captured was bypassed and left for follow-up forces to capture. To do so, explosives and flamethrowers were employed. In this m10anner, Maginot ouvrages Forts Metrich and Billig and the pre-Maginot Fort Koenigsmacker were all captured by the close of the second day.[9]

Several days later, Fort Hackenberg proved more difficult to capture. Block 8 with its three rapid-fire 75 mm guns pinned down soldiers of the 357th Infantry Regiment and held up the regiment's advance for nearly a day. The thick concrete of the casemate resisted fire from tank destroyers and artillery including 240 mm howitzers and 8-inch guns. That night several M12 155 mm self-propelled guns were brought up to within 2,000 yards of Block 8. The next morning, direct fire from the self-propelled guns knocked out the stubborn block. The advance was resumed and XX Corps ultimately captured Metz.[10]

Third Army's next significant battles with the Maginot Line occurred on 25 November. On that day, four of its divisions captured sections of the line. XX Corps's 95th Infantry Division captured the Maginot Line defenses east of the Nied River. Several days prior, XX Corps intelligence officers had predicted that the Germans would not defend the Maginot Line. They were correct as only a few small units fought delaying actions. In the vicinity of Ottonville, G Company of the 379th Infantry Regiment was held up briefly by an ouvrage until it was knocked out by tank destroyers. American losses were extremely light.[11]

To the south, XII Corps's 6th Armored and 35th Infantry Divisions overran and captured Maginot Line defenses near the Maderbach Creek and the town of Putelange. Heavy rains had turned the fields into seas of mud. The mud restricted the American tanks to the main roads and severely limited their support of the infantry tasked with capturing the fortifications. The advance was slow but not particularly costly because the defenses were not strongly held.[12]

XII Corps's 80th Infantry Division struck the Maginot Line near Falquemont and St. Avold. With just a handful of lightly armed petit ouvrages, this sector was one of the weakest sections of the Maginot Line. The French had originally intended to flood the area in case of attack. The ouvrages included Bambiderstroff, Landrefang, Teting Woods, Bambesch, and Quatres Vents.[13]

The area was defended by Generalmajor August Wellm's 36th Volks-grenadier Division of the XIII SS Corps. The division was under-strength and short on artillery and anti-tank guns. Not long before, security troops who were familiar with the operations of the ouvrages' weaponry were replaced by Wellm's forces who had not had any training in their use. He later described the Maginot forts as "neither armed nor prepared for defense" and "suitable only as living quarters for troops." Most of the German defenders used trenches instead of the ouvrages.[14]

On 25 November, the 80th Infantry Division opened its attack with a five-minute preparatory artillery barrage. Supported by the 702nd Tank Battalion, and the 610th and 808th Tank Destroyer Battalions, the infantry advanced and captured eight ouvrages in several hours. Then they repulsed a series of German counter-attacks. Though the tanks were largely ineffective against the concrete ouvrages, the tank destroyers' high velocity 90 mm guns were able to penetrate and knock them out. American losses were light and some 600 Germans were captured.[15]

Third Army's December Battles Against the Maginot Line

In December, both the Third and Seventh U.S. Armies ran into Maginot Line fortifications directly opposite the German border. Due to geography, the U.S. forces actually attacked many of the fortifications from the south. Some of the strongest Maginot fortifications were located in this area. German resistance stiffened considerably but their primary intent was to delay American forces while the Westwall was hastily strengthened. As a result, the toughest battles to capture the Maginot Line were fought at this time.

In the first week of December, XII Corps assaulted the Maginot Line between Wittring and Bitche. The area was defended by units of the 11th Panzer and the 25th PanzerGrenadier Divisions. Both divisions were well-supported by artillery and anti-tank guns. The difficult terrain and ever-present mud largely confined the American tanks to the roads. In a series of costly attacks, the 4th Armored Division attacked and captured the area near Rohrbach-les-Bitches. The division's 37th Tank Battalion lost 20 tanks to anti-tank guns and mud during its unsuccessful attacks upon the village of Singling located within the Maginot Line. Having been in heavy combat for weeks, the 4th Armored was pulled out of the line for refitting and was replaced by the fresh 12th Armored Division. In its first combat operation, the 12th Armored assaulted and captured the Maginot Line fortifications in this area. At least ten tanks were knocked out and the commander of the 23rd Tank Battalion Lt. Col. Montgomery Meigs was killed by enemy fire while leading his tanks.[16]

On the 4th Armored Division's left, the 26th Infantry Division attacked Maginot Line forts around Wittring and Achen. The attacks were preceded by a thirty minute barrage fired by corps and division field artillery battalions. Five squadrons of fighter-bombers from the XIX Tactical Air Command bombed and strafed the German positions as well. The damage to the fortifi-cations was minimal but the Germans in the supporting trenches suffered heavy casualties.[17]

The division's 104th Infantry Regiment attacked four mutually supporting ouvrages around Achen. Using small arms, machine guns and white phosphorous grenades, the Americans quickly induced the German defenders to surrender. The 1st Battalion's commander Major Leon D. Gladding personally led an assault on one fort. With other soldiers providing cover fire, Gladding single-handedly knocked out one block with a white phosphorus grenade. Then he captured another block along with a German officer and his nineteen soldiers who were defending it.[18]

The 328th Infantry Regiment had a much more difficult time against Forts Wittring and Grand Bois. The Germans had evacuated most of their troops and left behind skeleton crews to man the machine guns. Nevertheless, both forts were still formidable. Fort Wittring was surrounded by combat blocks and Fort Grand Bois was protected by an extensive barrier of barbed wire. K Company cleared the blocks by mid-afternoon, but was unable to subdue the main fort. The fort resisted fire from a tank destroyer and 155 mm howitzers. After dark, a team of engineers and infantrymen crept up and tried several times to breach the fort's door with explosives. Finally, one of the explosive charges ignited the fort's ammunition supply and obliterated its defenders. L Company was unable to penetrate the barbed wire protecting Fort Grand Bois so they waited for darkness to cut the wire. That night the German defenders evacuated the fort and the following morning, the Americans occupied it.[19]

Seventh Army's December Battles Against the Maginot Line

On Third Army's right, the XV Corps of Seventh Army struck the Maginot Line in and around Bitche. Known as the Ensemble de Bitche, this section was one of the strongest and most heavily defended sections of the Maginot Line. The area had been strongly fortified as early as 1714. Over the next three centuries additional fortifications were added, culminating in the 1930s with the construction of five massive ouvrages: Simserhof, Schiesseck, Otterbiel, Grand Hohekirkel, and Freudenberg. Unlike most of the other Maginot defenses, the Ensemble forts could defend themselves against attacks from the south. In June 1940, the German 257th Infantry Division attacked the Ensemble from the south but failed to capture any of its defensive works. The Ensemble held out until a full week after the surrender of the French Army, giving up only after threats of recriminations against the French people. The task of capturing the formidable Ensemble de Bitche fell upon the 44th and 100th Infantry Divisions.[20]

The 71st Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division was assigned to capture Fort Simserhof, one of the two most powerful forts in the Ensemble de Bitche. Situated on a hill north-east of Holbach, Simserhof had eight combat blocks armed with machine guns, anti-tank guns and artillery. Some of its weapons were in turrets that revolved 360 degrees. Located about a thousand yards to the south of the complex were the personnel and ammunition entrances. From here, all of Simserhof's communications, electrical and ventilation systems were controlled.[21]

Before undertaking any assault, the 71st Infantry made extensive preparations to minimize casualties. Intelligence officers queried French civilians for information about the fortress. Patrols located German positions. Tanks and tank destroyers were dug-in, and camouflaged to protect them from return fire while they supported the infantry attacks. Fort Simserhof was subjected to several days of preparatory bombardments by artillery and fighter-bombers. Neither was able to do much damage to the thick fortifications but concussions from exploding artillery shells did knock out some of the fort's weapons.[22]

Artillery and air power alone was not enough to destroy Fort Simserhof; a multi-step ground operation was needed. First Fort Simserhof was isolated from supporting defenses by American infantrymen. Next, artillery and tanks suppressed enemy fire while infantry and engineer teams assaulted the personnel and ammunition entrances. At this critical time, the ventilation machinery failed, and the German defenders choked on the smoke from their weapons. The entrances were destroyed, sealed with explosives and buried by bulldozers.[23]

With Simserhof complex's entrances neutralized, the 44th Infantry Division resumed its attack on 19 December. The 114th Infantry Regiment attacked Hottviller and its nearby defenses. The 71st Infantry's 1st and 3rd Battalions attacked Fort Simserhof's eight blocks. Resistance was virtually non-existent because the remaining Germans had withdrawn in the early morning hours before the American attack. In a week of operations to capture Fort Simserhof and the vicinity, the 71st Infantry suffered about 25 killed and 185 wounded.[24]

On the 44th Infantry Division's right, the 100th Infantry Division assaulted Forts Schiesseck and Freudenberg as part of its drive to capture Bitche. Fort Schiesseck had eleven blocks that were constructed of steel-reinforced concrete and armed with machine guns, anti-tank guns and artillery. Each block was connected by underground tunnels and many of them were further protected by a moat. Supporting Schiesseck was Fort Freudenberg which was a single fortification with thick concrete walls.[25]

The 100th Infantry Division's commander Major Gen. Withers Burress suspected that the Maginot Line here might be undefended. So he sent the 398th Infantry Regiment in an immediate attack on Forts Freudenberg and Schiesseck with orders to halt and await reinforcements if they ran into opposition. The regiment quickly discovered that the Germans intended to defend the forts, so the attack was halted.[26]

To reduce the forts, a massive amount of American firepower was brought to bear upon them. Altogether, over ten battalions of field artillery including 8-inch howitzers and a battalion of chemical mortars were used for preparatory bombardments upon the forts in the two days which preceded the ground attack. Even two captured German 88 mm guns were used against the forts. Fifty-four P47 fighter-bombers dropped an additional 27 tons of ordnance on the forts.[27]

Despite the preponderance of firepower, only Fort Freudenberg was knocked out. The massive 8-inch and 240 mm shells were seen bouncing off Fort Schiesseck. Worse yet, the artillery fire was not driving the Germans away from their guns. So on the second day, the Americans changed their tactics. They brought the heavy artillery closer to the recalcitrant fort. M36 tank destroyers with their 90 mm guns and M12 self-propelled guns were used for direct fire against the casemates.[28]

The new tactics worked. The direct fire forced most of the Germans deep into Fort Schiesseck's underground chambers. With artillery shells still falling on the blocks, infantry and engineer teams rushed forward. Despite heavy small arms and machine gun fire from the blocks and nearby supporting positions, the American soldiers stormed into each block. In succession, the elevators and staircases in the blocks were destroyed with explosives, the entrances were sealed and the casemates buried by tank-dozers. To effect the destruction of Fort Schiesseck, U.S. engineers used over 5,000 pounds of explosives.[29]

Surprisingly, American casualties were relatively light considering the strength of the Maginot forts and the tough German resistance. 3rd Battalion of the 398th Infantry Regiment lost 16 killed and 120 wounded. The attached engineers from the 325th Engineer Combat Battalion suffered one man killed and four wounded. Most of the casualties were from enemy artillery.[30]

Seventh Army's March 1945 Assaults Upon The Maginot Line

Once Fort Schiesseck was captured, the 397th Infantry Regiment was to have attacked and captured Forts Otterbiel and Grand Hohekirkel. However, the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes intervened. Most of Third Army was sent north to counter-attack the Germans' southern flank. Seventh Army was pulled back so that it could assume much of Third Army's front. Of course in doing so, the 100th Infantry Division had to relinquish Forts Schiesseck and Freudenberg. Then the Seventh Army had to fight off the Germans' Nordwind counter-offensive in January 1945.[31]

By March 1945, both German counter-offensives had been decisively repulsed, the weather had improved, and the American advance resumed. Having given up Forts Freudenberg and Schiesseck back in December, the 100th Infantry Division now had to re-capture the forts again and then capture the remaining forts around Bitche. Attacking these forts a second time did have certain advantages for the 100th Infantry Division. First, they were very familiar with the terrain and knew the best avenues of approach to the forts. Second and more importantly, they had thoroughly destroyed the two forts before leaving them. Of course, the Germans had constructed new entrenchments and layed down thousands of mines in the interim.[32]

In making its second attack upon the Maginot Line around Bitche, the 100th Infantry Division changed its tactics significantly. This time, all three of the division's regiments would attack abreast. In order to catch the Germans by surprise, no preparatory artil-lery or mortar bombardment was fired. Both were to be used only when called for by the attacking infantry. Each regiment would be supported by tanks, tank destroyers, and 4.2-inch chemical mortars. Through patrolling and prisoner of war interrogations, the Americans were able to locate most of the new German defenses and minefields.[33]

Early on the morning of 15 March, the three regiments of the Century Division commenced their attacks. They encountered large numbers of mines and heavy German fire. On the division right, the 399th Infantry Regiment quickly seized the Reyersviller Ridge west of Bitche. In the center, the 398th Infantry Regiment's 1st Battalion bypassed German resistance and captured key terrain north and east of Fort Schiesseck. Its 2nd Battalion fought stubborn German resistance all day but managed to capture Forts Freudenberg and Schiesseck. Due to the demolition of the Fort Schiesseck the previous December, the Germans were unable to use it to defend against the regiment's latest attack.[34]

The 397th Infantry Regiment broke through the German lines, advanced upwards of 7,000 meters, and captured high ground in and around Schorbach. In doing so, the regiment overran the firing positions of the Germans' supporting mortars and rocket batteries. According to the Century Division staff, the regiment's actions "caused the entire fortified area to fall like a ripe fruit because its action eliminated all of the fires of the supporting weapons." The division halted for the night and prepared to resume the attack the next morning.[35]

At 0600 on 16 March, the Century Division resumed its advance on Bitche. On the division's north and left flank the 397th Infantry cleared all of the key hills and ridges north of Bitche and Camp de Bitche. The 399th Infantry drove into Bitche from the south and west while the 398th Infantry struck from the northwest. Soon Bitche was cleared of German defenders and liberated. This was the first time in its history that the fortified town had been captured by assault.[36]

With Bitche liberated, the American infantry pressed onward. 1st Battalion of the 398th Infantry captured Forts Ramstein, Petite Otterbiel, Grand Otterbiel and Otterbiel. The forts themselves were only lightly held as the Germans opted to use field defenses surrounding them. The defenders of one fort were induced to surrender after several direct hits by a 155 mm self-propelled gun. Meanwhile 2nd Battalion captured Fort Petite Hohekirkel north-east of Bitche. Outside Camp de Bitche, 1st Battalion of the 399th Infantry subdued several defended blocks with the help of several supporting tanks. When 2nd Lt. William Sullivan, a B Company platoon leader, demanded the occupants of one block to surrender, the commander of the 2nd Battalion / 225th Volksgrenadier Regiment, four of his staff officers and over 70 of his officers and men soon complied. By the end of the day, the Camp de Bitche was also in American hands. In less than 2 days, the 100th Infantry Division re-captured the Ensemble de Bitche with light casualties. Then it was relieved for employment elsewhere against the German West Wall border defenses. The capture of the Ensemble de Bitche was the last significant battle involving the Maginot Line.[37]


Most of the Maginot Line forts were captured by the U.S. Army with little or no fighting required. For the most part, the Germans chose not to and/or were unable to mount an effective defense of the fortifications. However there were several notable occasions when the Germans had both the means and the will to mount an effective defense. On these occasions, the thick fortifications combined with determined defenders made the capture of the Maginot Line forts a difficult and time-consuming affair for the U.S. Army.

Against the formidable Maginot fortifications and the German defenders, the U.S. Army employed its preponderance of firepower and proficiencies in the use of combined arms: artillery, armor, infantry and engineers. No one American weapon system was able to destroy the Maginot Line forts by itself. Only the M12 self-propelled gun and the M36 tank destroyer using direct fire were able to consistently penetrate and knock-out fortifications. The infantry and engineers captured most of the fortifications but they required firepower support from the other combat arms. U.S. artillery, armor, infantry and engineers were most successful when employed together in a coordinated effort. American commanders quickly realized this and routinely employed their forces in such a manner. As a result, the U.S. Army ultimately accomplished what the German Army had been largely unable to do in 1940: capture Maginot Line forts by assault.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2006 Bryan J. Dickerson.

Written by Bryan Dickerson. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bryan Dickerson at:

About the author:
Bryan J. Dickerson is a military historian specializing in World War Two and a Navy Reserve veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He earned a Masters of Arts in American History from Monmouth University in New Jersey in 1999. He is the former Editor of Cold War Times - the online newsletter of the Cold War Museum in Virginia.

Published online: 11/09/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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