France Has Cool World War II Forts
The Maginot Line bunkers were like underground cities
Ouvrage La Ferté is like a hobbit hole with machine guns. The subterranean fort’s galleries and tunnels sprawl out beneath a prominent hill on the French-German border near the town of Villy.
Surviving armored mushroom turrets still poke out of the hill and offer a commanding view of the countryside.
Ouvrage La Ferté is the left anchor in a massive chain of underground forts stretching 200 miles. France built the Maginot Line at great expense in the 1930s as a hedge against German aggression.
A deep underground passageway connects the two main combat blocks at La Ferté. Eighty years ago the weaponry here was light – mostly machine guns and anti-tank guns plus two 75-millimeter cannons. Larger nearby forts sported more substantial artillery.
The iconic Maginot turrets came in two main types. Light weapons and observation crews were generally housed in fixed bell-like turrets called “cloches.” The cloches each had several openings and sometimes came equipped with a periscope.
The coolest turrets were the retractable, rotating electric variety. These were for the big guns. If one came under fire, a huge underground counterweight could pull the turret down so its roof was flush with the ground.
“Gunners [could] not see their targets, but rather [were] directed by observers linked to a fire direction center,” author Marc Romanych told War Is Boring. “The Maginot Line fortifications were connected by cable and sometimes radio communication. There were also artillery observatories emplaced along the line. In total, the fire control system was extensive.”
At Ouvrage La Ferté, a ring of barbed-wire entanglements that used to circle the hill protected the turrets.
Rows of anti-tank rails also line the front of the sector. The rails look like Dadaist art about the horrors of industrialized warfare.
A hundred fortress infantry used to call La Ferté home. The fort must have been bizarre compared to life in the countryside. The ouvrage was completely electrified at a time when your average farm probably lacked a telephone or toilet.
But drainage was a problem in all of the Maginot Line forts. The temperature in the subterranean galleries was 50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. They were damp. Add to that the smell of latrines and a hundred soldiers.
When the fort buttoned up, the men were sealed in like submariners, without sunlight or fresh air.
The infantry at La Ferté didn’t fight alone. “The Maginot Line fortifications were built as a system with mutual support between the [forts] and interval troops and artillery,” Marc Romanych explained. “The interval artillery would then reinforce the artillery of the [forts].”
La Ferté is classified as a “petit ouvrage” and is actually relatively small compared to some of the other Maginot bunkers.
The largest type were the titanic gros ouvrages, literally “large works.” They were underground concrete battleships, crewed by hundreds of men.
“G.O.’s had two types of artillery — 75-millimeter guns and 135-millimeter howitzers,” Romanych said. “These artillery pieces were the Maginot Line’s primary offensive armament.”
“In theory, if there was such a thing, a G.O. had six pieces of artillery — four or five 75-millimeter guns and one or two 135-millimeter howitzers,” Romanych added. “While the number of artillery pieces were few, they were rapid-fire weapons backed up by an efficient munitions-handling system.”
Shells could be quickly delivered to the turret crews through lifts that connected to storage magazines deep underground. The larger forts even had electric trolleys to keep their magazines topped off.
In addition to their larger batteries of artillery, gros ouvrages contained vast underground support areas. These fortresses were completely self-sufficient, with their own dedicated hospital, magazines, kitchens, power facilities, and even wine cellars.
The design of Ouvrage La Ferté is fascinating, but things didn’t turn out well for its crew. The German invasion in 1940 didn’t punch at the Maginot Line head on, but instead rolled around its flank through Belgium. La Ferté was the left anchor of the Line. It was completely overrun and it’s entire crew was killed in a tragic stand against the German Army.
Now a French national shrine and museum, Ouvrage La Ferté remains in place as a silent witness to the battle for France in 1940.