Czech KZ-3 fixed Fortifications T-34-85 turret.
Bulgaria: T-34-85 turrets were built into a bunker to create a fixed piece.
The fort at Hân al-Manqoûra (Syria) from the air.
Map of the northern section of the eastern frontier in Cappadocia and Syria.
To turn from the Occident to the Orient is to enter a new world. Here, Rome took over long-established kingdoms and inherited their frontiers. Equally significantly, she faced a dangerous foe, the only other major power which bordered the empire, Parthia. Much of Rome’s relationship with her neighbour was governed by peace treaties and a wary understanding of each other’s power. The route to Parthia lay across and down the River Euphrates, and for most of the first and second centuries this river formed the boundary between the two states.
The point where the two empires were conjoined was comparatively narrow. In the time of Augustus and for the next 200 years, Rome and Parthia met for a distance of only about 260km (155 miles) along the River Euphrates from Armenia to the north to the Syrian Desert to the south. In the desert there was little room for manoeuvre so the frontier remained static, but to the north, there was a continuous tussle to control the strategically located kingdom of Armenia lying to the north of the Parthian empire and east of the Roman province of Cappadocia.
Following the conquest of the Seleucid kingdom based on Syria and later Egypt, legions were maintained in the new provinces. Troops stationed in Judaea were concerned with internal security rather than with any external threat, as in Egypt. Syria was a different matter. It was the bulwark against Parthia. Augustus based four legions, supported by auxiliary units, within the province, including at the capital Antioch, athwart the main route into – and out of – Parthia. The area between Roman Syria and the Black Sea was left to be controlled by the resident client kings who undertook the work of defence on behalf of the empire. They defended not only their section of the frontier but, on demand, supplied troops to operate with the Roman legions, as attested from Augustus to Vespasian. These client kingdoms, however, were gradually incorporated into the empire as their kings died or Roman emperors decided. By the time of Trajan the process was complete. The legions were all now on the River Euphrates, and spread more evenly than in previous years along the frontier, yet still controlling the access routes to Parthia. Two legions lay in Syria, at Zeugma/Belkis and Samosata/Samsat facing Parthia and two in Cappadocia to the north, at Melitene/Malatya and Satala/Kelkit opposite Armenia. The southern three guarded routes across the river, routes which allowed passage not only for caravans but also for armies, while the fourth lay at the southern end of the Zigana Pass leading to the Black Sea. While the Euphrates might have formed the frontier, it cut through the mountains of Cilicia and in places the resulting gorge was 3,000m (10,000ft) deep, a formidable obstacle in its own right.
There is little more that can be said about this frontier. At least fifteen auxiliary regiments are known to have been based in Cappadocia in the middle of the second century and about twice that number in Syria, but the bases of these units are generally not known.
This frontier came under significant threat from the Parthians in the second century, as will be discussed below. The Upper Euphrates from Melitene/Malatya to Satala/Kelkit and thence northwards to the Black Sea remained the frontier, but further south Rome pushed forward into the desert, and this will also be considered below. The Euphrates remained a significant line of communication and on its southern bank sat the great oasis city, and Roman garrison, of Dura-Europos. Excavations between World Wars I and II led to the identification of the military quarter in the city, the only eastern site where this arrangement has been recognized and planned.
Raymond Abescat took part in the offensive against Douaumont and was lucky to come out of it alive. Eighty years after, as one of the last of the Verdun veterans, he recorded his memories of 24 October 1916 and they were as vivid as if they had happened the day before. He recalled ‘a particularly disturbing moment’ quite unrelated to the military achievement of that day:
There were a few of us in some shell holes. About four in each crater. In one of these hollows there were only three men, whereas the one that I was in held five along with the sergeant. As it was a bit of a squeeze the sergeant said to me: ‘Look, get in with the other three!’ I was about to do so when a comrade volunteered and went there in my place. A moment went by. Suddenly, a German plane flew over us… ‘A bad sign, that!’ And in fact, a few minutes later a whole artillery discharge rained down on our heads and a shell landed right in the hole where I ought to have been. Of the four who were there three were killed and the fourth – the one who had taken my place – was buried under the earth. We got him out gravely wounded. Because of that I have always felt that survival depends on factors that are completely arbitrary.
He was in action again on 16 November:
On that occasion I got a piece of shrapnel in my ankle. It was between nine and ten in the morning and there was no question of moving a muscle because everything that did move was shot down! I had to wait till night-time to get myself as best I could to the first-aid post. My war ended there. The time that had elapsed between being wounded and getting medical care had brought on the beginning of gangrene. I almost had to have my leg amputated. When I got over it, I wasn’t sorry to have left that hell behind me without meeting a tragic end…
Abescat’s reference to the fighting of 16 November shows that the battle did not end with the reclaiming of Douaumont. Nivelle and Mangin were eager to inflict more defeats on the now discomfited Germans. Fort Vaux was added to the tally of success on 2 November, the Germans having abandoned it as being not worth defending; to the French this low-cost seizure helped to cancel out the easy taking of Douaumont that had rankled ever since February. But a more positive flourish was required before the fighting could be closed down. It came in mid-December with a three-day battle on a six-mile front, in which Mangin’s troops advanced two miles beyond Douaumont and took 115 guns, a mass of machine guns and mortars, and 11,000 prisoners. Though only a right-bank offensive it was seen as an unambiguous triumph, and was acknowledged as such by the German Crown Prince. He wrote in his memoirs:
At dawn on December 15th our artillery positions and all the ravines north of the line Louvemont-Hill 378-Bezonvaux redoubt were heavily bombarded with gas shells. The French infantry advanced shortly before 11 a.m., after two hours’ drum-fire on the whole front from Vacherauville to Vaux. On our side the co-operation between infantry and artillery again left much to be desired, and our barrage came down too late.
In the centre of our front in Chauffour and north of Douaumont part of the 10th Division and General von Versen’s 14th held their positions with great stubbornness till late in the evening. In the sectors to the right and left of them, however, the enemy broke through on a wide front. On our right wing Vacherauville, part of Poivre Hill, Louvemont and Hill 378, and on our left the whole Hardaumont and Bezonvaux redoubt ridge were lost. During the latter part of the day the enemy extended his large initial gains, and enveloped the positions still held by our troops in the centre from either flank and in rear. Fighting went on till late in the evening, but all our struggles were in vain… This second defeat before Verdun was marked by a disproportionately high total of prisoners lost, exceeding even those taken on October 24th. The enemy’s communiqué claimed 11,000 prisoners, mostly unwounded, from all five of our divisions engaged…
The spirit of our troops had declined to a marked degree… to a considerable extent their morale and power of resistance was unequal to the demands placed on them by their onerous task…
The mighty drive of the battles for Verdun in 1916 was now at an end! To the bold confident onslaught of the first February days had succeeded weeks and months of fierce, costly and slow advance; then the gradual diminution of our forces had led to the cessation of the offensive, and finally two regrettable setbacks had wrested back from us much of the blood-soaked ground we had so dearly won. Small wonder if this ill-starred end to our efforts wrung the hearts of the responsible commanders.
I knew now for the first time what it was to lose a battle. Doubt as to my own competence, self-commiseration, bitter feelings, unjust censures passed in quick succession through my mind and lay like a heavy burden on my soul, and I am not ashamed to confess that it was some time before I recovered my mental balance and my firm confidence in ultimate victory.
That confidence too, it is scarcely necessary to add, would also end in disillusion.
This final stage of the campaign, spectacularly conducted under new management, was bound to cause casualties in the structure of the French high command. Nivelle and Mangin were so much in the ascendant that they had to be rewarded. Pétain slipped back somewhat into the shadows, to return in a vital role some months later, but the more significant victim was Joffre. On 13 December, two days before the final attack began, he was appointed technical adviser to the government and deprived of direct powers of command. On the 15th Nivelle was summoned to G.Q.G. to take over the post of Commander-in-Chief. On the 26th Joffre effectively fell on his sword by resigning. Some honour was retrieved when he was made Marshal of France on the following day, but the die was cast and he began his journey into an obscurity from which he would never emerge. An embarrassing scene took place at Chantilly in which Joffre, appealing for loyalty among the staff who had worked under him since August 1914, found only one officer prepared to stay with him as he relinquished his command; the fact that he had ‘limogé’ numerous generals in his time did not make his own removal seem the less pathetic. He would still have duties to perform but they would be ceremonial only, such as heading a French military mission to the United States in 1917 or serving as figurehead president of the Supreme War Council in 1918.
Meanwhile Mangin celebrated the new regime with an Order of the Day that trumpeted greater glory to come: ‘We know the method and we have the Chief. Success is certain.’ Future events – though not this time at Verdun – would show that his claim was as empty as Nivelle’s ‘We have the formula’ assertion on the steps at Souilly all those months before. But for the moment Nivelle was the hero of the hour, and Verdun was his triumph. And if nothing else the long struggle was over.
What kind of a battle was it that had thus come to an end after 298 days? Where in its almost ten grim months had Verdun taken the concept of modern war?
The Germans seized the opportunity of a major campaign to try out certain technical innovations. Von Knobelsdorf’s use of phosgene in his June offensive added another name to the burgeoning list of noxious gases; curiously, or perhaps not in view of the way the secretive Falkenhayn was running the campaign, the Kaiser only heard about it from the newspapers. Flamethrowers, initially tested in the region in 1915, were also employed on a major scale here for the first time. In July the flamethrower units were given the insignia of the death’s head; this would later become the insignia of the Waffen SS. Steel helmets were first used en masse at Verdun; the British equivalent came into use roughly at about the same time. Additionally German Sturmtruppen – ‘Stormtroopers’, trained to break through at speed leaving other units to ‘mop up’ behind them – had their first trial runs at Verdun: they would wreak much havoc in the great German attacks of 1918.
Artillery dominated the battle, and was by far the greatest killer. It was used on a massive scale. In White Heat, specifically devoted to ‘the new warfare 1914–18’, John Terraine wrote about Verdun: ‘The statistics of the artillery war… are staggering. For their initial attack the Germans brought up 2,500,000 shells, using for the purpose some 1,300 trains. By June the artillery on both sides had grown to about 2,000 guns, and it was calculated that in just over four months of battle 24 million shells had been pumped into this stretch of dedicated ground.’ But artillery on both sides was often massively inefficient and wasteful. Heavy guns were not always the super-weapons they were thought to be; some had to be re-bored after firing 50 to 100 rounds; moving them meant rendering them ineffective for many hours at a time. There were innumerable instances on both sides of casualties by ‘friendly fire’; thus the infantry could find themselves hating their own apparently careless or uncaring gunners more than the enemy. Communications were primitive and vulnerable; telephone wires were constantly being cut by shell fire; runners with vital messages often took hours to get through or never got through at all. Any assumption that one might have of cool Teutonic precision or brilliant Gallic inspiration and dash should be put to one side. This was for much of its time a monster of a battle in which gallantry had little meaning and glory was only in the eye of the distant beholder.
The cost in human terms was enormous. Estimates vary but one much quoted is that total French casualties, dead, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner, were around 377,000 while the Germans lost about 337,000, a very high proportion of these figures being fatalites.
The concept and conduct of the battle attracts few approving nods from military historians. Summing up the campaign Peter Simkins has written:
The French Army had come through major crises in February and June and had saved Verdun, but nobody had gained any strategic advantage from the bloodletting, certainly not the Germans. Falkenhayn’s fatal irresolution and failure to match the means to the end had merely resulted in the German Army being bled white along with the French. Neither side ever fully recovered from the hell of Verdun before the end of the war.
Adding together the casualty figures as given above, and noting some of the collateral consequences of the battle, Richard Holmes has commented:
700,000 and for 1916 alone: rather more than half the casualties suffered by Britain and her Empire in the Second World War. Nine villages, which had stood on those uplands for a thousand years, were destroyed and never rebuilt. Woods and fields were so polluted by metal, high explosive and bodies that they were beyond cultivation. Declared zones rouges, red zones, they were cloaked in conifers and left to the recuperative powers of nature.
A distinguished scholar of the German Army in the twentieth century, Michael Geyer, has written:
More than any other battle, Verdun showed the military impasse of World War I, the complete disjuncture between strategy, battle design and tactics, and the inability to use the modern means of war. But most of all, it showed, at horrendous costs, the impasse of professional strategies.
Alistair Horne has been honourably referred to, and frequently quoted, in these pages, so that it is perhaps superfluous to include him in this brief gathering of opinions. But there is one passage towards the end of his book which sums up so much so pertinently that it virtually demands its place, if offered here in slightly abbreviated form:
Who ‘won’ the Battle of Verdun? Few campaigns have had more written about them (not a little of it bombastic nonsense) and accounts vary widely. The volumes of the Reich Archives dealing with it are appropriately entitled ‘The Tragedy of Verdun’, while to a whole generation of French writers it represented the summit of ‘La Gloire’…
[I]t suffices to say that it was a desperate tragedy for both nations. Among the century’s great battles, Verdun has been bracketed with Stalingrad (no more tellingly so than by Hitler, as quoted in this book’s first chapter.) However, Antony Beevor, in his book Stalingrad, gives that battle the palm, stating: ‘In its way, the fighting in Stalingrad was even more terrifying than the impersonal slaughter at Verdun. The close-quarter combat in ruined buildings, bunkers, cellars and sewers was soon dubbed “Rattenkrieg” by German soldiers. It possessed a savage intimacy which appalled the generals, who felt that they were rapidly losing control over events.’ (One might add that, in common with the whole Russo–German war of 1941–45, Stalingrad was conducted with a racial-cum-ideological viciousness which would have appalled both sides at Verdun.) But if there was no ‘savage intimacy’, there was at Verdun a kind of terrifying loneliness. As the French historian Marc Ferro has written, ‘Each unit was on its own, often bombarded by its own guns, and told only to “hold on”… The only certainty was death – for one, or other, or all.’ It could be said that this was not so much a battle between victors and vanquished – such terms rapidly lost all meaning in so attritional an encounter – as between victims.
Robert Georges Nivelle (October 15, 1856 – March 22, 1924) was a French artillery officer who was briefly commander-in-chief of French forces during World War I.
Born in Tulle, France, to a French father and English mother, Nivelle graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1878 and served in Indochina, Algeria, and China as an artillery officer. He rose in rank from sub-lieutenant in 1878 to regimental colonel in December 1913, which he held at the start of the war in August 1914. A gifted artilleryman, the intense fire he was able to maintain played a key part in stopping German attacks during the Alsace Offensive early in the war, the First Battle of the Marne (September 5–10, 1914) – where he earned fame by moving his artillery regiment through an infantry regiment on the verge of breaking and opening fire on the Germans at point-blank range – and the First Battle of the Aisne (September 15–18, 1914). He received a promotion to Brigadier-General and command of a brigade in October 1914, then of a division early in 1915, then of a corps at the end of that year. A leading subordinate to Philippe Pétain at Verdun in 1916, he succeeded Pétain in command of the Second Army during the battle, and later in the year succeeded in recapturing Douaumont and other forts at Verdun.
Nivelle was an exponent of aggressive tactics, arguing that by using a creeping barrage he could end the war on the Western Front. His ideas were popular with the besieged Aristide Briand, the French Prime Minister and in December 13, 1916 Nivelle was promoted over the heads of the Army Group Commanders to replace Joseph Joffre as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. He devised a grand plan to win the war in 1917. This involved a British attack to draw in German reserves, followed by a massive general French attack aimed at the Arras–Soissons–Reims salient. However, Nivelle was willing to talk about his plan to anyone who asked, including journalists, while the Germans captured copies of the battle plan left in French trenches; consequently the element of surprise was lost. When launched in April 1917, the Aisne campaign (Nivelle Offensive) was a failure. He continued with the strategy until the French Army began to mutiny.
Nivelle was replaced in early May by Philippe Pétain, who restored the fighting capacity of the French forces. Nivelle was reassigned to North Africa in December 1917, where he spent the rest of his military career before retiring in 1921.
Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin, (1866–1925)
French Army general. Born on July 6, 1866, in Sarrebourg in the Moselle Department of Lorraine, Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin was expelled with his family following the German occupation as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. In 1885 Mangin joined the 77th Infantry Regiment and entered L’École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr the next year, graduating in 1888. Most of his early military career was spent in the French colonies. Known as an aggressive commander, Mangin was three times wounded in colonial service. His first assignment was in Senegal, and he led the advance guard of Colonel Jean Baptiste Marchand’s expedition across Africa to the Nile River at Fashoda in 1898. Admitted to the École de Guerre in 1899, Mangin was assigned to Tonkin in northern French Indochina before returning to Senegal during 1906–1908. Promoted to colonel in 1910, he carried out military operations in French West Africa
While in Africa, Mangin found time to write a book, La Force noire, which he published in 1912. In it he suggested that France could offset its population imbalance with Germany by utilizing troops from its African possessions. Such troops could be employed effectively in North Africa, freeing up French forces there. Mangin also believed that native soldiers, once they had completed their service, would form the nucleus of a new colonial elite who would be loyal to France. That same year the French Chamber of Deputies authorized the raising of several battalions of Senegalese troops. Under Mangin’s command, they carried out military operations in Morocco, seizing Marrakech in October 1912.
Returning to metropolitan France, Mangin was promoted to général de brigade on August 8, 1913. At age 47, he was the youngest general in the French Army. On August 2, 1914, Mangin took command of the 8th Brigade. Entering Belgium, he fought in the earliest battles of World War I near Charleroi. On August 31 he received command of the 5th Infantry Division. Mangin took part in the Battle of the Marne (September 5–12) and in the First Battle of Artois (December 17, 1914–January 4, 1915). He was promoted to général de division in early 1915. Mangin greatly admired African troops and used them whenever possible in his attacks.
Mangin was one of France’s more skillful commanders. His hallmarks were careful coordination and attacks launched on time and in an aggressive fashion. Utterly fearless, Mangin often inspected his troops at the front and was wounded several times. He was equally reckless with the lives of his men, winning him the sobriquet “The Butcher.”
In the spring of 1916, Mangin was ordered to Verdun with his 5th Infantry Division of Général de Division Robert Nivelle’s III Corps. Mangin’s division succeeded in recapturing from the Germans Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux, and Mangin soon became Nivelle’s favorite commander. Appointed commander of the Sixth Army, Mangin led it in the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive in Champagne (April 16–May 9, 1917) but failed to capture his objective of the Chemin des Dames. Attempting to shift the blame for his own failure, Nivelle relieved Mangin in May.
Absolved of any fault by a board chaired by Général de Division Ferdinand Foch, Mangin in December 1917 commanded VI Corps, the reserve of the First Army, which was in March 1918 assigned to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force. On June 16, 1918, he received command of the Tenth Army during the Second Battle of the Marne (June 15–18) and led it with distinction in helping to halt the last attacks of the German Ludendorff Offensive (March 21–June 18).
Foch then selected Mangin to launch the first counterattack. Mangin’s forces then drove toward Laon, which he seized in October. As part of Army Group East, Mangin’s Tenth Army was preparing for a major offensive in Lorraine in early November, but the armistice of November 11, 1918, superseded. The Tenth Army entered Metz (November 19) and then reached the Rhine at Mainz (December 11) and occupied the Rhineland.
Following the war, Mangin commanded French occupation troops in Lorraine in the Metz area. In this capacity, he supported Rhineland autonomy movements in an effort to detach that area from the rest of Germany. Made a member of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre (War Council), his last assignment, which he retained until his death, was the inspectorate of French colonial troops. He also wrote his recollections, Comment finit la guerre (1920). In 1921 he carried out a diplomatic mission to South America. Mangin died in Paris on May 12, 1925.
The Antonine Wall runs between the Forth and Clyde in Scotland, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Hadrian’s Wall. It was built under the orders of Antoninus Pius in the early 140s, and was permanently abandoned in the 160s. His Roman biographer states that he built a turf wall in Britain once the governor, Lollius Urbicus, had defeated the ‘barbarians’. Pius may have needed to establish a reputation for himself as a firm ruler, but perhaps there were local problems like idle soldiers, the tying up of too many troops in the numerous garrison posts of Hadrian’s Wall, and difficulties with supplying the remote central sector forts. There may even have been a change of policy requiring more exact control of the area north of Hadrian’s Wall, perhaps connected with the fact that the latter cut across the tribal lands of the Brigantes, the principal tribe of northern Britain. The plan may even have been to create a kind of ‘neutral zone’ between the Walls, through which individuals and groups could pass.
The new frontier was only 37 Roman miles (59 km) long, or around half that of Hadrian’s Wall. It was modelled on its predecessor, but was built entirely of turf on a cobble base 14 Roman feet (4.1 m) wide. The new frontier had a forward ditch, about 20 to 30 Roman feet (6 to 9 m) wide, but no equivalent to the Vallum was ever dug. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, the forts were designed to be part of the new frontier from the beginning, and even preceded the turf curtain in some cases; however, a second wave of forts seem to have been added during construction. The forts were interspersed with fortlets, but there is no positive evidence for a regular series of turrets. Their combined capacity means that the total garrison cannot have been very much less than that on Hadrian’s Wall. In military terms, this supplied twice as many men per mile of frontier than before. It was backed up by the garrisoning of forts in the land between the Walls. At High Rochester, an old Flavian fort site was utilized to create a new stone fort. At Birrens, the Hadrianic fort seems to have remained in occupation, with rebuilding work apparently undertaken by detachments of Rhine legions.
Controlled movement across Hadrian’s Wall is thought to have been abandoned: the milecastle gates were either removed or left open, and crossings were installed on the Vallum (the latter remain the clearest trace of this policy today, but are not easily datable). As far as the forts are concerned, their garrisons were probably transferred to the new Wall. Unfortunately, so few early garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall are known that this is difficult to show, but the First Cohort of Hamian archers, stationed at the Stanegate fort of Carvoran under Hadrian, was posted to Bar Hill on the Antonine Wall for a while before returning to. Even so, it is unlikely that the Hadrian’s Wall forts were abandoned. At Birdoswald there is no discernible gap in datable finds of the second century. However, some parts of the fort, unbuilt on since its construction, remained open; as these included the site of the later granaries, it has been suggested that the fort was only manned by a reduced garrison.
It’s unfortunate that we know so little about the history of later Roman Britain. Most of our detailed historical information dates to the first century, such as the accounts written by Tacitus. Thereafter, historians and archaeologists have no choice but to piece together a chronology from brief literary references to Britain, inscriptions, coins, and archaeology. Even this deteriorates because inscriptions, never common, become even scarcer after the early third century, and literary references increasingly sporadic and more unreliable. So it has proved difficult to avoid making much from little. This is far from unusual in archaeology, even for the Roman period. Britain was a backwater, a testing ground for premier military careers, but otherwise of only secondary importance to the Empire. She became useful and productive, but was always dispensable, making headline news in Rome only when war broke out. This forces a reliance on what is recovered from the ground. There is no avoiding the reality that pottery and coin evidence is far too imprecise, however carefully researched, to provide exact chronologies when historical references and inscriptions are lacking.
In the period 142-4, around the same time as the Antonine Wall was begun, coins were struck depicting Britannia, and were followed by a similar issue (which is normally only found in Britain) for the years 154-5. Such coins were usually produced at times of military success, but they do not always explicitly state this. The geographer Pausanias describes a phase of warfare during Pius’ reign which may have taken place in northern Britain, but he appears to have been mistaken, or had confused two different wars. The arrival of legionary reinforcements at Newcastle from Germany or the return of detachments temporarily sent to Germany, and rebuilding at Birrens, about this time might suggest something was afoot. Destruction and repair on the Antonine Wall may be attributable to these implicit phases of warfare.
But archaeologists have no doubt that the Antonine Wall saw two distinct phases of occupation, following careful examination of two levels of destruction and demolition debris. The problems are when and for how long, and whether the phases ended because of defeat or deliberate withdrawal. These have proved difficult to resolve.
The reoccupation of Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall was recommissioned by the 160s, though repair work is testified by 158. Calpurnius Agricola was sent to govern Britain around 163. He is mentioned by the biographer of Marcus Aurelius, and his name appears on inscriptions at Carvoran and Stanwix. It seems reasonable to assume that the Antonine Wall had, by then, been given up for good. If there was any Turf Wall left in the western sector of Hadrian’s Wall, it was now replaced in stone. Some of the turrets were demolished between this period and c. 220, being reduced to their lower courses, and the Wall restored to full width over them. It is unlikely that the Walls were occupied simultaneously. So, a logical assumption would be that somewhere between the late 150s and early 170s a decision was made to give up the Antonine Wall. The forts to its rear, such as High Rochester, remained in use, showing that withdrawal did not mean that the Roman command regarded the area beyond Hadrian’s Wall as abandoned. The visible fort at South Shields seems to belong to this period, and reinforced control of the lower reaches of the river Tyne to the east of the end of the Wall at Wallsend.
The Roman army retained a precarious hold on northern Britain. Cassius Dio, describing the reign of Commodus (180-92), mentions a war in Britain which he said was the most troublesome of the reign. Damage at some forts, such as Haltonchesters, has been attributed to this event, but only on the loosest circumstantial association. Dio does not specify the Wall (though he makes clear he means just one), so we can only assume that he was referring to Hadrian’s Wall. The tribes were apparently suppressed, because in 184 coins were issued with legends stating explicitly ‘Vict[oria] Brit[annica]’.
30 May 1944. Admiral Theodor Krancke (Oberbefehlshaber Marinegruppenkommando West); Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel (Oberbefehlshaber Heeresgruppe B); General der Infanterie Walter Buhle (Chef vom Heeresstab im OKW); General der Pioniere Alfred Jacob (General der Pioniere und Festungen im OKH). Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth (Oberbefehlshaber 15. Armee); Generalleutnant Rudolf Hofmann (Chef des Generalstabes 15. Armee); Generalmajor Max Pemsel (Chef des Generalstabes 7. Armee); Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann (Oberbefehlshaber 7. Armee); General der Artillerie Heinrich “Heinz” Meyer-Buerdorf (General der Artillerie bei Oberbefehlshaber West).
After the raids on Bruneval and St Nazaire, and Admiral Erich Raeder’s warning that the Kriegsmarine did not have the ability to repulse an enemy assault on the coast, Hitler realized that the situation in the West was not under control. He acknowledged that stronger naval forces would help, but Raeder believed that improved coastal defences would serve no purpose. Hitler had already issued a directive calling for the creation of a New West Wall along the coast in December 1941. Only five days before the raid on St Nazaire, he had formalized those instructions in Directive number 40 and sanctioned the fortification of all key and vulnerable sites, thus setting in motion the creation of the Atlantic Wall.
The only major fortifications built or under construction by the end of 1941 were the U-boat pens, casemates and associated facilities for seven heavy coastal gun batteries in the Pas de Calais, as well as several naval coastal batteries and positions on the Channel Islands. Work had also begun on the 380mm gun batteries on either side of the Kattegat at Hanstholm and Kristiansand. The OT [Organization Todt] had undertaken the construction of these facilities, mainly for the Kriegsmarine. Since the OT did not operate through the army chain of command, OB West had to depend upon its own resources for coastal defences.
Unfortunately, it had few means besides the RAD units, which it had taken over in August 1939 and formed into army construction battalions. These battalions were able to repair roads and bridges, erect barriers and obstacles, string barbed wire and lay mines, but their skills and equipment did not give them the ability to build anything more elaborate than field fortifications, even when using concrete. The coastal gun batteries were built for the campaign against the British and, like the submarine pens, were intended for offensive operations. However, since they were major fortified works, they were built by the OT. According to General Bodo Zimmermann, Field Marshal Witzleben had requested permission for the army to begin fortifying the coast in September 1941, but he had at his disposal only the army construction battalions when he needed the OT. The best Witzleben could manage was to station army units on the coast so he could give their higher commands the task of surveying their sectors for possible defensive sites and building field fortifications. However, a lack of construction materials seriously limited the scope of his building plans.
On 14 December 1941 Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel formally signed an OKW order that called for the creation of a ‘New West Wall’, whose mission would be to repel an enemy invasion with a minimal number of troops. The order called for the creation of Stützpunkt or strongpoints at threatened coastal areas and for improving the defences of battery positions. Due to the commando raids, first priority was given to Norway, followed by the coasts of France and Belgium on the Channel. The Dutch coast and the German Bight came next in the order of priority and remaining sectors were left for last. Norway became the responsibility of the Kriegsmarine, while the army received control of most other coastal areas, but this did not apply to fire direction for army and naval coastal batteries. Field Marshal Witzleben, OB West, was ahead of the curve since he had already begun designating Festungbereichen or fortified areas. The OT was given the responsibility for organizing and preparing the coastal defences in the West. However, the details still needed to be worked out with Dr Fritz Todt. The relationship between the three military arms of the Wehrmacht and the relationship between the OT and OB West also had to be spelled out.
Work proceeded smoothly in Norway where the Kriegsmarine retained control of coastal defences. The OT had been working with the naval fortress engineers almost since the outbreak of the war. After landing at Ratsenburg in February 1942, Fritz Todt visited Hitler’s huge ‘Wolf’s Lair’ headquarters compound for a conference on the new assignment and other matters. Albert Speer, en route from the Eastern Front to Berlin, arrived late on 7 February. Todt offered to fly him to Berlin the next morning. However, since Speer’s meeting with the Führer lasted until 3am he sent Todt a message that he would not make the flight. Todt’s special He-111 took off on the morning of 8 February 1942 and crashed within minutes. Hitler then appointed Speer as the new Minister of Armaments and the leader of the OT.
On 23 March 1942 Hitler’s Directive number 40 provided the guidelines for coastal defence, but failed to provide an adequate solution for the dispute between the army and the Kriegsmarine over control of the coastal artillery batteries. In May 1942 Albert Speer attended a conference at ‘Werewolf’, Hitler’s almost-completed fortified compound in the pinewoods north of Vinnitsa in the Western Ukraine, where he received further instructions regarding the defence of the West. Hitler decided that the OT would have to divert resources to the New West Wall. The Festungspioneer Korps or Fortress Engineer Corps, under Inspector of Engineer and Fortifications General Alfred Jacob, would be responsible for the design and supervising the OT, as it had been during the construction of the West Wall before the war. The Festungs pioneer Korps consisted mainly of staffs assigned to various districts, but had no troops that could actually carry out the construction work.
On 17 June 1942 the OKW issued a document formalizing the relationship between the OT and the Fortress Engineer Corps for the construction of fortifications. The Fortress Engineers would conduct the reconnaissance, select the sites and design the installations.
They would also decide the sequence of construction and prepare the blueprints for the OT. The fortress engineers would inspect the site and point out any flaws in the construction to the OT. They would also deliver to the construction site all armoured parts – such as turrets and plate armour – that required heavy transport. The engineers would likewise install all internal equipment for turrets, gun mounts, attachments to armour plate, weapons and optical instruments. They would also install the electrical wiring and mechanical equipment. Although the OT was responsible for security at the construction projects and storage sites, the engineers would supervise them. The OT could only take orders for fortification construction projects from the fortress engineer staffs. The OT was responsible for the construction and camouflage of the structures, the installation of interior components, including armoured parts, and the ventilation and water supply systems, but not the mechanical equipment and items listed for the fortress engineers. Except for the heavy items the engineers would have to deliver, the OT would be responsible for procuring and transporting all construction materials, creating wire obstacles, clearing fields of fire, digging trenches and other defensive requirements.
On 13 August 1942 Hitler specified what he wanted accomplished and told Keitel and others it must be done with ‘frantic energy’. Speer was to work with the engineer staff of OB West to create 15,000 bunkers to be used by an estimated 300,000 troops who were to defend the coast from the Spanish frontier to northern Norway, covering almost 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) of coastline by the end of April 1943.
Speer and his subordinates, however, doubted that they could achieve as much as 40 per cent of the total in that time. Hitler also wanted the bunkers to form strong-points manned by thirty to seventy men and to include positions for machine-guns and anti-tank guns that could withstand aerial and naval bombardment. The positions were to form a barrier using interlocking fire, like the West Wall. The protection of U-boat bases had to be put at the top of the priority list, followed by harbours the enemy would need to support an invasion, the Channel Islands and open coastline with beaches suitable for landings.
Hitler’s winter construction programme was an impossible mission, but Speer and the OT strove to meet their deadlines. In addition to the Atlantic Wall, Speer had to handle other construction projects throughout the Reich. Even though totals for concrete poured are often meaningless numbers, the following statistics illustrate how the effort grew in scope. During the first five months of 1941 the OT poured much more concrete for Luftwaffe installations than it did on other projects between July 1940 and the end of May 1941.
However, by mid-summer the U-boat bunkers had received about triple the amount of concrete used for other purposes, totalling over 350,000 cubic metres. Work on the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall did not begin again until October 1941. Between May and October 1941 only a few thousand cubic metres were poured for coastal defences (much of it on the Channel Islands), and the bulk of several hundred thousand cubic metres was used on the U-boat bunkers. During the late summer of 1942 the majority of the concrete poured went into the coastal fortifications: over 373,000 cubic metres out of 464,000 cubic metres poured in September 1942. During the construction programme for fortifications in the winter of 1942/1943 the concrete total stood at above 400,000 cubic metres, reaching a peak of about 770,000 cubic metres in April 1943. In spite of this massive effort, Speer was unable to meet the quota of 15,000 bunkers by May 1943, as ordered by Hitler. Monthly totals dropped to under 400,000 cubic metres (about 320,000 cubic metres in August 1943) but did surpass 300,000 cubic metres until February 1944, after Rommel took over. By April 1944 the totals were up to 600,000 cubic metres, but they dropped off suddenly when Allied bombing crippled the transportation lines in the West and the need for the OT to repair damage in Germany grew after the Allied bombings there.
On 29 September 1942 Hitler gathered Albert Speer, Herman Göring, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, General Günther Blumentritt (Chief of Staff for OB West), General Rudolf Schmetzer (Inspector of Land Fortifications for OB West) and General Alfred Jacob (Chief Engineer for OKH and Inspector General of Land Fortifications) for another conference at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Other staff officers were also present at this three-hour long conference. The Führer boasted that he would defeat the Soviets within the next year, but was worried that the Western Allies might try to create a second front in Europe. He was unaware that they would open a new front in North Africa a little more than a month after this meeting. His main concern at this time was Norway. Since France was still an obvious choice for invasion, he pushed again for the construction of a fortified coastline. Massive fortifications, he believed, would also offer a psychological advantage for the troops who must repel any assault.
In October 1942 Rundstedt and the staff of OB West prepared several operational plans, two of which focused on dealing with an Allied landing either in the Fifteenth Army area along the Kanalküste (Channel Coast) or in the Seventh Army area of Brittany and Lower Normandy (west of the Seine River); there was even another plan to counter a landing directed at Bordeaux in southwest France. A reaction force
– Armeegruppe Felber – was prepared for the occupation of Vichy France and a contingency plan was made for possible operations in Spain.
In response to the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, the German First Army and Armeegruppe Felber invaded the territory of Vichy France. The next summer, as Italy began to waver, General Hans-Gustav Felber prepared to move against the Italian Fourth Army in southeast France. In August 1943 General Georg von Sodenstern replaced Felber, and Armeegruppe Felber, which became the Nineteenth Army, took over the defence of the French Mediterranean coast. When Italy surrendered to the Allies, several of Rundstedt’s mobile divisions were dispatched across the border, while the Nineteenth Army easily subdued the Italian Fourth Army, sending 40,000 of its men as prisoners of war into France to be used as labour, mainly to work on fortifications on the French Mediterranean coast.
Earlier in the spring of 1943 Field Marshal Rundstedt had met with the Führer at his mountain retreat, the Berghof, at Berchtesgaden. Hitler simply shrugged off the problems in the West and showed no interest in the area until the summer. In June, as he worked on the last great offensive of the German army in the East, he turned his attention back to the West. The threat of a potential second front in Europe loomed again after the collapse of Axis forces in North Africa that spring. Due to an Allied subterfuge, the Germans became convinced that the next invasion would come in Greece or possibly Sardinia. Construction of launching sites for V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets began, although the engineers needed many more months to perfect these new V-weapons. Hitler gave priority to those sections of the Atlantic Wall where these V-weapons would be located. This meant that Fifteenth Army received the greatest number of troops and most of the OT’s building effort was concentrated in its sectors.
Construction on the V-1 launching sites began in the latter part of 1943. Allied intelligence uncovered the work on these new weapons and set in motion Operation Crossbow, whose objective was the destruction of the launch sites. The bombing missions against the sites near the coast, called ‘No Ball missions’, began in early 1944. As a result of these attacks, the Germans were not ready to schedule their V1 offensive against London until shortly after D-Day in June 1944.
Hitler examines model of heavy fortifications and bunkers, September-October 1942. From left to right: Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel (Chef des Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), Adolf Hitler (Führer und oberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht), Oberst Erich Kahsnitz (Führerreserve im Oberkommando des Heeres), and General der Pioniere Alfred Jacob (General der Pioniere und Festungen im Oberkommando des Heeres)
Battery Hanstholm I, 170mm gun battery. In front is an M-270 casemate for one of the four 170mm guns, with an M-162a fire-control bunker above it to the rear.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, already frustrated with his position as OB West, complained that he had little control over anything beyond his headquarters. With the establishment of Army Group B and Army Group G in 1944, his hands were further tied. Since taking command in 1942, he did not have control over Wehrmacht District Netherlands (except for operational control in case of invasion), the 3rd Air Fleet or the coastal naval units. His authority over the air and naval forces was limited to making requests. In a post-war account for the American Army, General Bodo Zimmerman also wrote that Rundstedt was ‘gravely concerned’ because he ‘felt that neither the combat efficiency of the field forces nor the fortifications was adequate’ from 1942 through 1943.
Zimmerman also opined that the Luftwaffe was ‘in a state of utter inferiority’. Considering the situation, von Rundstedt undertook a thorough inspection of the entire coast to determine existing flaws and weaknesses in order to present his case to OKW. His inspection included an evaluation of the condition of the field forces, the state of the troops (age, nationality, training and experience) and their weapons and equipment. In addition, he identified the ability of these field units as either ready, conditionally ready or not ready for taking part in offensive and defensive operations. He examined the tactical and technical situation of permanent and field fortifications for coastal defence and pointed out what needed to be changed. Von Rundstedt insisted that food stocks should be adequate to allow the soldiers to hold out for one week in the resistance points, two weeks in strongpoints, one month in strongpoint groups, three months in fortresses and indefinitely in the Channel Islands. He also looked over signal communications, alarm systems and preparations to counter glider and paratrooper landings. Rundstedt’s inspection began in late May 1943 and finished in early October. In addition to the army experts, representatives of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine also took part in the undertaking. After the reports were compiled, OB West tried to address as many of the deficiencies as possible before Rundstedt forwarded a detailed survey to OKW. The deficiencies identified by Rundstedt included:
The fortifications and garrisons along the coast were so scattered that the only sector which qualified as having limited defensive readiness was in the Pas de Calais area of Fifteenth Army.
Only fortresses were sufficiently defended.
The coastal sectors were weakly garrisoned and lacked fortifications.
The French Mediterranean coast had the most deficiencies related to defences and troops.
Divisional sectors were over-extended and lacked depth. The Fifteenth Army divisional coastal sectors were 30–40 kilometres (20–25 miles), while in Brittany they were sometimes 200 kilometres (120 miles) or more. On average, most divisions under the command of OB West held sectors of up to 100 kilometres (60 miles). There was no tactical or strategic depth in the defences.
Lack of mobility would present serious difficulties.
In addition to these problems, noted Zimmerman, the best formations under OB West were being depleted or transferred to meet the needs of every crisis. Von Rundstedt dispatched this detailed report to OKW on 25 October 1943 from his headquarters at St Germain, near Paris. He asked Keitel to bring it, with his own assessment of the situation, to the Führer’s attention. According to von Rundstedt, the Atlantic Wall was beneficial for propaganda purposes and for helping in the defence, but it was an obstacle the enemy could overcome. The Germans’ only hope of victory, he believed, rested on their ability to launch strong counterattacks. He warned that his troop strength was too weak to hold the coastal fortifications and launch such a counterattack. The divisions of Fifteenth Army, which occupied the area most likely to be invaded, according to Rundstedt (the Kanalküste and the region extending from the Pas de Calais to the mouths of the Somme and the Seine), each covered coastal sectors of up to 30–40 kilometres (20–25 miles). In contrast, an entire army corps (two or more divisions) on the Eastern Front, where the German army was already over-extended, normally held a front of about 50 kilometres (32 miles). The situation was worse in the Seventh Army district in Normandy, west of the Seine, and in Brittany where the divisions held sectors of up to 170 kilometres (120 miles). On the French Atlantic coast, the least likely to be invaded, the First Army had some divisions holding fronts of over 325 kilometres (210 miles). To add insult to injury, most of the divisions consisted of two under-strength regiments with no transport and with insufficient or obsolete artillery and anti-tank weapons. According to General Blumentritt, in the month prior to the report the Atlantic Wall in OB West’s sectors was held by twenty-two infantry divisions, including six infantry divisions and seven armoured and motorized divisions in reserve. Some of these formations were rebuilding or new, and most had been forced to trade off combat-ready troops for newly trained recruits and troops rehabilitating after duty in the East. That September some of the better divisions were sent to Italy when it left the Axis. ‘OB West had no delusions as to its combat strength (particularly that of its Eastern troops) as compared with that of the Western Allies,’ observed Zimmerman after the war. Von Rundstedt’s report also pointed out the lack of self-propelled guns and anti-tank guns and highlighted the drawbacks of having a large variety of weapons, especially foreign ones, which required ammunition that was not always readily available. Most divisional artillery had limited mobility and relied heavily on horse-drawn guns. Other problems included insufficient fuel allotments, static divisions with only enough transport for supplies and the declining strength of the Luftwaffe. OB West emphasized that a fully mobile strategic reserve was not available for the counteroffensive that would be needed to drive the Allies back into the sea.
The situation in the East continued to deteriorate at a more rapid pace after the Germans’ defeat at Kursk during the summer of 1943. To make things worse, Hitler was forced to divert several divisions – including some taking part in the fighting for Kursk (Operation Citadel) – to Italy in response to the Allied invasion of Sicily. Italy surrendered before long and the Allied invasion of the mainland in September required the commitment of additional German troops. The overall situation left Hitler with no choice but to act upon von Rundstedt’s report if he did not want the West to fall like a house of cards. Even though the quality and condition of the troops sent to the West mainly for rehabilitation did not improve, the supply of weapons and equipment did, at least for Fifteenth Army. OKW also promised to create a strategic reserve. This was partially achieved with the activation of Panzergruppe West in January 1944.
Hitler formally responded to von Rundstedt’s September report on 3 November 1943 with Führer Directive number 51 in which he lamented that the two-and-a-half years of war against the Communists had absorbed most of Germany’s war effort, and acknow ledged that a great threat now loomed in the West as the Allies prepared for landings. Germany, he claimed, could lose ground on a large scale in the East without suffering a fatal blow, but not in the West.37 Hitler and his staff expected the Allies to attempt landings in the spring of 1944 and concluded that they could no longer weaken the defences in the West to support other theatres. In fact, they had to reinforce them, which included deploying the secret V-weapons. Hitler also fretted that diversionary landings were possible, including in Denmark. His directive called for all panzer and panzergrenadier divisions to become sufficiently mobile and to be equipped with Panzer IV tanks by the end of the year. He also called up the 12th SS Panzer Division – formed mainly from teenage Hitler Youth – and the 21st Panzer Division. Moreover, he decided to send additional reinforcements of self-propelled and heavy anti-tank guns to the West and Denmark. Most importantly, he forbade the withdrawal of formations in the West without his permission. Areas that were unlikely to be attacked were to be ‘ruthlessly stripped of all except the smallest forces essential for guard duties’. The Luftwaffe was to increase its strength in the West and the Kriegsmarine was to plan to bring all possible naval forces into action against an Allied landing fleet. Coastal defences under construction were to be completed with all speed and additional batteries and obstacles were to be laid on the flanks. Hitler insisted that special attention had to be given to prepare for landings in Norway and Denmark. During the winter of 1943/1944 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, as Inspector General of Defence reporting directly to the Führer, was sent to inspect positions on the Atlantic Wall. He soon assumed command of a new Army Group B headquarters that controlled northern France. Rommel was to be the catalyst for turning the Atlantic Wall into a formidable barrier since the work done during 1943 did not live up to Hitler’s expectations.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had been pulled out of North Africa for health reasons and was later assigned to a new headquarters that became Army Group B a few months later. In late July 1943 Rommel was in Greece to survey the situation there because Hitler had planned for his army group to take command of Greece and the Aegean. At the time Hitler believed the Allied deception plan for a landing in that region. However, soon after he arrived at his new station, Hitler recalled him and made him move his headquarters from Munich to Lake Garda, Italy, in mid-August. He was to take command in northern Italy first, and then all of Italy. However, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who was in command in southern Italy, refused to become Rommel’s subordinate. Finally, in November Hitler decided to send Rommel and his headquarters staff to the West. Rommel departed by aircraft on 21 November. His staff followed shortly afterwards. As his first assignment was to inspect the Atlantic Wall, he began with a rail trip to Silkeborg in Jutland (headquarters for the Commander-in-Chief Denmark). After a ten-day tour of western Jutland, he discovered that the Atlantic Wall was, for the most part, a sham creation of propagandists. The picture did not improve significantly as he proceeded along the English Channel to Brittany. Finally, in February he inspected the Atlantic coast and the French Mediterranean, since they were all part of his assignment, even though his army group would only command the Seventh and Fifteenth Armies. Rommel had a free hand in turning the Atlantic Wall into a fortified line. In the process he came into conflict with Geyr von Schweppenburg, Commander of Panzergruppe West, over the deployment of the mobile formations held in reserve and for a counterattack. Although von Rundstedt was the one who insisted that a strategic reserve was needed to launch the counter-blow and supported von Schweppenburg, according to Zimmerman, Rundstedt also believed the allies would ‘attack with tremendous technical and material superiority’ and that ‘the impending invasion would be decided on the first day’. This would be more in line with Rommel’s opinion that the mobile reserve needed to be close to the coast since it had to be ready to strike on the first day.
Rommel felt that the headquarters of Army Group B, set up at the palace of Fontainebleau in December 1943, lay too far from the coast. He received permission to move it closer to the coast at Chateau La Roche-Guyon on the Seine, and he occupied his new HQ there after the first week of March 1944. As Rommel went about his work, on 19 January 1944 Hitler designated several coastal areas between the Netherlands and the Gironde River as fortresses, when previously they had been defence areas known as Verteidigungsberich. These fortresses included Ijmuiden, the Hoek van Holland, Dunkirk, Boulogne, Le Havre, Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, Lorient, St Nazaire, Gironde Mündung Sud (Gironde Estuary South) and Gironde Mündung Nord (also known as Royan). On 3 March he added the Channel Islands (Fortresses Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney), a status they already held unofficially. La Rochelle/La Pallice, Calais, Den Helder and Vlissingen (Flushing) were VBs, but on 4 September Hitler declared the commanders of Calais and Walchern Island (including Vlissingen) to have the authority of a fortress commander in their VB.
The last instructions issued were in Führer Order number 11 on 8 March 1944. This directive laid down procedures for fortified areas and battle commanders in all theatres. In this directive Hitler distinguished fortified areas from local strong-points. The fortified areas were to allow themselves to be encircled to draw off the greatest possible number of enemy forces. In the West Hitler wanted all his ‘fortresses’ to hold out to the end.
On 29 August 1944, well after the invasion of Normandy and the Allied landings in southern France, Hitler issued Directive number 62 for the completion of defences on the German Bight. By this time the Allies had broken out of Normandy, the French Atlantic coast fortresses had been isolated and the fortifications on the Channel were being overrun During the first half of 1942 the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall were concentrated mainly at the major ports. The bulk of the work did not begin until the summer of 1942 and consisted of bunkers to defend against amphibious landings. By late in 1943 most of the positions defending the key sites were largely finished, but many gaps remained and the number of obstacles was still deemed insufficient.
At a conference on 20 December 1943 Hitler confessed, ‘I am constantly thinking about new ways to improve the defence. Automatic flamethrowers, for instance, and oil cans that can be thrown in the sea, and then begin to burn.’ General Kurt Zeitzler mentioned new mines that were detonated by mine detectors and would be ready the following month. He suggested using them in the West so they would come as a surprise to the Allies, who would not be prepared for them when they landed. Hitler calculated that the invasion would take place in either mid-February or early March 1944 and deluded himself into thinking that the British were not enthusiastic about the coming assault. He was not far wrong, however, when he said, ‘If they attack in the West, that attack will decide the war.’
The Atlantic Wall of 1943 was a far cry from a formidable barrier. Although a direct landing against a port such as Dieppe was a risky proposition, many beach areas along the French coast that offered an overland route to a large port were still not well protected. In spite of this, even the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was blinded by his own propaganda. On 19 April 1943 he wrote: ‘The English are in no position to strike us in our vitals. When I look at the pictures of the Atlantic Wall, I have a feeling that we are sitting in Europe in an absolutely secure fortress.’ After the Axis forces collapsed in North Africa a month later, he wrote on 9 May that he would explain to the German people how the sacrifice in Tunisia would delay the Allies for half a year, ‘enabling us to complete the construction of the Atlantic Wall and prepare ourselves all over Europe so that an invasion is out of the question’. As Field Marshal Rommel observed, the Atlantic Wall of 1943 was mostly a paper wall, even after all the work he had put in during the first half of 1944. Field Marshal von Rundstedt concurred.
VIET CONG’S SECRET SUBTERRANEAN BASE VIETNAM, 1 NOVEMBER 1955 – 30 APRIL 1975
During the Vietnam War, the USA had the most advanced military in the world. Boasting technology and resources other nations could only dream of, their entrance to the conflict on the side of South Vietnam against the communist North Vietnam looked certain to turn the tide of the war.
But the Viet Cong, a guerrilla force on the side of the communists who were stationed in the South, had other ideas. Beneath the Cu Chi district near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), communist forces had been digging tunnels here and there since the 1940s during their war of independence with the French. By the Sixties, however, this tunnel network spanned 250 kilometres (155 miles).
The Americans had expected a war above ground, but what they found instead was a determined Viet Cong force that, despite the Americans’ military superiority, were able to use their subsurface tunnel network to great advantage. They caused huge casualties, and were partly responsible for the US withdrawal in 1973.
These small, narrow tunnels – big enough for the smaller Viet Cong troops but cramped for the larger American and Australian troops – were dug mostly using hand tools. Conditions inside them ranged from poor to terrible. They were dark and dangerous, riddled with ants, scorpions, poisonous centipedes and other deadly creatures.
Thousands of Viet Cong lived underground during the war, including civilians and children. They would eat, go to school and even get married underground, coming out only to tend their crops. The advanced network of tunnels had numerous features to ensure the long-term survival of their residents, including air vents and secret exits.
The Viet Cong used the tunnels to mount surprise attacks, often appearing out of nowhere through trapdoors and hidden entrances, and they were always quick to improvise too. For example, when the Americans started sending out sniffer dogs to find entrances to the tunnels, Viet Cong troops used uniforms from dead American soldiers to mask the smell and fool the dogs.
On January 7, 1966, units of the U. S. 1st Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade discovered this extensive network. This initial contact provided only a glimpse of the problems that tunnel fortifications would pose for U. S. forces at Cu Chi and across Vietnam. When the 25th Infantry Division established its base camp at Cu Chi later that spring, it assumed the task of clearing the tunnels. For several weeks the rear areas of the division were attacked by VC soldiers emerging from the tunnels, a type of envelopment from below.
U. S. personnel attempted different approaches to clearing the tunnels. These included tear gas, acetylene gas, and explosives. Soon U. S. commanders realized that the only way to clear them effectively was by hand. This task fell to a group of volunteers who became known as “tunnel rats.” Because of the narrow tunnel passages, these men were almost uniformly small in stature and performed their duties with a minimum of equipment. Usually a tunnel rat went below with a pistol, a knife, and a flashlight. The tunnels proved to be physically and psychologically draining on American troops, and most tunnel rats served relatively short periods in this taxing assignment.
Tunnel networks were later discovered in other parts of Vietnam, but none were as extensive or as problematic as those at Cu Chi. By 1967 the tunnels had been cleared, but they served as an early example of the tactical ingenuity and tenacity facing U. S. forces in Vietnam. Today the Cu Chi tunnels are a major tourist attraction.