In March 1204, Chateau Gaillard fell to the army of King Philip Augustus, and with the loss of the castle the English lost their claims to Normandy.


Chateau Gaillard, Les Andelys, France. Richard the Lion Hearted claimed to have built his “cocky castle” on the border of Normandy in only a year, but no one believes he did. The walls, towers, and courtyards of the huge castle cover the narrow hill top, creating a system of barricades known as a defense in depth. An independent fortification at the left blocks access to the main structure, whose great tower still rises above the walls at the right. The area is roughly the size of two modern football fields.

Richard the Lion Hearted, who became king of England in 1189, had inherited Aquitaine (western France) from his mother Eleanor and Normandy and Anjou—and England—from his father Henry. As Duke of Normandy and Anjou, Richard was a vassal of the king of France, but he controlled more land in France than did the French king. Although Richard had been an ally of Philip Augustus in the Third Crusade, in 1192 he went to war with the king over his French lands. Richard built Chateau Gaillard (he called it the “cocky castle”) on a cliff above the Seine north of Paris to defend his claims to Normandy. He began his castle in 1196 and boasted that he finished it in a year (in fact it may never have been completely finished). Having experienced the advantages and defects of the great crusader castles, Richard put all his expertise to work in the design of his Norman fortress.

Richard chose an excellent site, in the territory of the archbishop of Rouen, who objected strenuously until Richard paid him a handsome sum for the land. The site is a narrow plateau, about 600 feet long and at most 200 feet wide, surrounded by deep ravines leading down to the river Seine. On one side a narrow spit of land links the site to its hinterland. A walled town (Les Andelys) stood at the base of the cliff, and Richard also built a tower on a small island in the river. Dams and obstacles in the water inhibited an enemy’s approach from the river, while during peacetime these river defenses enabled the castle’s commander to support the garrison by levying tolls on the river traffic. Richard also raised money by selling rights of citizenship to residents of the town.

The castle consists of three separate units along the plateau. An attacking army had to approach the castle along this land route, capturing one fortification after another. First, a walled outer bailey, which was built like an independent castle, blocked the approach. Huge round towers defended its curtain wall. From this outer bailey, a bridge with a drawbridge over a very deep moat led to the gate into the middle bailey. Again a curtain wall with one rectangular and three round towers enclosed a large area where Richard built his inner bailey with its tower. This fortress within- a-fortress became a concentric (double-walled) castle with a wall that resembled a series of round towers. Rising at one side of this “corrugated” wall and commanding the river side of the castle was the great tower. This tower had massive walls about sixteen feet thick and a battered base that made mining virtually impossible. Its massive pointed keel also deflected blows, and inverted buttresses supported a fighting gallery.

As long as Richard was alive to command and reinforce it, the castle stood securely. But Richard died in 1199, and his brother John was not an effective general. Philip Augustus moved to the attack, laying siege to the castle in the summer of 1203. The constable of the castle was Roger de Lacy of Chester, who had sufficient supplies and a large garrison of about 300 men to hold the castle for King John. Roger expected to hold out for as long as a year, while the English king gathered resources to relieve the castle.

The town and the river fort soon surrendered to the French king, and the siege of the castle began in earnest in August. About 1,500 civilians from Les Andeleys fled to the safety of the castle and added to the strain on the provisions. Aware that he probably could starve the castle into submission, Philip built ditches, walls, and timber towers around the castle to prevent supplies from entering. These fortifications were beyond the defenders’ arrow range, so they could not destroy or even harass the attackers. With nothing to do but stand guard, the castle garrison undoubtedly suffered from a loss of morale during the long winter.

Two months into the siege, Roger de Lacy realized he could not feed all the people who had taken refuge within the castle walls. He evicted the oldest and weakest who could not help in the defense, and the French army permitted them to leave. But later when de Lacy had to expel the rest of the town, the French closed their lines. When the people tried to return to the castle, they found the gates locked. Trapped between the opposing forces and forced to live in the ravines around the castle walls, they slowly starved.

The final attack on Chateau Gaillard began at the end of February in 1204. First the French had to take the outer bailey. They used stone throwing machines to keep up a barrage while they filled the castle ditch so that they could haul in a siege tower. But the French troops were so eager to attack that they did not wait for the tower. Instead they used scaling ladders to climb from the bottom of the ditch to the base of the main tower whose foundations they mined, causing the tower to collapse. With the outer walls breached, the garrison had no choice but to withdraw to the middle bailey.

Again a deep ditch prevented further attack. As the French studied the castle walls, one man, named Peter the Snub Nose, saw a weak point and a possible way in. The arrangement of windows high on one wall suggested there might be a chapel and well-appointed living quarters, which would have garderobes. Peter and his friends searched the base of the wall until they found the place where the drain from the garderobes emptied. In a daring sneak attack, the men climbed up the drain and emerged under a large window where they boosted each other into the castle. Once inside they made so much noise that the castle guard thought a large force had entered. The defenders started a fire hoping to burn up the invaders, but the wind shifted carrying the flames back through the building, and the defenders had to retreat to the inner courtyard. Peter and his men escaped the flames and opened the doors for their comrades.

The end was near. The English had about 180 men left. The attackers smelled victory. They brought in a “cat”—a mobile, roofed gallery— for protection and began to mine the gate. The English cut a counter mine and drove the attackers back, but the double mining operation weakened the base of the wall. The French brought in their stone throwing machines, and the volleys of rocks combined with the weakened foundations caused the wall to collapse. Still the English fought on—with only 36 knights and 120 other men. They moved into the tower, but to no avail. In March 1204, Chateau Gaillard fell to the army of King Philip Augustus, and with the loss of the castle the English lost their claims to Normandy.


Panzerturms: The Gothic Line

At the Hitler Line, a single Panzerturm had systematically knocked out thirteen North Irish Horse tanks in minutes.

Fighting defensively, and sited to take best advantage of the terrain, a Pantherturm had several advantages over tanks, artillery or standard bunkers.

  1. It’s low silhouette made it easy to conceal and, once located, difficult to target from ground and air.
  2. It had more room for ammunition storage and a crew room, with facilities for cooking and sleeping, This gave the Pantherturm greater endurance than tanks which had to be refuelled and rearmed several times a day.
  3. With its most vulnerable elements buried underground, a Pantherturm was harder to knock out with artillery or air strikes. Once the Germans began using specialised turrets, with reinforced roofs and no cupola, even direct hits were often ineffective.
  4. A Pantherturm was quicker and cheaper to build than a tank and only a little more difficult to transport to the front. They could be deployed in greater numbers than tanks, which could be held in reserve for counter attacks.
  5. The turret enabled the the Pantherturm to use its main armament over 360°, whereas conventional bunkers were normally oriented in one direction, with a limited field of fire. That armament, the 7.5cm L/70, was one of the best tank and anti-tank weapons of the War, with better performance than the first generation of 8.8cm flak guns and their derivatives. It was far more powerful than the armament usually found in the recycled turrets from obsolete or knocked out tanks which were used in other defences.
  6. The prefabricated Pantherturm could be installed quickly using only semiskilled labour. Their were often better built than locally fabricated defenses and, because they were standardised, the men who manned them could be pretrained before deployment, rather than learning a unique installation “on the job”.
  7. Although the Pantherturm lacked the versatility of tanks and mobile artillery, they were a cost, and manpower, effective solution to a particular tactical situation. A cluster of mutually supporting Pantherturm could dominate a valley or mountain pass. They were a daunting prospect to any Allied commander tasked with attacking them.

The Gothic Line took advantage of a major Italian topographic feature. From the toe of Italy, the Apennines run like a hard spine virtually up the peninsula’s centre to the upper Tiber River. Here, abruptly, the mountains turn northwest to cut across the peninsula and join the Maritime Alps on the French border. This sharp dogleg separates central Italy from the great basin of the Po River Valley and Lombardy Plains to the north. Cutting as they do across the breadth of Italy, the mountains present a natural strategic barrier. Only on the east coast do they fall away sufficiently to allow relatively straightforward north-south passage. Even here, though, a series of spurs juts out from the mountains in the form of ridges, like the fingers of splayed hands, to touch the Adriatic Sea.

The Apennines’ northwest dogleg is about 140 miles long and varies in depth from 50 to 60 miles. In 1944, only eleven, mostly poor roads transected the mountains from south to north. Carved out of the flanks of narrow valleys and crossing steep passes, these roads were subject to heavy winter snowfall and torrential year-round rains. To the west, the passes soared to heights of 4,300 feet. In the centre, where Highway 65 linked Florence and Bologna, the highest pass was only 2,900 feet and the distance through the mountains just 50 miles. It was, however, a rugged route with many easily defended choke points.

Even before the Allies invaded Italy, the Germans had been so impressed by the defensive potential of the northern Apennines that OKW believed no more than a delaying operation should be fought to their south. Hitler had advised Mussolini of this on July 19, 1943, while the Sicilian campaign was still being fought. On August 18, OKW had issued an operations order to the effect that, should Italy surrender, “Southern and Central Italy will be evacuated, and only Upper Italy, beginning at the present boundary line of Army Group B (line Pisa–Arezzo–Ancona) will be held.”

Initially, Kesselring had only been responsible for operations in the southern part of Italy, while Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel commanded Army Group ‘B’ in the north. Increasingly pessimistic after the destruction of his Afrika Korps and the loss of Sicily, the Desert Fox became the leading proponent for maintaining the August 18 plan. Within weeks of the Allied landings in Italy, however, Kesselring began advocating a different strategy—development of a series of fortified lines in southern Italy to check the Allied advance south of Rome. Ultimately, Kesselring prevailed and the Allies were forced to pay a high price in both casualties and long delays in order to fight their way through one defensive line after another.

The strategy exacted a price from the Germans as well, for they had to divide their efforts to construct defensive lines. Such dispersion of resources meant that by early August 1944 the Gothic Line appeared far more formidable on paper than it was in reality. Kesselring had realized this deficiency the previous January when Allied landings at Anzio threatened the rear of the Gustav and Hitler lines. Near the month’s end, Kesselring had issued an order, intercepted by Ultra, to “develop the Apennine position with the greatest energy,” with special attention to the eastern flank at Pesaro because of the lack of inherent physical features favourable to the defence.

Despite Kesselring’s desire for haste, construction progressed slowly throughout the winter and early spring of 1944. In April and May, Ultra code-breakers provided General Harold Alexander, Deputy Supreme Commander, Mediterranean with the contents of detailed engineering reports on Gothic Line progress. The reports revealed that the line’s readiness state varied greatly from one sector to another, with the eastern flank less developed than the western flank and the interior mountains having received the least attention of all.

On June 2, with the fall of Rome imminent, OKW took renewed interest in the work and issued a comprehensive order that set out point-by-point tasks and the means that would be provided to ensure their completion. Sectors that provided the most open ground for tank manoeuvre, such as the eastern flank on the Adriatic coast, were to be protected by the deadly Panzerturms that had destroyed so many Allied tanks during the May 24 breaching attack on the Hitler Line. Each Panzerturm was a fabricated steel-and-concrete shelter dug into the ground and mounted with a turret from a disabled Panther Mark V tank. The turret could rotate through a 360-degree field of fire and its powerful 75-millimetre gun had a maximum range of 1,200 yards. These well-camouflaged gun positions were difficult to detect by aerial reconnaissance. They were also virtually immune to Allied tank or artillery fire. Thirty Panzerturms were to reach Italy by July 1, the order stated, and one hundred steel shelters (most capable of housing a machine-gun post or antitank gun) were also en route. Extensive tunnels were to be dug into the rocky terrain and fire embrasures carved out to protect artillery from aerial or counter-battery fire.

The Gothic Line’s front approaches were to be blocked by swaths of minefields and a six-mile-deep obstacle zone created “by lasting demolition of all traffic routes, installations and shelters.” All civilians living within a twelve-mile area to the front of the line, and to a depth of six miles behind, were to be evacuated. About two thousand German troops were assigned to enforce this evacuation and forcibly recruit male Italians for civil labour construction teams.

On August 1, Obergefreiter Carl Bayerlein’s engineer battalion was transferred from the interior to Fano on the Adriatic coast. “Our assignment was the demolition of the coastal railway, plus coast surveillance, preparing positions and mining the coastal strip. The Gothic Line already had many bunkers, minefields and dugouts, but most of them were still under construction. Between Fano and Pesaro, as a defence against enemy landings, we laid a new kind of mine. These were made of concrete in which nails, screws and miscellaneous bits of scrap iron had been cast. They were stuck on wooden poles just above the ground and connected with trigger wires. They were to be used against landing troops, and were all painted green so as to be invisible in the grass. The effect of these mines was devastating.”

After completing their work at Fano, the parachute engineers moved northward to Pesaro, home to the Benelli motorcycle production plant and several other large industrial factories. Most of the machinery, tools, and production materials from these installations had already been stripped and transported to factories north of the Gothic Line or to Germany itself. Bayerlein’s team blew up any equipment that could not be removed.

Bayerlein was next put in command of an Italian labour group of thirty civilians and ordered to prepare some fighting positions at the very front of the Gothic Line. The heat and bugs were terrible. Mosquitoes posed a particular hazard. The German soldiers slept under mosquito netting at night and took Atabrine to ward off malarial infection.

More threatening than the hovering mosquitoes were the Allied fighter-bombers that circled high overhead searching for prey. Any detected vehicle or work party was bombed or strafed. Bayerlein’s Italian workers apparently feared being killed by the Allied planes more than being shot by him, for within a week he had only eight men left. The rest had run away one by one when his back was turned. Confiscating the identity papers of the next batch of rounded-up civilians stopped further desertions.

The Allied bombing not only disrupted the rate of work on the line, but also destroyed much that had been completed. When one fighter-bomber attacked a minefield, its bombs detonated hundreds of the mines that had taken days to plant. Nearby, Bayerlein’s party was constructing a dugout in the side of a sandy hill. Suddenly Bayerlein “heard a howling in the sky, and when I looked up, there was a fighter-bomber diving on us. At the last moment, I was able to push two men inside the dugout, and I finally found cover. Already the cannon were hammering away. The projectiles struck the earth right above the entrance—it was work made-to-measure.” When the attack ended, the Italians immediately fled en masse, despite Bayerlein’s possession of their identity papers.

Meanwhile, other German and Italian labour and engineering teams worked on. By August’s end, Tenth Army’s sector of line, stretching from just north of Vicchio east to Pesaro, boasted 2,375 machine-gun posts; 479 antitank gun, mortar, and assault-gun positions; 3,604 dugouts and shelters that included 27 caves; and 16,006 riflemen’s positions that consisted of embrasures constructed of fallen trees and branches. The Germans had also laid 72,517 Teller antitank mines, 23,172 S-mines, 73 miles of wire obstacles, and dug 9,780 yards of antitank ditches. Only four Panzerturms, however, were complete. Another eighteen were under construction and seven more planned. Eighteen of forty-six smaller tank gun turrets mounting 1- and 2-centimetre guns were ready. While twenty-two steel shelters were under construction, none was as yet complete.

Switzerland WWII – Military Deterrence

WWII Swiss M°18/40 Rifleman.


Physical map of Switzerland.

Prior to 1940 the Swiss military publicly relied on its well-advertised capacity to muster in arms over 10 percent of the population in well-prepared border positions, to defend its internationally guaranteed neutrality against all comers. But in reality, since the rise of nation-states the military safety of tiny Switzerland has depended on the willingness of a neighboring power to rush its army into Switzerland to help block another neighboring power from using Switzerland for its own ends. Thus in World War I the Swiss held off the Germans by the prospect that they would call in the French, and held off the French by the prospect that they would call in the Germans. When World War II began, the Swiss feared Germany exclusively. But they hoped that France, and even Italy, would know enough and be potent enough to help safeguard their own Swiss flanks. When France fell and Italy joined Germany, Switzerland was quite unexpectedly thrown back on its own military resources.

At most these military resources could make Germany’s price of conquest too heavy to pay. And that depended on the extent to which Switzerland could maximize the value of its three military assets: Alpine terrain, the Gotthard and Simplon tunnels, and the Swiss soldier’s historic bloody-mindedness. But exploiting Alpine terrain to the maximum essentially meant sacrificing half the country and more than two-thirds of the population. Holding hostage the tunnels and the country’s infrastructure meant destroying the Swiss people’s livelihood. Making the most of the Swiss soldier’s penchant to fight to the death meant firing up the population’s martial spirit, which many influential Swiss believed was already provoking Germany.

On various occasions Germany’s Wehrmacht estimated that defeating the Swiss army would take three to six days—about as long as it had taken to defeat the Belgian army—and require nine to twelve divisions, including four armored. The reason for this confidence was that the Swiss army had not changed since World War I. A modern force could easily negate its trenches and machine guns spread out along the northern plateau. But the German High Command added one qualification: The Swiss army must not be allowed to retreat in good order southward into the Alps. Once ensconced in the mountain valleys, the Swiss would be nearly impossible to dig out.

For its part, the Swiss army reached the same conclusions, which led it to withdraw the bulk of its forces from the northern plateau into the southern Alpine valleys. While the military logic of this national redoubt was self-evident, its political logic was much less so. After all, redeploying meant abandoning at least two-thirds of the population, including the families of the soldiers, to Nazi occupation. On the other hand, if the army remained deployed on the plateau it would be defeated anyway, and the whole country occupied. But while no Swiss wanted to leave the country’s major cities open to occupation, no German wanted to see the Swiss army holed up in the Alps, cutting off the vital Simplon and Gotthard tunnels to the Mediterranean and threatening guerrilla warfare. Thus the Swiss adopted a military strategy that threatened to accept grievous losses in order to deter the enemy. But of course most deterrence strategies aim to avoid being put to the ultimate test. Military deterrence is usually a shield for and an adjunct to other policies that mean to avoid war. This was the case in Switzerland.


The illusion that the Great War had ended wars faded more quickly in Switzerland than elsewhere. As we will see, Adolf Hitler was much less a mystery to the Swiss, especially to the German-speaking majority, than to other nations. Nor was the idea of rearmament as shocking to the Swiss as to other Europeans and to Americans. In addition, while other countries were cursed with bad leadership during the 1930s, the Swiss drew some unusually good cards, including Rudolf Minger, who became head of the Federal Military Department in 1930. In the first two years after Hitler came to power, Minger raised the defense budget from about 95 million francs to about 130 million. In 1935 he went beyond the budget process, directly to the public, proposing an issue of defense bonds worth 235 million francs and campaigning for direct purchase by the public. The Swiss people responded by buying 335 million francs’ worth of the bonds. By 1939 another 171 million was added. By referendum, the Swiss agreed to lengthen military retraining and to extend the age of military obligation for the lower ranks to sixty. So, on the eve of World War II, a nation of 4.2 million people stood ready to field an army of 440,000 men backed by a corps of 150,000 armed volunteers over sixty or under eighteen years of age, and another 600,000 civilian auxiliaries.

By the outbreak of war, new weapons were beginning to come into service. But, like most other armies that had not guessed the character of modern, mechanized warfare, the Swiss had not bought wisely. The Swiss, like most everyone else, envisaged a replay of World War I.

The combined air corps and anti-aircraft corps had bought fifty excellent German ME 109 air superiority fighters. But because the General Staff was blind to the use of aircraft to support ground operations, Switzerland had bought no bombers and no ground attack aircraft, like the Stuka. As for anti-aircraft artillery, the Swiss had four Vickers and four Schneider 75 mm guns, plus thirty-four modern Oerlikon 20 mm weapons. The mission of the combined air and anti-aircraft forces was to protect Swiss airspace and Swiss airfields, but if the ME 109s had tried to fight for air superiority, they would have been swept from the skies by sheer numbers. More likely, they would have been destroyed before ever leaving their undefended airfields. Forty-two AA guns were obviously insufficient for defending airfields or anything else.

Moreover, the ground forces were not equipped for modern warfare. Each battalion had only one infantry cannon that could be used against tanks, plus just two grenade launchers. Obviously, the idea of armored warfare had not crossed Swiss planners’ minds. The war for which they had planned would have consisted of shooting oncoming infantry from border trenches. To that end there were sixteen thousand machine guns, four hundred French 75-mm field guns, entirely horse-drawn, and only fifteen 120-mm guns. In addition, there were various small caliber mountain guns. The only motorization for the infantry came from commandeered civilian vehicles (a maximum of 15,000 taken away from the civilian economy) plus 50,000 horses taken away from agriculture. Pictures from that time show rows of machine guns hitched to a variety of taxicabs and family sedans, smartly lined up. The Swiss cavalry rode horses.

The strength of the army lay in its 440,000 men, organized in six infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions, and a half-dozen brigades, and in the good, deep fortifications and trenches the Swiss had built along the borders. About one-fifth of the army would occupy these positions, while the rest would wait close behind the German and French borders ready to rush to wherever the attacker might be. The earthworks would absorb the enemy’s artillery fire, the defenders’ machine guns would take their toll, and the main army field divisions’ counterattacks, including those by the horse cavalry, would keep the enemy out of the country—until help could arrive.

The first news of the German campaign in Poland showed all this to be a pipe dream. The German armored spearheads had sliced through the kind of army that Switzerland had. The intellectual process by which the Swiss adapted to their new circumstances is of more than historical interest.

On August 30, 1939, the Swiss parliament activated the wartime post of “general” and entrusted it to Henri Guisan. The new general instantly complained that there was no plan for operations. But no strictly operational plan could fit the Swiss army for the circumstances in which events were plunging it. Guisan’s first response was to pull the army back from the strictly artificial border fortifications to ones resting on terrain features.

Contrary to the belief of those who do not look at maps, Switzerland has only its back to the Alps. The roof of Europe shields Switzerland only from the south and the east—that is, from Italy and substantially from Austria as well. From the west—that is, from France—Switzerland is moderately accessible through the Rhône valley and across the hills of the Jura. But the north and northeast of Switzerland, bordering on Germany, are open, rolling plateaus crossed by gentle rivers and lakes. Three-fourths of the Swiss people are located in these accessible regions, as well as the preponderance of their industry and agriculture. This non-Alpine Swiss terrain is better for defensive tactics than northern France—but it is also pretty good tank country. By contrast, the steep valleys of the Alps are natural fortresses. Of course, only one-fourth of the Swiss people live there. In sum, Switzerland’s terrain can be useful for defense, but only to the extent that the defenders can exploit it under any given technological conditions and against a given kind of opponent.

A glance at the map of Switzerland shows that a nearly straight line of rivers and lakes roughly parallels the northern border, from the Rhine at Sargans in the east, following the Wallensee, Linth, Zurich Lake, and Limmat almost to the Gempen plateau above the Rhine near Basel in the northwest. Guisan ordered most of the army to pull back behind these waters and dig in, while keeping the border troops in place. But this new plan left some 20 percent of the country open to occupation, including Basel and Schaffhausen, and put the biggest city, Zurich, right on the front line. It also meant that the costly border positions would henceforth be useful only to slow the enemy a bit.

The general’s arrangements for help from France would turn out worse. Conventional wisdom had it that the only strategic choice facing Swiss military commanders was whether to deploy the preponderance of forces in the north (against Germany) or in the west (against France). Like most of his countrymen, Guisan never had any doubt that the threat came from Germany. But the country’s formal neutrality, as well as the presence of high-ranking officers who would have been happier if the threat had come from the other direction, obliged Guisan to act formally as if he were dispassionate about his basic strategic choice. Hence he had to plan with the French in secrecy. Guisan was personally acquainted with top French officers such as Gamelin, Georges, and De Lattre, with whom he had toured the Maginot Line. As go-betweens he used Major Samuel Gonard, who had studied at the Ecole de Guerre in Paris and who traveled there often as a civilian lawyer, as well as Major Samuel Barbey, a novelist who also had good connections in the French army.

The result was an informal but nevertheless written agreement by which the French army would provide artillery fire support to the northwest end of the Swiss army position on the Gempen plateau, and move its own troops there directly to back up the Swiss. The Swiss actually improved roads leading onto the plateau and built revetments for heavy artillery for the French army’s eventual use, effectively linking the Maginot Line to the Swiss fortifications. In addition, elements of the French 7th (later the 45th) Army corps would cross the border near Geneva and move northeast. For the sake of symmetry in case of discovery, Guisan began secret exploratory talks with Germany through Major Hans Berly, who had good contacts in the Wehrmacht. But these never resulted in concrete plans.

Joint planning with France turned out to be a source of trouble rather than help because France itself fell quickly to the German onslaught, and the records of the Swiss negotiations fell into German hands—among a carload of government documents abandoned by the French and recovered by the Germans at Charité Sur Loire on June 16, 1940. The Swiss worried that Germany would use their breach as a legal reason for disregarding their neutrality. But they need not have worried. If Germany had wanted to invade, a jury-rigged pretext such as the staged border incident with Poland in August 1939 would have been enough. More worrisome was Switzerland’s basic military predicament.

By April 1940 the fall of Norway and Denmark showed that German armies could move just as efficiently across water and against Western armies as they had against Poland. No sooner had Germany’s attack on France begun on May 10, 1940, than the mismatch between the German and Swiss armies became glaring. In Belgium, en route to France, the Germans opened the way for their mobile forces with parachute troops and saboteurs. German paratroopers could drop onto Swiss fortresses bereft of air cover or air defense as easily as they had on the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael, mistakenly assumed impregnable. Coordinated ground attacks would then overwhelm them. Could the Germans punch through the new Swiss army position on the Sargans-based line? Without antitank weapons, Swiss infantry positions couldn’t prevent breaches. And if Swiss troops behaved like other armies, they would panic once the formidable German columns came near. In fact, as France was falling, tens of thousands of Swiss civilians piled mattresses atop their cars and headed for the mountains, pro-Nazi groups were strutting, and no prominent politician could be found to rally the country. In sum, no army can fight without means or hope.

Maunsell Sea Forts



Army Fort Plan8321

The coasts of Kent and Essex Counties, England, overlook the Thames Estuary, the only sea route to London. Throughout World War II it was constantly endangered by German minelayers, U-boats, and the Luftwaffe. From 1939 until 1942 the British navy patrolled the area; then a series of seven sea forts was built to permanently guard the river mouth. They were an innovative architectural and engineering achievement. The reinforced concrete and steel structures were entirely prefabricated in a Gravesend dry dock, floated to their locations, sunk, and anchored on the bottom of the sea, up to 9 miles (14 kilometers) off the coast. Although not as large as the now almost commonplace offshore oil and gas platforms around the world, the sea forts predated them by about five years, and the six so-called “Texas Towers” that form part of the U.S. lighthouse system by almost twenty.

Two kinds of forts, one for the navy and another for the army, were designed by the civil engineer Guy Maunsell. Even when war was little more than a threat, he submitted several proposals for seaward defenses, but it was not until October 1940—over a year after the outbreak of war—that the Admiralty commissioned him to design a prototype sea fortress. His initial costly proposal, for a 2,900-ton (2,640-tonne) pontoon supporting a gun battery, was shelved by the government. But when France fell, the Admiralty was moved to action and asked Maunsell to produce five sea forts for the Royal Navy.

The naval sea forts were essentially steel gun platforms with two 6-inch (150-millimeter) cannon and a Bofors antiaircraft gun. The huge structures were assembled by Holloway Brothers at the Red Lion Wharf, Gravesend, towed downriver by three tugs, and sunk by flooding their hollow pontoon base. Two were positioned in the estuary off the Essex coast and two off the Kent coast. Each fortress had a crew of about 100, who lived, provisioned for more than a month, in the two 26-foot-diameter (8-meter), 7-story concrete “legs” that supported the main platform, with its guns, radar, and control tower. The first was sited at The Roughs in February 1942. Sunk Head followed on 1 June, and Tongue Sands was completed about a fortnight later. Knock John was ready for action on 1 August. The fifth was never built.

The army sea forts, also designed by Maunsell, were England’s response to German air attacks on the strategic Liverpool docks via the undefended Mersey Estuary. It was decided to build five in the Mersey mouth and seven in the Thames Estuary. Each self-contained fort had living quarters for twenty-four men and comprised seven steel platforms supported on four 160-foot (49-meter) concrete legs. Four were gun towers with 3.7-inch (95-millimeter) cannon; a fifth was armed with a Bofors gun; the sixth was a searchlight tower; and the last was for radar. They were linked high above the sea by tubular steel catwalks that also carried power and fuel lines between the platforms. Their disposition was based upon the proven layout of shore gun batteries. In the event, only three were built on each side of England. Those in the Thames Estuary, constructed by the engineers who built the navy forts, were towed downriver in pairs and lowered by winches at strategic sites: The Great Nore, Shivering Sands, and Red Sand—all rather closer inshore than the navy counterparts. The pontoon bases used in the earlier structures would have been unsuitable in shallower water, where tidal currents constantly shifted the seabed; instead, Maunsell designed a self-burying footing that firmly anchored each tower in place. Construction began in August 1942, and the last tower was completed sixteen months later. At each site, the Bofors platform was erected first to defend the construction crews as they assembled the rest of the fort.

There is now no way to measure the passive deterrent effect of the Maunsell forts, but during their short active life they accounted for the destruction of twenty-two enemy aircraft and about thirty flying bombs. Because the Ministry of Defence believed that a combination of bad weather and tidal action would quickly destroy them after the war, no thought was taken for their disposal. For a few years after 1945 the naval forts were serviced by the Thames Estuary Special Defence unit, and two were temporarily adapted as lightships. Difficulty of access in storms led to that being discontinued; in fact, Tongue Sands was wrecked in bad weather in 1966. Only Knock John and The Roughs survive. After May 1964 the former, together with Red Sand and Shivering Sands army forts, was occupied at various times and for various periods by pirate radio stations, until the last was shut down under the Offshore Broadcasting Act in July 1967. The Roughs continues to have an eccentric postwar history.

It lies slightly north of the Thames Estuary off Harwich, and in September 1967, when it was still outside British territorial waters, a former British army officer named Paddy Roy Bates formally (and it must be said legally) annexed it as the Principality of Sealand, going aboard as the “prince” with his family. In the late 1990s a consortium of U.S. Internet entrepreneurs set up the world’s first offshore data haven there, offering prospective clients security for their computer operations, free from the interference of legislation.

The army forts also went into decline. For a short while, under the control of the Anti-Aircraft Fort Maintenance Detachment, they were furnished with improved searchlights and radar installations. Any perceived crisis past, the army stripped all guns and equipment from them in 1956. The Red Sand fort, off the Isle of Sheppey, was abandoned that same year. The Great Nore fort was dismantled in 1958 after being struck by a ship and officially declared a hazard to shipping. In 1959 another vessel collided with the Shivering Sands fort, bringing down one of the towers. Despite their short-lived roles as radio stations, the survivors are now derelict. Their robustness means that their skeletons will stand in the North Sea for some years to come, gaunt confirmation of the proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Guy Maunsell did not survive his great sea forts, dying in 1961 after establishing an international civil-engineering partnership, which continues.

Further reading

Turner, Frank R. 1995. The Maunsell Sea Forts. Gravesend, UK: F. R. Turner.




Marshal Vauban’s Last Combats (1700-1707)

A new defensive organization of the border (to a certain extent prefiguring the 1930s Maginot Line) was called “Pré Carré” and would be, from then on, Vauban’s main task and principal mission until the end of his life. During Louis XIV’s reign, these regions without natural barriers were heavily fortified with numerous fortresses termed Pré Carré (literally “square meadow,” but Vauban of course meant “defended state”). Vauban’s “Pré Carré” was designed in the years 1672-1674 and occupied him most of his career.

War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714)

After the Treaty of Ryswick, the coalition of Augsburg was disbanded, but a new period of tension opened. This time the issue was the Spanish succession. King Charles II of Spain had died without a male heir. Austria and France had candidates for the throne. The patrimony was enormous. It consisted of the Spanish Empire, then comprising not only the kingdom of Spain itself, but also Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium), a great part of Italy (Milan, Tuscany, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia), the Spanish Main (part of the West Indies, Mexico, and Latin America, except Brazil, which belonged to Portugal) and the Canary and Philippines islands, in all a handsome portion of the inhabited globe. Before his death, Charles II had refused to make a compromise or a partition and had designated as his successor the duke of Anjou, Louis XIV’s grandson, who became Philippe V, king of Spain. The possibility of Franco-Spanish power broke the precarious European political stability. This led to a renewed coalition including England, the German Empire, Brandenburg, Sweden, Savoy, Portugal and the Dutch United-Provinces. The new dynastic European war began in 1702. With the inevitability of sunset, it marked the twilight of Louis XIV’s reign.

The conflict started with initial Franco-Spanish victories at Friedlingen and Hochstadt in 1703, but soon things went badly wrong. The war proved long and terrible. For France, it was marked by serious reverses. Landau in Germany and Gibraltar in southern Spain were taken. In the Cévennes in mountainous central France, French Huguenots (known as Camisards) entered into armed rebellion and held back several royal armies. The close collaboration between Prince Eugen of Savoy-Carignan and John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, was one of the chief reasons for the allied victories, notably the battle of Blenheim (1704), obliging French troops to evacuate Germany. The new king of Spain, Philippe V, was temporarily driven from Madrid by an Anglo-Austrian offensive. French armies lost Belgian territories after the defeat of Ramillies (1706). After the lost battle of Turin, the French were forced to retreat in the Alps. Louis XIV’s armies pulled themselves together, won the battle of Malplaquet (1709) and succeeded in avoiding an invasion of France by holding fast in Vauban’s Pré Carré and by winning the battle of Denain (July 1712). This ultimate victory avoided the invasion of France just in time and allowed Louis XIV to sue for an honorable peace. The anti-French coalition, tired of this endless and exhausting war, agreed to make peace. Negotiations between the belligerents led to different treaties signed in 1713 and 1714. The Peace of Utrecht was particularly profitable to England, which became the first maritime and commercial power. Philippe V was confirmed as king of Spain and kept the South American colonies, but all possessions in Italy and Belgium were lost and passed under Austrian domination. Louis XIV had to forget his dreams of domination. France had to yield a part of its North American colonies to England, notably Terre-Neuve (Newfoundland), Hudson Bay and Acadia in Canada. He was also forced to restore several Belgian towns, bringing the northern frontier back to what it was in 1697. The Treaty of Utrecht was an important moment at the beginning of the eighteenth century in the distribution of European political power. It brought a new and better balance among the three great states. Neither France nor England nor Austria could impose its hegemony on the continent. The United-Provinces lost a part of their economic power. Spain entered a period of lasting and profound economic and political decay. The duke of Savoy became king of Sicily. Prussia was founded as a kingdom and occupied ever since a preponderant place in Germany. Russia began to open herself politically and economically to the West.

Vauban, when approaching the age of seventy, was still a busy man, traveling on inspection tours and designing fortress projects. However from 1700 on, his health deteriorated and he resided often in Paris in a house which he had hired near the Tuileries palace. Gathering his experiences and reflections, he wrote a lot, not only on military matters, but also on subjects such as peace, forest exploitation, agriculture and taxes. At the outbreak of the Spanish Succession War, he went back to service in the field and organized the defenses of the northern frontier. In January 1703, Louis XIV rewarded his old and loyal servant by elevating him to the post of marshal of France. But this distinctive promotion came very late, and it was purely honorific; Vauban was no longer in active service. The king then asked him to write studies about military architecture, army-organization and siege warfare. Nevertheless Vauban came back to work for Louis XIV and led his last victorious siege: the fortified city of Vieux-Brisach was taken by the elderly Vauban in September 1703. The following year Vauban was decorated in the Saint-Esprit chivalric order, but ill and exhausted, he was dismissed and put aside. The marshal plunged into mourning after his wife’s death and was feeling old, useless and worried about the bad turn of the war. After the disaster of Ramillies in May 1706, the duke of Marlborough took possession of Louvain, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge and Audenarde, and he besieged Ostende and marched into northern France with the objective of taking Dunkirk. In the middle of the debacle, Louis XIV called again upon Vauban’s service. The old and sick marshal succeeded in stopping the panic of fleeing troops, regrouped the army, and organized a vast entrenched camp around Calais, Dunkirk, Gravelines, Bergues and Furnes which stopped Marlborough’s offensive. After this ultimate military campaign, Vauban was very ill and obtained leave. By that time he was snubbed and ignored by a new generation of ministers. His influence at court had sharply declined, not only because he was old and ill, but also because of his growing interest in social reform and equitable taxation. Indeed, at the end of 1706 he came back to Paris, put his writings in order, what he called his Oisivetés (“idle thoughts,”) and decided to publish a book about taxes called Projet de Dixme Royale. The book was condemned and banned, the author was watched, and suspected of political subversion by the royal police. Very ill, half-disgraced, bitter and disappointed, Vauban was dying. Having heard of the marshal’s desperate situation, Louis XIV, in a last gesture of gratitude, sent his best doctors, but it was too late. Marshal of France Sébastien Le Prestre Marquis de Vauban, died on March 30, 1707, at 10 a. m. in his residence in Rue Saint-Vincent (today Rue Saint Roch) near the Tuileries in Paris.

The disgraced Vauban died in the middle of the War of Spanish Succession, at a moment when the enemies of France were threatening to invade the kingdom. His body was hastily transported to his native Morvan, and buried on April 16 in the Saint-Sebastian chapel in the church of Bazoches without any official ceremony. The Academy of Sciences protested against such ingratitude and organized a solemn celebration, where the talented writer Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle pronounced a famous, historic funeral oration: “C’était un Romain qu’il sembloit que notre siecle eut dérobé aux plus heureux temps de la République” (he was a Roman, which our era, it seems, had taken from the happiest time of the Republic). According to the fashion of the time and on the order of Napoléon I, Vauban’s heart was cut out in May 1804 and rests now in an urn at Turenne’s side in the Invalides Church in Paris. By imperial decree of December 7, 1867, by Napoléon III, the marshal’s birthplace, the village of Saint-Léger-de-Fourcheret, has been renamed Saint- Léger-Vauban.


The siege of Ostend and the Spinola offensives 1601-8

Ostend’s military machines by Pompeo Giustiniani 1 & 3, the construction of wicker filled with stones and earth were buried in the trenches by the besiegers; they were used in the western part of the town to allow the fording of the Old Haven. 2 & 4, to the east, the deeper flowing channel Geule of the Old Haven, a dam was constructed by Count Bucquoy’s troops on which rode artillery pieces to prevent the entry of ships into the harbour during low tide; 6 Cannons mounted on parapets on top of boats that ventured close to bomb the city; this design would be a failure as it sank on its maiden voyage without even firing a shot. 8 Mobile drawbridge or Targone bridge: this too was a failure after it took a direct hit.

Maurice of Nassau’s foray along the Flemish coast brought home to the Spanish the need of doing something about the Dutch coastal enclave at Ostend, which the enemy had been diligently fortifying for some years:

Quite apart from the fact that the Archduke Albert was denied the use of such a good port, the presence of the garrison compelled him to maintain a war in his own territory, added to ‘The Eighty Years War in the Netherlands 1566-1648 85 which the land had to bear the ruinous cost of paying an extra army – Flanders in particular was the prey of the soldiers, whereas in peacetime it was reckoned to make up a fourth part of the whole Seventeen Provinces in wealth (Haestens, 1615, 98).

Albert therefore decided to reduce Ostend. His ambition resulted in a contest which lasted for three years, and bears comparison with the sieges of Vienna in 1683 and of Stalingrad in 1943 for the interest which the rest of the world attached to its outcome.

The Duke of Parma himself had never dared to tackle Ostend, which possessed free communication by sea to Zeeland and Holland, and was surrounded by water on almost every side. The sea ruled out all serious attacks against the Old Town, or northern portion of the fortress, while the landward fronts were protected by two tidal creeks: the Old Harbour on the western side, and the New Harbour or Geule (the present port of Ostend) on the eastern side.

The landward approaches represented ‘a plashy moor (Vere, 1672, 126) on all sides except the coastal dunes. These sand hills offered the only tracts of dry ground over which siege guns could be brought close to the fortress, but if they chose this path of advance the Spanish would be presented with the problem of crossing the Old Harbour and the Geule at their deepest and widest points.

The man-made defences of Ostend consisted of two perimeters. The inner enceinte owned eight earthen bastions, in front of which was a broad and deep ditch of sea water. The bottom was ‘a glutinous impermeable mud, which supported no vegetation . .. and always retained its water’ (Montpleinchamp, 1693, 152). Beyond the ditch ran a very thick counterscarp, or rather outer enceinte, which conformed approximately to the trace of the inner enceinte, and consisted of long branches which ran forward into bastion-like salients. The works as a whole were high, well-flanked and strongly palisaded, though built of a ‘sandy and mouldered earth’ (Vere, 1672, 121).

On 5 July 1601 the Spanish appeared before Ostend in the strength of about 12,000 men. Over the following months they proceeded to drive the defenders back from their positions in the marshes to the two enceintes. They simultaneously planted some heavy siege batteries in the western dunes, from where the guns kept up a heavy fire against the Sandhill Bastion, which stood at the north-west corner of the outer enceinte and overlooked the point where the Old Harbour entered the sea. The cannonade was so violent that the work

might rather have been called iron-hill than sandhill: for it was stuck so full of bullets, that many of them tumbled down into the fausse-braye, and others, striking on their own bullets, breaking into pieces flew up into the air as high as a steeple (Hexham’s account, Vere, 1672, 166).

The besiegers paid heavily for their gains. The newly-arrived troops from Spain and Italy perished miserably in the bitter weather, and they were cut down in scores by the fire from Ostend. ‘The ground was strewn everywhere with arms, legs and hands . . . surgeons came out of the town, and brought back bags full of human fat which they had stripped from the bodies’ (Haestens, 1615, 147). (This disgusting material was prized as a salve for wounds.)

Possibly as many as 2,000 men were lost on the single night of 7-8 January 1602, when the Spanish launched an assault along the beach at low water against the Sandhill Bastion. Archduke Albert had committed precisely the same mistake as Parma at Maastricht in 1579, throwing his men into the assault over open ground against prepared defences. All along the ramparts of Ostend lay the people who had paid for his error:

whole heaps of dead carcasses, forty or fifty upon a heap, stark naked, goodly young men, Spaniards and Italians: among whom, some (besides other marks to know them by) had their beards clean shaven off. There lay also upon the sand some dead horse, with baskets of hand-grenades; they left also behind them their scaling-ladders, great store of spades, and shovels, bills, hatchets, and axes and other materials (Hexham’s account, Vere, 1672, 174)

For the rest of 1602 and the best part of 1603 the siege settled into a noisy but indecisive routine. The Spanish never again essayed an assault, but contented themselves with cannonading the town from a high platform built on the western dunes.

Compared with the Spanish host, the garrison was not particularly big (in March 1602, for example, it stood at 7,000), but in compensation the defenders were continually reinforced and replenished from the sea. So sure, indeed, was the traffic that many civilian spectators, including women, made the trip to Ostend to view the siege.

This period was enlivened for the Spanish by the arrival in their camp of a present from the Pope, in the person of the engineer Pompeio Targone (1575- c. 1630). Targone had

a very ready wit, which made him apt for inventions in his calling: but having never till then passed from the theory to the practical part in military affairs, it was soon seen, that many of his imaginations did not upon trial prove such, as in appearance they promised to be (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7).

Targone bent his imagination to the task of pushing forward the approaches from the eastern dunes, but he failed dismally in everyone of the devices he contrived: first a monstrous rolling gabion, then a floating battery, and finally a dyke which broke apart in the north-western storms.

Such was the state of affairs when the Spanish officers heard that yet another Italian dilettante was coming out to Ostend, not merely to invent siege engines but to take charge of the whole army. This gentleman was one Ambrogio Spinola, a scion of a wealthy Genoese family. The signs could hardly have been worse. Spinola was known to be devoid of all military experience, and to have been brought up in comfortable, not to say sumptuous surroundings. Moreover, the family had virtually bought the command for its pampered son, by offering to put the Spinola riches and credit at the disposal of the army in the Netherlands.

In one respect the Spanish expectations were fulfilled, for as soon as Spinola reached Ostend in the late summer of 1603 he charged a large proportion of the costs of the siege to his own account. As early as 10 December Archduke Albert could write to King Philip III that since Spinola had taken charge

the siege has been progressing very quickly. With the help of the money which the said Marquis is providing … we have overcome many difficulties which hitherto impeded the course of the works. All of this gives us good cause to be optimistic (Villa, 1904, 73-4).

What was much more surprising was that Spinola proved to be that rarest of creatures, a man who had equipped himself to be a complete commander from the study of books. Not only did he show himself to be an expert engineer, but he won over the ordinary soldiers by leadership of the most direct and forceful kind. In the quiet of his library he had absorbed all the lessons which Parma and Archduke Albert had had to buy with the blood of their men.

Spinola’s main objective was to force the crossing of the Old Harbour from the west. If he could gain the counterscarp on that side, he explained to the king, ‘Your Majesty would have a guarantee that the town would be yours’ (ibid., 76).

Reviving the ferocious emulation which had existed among the Habsburg contingents in the days of Charles v, Spinola arranged his Germans, Spanish, Italians, Burgundians and Walloons in order of battle along the bank of the Old Harbour from its mouth to the marshes behind the town. The troops then threw causeways of. earth and fascines across the creek. This was a difficult and bloody business which was helped by screens of gabions, but not at all by the employment of the last of Targone’s inventions, a mobile drawbridge mounted on four ten-foot wheels. A single cannon shot shattered one of the wheels and immobilised the machine for good.

Spinola was everywhere, ‘exposing himself as much as any of the rest to all the labour and dangers, encouraging some, rewarding others’ (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7). The Walloons and Burgundians were the first across, for the water was shallowest at the head of the creek, but the other contingents were not far behind, and on 4 April 1604 the besiegers surprised and took a number of redoubts on the counterscarp opposite the Sandhill Bastion. Maurice received the news in Holland with astonishment, and began to harbour his first fears as to the fate of Ostend.

Parma now undertook a second, formal siege of the inner enceinte. In the summer the Dutch were forced to abandon the inner rampart altogether, and they retired to a large bastioned retrenchment which· they had heaped up in the north-eastern corner of the town.

In order to complete these fortifications the defenders had to dig up a number of dead bodies, and heap up the heads and bones of their late comrades like fascines. Since these works were made of dead bodies and freshly-dug earth, they could not offer adequate resistance to cannon-fire (Baudart, 1616, II, 340).

Unseasonable storms completed the Spaniards’ work for them. The Dutch supply ships found it increasingly difficult to make their way into Ostend, and on 22 August a combination of tempest and high tide swamped the grisly retrenchment and carried large sections of it away.

The States General finally authorised the last governor, Daniel d’Hertaing, to seek a capitulation on good terms. He shipped off all the gunners, engineers, Spanish deserters, heretical preachers and other folk who were calculated to awake the Spanish ire, and then opened negotiations with Spinola. On 20 September 1604 he was granted a free evacuation for the remaining 3,000 men of his garrison.

 Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella came from Ghent to view the conquest, but they could see

nothing but a misshapen chaos of earth, which hardly retained any show of the first Ostend. Ditches filled up, curtains beaten down, bulwarks torn in pieces, half-moons, flanks and redoubts so confused with one another, as one could not be distinguished from another; nor could it be known on which side the attack, or on which side the defence was (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7).

The scale of the struggle for Ostend resembled that of a war rather than a siege. The contest lasted three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours, and the losses of the Spanish from all causes are variously estimated at between 17,000 and 80,000 dead. The impartial Carnero (1625, book XV, chapter 10) puts the figure at 40,000, which seems a good average. The casualties of the Dutch are quite impossible to estimate, for their vessels made something like 3,000 round trips, bringing reinforcements to Ostend, and carrying away the sick and wounded to die or recover in their homeland.

The siege, long and costly though it was, must be accounted a major victory for the Spanish, for they had evicted the Dutch from their one remaining foothold in ‘Belgium’, and so completed the work which Parma had begun in the 1580s. The technical lessons were obvious enough: in the first place, that it was extremely difficult to take a fortress which could receive reinforcements and replenishment throughout the siege; then again, it was clear that an unprepared assault would almost certainly meet with a bloody repulse, and that it was essential to shelter the besieging troops with all the cover that earth and brushwood could provide.

Maurice and the Dutch field army had meanwhile been striving to draw the Spanish away from Ostend by reducing fortresses in other parts of the Netherlands, applying the technique of trying to break a stranglehold by stamping on the strangler’s foot. Maurice captured Rijnberk in 1601, Grave the next year, and in 1603 he essayed a determined but vain siege of s’Hertogenbosch – all without persuading the Spanish to move from Ostend. At last in the spring of 1604 the Dutch army undertook a direct offensive along the Flanders coast. Sluis and its fine harbour fell to Maurice on 19 August 1604, hardly a month before the Spanish conquered Ostend.

If the siege of Ostend had established Spinola as a master of fortress warfare, then his capacity in the open field was proved beyond doubt in the brief (but for the Dutch extremely alarming) period of fighting which preceded the Twelve Years Truce. In 1605 Spinola took a leaf out of Maurice’s book. He advanced threateningly on Sluis, then swung eastwards with 15,000 men, crossed the Rhine at Kaisersworth, and in August reduced the fortresses of Oldenzaal and Lingen. For the first time in two decades the main Spanish striking-force had been transferred to the vital pivotal area east of the Ijssel, and Maurice spoke wonderingly of the movements of this ‘flying devil’ who seemed to read his thoughts like a crystal ball.

The Eighty Years War in the Netherlands 1566-1648 89 Grol fell to Spinola on 14 August 1606, so deepening the area of his conquests in Overijssel and eastern Gelderland. Heavy rains ruled out any exploitation westwards across the Ijssel, or northeastwards towards Friesland. Spinola accordingly turned on his tracks, and strengthened his hold on the middle Rhine by taking the much-disputed fortress of Rijnberk.

Despite his recent conquests, Spinola was one of the leading advocates of a truce with the Dutch. He knew that the Spanish finances could not possibly support the strain of further campaigns. A preliminary armistice was concluded in April 1607, which led to an agreement to conclude a truce with a term of twelve years dating from 1608. The demarcation confirmed the status quo, leaving the Dutch with a narrow foothold in northern Brabant and Flanders to the south of their river line; further east, the Spanish reaped the benefit of Spinola’s recent successes, and retained Oldenzaal and Grol as tiny enclaves lodged on the borders of Germany and the Dutch provinces.

Fortifications of Austria-Hungary during the WWI



A 305mm Skoda Emma howitzer.



To secure their Balkan territories, the Austrians built a variety of fortifications in the area. Some of the most unusual forts were part of the fortress defences of the ports of Pola and Cattaro where the construction programme began in the 1880s. Pola was encircled with an inner and outer ring of forts. By 1900, the outer ring consisted of five forts converted from earlier field works and the inner ring included several older ones. Some of the old forts and most of the new ones mounted batteries of eight to ten 150mm Kanone M-61 and 90mm Kanone M-75 on a lower rampart. In 1914, battery positions and some strongpoints were added to the outer ring. In the 1880s, the coastal defences of Pola included twelve batteries and a few forts mounting mostly 150mm, 210mm, 240mm, and 280mm Krupp guns as well as a few 210mm M-80 coast mortars. In 1914, some of the positions were improved and Fort Gomila, near Pola, received two 420mm howitzer turrets. These were the first of the 420mm weapons produced at the Skoda Works. Several forts and strongpoints formed Cattaro’s landward defences by 1914. Both ports had torpedo batteries for their coastal defences.

Several Panzerwerke were built along the border with Serbia and Montenegro, some of which were not completed until 1916. Most mounted two 100mm howitzer turrets. At Visegrad, Sperre Avtoac had four turrets, as did another werk at Bileca. The three werke at Trebinje and one at Krisovije each mounted two turrets. There were two other werke at Krisovije, including one with four turrets and another with the standard two 100mm howitzer turrets and two 150mm mortar turrets. Some of these positions were the most recently built in the empire.

By 1914, every front of the empire sported an array of forts of various sizes, shapes, and armoured components. Thus, it would be impossible to describe a typical Austro-Hungarian fort of the empire since they varied within fortresses and styles were very different in various parts of the empire.

It seems curious that the Austrians lavished so much attention on fortifying the Italian frontier in the twentieth century when the main threat appeared to be from Russia. Italy was after all a member of the Triple Alliance and supposedly an ally. However, the Germans did not seem fully convinced the Italians would honour their agreement. The Austrians also knew that the Italians still coveted the Trento and Trieste regions.

When war finally broke out, the enemy turned out to be Serbia. The Austro-Hungarian defences on the Balkan Front were adequate and relatively modern. The Galician Front continued to be important, especially after the Germans left minimal forces in the East to concentrate their great offensive in the West. Rumania’s status was questionable, increasing the importance of Austria’s position in Transylvania. Since Italy, which was still an ally in theory, had not entered the war, low-grade reservists were left to watch the Italian Front. When Italy eventually entered the war in 1915, it abandoned the Triple Alliance and joined the Allies.

The war began as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and Serbia’s subsequent refusal to accept all of Austria’s demands. The 6th Austrian Army stood on watch along the Montenegrin border while the 5th Army invaded Serbia by crossing the Drina River. Since the Austro-Hungarian Empire was just across the river, Belgrade could not have a fortress ring to protect it from heavy artillery. However, the Austrians chose another route into terrain that favoured the defender for their August offensive into Serbian territory. As a result, their incursion ended in ignominious defeat as their troops retreated across the river forming the border at the end of the month. In September, a Serbian army crossed the Danube giving Belgrade some breathing space in case the Austrians decided to assault the city. The Austrians launched a second incursion across the Drina River but fared little better than the first time. Trench fighting continued on that front until December 1914 when the Serbs, because of attrition, finally pulled back and abandoned their capital. The Serbs went back on the offensive in December and retook their capital. Serbia did not fall until September 1915 after Bulgaria entered the war opening a new front against it. However, the odds were stacked against Serbia despite the early failures of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Its Montenegrin ally was only able to attack the empire in places where the terrain was not greatly different and favoured defence rather than offence. In addition, the Austrians had fortifications.

In late August, Paul von Hindenburg’s German Army in East Prussia handed the Russians a major defeat at Tannenberg, well before they reached the German fortifications of Königsberg. Before this, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who still had not had to contend with the fiasco in Serbia, had ordered four Austrian armies in Galicia to advance toward Lublin to cut Russian lines of communication south of the Pripet Marshes and to threaten Warsaw. Two Austro-Hungarian armies advanced and two held the right flank from Lemberg to the Gnila Lipa River. The Russians drove back one of the two armies and, on 30 August, the Austrian right wing was in retreat while Hindenburg was scoring his victory in the north. The other two Austro-Hungarian armies advancing on Lublin and Kholm were now exposed to the Russian forces advancing through Lemberg to the south of them. The Austrian forces were beaten back before Lemberg in the first week of September. Conrad ordered his forces to take up a position on the San River, which put the fortress of Przemyśl right in the centre of it. By mid-September, the retreating armies had not been able to take up positions on the San and continued to fall back having lost about 400,000 men (half of the troops engaged). Before Przemyśl was surrounded in September, its garrison swelled by about 70,000 men who had retreated from Lemberg. This was more than the fortress’ provisions could support. By mid-September, the remnants of the four Austrian armies had taken up positions between Tarnów, Goryce, and the Carpathian Mountains. Fortress Przemyśl came under siege deep behind the lines. On 18 September, the Russians bombarded Przemyśl as the Austrians abandoned the San River Line and the fortress was surrounded. The Russians bombarded two of the northern forts of the ring, but they had no heavy artillery. During this time, the defenders had dug a trench line that linked all the forts, making it difficult to penetrate the outer ring. During two weeks of fighting, the Russians attempted to storm the Austrian lines and break the ring. Russian infantry only managed to reach the ramparts of Fort I/1 ‘Łysiczka’ where the defenders drove them back and took many prisoners.

Meanwhile, Hindenburg formed a new German army on the left wing of the Austrian armies in Galicia and together they launched a new offensive at the end of September with the intention of taking Warsaw from the south while the Austrian armies in Galicia drove the Russians back to the San River Line by 7 October. During this offensive in late September, a relief force coming through the Dukla Pass finally broke through the Russian lines reaching the fortress on 9 October and being greeted with great celebration.

The German offensive came to a halt about 20km south of Warsaw and failed to reach the Vistula. Thus, by mid-October the Germans prepared to pull back after the 1st Battle of Warsaw. At this time, Conrad pushed the Austrian offensive until it collapsed and another retreat began. The Austrians retreated from behind the San River Line on the night of 4/5 November. Before the retreat, between 28 October and 4 November Przemyśl had received 128 trainloads to resupply the fortress. The advancing Russian forces isolated Przemyśl one more time on 8 November and shortly after took the Carpathian passes. Winter was approaching, and offensives at that time of the year were generally undesirable, especially when mobility was limited by weather and chances of another relief force reaching the fortress before the spring of 1915 were not good.

The Austrians tried to breakthrough with another relief force coming out of the Carpathians in December after recapturing the Dukla Pass. On 15 December, a force of 30,000 troops assembled in the fortress and launched an attack in a southwesterly direction to break out of the encirclement. Even though it advanced almost 25km (15 miles), this force was unable to go any further and it was 45km (30 miles) short of the relief force coming through the Carpathians. On 19 December, the Russians forced the Austrians back into their fortress. Late in the month, the Austrians attempted another sortie, but they were quickly repulsed. On 23 January, the Austrian 7th Army on the far right flank launched an offensive towards Czernowitz driving the Russians back to the Dniester River. Finally, the Austrian 3rd and 4th Army tried without success to force the Russians back to the San River and relieve Przemyśl, but they were bogged down in deep snow. The Germans were more successful on the left flank striking out of East Prussia, but that did not help Przemyśl. Another sortie was launched from the fortress on 17 February, but it too was driven back, while the Austro-German offensive came to a halt.

The situation in the fortress steadily worsened as food supplies dwindled. The troops started slaughtering the horses for food. The Austrians developed a scheme for flying in supplies, but nothing came of it. One of the aircraft that flew from the fortress carried documents from the fortress commandant, General Hermann Kusmanek, which described a dire situation. Unfortunately, the plane went down and the documents were captured by the enemy. The Russians began a major bombardment of the fortress on 10 March and succeeded in capturing some of its outposts. The Russians finally brought up their heavy artillery, which may have included 280mm guns. On 18 March, a force consisting of Hungarian troops launched a sortie to the east with the objective of capturing Russian supply dumps in an effort to resupply the garrison. It was a fruitless effort because the troops could not even reach the Russian trench line.

With no options left, the Austrians blew up all the bridges and tried to destroy the remaining munitions and the armoured positions of the forts. On 22 March, the garrison of 123,000 surrendered. None of the forts of the fortress had been damaged by either Russian siege. The only damage was inflicted by the Austrians who destroyed many of the positions before surrendering. The Russian divisions that conducted the siege were rushed to the front. Russian forces took the key Carpathian passes and advanced toward the Hungarian Plain until the spring rains mired them in the mountains. Meanwhile, Hindenburg prepared German and Austrian troops for a new offensive in April. At the beginning of May, he launched a massive offensive. The battle for the San River began on 16 May and this time an Austro-German force laid siege to the Russian-held fortress. The Russians resisted for a few days. Heavy artillery including 305mm mortars and a 420mm howitzer pounded the forts until the end of May. The part of the fortress ring involved was between Fort IX and XII on the northern front. Forts VI and VII were hit by 305mm rounds. The Russian garrison capitulated on 5 June. Meanwhile, Russia’s position in the Polish territories weakened as offensives from the Galician Front and East Prussia formed pincers threatening to encircle Russian forces in their Polish territory. Before long, the Russians withdrew their forces and abandoned their own fortresses in a defeat more crushing than the one they had suffered at Tannenberg the previous year. Except for an offensive towards Lemberg in 1916, the Russians would no longer be a serious threat for the remainder of the war. They had been driven far from the German and Austrian forts, which, like the German forts on the Western Front, no longer played a role in the war. Fortress Przemyśl had stood like a rock in an angry sea holding off the enemy for months, and possibly preventing a greater disaster in Galicia and a Russian advance into Hungary.

Italy remained neutral for months, but when the Austro-Hungarian armed forces in Serbia were beaten back by an inferior force and collapsed in Galicia, the temptation to seize disputed territories prevailed. Italy declared war on 23 May 1915. At the time, the Trento Front was held by anything but the cream of the Imperial Army. The Italians launched an offensive with a force that outnumbered the 40,000 defenders by 6 to 1.

The Italians had built several other forts on the front with Austria late in the first decade of the twentieth century to counter the Austrian forts. The first three Austrian forts to engage in battle were Lusern, Verle, and Vezzena. Fort Lusern, nicknamed the ‘Steel Trench’ and considered the strongest in the Austrian line, was surrounded with trenches and barbed wire obstacles at the start of the war, like most of the other forts. The first rounds fired after the declaration of war came from the battery of four 149mm turret guns of Italian Fort Verena early in the morning of 24 May. Several thousand rounds, most of large calibre, struck the fort. The bombardment, which did not stop until 12 June, was heavy and inflicted so much damage on the Austrian fort that its commander raised the white flag. The man was relieved of command when Austrian troops repelled the assault with the help of the adjacent forts. The Italians quickly discovered what others had early in 1914: machine guns devastated ground assaults and those located in forts were the most difficult to suppress.

Fort Campolongo was intended to counter the Austrian Fort Verle and had a battery of four 149mm long-range guns in turrets. Since their fort guns were unable to inflict much damage on the Austrian position, the Italians moved a battery of 280mm howitzers and a 305mm howitzer closer to their target. Many of their rounds missed Fort Verle altogether and struck the nearby town. During the intense bombardment, Fort Verle was virtually destroyed and Italian Alpini tried to take it twice. The first attempt on 30 May took place in the dark and the rain. The attackers and the follow-up troops never reached the fort because they were unable to negotiate the barbed wire barrier covered by the fort’s machine guns. The five days of heavy bombardment had put one of the 100mm howitzer turrets out of action and inflicted major damage on the fort.

Werk Vezzena, perched on a mountain top just north of Fort Verle was also subjected to heavy bombardment during the first month of the war, but most of the enemy rounds went right past it. A company of Alpini tried to assault the position on 30 May at the same time as their comrades were attacking Fort Verle. This attack failed as well, but the Italians managed to take an advanced post of Werk Vezzena.

At the other end of the line, the unfinished Werk Valmorbia fell on 3 June to an Italian infantry attack, but only after a failed attempt on 1 June. The Italians attempted to strengthen the position by digging trenches facing northward, towards the town of Rovereto, one of their main objectives. When the Austrians launched a counterattack, the Italians abandoned the fort. During another night attack, the Italian troops mingled with retreating Austrian units in order to reach the fort from the rear. After they eliminated the guards, someone sounded the alarm. For several hours, 2 Italian companies were trapped in a crossfire that eliminated almost all of the 500 Italian soldiers.

On 12 June, Fort Verena was targeted by Austrian artillery, including 305mm mortars placed beyond the range of the Italian guns behind Fort Lusern. The Austrian rounds hit their mark, killing forty defenders and destroying casemates. The problem with Fort Verna, located on a commanding position at 2,015m, was that it was one of the last Italian forts to be built. It was completed in 1914, but the Italians had had to skimp on its construction. Its sister fort, Campolongo, and probably other forts, were also built on the cheap. To cut costs, their concrete was not reinforced with iron. Instead, the Italians had used broken tools, wood, and stones to strengthen the concrete. The gun turrets were only 160mm thick and the flanking batteries of 75mm did not have the required range to reach the Austrian forts. The Austrian mortars knocked out the turrets of both forts and their rounds smashed through the un-reinforced concrete roofs. In July, the commander of Verena was ordered to remove his artillery and place it in open positions.

The Italians renewed their efforts on the Trento Front on 15 August when, once again, they bombarded Fort Verle with 210mm, 280mm, and 305mm guns for ten days. Once they convinced themselves that the fort had been smashed, they sent their infantry on the attack. In fact, only one howitzer turret was operational at the Austrian fort and twenty men had died. The Austrians illuminated the assault troops with their searchlight, sprayed the assailants with their machine guns forcing them to pull back after taking heavy losses, and plastered Italian infantry assembled at Mt Basson with their only working turret. During a respite in the fighting, they repaired the damage to the fort. The Italian offensive wound down at the end of the month after the Alpini were prevented once more from taking Vezzena by the barbed wire barriers and the fort’s machine guns. However, the Italians prevented the Austrians from resupplying the fort during daylight hours from the outpost they had taken earlier. In the spring of 1916, the Italians were driven from this outpost without succeeding in taking Werk Vezzena, which did not surrender until 1918 along with the other forts.

In 1916, it was the Austrians’ turn to take the offensive. Conrad concentrated his forces in the Trento region and assembled what heavy artillery he could get. His plan was to break through the Italian 1st Army and drive towards Vicenza and Venice, cutting the line of communications to the Italian armies on the Alpine and Isonzo Fronts in the east. The offensive opened with an M-11 305mm mortar bombardment of the Italian Fort Verena and Fort Campolongo.

The Austrians repaired the damage to their forts from the 1915 engagements and by the spring of 1916, they had reinforced them with thicker concrete roofs. In 1916, the Austrians brought up two of their new 380mm howitzers named ‘Barbara’ and ‘Gudrun’ and three 420mm howitzers. ‘Barbara’ was set up about 2km north of Fort Lusern, which had been virtually destroyed in April 1916 by another Italian artillery bombardment. The battery site for ‘Barbara’ had escaped untouched. ‘Gudrun’ was delivered later in April. When the offensive began on 15 May, ‘Gudrun’ was assigned to bombard Werk Matassone and Valmorbia, which had been captured by the Italians early in the war. The two guns joined the 305mm mortars in an attack on forts Verena and Campolongo. Werk Sommo supported the advancing infantry by bombarding Italians positions. For many weeks prior to this, the Italians had tried to drive a mine gallery under Fort Verle, but the Austrian offensive ended that effort as the Italian forts fell to the Austrians. The Austrians held these forts for the rest of the war.

Conrad’s plan looked good on paper, but the mountainous terrain was not easily traversable. The Italians pulled back from the towns of Asiago and Arsiero, leaving only one mountain barrier between the Austrian forces and their main objective, the plains of Northern Italy. The exhausted Austrian troops were unable to go any further after advancing almost 20km in some sectors. On 16 June, the Austrians gave up over half of the ground they had gained in the face of a counterattack from Italian reserves. In addition, a Russian offensive toward Lemberg forced Conrad to transfer some of his divisions from Trento to Galicia. During another, but more limited Austrian attack on 2 July 1916, the Italians smashed Werk Serrada with 280mm howitzers located in the Borcola Pass and halted the Austrian advance. In September, Italian infantry tried to recapture Werk Valmorbia, but they abandoned the attempt when they lost the element of surprise. This part of the front remained stable for the rest of the war. It is difficult to estimate how much difference the Austrian forts made in holding this front because the terrain itself is a formidable barrier and it can be defended with field works alone.

The Allies broke up the empire at the end of the war and the new Austrian republic had little in the way of modern fortifications. In the 1930s the Austrians prepared certain sites with mainly field positions and barriers to block an enemy advance. Italy and the new nations of Poland, and Yugoslavia inherited what remained of Austria’s most modern fortifications, while Hungary and Czechoslovakia took over much older ones.

The Atlantic Wall

Example of coastal defences (348 Inf. Div.), as at 1 May 1944

“Enemy forces that have succeeded in landing must be destroyed or thrown into the sea by immediate counterattacks.”

Führer Directive No. 40, March 23, 1942.

The completion of each static element in the German defence system naturally worked in favour of the established tactic of making the shore the front line. In the year before the landing, therefore, the construction of coastal fortifications and the Atlantic Wall assumed even greater significance. Each day that could be spent on further reinforcement, structural improvement, and more efficient camouflage seemed like a day gained.

At first, up to late autumn 1943, the construction of coastal fortifications was connected with the aim of saving as many troops as possible for deployment on other fronts. Later on, as the danger of an invasion grew, the coastal defence preparations were assigned a high value in their own right. The overall planning and execution criteria changed little up to the landing, with the emphasis, where building defensive installations was concerned, remaining on the large ports and the stretches of coast that appeared particularly vulnerable to attack. Above all, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, as commander-in-chief of Army Group B (with the troops of Wehrmacht Commander Netherlands, the Fifteenth, and the Seventh armies, under him), did his utmost to ensure that the overwhelming majority of the envisaged 15,000 fortifications and countless other obstacles were sited in the presumed epicentre of the enemy landing between Calais and the Seine estuary. Further west, in Normandy and Brittany, a smaller number were planned, and in the remaining coastal areas only a few.

It goes without saying that the Germans were unwilling and unable to carry out such a huge construction project on their own. In early October 1943 Jodl bluntly asserted that `the time has now come, in Denmark, Holland, France, and Belgium, to use the harshest measures to force the thousands of idlers to work on the fortifications, which take precedence over all other tasks’. In the end, the population was everywhere forced to take part in the work. As late as June 1944, despite repeated attempts to transfer forced labourers from the occupied countries of western Europe to the Reich in the course of Sauckel’s recruitment drives, the Todt Organization supplied some 140,000 non-Germans and 18,000 Germans for the construction of the Atlantic Wall.

The Germans were nevertheless forced to withdraw many workers from the coastal construction sites to repair the damage caused by increasing Allied air raids and sabotage by the Resistance, mainly against transport facilities and industrial plants. More and more workers were also needed for the construction of V-weapon bases in northern France.

Despite all these difficulties, the construction work as a whole assumed imposing proportions. Although only about 8,500 fortifications were more-orless ready by the beginning of 1944, a further 12,247 had been built on the west coast and 943 on the French Mediterranean coast by the day of the landing. At the same time, around half-a-million obstacles had been anchored offshore and 6 1/2 million mines laid, in order to prevent the Allies landing in force or to steer their advance in a direction favourable to the German defences. The barrier was completed by artillery of all calibres, tank cannon, and anti-aircraft guns, more and more of which were shielded from Allied air attack by concrete walls.

Differences of opinion soon arose as to the direction in which army and navy artillery should point. Hitler and OB West wanted to position the batteries so that they could also fire inland, against enemy airborne and ground troops that had broken through the German defence lines, whereas the navy insisted they should be directed towards targets out at sea. In the end, the interests of the army prevailed, and the navy had to give up most of its ideas. This also shows that the Germans ultimately intended to concentrate on fighting the Allies effectively inland rather than offshore. Many of the installations demanded by Naval Group West Command were consequently not completed, and the guns often left unshielded. In addition, much of the artillery supplied to it was taken from captured enemy stocks and was of doubtful range and accuracy.

The deficiencies in the area of the Fifteenth Army, at the heart of the defence preparations, were less serious. There, everything was done to ensure rapid and efficient consolidation. In the area of the Seventh Army, however, the completion of defence installations was much slower. At the end of May 1944 LXXXIV Army Corps, in whose area the landing actually took place, reported that only half the envisaged winter programme could be completed and that many batteries were still being installed, even though 74,000 Todt Organization workers and 3,765 trucks had been available to the Seventh Army since the middle of February.

Here, too, priorities had been set. While the ports of Cherbourg, St-Malo, Brest, Lorient, and St-Nazaire took the lion’s share of the available equipment and weapons, the right flank of the Seventh Army, between the rivers Vire and Orne, was comparatively poorly equipped. In late April 1944 Naval Group West Command reported that the Seventh Army in Normandy had a total of 47 artillery pieces for use against targets at sea, of which only 27 were protected by bunkers. Work on the remaining artillery was still under way or had not even started.

The second line of defence, 20-30 km from the coast, was also in a poor state of preparation. Planned in October 1943, most of the finished installations were in the Pas-de-Calais region, while the material and manpower available for Normandy were not sufficient to carry the project through to completion. OB West must have sensed that a static defence system like the Atlantic Wall was only as strong as its weakest point. In February 1944 he wrote to his commanding officers emphatically rejecting any comparison with France’s Maginot Line, which had failed so miserably in 1940. Stressing the many other advantages of the Atlantic Wall under construction, Rundstedt repeated that the troops in the coastal area must not and would not give way, as the French had done. By way of emphasis, less combative souls were even threatened with the death sentence if they failed to hold their ground. Such excuses as `we could not hold out any longer because we had no more ammunition or supplies’ would have the `most serious consequences’ for those responsible.

The top military leadership, however, seemed not entirely convinced of the effect of such threats. Otherwise they would not have ordered the construction of defensive installations further inland, as they did in early November 1943-although they kept it top secret so as not to demoralize the troops. Shortly afterwards, a restricted circle of selected officers reconnoitred defensive positions along the Somme and the Marne-Saone canal and on to the Swiss border.

None of this, of course, was seen as an alternative to defensive preparations in the coastal region, which continued to be given top priority. Key ports and stretches of coast were renamed `fortresses’-also called `Fuhrer fortifications’ by OB West to emphasize the seriousness of resistance on the coast by associating it with the name of the supreme military commander. Fortress commanders-who in OB West’s view had to be army officers-were given special full powers and solemnly sworn in by the army groups. The `fortresses’ were located in what was now called the `battle zone’, a strip of land extending from the coast to the second defence line. Within the battle zone, army commanders-in-chief had full powers, including the right to evacuate the civilian population. This right was exercised to the full, and by mid-February 1944 no fewer than 313,000 people had been forced to leave their homes. Nevertheless, no military measures could be taken without considering their impact on the economy, since Germany’s war industry remained dependent on the proper functioning of French enterprises even in the `battle zone’. In early April 1944 work on defence installations had to be slowed down because manpower and transport facilities were required for agricultural purposes.

Economic considerations also interfered with German plans to flood large areas of the coastal region as a further obstacle to Allied landings and penetration. In the discussions on the extent and location of the flooding, conflicts arose between the army, navy, and Luftwaffe that were exacerbated by the unequal division of powers. As we have seen, OB West and the OKW had given most authority to the army command. When it became clear that AOK (army head quarters staff) 15 intended to undertake widespread flooding operations on its own authority, Air Fleet 3 and Naval Group West Command objected on the grounds that the flooding would put many of their installations at risk. While OB West did not refuse to consider these objections, the commander-in-chief of the Fifteenth Army reacted angrily: `I totally disagree with the position of the navy and Luftwaffe . . . with regard to the planned flooding. The navy is interfering in matters that are none of its concern.’ He informed OB West, moreover, that Army Group B had `now ordered the flooding’.

Rundstedt and his staff had to act as intermediaries, propose compromises, and even seek a decision of principle from the OKW. After seemingly endless negotiations, a balance was struck between the two positions: bearing in mind the concerns of the navy, Luftwaffe, and the war economy, flooding operations in the coastal area were to be kept to a strict minimum and only carried out just before the landing. Everything else would remain at the planning and preparation stage.

Even though OB West’s original aim of completing the Atlantic Wall by the beginning of March 1944 proved impossible to achieve, the Germans nevertheless managed to build a large number of defence installations and provide them with effective protection against bombardment, especially in the area in which they expected the landing to be concentrated. The unfinished installations gave continuing cause for concern as they were particularly exposed to attack from the air.

The numerous bunkers, obstacles, minefields, and flood areas were one thing; the military effectiveness of the Atlantic Wall quite another. As many German officers certainly realized, everything would hinge on the fighting quality of the troops defending the fortifications-in the final analysis, on their strength, mobility, and reserves.

The Atlantikwall

The Atlantic Wall

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