The Siegfried Line was a defence system stretching more than with more than 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps. It went from Kleve on the border with the Netherlands, along the western border of the old German Empire as far as the town of Weil am Rhein on the border to Switzerland. More with propaganda in mind than for any strategic reason, Adolf Hitler planned the line from 1936 and had it built between 1938 and 1940. This was after the Nazis had broken the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties by remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936.
Today we can no longer know for certain the exact origin of the German name Westwall (West Wall). It is most likely that the name simply came into popular use from the end of 1938. Nazi propaganda did not initially use the term very much, but the name was well-known from the middle of 1939, as Hitler sent an "Order of the Day to the soldiers and the workers at the Westwall" on May 20, 1939. The official name for the line until then had depended on the programmes described in the next section of this article. The name "Limes Programme" for example was a deliberately misleading cover name, chosen to make people think of the archaeological research that had just finished at the Limes Germanicus (Upper Germanic and Rhaetian Limes).
These programmes were all pushed forward with the highest priority, using every resource available.
The Limes Programme began as a result of an order by Hitler to strengthen fortifications on the western German border. Bunkers built in this phase starting in 1938 were more strongly constructed. The framework for each of this programme's Type 10 bunkers probably took around 20 man years to build and required around 287 m3 of concrete, very close to the amount needed for a small block of flats.
The bunkers had a ceiling and walls 1.5m (5 feet) thick, but this was proved completely insufficient even before construction was finished. A total of 3,471 Type 10 bunkers were built along the entire length of the Siegfried Line. The bunkers had a central room or shelter for 10 to 12 men with an entrance, stepped embrasures facing backwards and a combat section 50cm (19 inches) higher. This section had embrasures at the front and sides for machine guns, and a separate entrance. More embrasures were provided for carbines and the entire structure was constructed so as to be safe against poison gas, based on experiences in the First World War.
The bunker was heated with a safety oven, and the chimney, which led to the outside, was covered with a thick grating. Every soldier was given a sleeping-place and a stool; the commanding officer had a chair. There was very little space: each soldier had about 1 m2 of space, which meant that the rooms were packed full.
Inside the bunkers of this type still remaining today are the signs hung up to prepare the men for their task: "The walls have ears" or "Lights out when embrasures are open!" However, these warning signs did little to save the Line from inevitable defeat.
The Geldern Emplacement lengthened the Siegfried Line northwards as far as Kleve on the Rhine, and was only built after the start of World War II. The Siegfried Line originally ended in the north near Brüggen in the Viersen district. The primary constructions were unarmed dugouts which were, however, extremely strongly built out of concrete. For camouflage they were often built near farms.
Tank traps were also built for miles along the Siegfried Line and were known as "dragon's teeth" or "pimples" (in German Höcker, "humps") because of their shape. These blocks of reinforced concrete stand in several rows on a single foundation. There are two typical sorts of barrier: Type 1938 with four teeth getting higher toward the back, and Type 1939 with five such teeth. Many other irregular lines of teeth were also built, however. Another design of tank obstacle was made by welding together several bars of steel in such a way that any tank rolling over it would be penetrated in its weak bottom armor. If the lie of the land allowed it, water-filled ditches were dug instead of tank traps. An example of this kind of defence are those north of Aachen near Geilenkirchen.
Working conditions on the building sites were highly dangerous; for example, the most primitive means had to be used to handle and assemble extremely heavy armour plating weighing up to 60 tonnes. Life on the building site and after work was monotonous and many people gave up and left. Most workers received a medal depicting a bunker for their service in constructing the west wall.
The bunkers were still fitted with guns, which proved inadequate in the first war years and were therefore dismantled, but the high-calibre weapons necessary for efficient defence could not be built into the existing bunkers.
During construction it was already clear that the bunkers could no longer begin to withstand the newly developed armour-piercing weapons. At the same time as the actual Siegfried Line was reactivated, small concrete "Tobruk" bunkers (named after Tobruk, the seaport in eastern Libya) were built along the border to the occupied area. These bunkers were mostly dugouts for single soldiers.
In August 1944 the first clashes took place by the Siegfried Line. The section of the line now fought over the most was the Hürtgenwald area in the Eifel, 20 km (13 miles) southeast of Aachen. An estimated 120,000 troops, plus replacements, were committed to Hürtgen. The battle in this confusing, heavily forested area claimed the lives of 24,000 troops plus 9,000 non-battle causalties. The German death toll is not documented, but Hans von Luck estimates it at around 9,000.
After the Battle of Hürtgenwald, the Battle of the Bulge began, starting at the area south of the Hürtgenwald, between Monschau and the Luxembourgian town of Echternach. This offensive was a last-ditch attempt by the Germans to reverse the course of the war. It cost the lives of many people without resulting in any lasting success.
There were serious clashes at other parts of the Siegfried Line as well as soldiers in many bunkers refused to give up fighting, and often fought to the death. By Spring 1945, however, the last Siegfried Line bunkers fell at the Saar and Hunsrück.
For Germans the building of the line represented the regime's defensive intentions, whereas for neighbouring countries it appeared threatening and reassuring at the same time. This strategy proved very successful from the Nazi point of view both at the start and at the end of the World War II. At the start of the war, the opposing troops remained behind their own defence lines, allowing the Germans to attack Poland, and at the end of the war, the invading forces spent more time than necessary at the half-finished, now-gutted Siegfried Line, thus allowing military manoeuvres in the east. In this light, the Siegfried Line can be seen as the Nazis' greatest propaganda success, with wide-ranging consequences.
The Siegfried Line was the subject of a popular British song of 1939 which fit the mood of the time for the troops marching off to France:
We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line.
Have you any dirty washing, mother dear?
We're gonna hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line
'Cause the washing day is here.
Whether the weather may be wet or fine
We'll just rub along without a care.
We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line
If the Siegfried Line's still there ...
((Kennedy/Carr) Peter Maurice Music Co Ltd 1939)
General George S. Patton, when asked about the Siegfried Line, reportedly said, "Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of mankind".
During the post-war period, many sections of the Siegfried Line were removed using explosives. This work, as well as removal of land mines, once again cost the lives of many people.
Since 1997, with the motto "The value of the unpleasant as a memorial" (Der Denkmalswert des Unerfreulichen), an effort was begun to put a preservation order on the remains of the Siegfried Line as a historical monument. This was intended to stop propagandistic use of the Siegfried Line by radical right-wing groups. The idea was furthermore to take away the myth of the line's impermeability: if it is a memorial everyone interested will be able to visit it and judge matters for themselves.
At the same time, state funding was still being provided to destroy the remains of the Siegfried Line. For this reason, emergency archaeological digs took place whenever any part of the line was removed, for example for road building. The archaeological activity was not able to stop the destruction of these sections but furthered scientific knowledge and revealed details of the line's construction. It is still a very controversial question whether or not it is justifiable to preserve these military structures – similar to the Roman Limes – given that they were built by the Nazis.
Nature conservationists consider the remains of the Siegfried Line valuable as a chain of biotopes where, thanks to its size, rare animals and plants can take refuge and reproduce. This effect is magnified because the concrete ruins can not be used for farming or forestry purposes.
The Siegfried Line is the last chapter of the game of Call of Duty 2: Big Red One.
Billy Joel wrote a song called The Siegfried Line as a demo in the 1970s, but it was only recently released, as part of his My Lives album. The song describes the period during the so-called Phony War, where neither side attacked the other.
All the guns are silent on the Western wall
And we clean the rifles that we never use at all
And we're writing letters just to pass the time
And the days go by on the Siegfried Line.
Oh they say the English have given up the war
And we've heard the Russians won't last through '44
But a long-time soldier has an open mind
And a man grows old on the Siegfried Line.
Soon, soon, they say the war will be over
Home, home, we will be home in the summer
We light the campfire and we drink the beer
And we know the flag we fly must last a thousand years
And we eat Dutch chocolate and we drink french wine
And they feed us well on the Siegfried Line.
Soon, soon, they say the war will be over
Home, home, we will be home in the summer