Operation Saar A Lost Opportunity – Sidebar: September ’99 World War II Feature

8/19/1999 • Fall of France, World War II

Piercing the Vaunted Maginot Line

The battle of France was all but decided when the German army took on the defenses of the Maginot Line. On June 14, 1940, as the first German soldiers entered Paris, German Army Group C launched a frontal attack against the Maginot Line. The operation, code-named “Tiger,” involved seven divisions pushing from Saarbrücken toward St. Avold. Two French infantry divisions reinforced the Maginot Line personnel facing the Saar.

In the Saar were three German army corps, each with three divisions. In support of the attack the Germans massed 210mm mortars, 150mm howitzers, railway guns and 420mm Czech-built mortars. The Luftwaffe’s V Air Corps was also in support.

As early as May 25, French General Maxim Weygand shelved a course of action that would have called for abandoning the Maginot Line. His May 26 general order read, “The battle, on which the fate of the country depends, will be fought without thought of retreat from the position we now occupy.” The commander of the Maginot Line troops, concerned that the Germans would simply bypass strongpoints along the line, immediately voiced his objections to Weygand’s order. By shunning the philosophy of trading space for time, the forces in and around the Maginot Line were condemned to envelopment, isolation and eventual destruction.

It was not until France’s fate appeared sealed that the order went out to conduct a withdrawal from the line and move back toward the Meuse­Marne canal. The withdrawal was to begin on the evening of June 14, with French artillery pounding German positions with their enormous stockpile of shells.

That morning German artillery struck the Maginot positions, and German soldiers moved across the frontier. German progress was very slow, and casualties were high.

The French forward outposts held. The only thing inhibiting the French from inflicting higher casualties on the Germans was the confusing withdrawal order. By nightfall the Germans had captured a few advanced outposts and pierced the main line in one place. It was clearly a tactical victory for the French.

General Erwin von Witzleben was dismayed by his army’s lack of progress and even more so by what he considered the futility of the mission, as France was sure to collapse within a matter of days. Witzleben changed his mind when he was handed a captured French dispatch regarding the planned French withdrawal. German troops then attacked Maginot strongpoints with vigor and captured several forts, razing others with concentrated artillery fire.

The bulk of the French forces had already departed after destroying equipment and heavy weapons. The Maginot defenders then fell back toward the Meuse Valley. By the end of the day on June 15, the Maginot Line opposite Saarbrücken was in German control.

Kevin R. Austra[ TOP ] [ Cover ]