Fort Schoenenbourg Between 1940 and 1952
In this section we will examine the physical structure of Fort Schoenenbourg : how it was battered in 1940, put back into shape, and then abandoned. June, 1940
Between the time the Armistice came into effect and the time a delegation from the French High Command arrived, Capt. Stroh [Commander of Engineers at Schoenenbourg] had time to check-out the Fort. His findings would later enable publication of the "Report of 1941", which described in detail the after-action condition of the Fort. Due to an error and lack of information, we had formerly attributed this Report to Commander Reyner. Looking back over the events [of 1940], one can see that the Germans, pinned down by the artillery of the Maginot Line in their attempt to break through to the heights of Aschbach-Oberroedern, had no other choice than to bombard Fort Schoenenbourg, hoping to silence it. For this, they employed regular field artillery, heavy artillery, and air power. The sum total of these techniques made Fort Schoenenbourg the most heavily bombarded position on the whole Maginot Line. Consequently, we can tally up:
Without getting into too much detail, the reported effects from this bombardment were as follows.
One dual machine gun buckled by the concussion of a heavy bomb. After being unavailable for 45 min., this gun was repaired on the forge in the Fort's workshop by Adjutant Jouan. No other damage in the Block.
No damage in the Block. Nonetheless, below ground, the switch panel was put out of order by the vibration resulting from the explosions.
A 420mm shell hit the reinforced concrete platform over the block, causing a bathtub-sized crater.
The Slow Dismantling of the Fort
On the first of July, 1940, the Germans took possession of Fort Schoenenbourg. They were to stay there until the beginning of 1945. At first, they were simply fascinated with the Fort. They explored in detail this fortification which had been such a thorn in their side, and for which they showed a certain respect. Tours were organized, both above and below ground. Self-guiding placards marked the craters from 1000 lb bombs and the "chimneys" in the earth resulting from the penetration of the 420mm shells. Senior officers from all branches of service, among them the Hungarian General Vitez, wound around through the craters and the shell-holes.
In the course of one of these visits, the commanders of the two batteries of giant mortars that had shelled the Fort each tried in turn to take credit for the rounds that had scored hits. In fact, for the few days of combat before the Armistice, Fort Schoenenbourg had served the Germans as a marvelous "test-case" for future campaigns. The victors carefully researched the extent of the damage.
They carefully studied the Fort itself, its structure and its surroundings. They went as far as taking very precise hydrological and geological readings. And showing some a sense of humor, they catalogued the frog who had taken up residence in the outflow pipe of the spring which cut through the lower part of Block 6.
With Alsace thenceforth re-attached to the Reich, the Hitler Youth organization made its young adherents from the Palantine [region of Germany] visit the Fort. Regularly, groups of Hitler Youth spent the night in the nearby barracks.
Then things settled down, since the first setbacks for the Wehrmacht were taking place. The mighty German industrial complex was not keeping up with the insatiable appetite of the German war machine. As a result, the Germans relied on the productive capacity of the conquered countries. Large amounts of French equipment and supplies were immediately rounded up and re-used.
At Fort Schoenenbourg, the Germans took out two of the four Sulzer motors, to be re-used at unknown locations. A good deal of ventilation equipment, with its motors, was similarly un-installed and stockpiled at the barracks in Lembach, then shipped out to an unknown destination. The refill pump for the water tank in the front depot part of the gallery was found somewhere else, as was the "normal air" ventilator from Block 1, whose motor had been mounted on the camp pump. Next, the engine of the Vetra tractor-train disappeared (it seems that the second engine was not taken), and one of the two step-down motors from the traction substation was lifted, although the electrical cable for the trolley was left in place. In the machine room's workshop, the turret lathe was dismounted and taken outdoors, along with the drill press. Strangely, this was offset by the addition of a turret lathe of German manufacture, which was later shown to be incomplete.
Outside, the anti-tank barrier, whose six rows of implanted rails stretched as far as the eye could see, was torn out. The thousands of tons of good steel that were gleaned were melted down in the blast furnaces of the Ruhr. Next, the military phone cables were dug up. Miles of cable were scavenged, to recover the copper and lead. The transformer station for the workshop near the Men's Entrance was dismantled. However, the large electric supply cable that connected the Fort to the outside world remained intact.
The Pace of Events Quickens
Summer, 1944. The Allied armies were rolling across France. The Wehrmacht was in constant retreat, and unable to hold. On 23 November, the French flag few again from Strasbourg cathedral. But the advantage of surprise was no longer a factor, and the pace of the American advance towards the Palatinate was rather labored. Even though the people of Strasbourg had been savoring their newfound freedom for about three weeks, the refinery at Pechelbron [a small village some 7 miles northwest of the Fort] was still running for the benefit of the Reich. Since the commercial power grid of northern Alsace had been partially disconnected or damaged, the two Sulzer motors at Fort Schoenenbourg supplied the refinery with electric power.
"A few adjustments was all it took, and they ran perfectly well," said Mr. Pierre Jost. The motors continued to run until 15 December, 1944, and that was it, since German resistance melted away after the fall of Haguenau on the 11th. The Americans arrived in the town of Soultz, about a mile and a half from the Fort, on 15 Dcember, and made it to the German border on the 16th.
At the end of December, Alsace was liberated, but not for long. Starting at the very beginning of 1945, Operation Northwind enabled the Germans to retake part of the ground they had lost. On 6 January, the Americans organized a line of resistance anchored on the Maginot Line. Since the winter was particularly raw that year, elements of the U.S. 79th Infantry Division guarding the road to Wissembourg took turns seeking shelter under the armored shells of the fighting blocks of Fort Schoenenbourg. One G.I., undoubtedly impressed by the fresco of a driver in Block 1, carved below it a small inscription dated 1 January, 1945.
Dug in on the ridge line which dominates the hollow in which the village of Ingolsheim is nestled, the Americans fired without letup on anything that moved. The German 245th ID which opposed them and which had previously occupied positions on the Siegfried Line, was the least capable unit in the Lauter sector, and consequently the Germans did not succeed in taking the village. It was not until 20 January that the Germans could move forward again, taking advantage of the American pullback from the Hatten-Rittershoffen pocket, and of the general fallback.
Fort Schoenenbourg would fall once more into German hands, this time until 18 March, 1945. However, the Germans understood that their gains did not signal victory. Since the Americans would certainly be trying their old tricks again, it was important to the Germans to keep them from once more seizing the Maginot Line.
Tons of explosives were stockpiled near the forts in northern Alsace. The German scouts had orders not to leave intact a single Maginot fortification between Lembach and Hunspach, to remove any major obstacle on the important line of communication linking Wissembourg and Haguenau. All the positions in this Sector of the Maginot Line capable of directing fire against the main highway were blown up, along with the troop shelter at Schoenenbourg. The big forts, however, were another thing altogether. Blowing them completely would take weeks. Instead, the demolition teams would render the forts inactive and inaccessible by dynamiting their entryways and destroying both their weapons and their electrical generating capability.
The Mutilation of Fort Schoenenbourg
At Fort Schoenenbourg, the German scouts hurriedly dismounted the tubes of the two 75mm guns in Block 3 and carried them outside. They overlooked, however, the two spare tubes that were kept held in their mount on the lower level of the block.
Since dismounting the guns of Block 3 had been judged to be too much work, the Germans contented themselves with sabotaging the 75mm guns in Block 4 by jimmying their cradles. Undoubtedly they were leery of doing much more, because 500 fused shells filled the turret and its immediate area.
The machine gun turret of Block 2 was also put out of action, this time with the aid of explosives. The charge was not a large one, but it was enough to immobilize the shaft of the turret in the "up" position.
In the infantry Blocks 1 and 6, the breech blocks of the anti-tank guns were removed.
Meanwhile, the demolition men got busy in the machine room, where they placed charges against the two Sulzer motors. The explosives went off with a terrible roar. The shock wave traveled first along the area in which the motors were mounted, then into the cross-corridors, and ended up by mangling the first airlock door. On the left side, the explosion surged into the pit where the cooling water tanks were located, destroying the CLM [Compagnie Lilloise des Moteurs-now a part of Peugeot] motor along the way. The first holding tank was hit on the side, and the others took the blast wave from the top. All the covers were bowed in, and are convex toward the bottom (which is still visible today).
On the right of the motor mounting area, the blast wave wrecked all the ductwork of the main ventilation system. Nothing remained of the big conduits but a tangle of shredded sheet metal work.
When the smoke cleared in the machine room, one of the Sulzer motors was completely unusable. The second, a back-up, did not suffer too badly, since it appears that the charge did not go off. As evidence of this, it ran again in 1946. The electrical switch panel was intact, but the connector panel located near the center of the explosion was pulverized.
The Entryways Are Blown
The underground explosions had scarcely subsided when those that were to devastate the two entryways were set off. At the Munitions Entrance, the Germans had placed a large quantity of explosives in the hallway/unloading area that was protected by the armored door, as well as in the dry moat under the rolling bridge [this gangway, when retracted, cut off entry to vehicles]. Setting off these charges caused another hellish explosion. In the unloading area, chunks of reinforced concrete were ripped off and thrown in all directions. As it roared through, the shock wave destroyed the cages of the two ammunition hoists as well as the heads of its stanchions. The huge armored door was twisted like a piece of straw.
A dozen or so feet from there, the second charge pulverized not only the protective moat and the retractable gangway but also the thick wall overhanging it all. The Tourtellier monorail in the front hall was ripped from its mounting, and the grillwork over the entryway was completely wrecked. Thus the Germans achieved their purpose at the Munitions Entrance. The 1947 report of the Engineers described it in these terms, "Block blown up, three-quarters destroyed," adding in addition that in 1947, the firing chamber was still inaccessible, obstructed by blocks of reinforced concrete.
At the Men's Entrance, the result was even more definitive. Here the German scouts satisfied themselves by stuffing the zig-zag portion of the entry corridor with explosives. The huge explosion tore out the front wall of the entry, which was thrown outside. The floor was now just a big hole, through which the blast wave reached down to the next lower level. Above the center of the explosion, the concrete layer was cracked all the way through, and huge fissures radiated out to the edges of the block. The shock wave cracked the shaft connecting with the next level up, destroying as is passed all the ventilation ductwork, as well as the cage and the stanchion of the ammunition hoist. The blast wave finally died out some 65 feet farther on, but not without first having damaged the electric panel under the block and caved in the oil reservoirs in the transformer area.
As they fell back towards the north, the Germans left in their wake a fortification that had been mutilated and, as they had intended, was unusable for a good while. It didn't make much difference, since elements of the 141th Regiment of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, who, on March 20, 1945, were moving forward without encountering resistance between Schoenenbourg and Ingolsheim, were not much interested in delaying at the Maginot Line. In effect, the Americans and the French forces of the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division [DIA] had entered Germany the day before, and the German front line had been broken since the 16th.
The Period of Looting and Freebooting
Unexploitable? Not for everyone, because for several months thereafter, the Fort was under no one's authority or oversight. This was a stroke of luck for the kids in the area, who explored its underground mysteries by the flickering glow of candles. For although the Men's Entrance was hardly usable, the Munitions Entrance was more or less accessible. One had only to scale the blocks of reinforced concrete that choked it. In the front portion of the Fort, the emergency exits were wide open, and the sewer channel was visible, The fact that certain armored doors down below were bolted from the inside didn't stand in the way of the clandestine visitors; to prove it, they would use explosives to force the entry door of Block 6. One suspects that this was the work of soldiers.
The Fort was also a windfall for some adults who helped themselves freely to anything easily transportable. Thus disappeared all the brass valves, the small electric motors, and a few of the water pumps. About 500 feet of telephone cable were stolen out of the main gallery. The entire stock of tools from the machine room was carried off. In 1987, we even tracked down those responsible for the last looting spree, who were bragging, in a restaurant close to the Fort, of having picked the place clean.
In 1945, the French Corps of Engineers once again took over control of Fort Schoenenbourg. The bill for repairing the damages was gigantic, because in addition to the predations of 1940 and 1945, the passage of time had also made its mark. Due to lack of upkeep, the elevator pits in the entryways and the combat blocks were filled with water. Motors and mechanisms were flooded. In the forward positions of the Fort, the humidity had rotted out part of the wiring for the electric lights.
It was a grim picture--even more so than in 1945, since no one at that point knew what was to become of the Maginot Line. The Army, which during this period was critically short of funds, had nothing to invest in a fortification that everyone associated with the French defeat of 1940, and which suffered from a serious "image" problem. However, beginning in 1946, the Engineers undertook a few repairs, such as physically securing the Fort and putting the Sulzer motor that had only been lightly damaged back into operation. Workers from the Deitsch company built a brick wall to fill the gaping hole in the façade of the Men's Entrance, to put an end to unwanted intrusions.
In 1947, the army took a complete inventory of the physical condition and the equipment of the Fort. Following this, the first directives ordering the Fort to be put back into shape were issued. Some initial work was undertaken, such as clearing the Munitions Entrance. Fort Schoenenbourg would be "under construction" until the end of 1953.
The Engineers then called again on private industry. The first project would be the renovation of the Munitions Entrance, since all materials needed for work inside the Fort had to enter this way. Once the rubble had been removed, it was easier to see the actual condition of things. It was somewhat reassuring, since the Block had suffered less than it had appeared. The overhanging concrete of the entryway was severely cracked, but repairable nonetheless. Injections of cement were used on it. For the floor, reinforced concrete would be poured again, on top of a facing of small metallic beams that would rest on footings. In the protected unloading area, the holes left by the explosion would be filled with reinforced concrete, and the floor would be re-treaded.
Since no one could see a use for the little retractable gangway, it would not be replaced, and the moat would simply be filled up with reinforced concrete. The wall separating the access corridor from the firing chamber was also rebuilt from reinforced concrete. The filters and poison gas exhaust mechanism of the Block would be replaced by a much simpler system, and new cisterns for water would be installed. The huge armored door would be replaced, as well as the grillwork over the entry, which would now be a set of "barn doors".
Between 1947 and 1951, the decay of the main infrastructure was repaired. The exterior of Blocks 1 and 6 was renovated, as well as that of the artillery Blocks. All traces of impact damage were removed. In the machine room, the two missing Sulzer motors and the one that had been blown up were replaced by others of the same type. The electricians' workshop was re-equipped, and a Vetra loco-tractor could one more run through the Fort. The lighting was almost entirely restored, and the water distribution network put back into working condition. Nonetheless, the toilets still remained to he rehabbed, work which was not viewed as critical, since the Fort was not being occupied. As far as the ventilating system, all the work remained to be done. Such was the situation in 1951.
Then, a new budget allotment allowed final tasks proceed. As part of this effort, the internal damage, such as the sinking of the floors, was catalogued. Such subsidence was detected in a troop compartment in the barracks, in the front "station" area for the little train, in the area below Blocks 5 and 6, and in ammunition ready-storage areas B3 and B4. The flaking and cracks in the plaster resulting from the 1940 bombardments were repaired in all the fighting blocks, as well as in the gallery leading to Block 6.
In 1952, the cracks and flaking in Block 5 were repaired. In 1953, it was the turn of Block 6 and its access gallery. Strangely, the work stopped here and neither the large or small cracks in Blocks 1, 2, 3, or 4 were sealed up. This stoppage can likely be attributed to the receipt, by the Engineers, of the bill for putting the turrets back into shape.
In fact, the repairs to the turrets of Blocks 2, 3, 4, and 5, under way since 1950, were about to be finished. hese were signed off by the Supply service as of September 29, 1953. The 75mm gins and the 81mm mortars were thus once more in firing order. The turret of Block 2, even through completely repaired, would however never again be in shape to fire, since the F Type MAC 31 machine guns had never left the regional workshops of the army's Supply Service [the . Etablissement Régional du Matériel, or E.R.M] in Strasbourg.
A Project for the Men's Entrance
In fact, the biggest piece of the reconstruction would be the rehabilitation of the Men's Entrance.
In 1951, Col. Truc, head of the Technical Section of Buildings, Fortifications, and Construction, set down his views in a report relating to the rehabilitation of the entry blocks of Forts Hochwald and Schoenenbourg (three blocks for Hochwald, and one for Schoenenbourg).
For the latter, he concluded that it was impossible to repair, and consequently made the following recommendations:
This new block would assume the function of flank defense for the Munitions Entrance with the aid of a 105mm cannon.
This project was not retained in the plan, doubtless because of the cost of the underground positions.
New studies were therefore undertaken, and it was discovered that the underpinnings of the entrance block were still usable. It would suffice to demolish the superstructure of Block 8 and to build anew on the existing foundations. Two projects thus came into being. Both retained the principle of a 105mm canon in a firing chamber and of a 75mm (1985) turret for all-around defense. Unfortunately, these projects, attractive as they were, must still have been too costly, They were therefore subjected to a new study, which, although it kept the idea of building upon the existing base, radically changed the defense concept for the entries. The new block would no longer feature any artillery at all, nor any anti-tank weapons, nor even any machine guns. The only close-in defensive fire would come from automatic weapons within an armored GFM [observation/weapons] cupola, with the Fort's artillery coming into action as a last resort.
This flew in the fact of the lessons learned from the battles of 1940, particularly regarding the usefulness of turrets for multiple missions. Undoubtedly fiscal arguments prevailed, so the projects was undertaken as-is.
The Reconstruction of the Men's Entrance
It was in 1952 that the demolition of the Men's Entrance was undertaken. Reconstruction took place from 1953 on. A block very different from the original one was thrown up on the old foundations, and this would lead to many problems in the future. For example, the Type B observation cupolas would now be in the façade of the entry, not on the peak of the overhead concrete pad. People would enter via a staircase which led from outside to the lower level of the Block. There would be no more dry moat and no more overhanging "visor"; only curves and fluid shapes would remain.
In fact, it was a fortification more esthetic than functional. The exhaust pipes for the Sulzer motors were left to discharge just above the entry staircase and during heavy, wet weather, this risked smoking-out the occupants of the Block. Moreover, only one large bomb would be needed to render this entrance unusable. However, there had also been some innovations of a positive sort, like the main air intake, which had formerly been located at the rear of the Block. Now outside air would be drawn in over a bed of gravel covered with vegetation, which would make the air intake invisible and at the same time solve the problem of an anti-blast valve. Following up on the experience of Fort Fermont, the principle of locating the air intake under gravel would be applied not only at the Men's Entrance but also in artillery blocks 3, 4, and 5.
Next, the armored portions of the Fort were addressed. Following guidelines, the original cupolas were left in place. As much as possible of the old Type A cupola would be sunk into the reinforced concrete pad, so that only the tip of the cupola stuck out. Later, a hole would be bored in its center, so that this formerly blind cupola could be transformed into a periscope observation cupola.
The grenade-thrower cupola was moved over about 12 feet, but continued to wait, as it had for the past 20 years, for a hypothetical weapons system that would never come. New Type B cupolas, shipped from the Engineers' depot in Neubourg, would be inserted into the façade. The armored doors of the airlock would pose a problem, since the supply off original-type doors had run out. Instead, salvaged doors, made by German steelworks, were used, probably intended originally by the Germans for fortifications on the Atlantic Wall.
This is how the Men's Entrance at Schoenenbourg came to be equipped with armored doors of Type 728 P 3. The same would be true for casemate Number 3 in the perimeter ditch at Fort Hochwald, which was reconstructed during the same period by the Aubry company.
Once the major works had been completed, the lift which ran to the lower level was totally replaced, along with its stanchion, motor, and drive mechanism. The latter were no longer sited in the ditch, farther down, but would find a place on the higher level of the entrance block, atop the head of the stanchion. As in 1939, ventilation of the Block, as well as filtration of any gas fumes, would be taken care of by the motor room. Finally, the high-tension compartment was completely renovated and brought up to standards by the Loeber company, of Schiltigheim.