Sunday, May 2, 2010

WW2 Tour Pt. 4: Maginot Line

We woke up in Luxembourg for our last day of our WW2 tour. Our first stop was the American Cemetery in Luxembourg, where General Patton is buried. Luxembourg was the headquarters for him and the U.S. 3rd army he commanded. The cemetery was very similar to the one in Normandy with the white marble Latin crosses and Stars of David, but this one was dug into the middle of the Ardennes forest; a fitting setting for the Battle of the Bulge casualties. Patton actually made it through the war but died in a jeep accident in December of 1945. We walked around the grounds for awhile, looked at the maps of the Battle of the Bulge, and then packed up to head back into France to take a look at the Maginot Line.

The Maginot Line was a string of forts and other defenses on the French/German border dug into the side of hills facing Germany. However, the French didn't think to reinforce the French/Belgian border in the same fashion, so the Germans just went around the Maginot Line through Belgium, came around from the rear, and then captured the French fortresses from the undefended French side. The good news for tourists is that, after seeing such miraculously little action during the war, the defenses are all in relatively good condition. We first went to the village of Cattenom, where there are five of these forts all within walking distance. We drove around a little bit in there, but because some of the dirt roads were muddy and we were in a little VW, coupled with the fact that all the forts were closed and you couldn't get inside them, we didn't spend much time there. Instead, we drove farther East to the village of Veckering, where the largest fort of the entire Maginot Line, the Hackenberg, is located. We knew from our internet research a few days before that the Hackenberg was open for tours on Sundays, so we knew we would be able to get inside as opposed to just looking at the entrance.

We got inside and were amazed at how intense the interior of the fort is. The Hackenberg comprised 10 kilometers worth of underground tunnels with a munitions entrance and personnel entrance on the French side of the hill and two combat blocks, with 6 combat stations each, on the German side. We toured the non-combat zones on the French side like the munitions bay, barracks, and kitchen, before moving (via train car, it was so long) to the combat blocks on the other side of the mountain. At that point, we were about 180 meters underground and had to climb a narrow stairway all the way from the complex floor to the gun systems above. But, when we got to the top, it was totally worth it; we were standing inside one of the three-story gun turrets that was still 100% operational. The tour guide turned it on, raised the turret, spun the guns around, and repeated so we could see how the gun worked from the inside. Then we went outside and took a look at the gun emplacements facing Germany and was able to see the same gun we'd just seen but operated from the outside. We then walked from combat block 8 over a bluff to combat block 9, where there were some longer-range guns placed to complement the short-range mortar cannons that we'd just been inside. It was funny that the only damage to the forts was done by the Americans when the retreating Nazis used the Hackenberg as a fallback position.

After we left the Hackenberg, we headed out of France for the second time in three days and made for Germany. As soon as we got into Germany, we found our way to the autobahn and blasted toward Frankfurt. We got checked into our fourth hotel room in just as many days and then found a little German/Greek restaurant for dinner and a German pub afterwards for a beer. Germany is so good about giving you the beer glass that actually belongs with the beer - and so many of them were really cool - that we asked the bartender if we could buy a few of his glasses. He responded in broken English that "no, but, if you leave...I don't look." So, after we finished our beer we walked out with some Schoffenhauser glasses in our jackets and left the guy a 300% or so tip. We went back, I rearranged the stuff in the various suitcases Bob was taking home the next day, and we got ready for an early trip to the Frankfurt airport the next morning. For Bob, it would mean a trip home, but for me, it would mean my last adventure: this time, to Rome.

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