The Second World War: The Battle for the West Wall

(ominous orchestral music) – [Narrator] In the autumn of 1916, during the First World War, Germany began the construction
of a major defense line, the Siegfriedstellung, literally meaning the Siegfried Position. This line of defense
was known to the British as the Hindenberg Line. At the same time, however, the British and the French were both developing a new weapon, one which could easily breach
Germany’s line of defense, the tank. (machine guns firing) By 1938, the same name was applied to a new extensive defense, officially the West Wall, which was under construction along Germany’s western frontiers. The line of the wall ran approximately from east of Basel to Karlsruhe, west to Luxembourg, and
northeast along the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands. Originally intended to defend
the re-annexed Saar region in 1936, it was expanded to
become the German counterpart to the Allies’ Maginot Line. Germany’s line of defense
became known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. The original idea of constructing the wall began as early as 1936 when Germany troops first entered the Rhineland. There was a double line running
almost the entire length of the western borders of Germany. On the northern section of this line, there were also the added barriers of the great Rur and Maas Rivers, and to the south, the Rhine. It was envisaged that these rivers would not stop an advancing army, but they would delay them long enough to allow time for the Germans to bring up mobile reserve forces. Along the frontier was some of Germany’s most ancient towns and cities. Each of these was also fortified. The roads through these towns would prove to be the weak
links in the defenses. Around each town, there
were heavy concentrations of dragon’s teeth, minefields, and concrete pillboxes. The greatest defense of all, however, was not in concrete and metal barriers, but in the propaganda
myth that surrounded them. According to the Nazis, the
West Wall was invincible, even to the tanks which
had breached the wall in the First World War. Further inland was a
second line of defense, one which incorporated the cities along the widest part of the Rhine Valley. Cologne, Koblenz, and Karlsruhe. These were also heavily fortified with minefields, tank
traps, and pillboxes. In May 1938, the great
undertaking had commenced. Hitler had ordered that the whole length of Germany’s frontier with France, Luxembourg, and Belgium
should be fortified within 18 months. The man who was given the overall task of supervising construction and the army defense
engineers was Dr. Todt, an engineer from an upper
class southern Germany family. Todt had little contact with politics and the National Socialists, but was well liked by Hitler. Todt and his team set to work immediately, drawing up the plans and schedules for the mammoth task ahead. The job was to be
completed within 18 months, and Todt was given the authority to call upon all of the resources that Germany had to offer. The mighty steelworks of the Ruhr Valley, already running at full capacity to feed Hitler’s new war machine, enlisted more men and reopened old plants, which had been closed
during the Depression. They were going to need to produce over one million tons of steel and iron. (triumphant music) (militaristic orchestral march) Forests were cleared to
produce enough timber required to build the wall. (dynamite exploding) Rocks were blasted to produce
the three million tons of ballast needed. (lively orchestral music) 5,000 kilometers of heavy
steel cable was produced. This was to be used to reinforce the three meter thick concrete structures making them impregnable. (lively orchestral music) The German state railways were operating at least 100 freight trains every day, carrying the materials necessary to feed the inexhaustible
construction sites. (lively orchestral music) Distribution centers were established along the railway network where the loads were transferred to trucks to continue the rest
of the journey by road. During the period of construction, over 1/3 of Germany’s
total production of cement went on building the West Wall. In all, they would need a staggering eight million tons of cement. Tens of thousands of private trucks were commandeered from all over Germany. At the height of construction, over 8,000 truckloads of materials were transported to the
sites every single day. These trucks were all privately owned, and the owners were paid
a pittance for their use. Many operators soon went out of business only to find that their trucks had subsequently been confiscated. (lively orchestral music) In all, over one million tons of timber would be required to build the wall. This amounted to 780,000
cubic meters of wood. (lively orchestral music) Three million rolls of
barbed wire were used. If laid out end to end, this amount of wire would
run for 30,000 kilometers. (lively orchestral music) Hundreds of thousands of
steel girders were produced. These would be used to
support the structures and also to reinforce the
concrete fortifications. (lively orchestral music) Despite the massive propaganda advantage, Hitler’s wall was regarded by many as the Fuhrer’s white elephant. For, they asked themselves, what useful purpose could it serve? Despite this, construction stormed ahead at tremendous expense and with a massive recruitment of labor from all over the Third Reich. From cities all over Germany came a force of skilled labor, carpenters, bricklayers, and engineers who were only too glad
to have a job again. Or that is how the propaganda went. Todt also had at his disposal huge resources of cheap or even free labor still available in Germany, which was only just barely
recovering from the Depression. Todt had amassed a workforce
of 100,000 military engineers, 350,000 men from his own outfit, known as Organization Todt, and many tens of thousands more from the Nazi Labor Force. The workforce lived in camps, which had been established all along the remote border areas. Unlike Germany’s industrial
areas and cities, the frontiers of Germany were scattered with small rural villages, where time had stood still for centuries. By the October of 1938, 532,000 men, women, and children were working on the fortification. However, they were not all volunteers. On one day alone in August of 1938, 12,000 men had been
transported from Berlin. To defy the order would have meant, at the best, imprisonment. One contractor in Berlin lost
400 of his finest workers. All of them had been taken to
the line in closed lorries, and all of them had been sworn to secrecy or suffer the consequences. (workers chattering) Many of the workforce were natives of this remote and depressed
borderland of Germany. The young, the old, women, and men, all came to work on the line. They were more than happy to supplement their pitiful incomes received from their small holdings and farms, which were still operated in
the traditional strip system of the Middle Ages. (lively orchestral music) The West Wall was in fact the
greatest construction program ever undertaken in Germany’s history. Although propaganda constantly
reported to the German people how everybody was working together for the ideals of the new Nazi Germany, the truth of the matter was in fact most of the workforce was conscripted, or forced labor. (triumphant singing in foreign language) (triumphant orchestral music) (ominous music) Over half of the
structure was underground, the thousands of pillboxes being linked by a series of subterranean
passageways and tunnels. Work on these was particularly hazardous. And many workers were killed during the four years of construction through cave ins. (discordant orchestral music) The pointed concrete pyramids, or so-called dragon’s teeth, varied in heights from between
one meter and three meters and were primarily to stop tanks. They were laid throughout
the line in rows of five. Towards the end of the
construction period in 1939, there was an air of dissatisfaction amongst the laborers. They felt they were being
treated like convicts working 15 hours a day
with very poor cramped living conditions and poor food. Guards were drafted in
to control the workforce and prevent strikes from breaking out. But as the dissatisfaction grew stronger, desperate measures were introduced to improve working conditions and keep the construction on schedule. Anyone who had worked continuously
for more than 12 months was allowed leave. Wives were allowed to visit the camps and given cheap railway passes to travel. The wages were increased. And to those who worked
in the more difficult or dangerous conditions, medals were awarded. These measures, introduced
on Hitler’s orders to complete the line at all costs, mollified the irate workforce. (lively orchestral music) There were many young workers
from the Arbeitsdienst, which was the Nazi Labor Force. Every able German boy or girl had to join this for six months as soon as they reached the age of 17. Although, many volunteered
at a much younger age. Their free muscle
provided much of the labor for digging the foundations and the anti-tank traps
and also for laying the barbed wire fencing. By the August of 1939, the task was complete. The West Wall was finished. They had completed in just over a year a mammoth construction of
concrete, steel, and timber, which stretched across the
western frontiers of Germany like a gray snake. It was over 640 kilometers long. It reached into Germany along its length, some four kilometers in depth. 14,000 pillboxes and bunkers
had been constructed, linked by a network of concrete roads. The cost had been a staggering
3.5 billion German marks. Whatever others may have thought about the feasibility or
purpose of this new line of fortification, Hitler
had his own opinion, and it was all part of his grand plan. He knew that it would give him the complete freedom of action in the east that he needed for his intended actions in Poland and Czechoslovakia. For the first time in history, due to the protection the
wall offered in the west, Germany did not have to
fear a war on two fronts. The reason for her military downfall so often in the past. Hitler had once remarked
to one of his generals, “Believe me general, I
am the greatest builder of fortifications of all time. I built the West Wall.” In Britain and America, this new gray concrete wall that had suddenly appeared so startlingly across the center of Europe
was thought so amusing that it was dubbed the Siegfried Line. It became the subject of a song and was one of the musical hits of 1939. ♫ We’re going to hang out the
washing on the Siegfried Line ♫ Have you any dirty washing, mother dear ♫ We’re going to hang out the
washing on the Siegfried Line ♫ ‘Cause the washing day is here ♫ We’re going to hang out the
washing on the Siegfried Line For a long time afterwards, first the British and
then the American soldiers going off to war would
sing the lines of the song about how they would be
hanging out their washing on the Siegfried Line if the Siegfried Line’s still there. However, it was, and in fact still is. Ironically, tragically, over 100,000 of those young soldiers, British, French, Canadian, and American
marching gaily to war with that song on their lips were fated to die before its
steel and concrete bunkers. A similar number of young German soldiers would suffer the same fate defending it. Each bunker was about seven meters wide and six meters high
with the walls and roof up to three meters thick. Each bunker would house
a garrison of 14 men. The fortifications were
typically Germanic, hard, lean, and spartan. The wall was ready like a
snake ready to catch its prey, and when it did, its bite would be deadly. Following his attack on Poland and his failed peace
attempt with the West, the wall gave Hitler time to
plan his assault westward. By 1940, however, he no longer
had a need for the wall. He was now master of western Europe. The wall was abandoned. Its bunkers locked. By the beginning of 1944, the Germans knew that an invasion was inevitable, and they looked to the
defenses of the West Wall to prevent the Allies
from entering Germany. By the summer of 1944, the south of Britain was
crammed with men and equipment. America had dispatched
almost 950,000 troops as well as vast amounts of trucks, armored cars, tanks, and supplies. The roads of Kent were
full of trucks end to end, an endless convoy of men and machinery. This was to be start of the
greatest amphibious operation ever undertaken in the history of warfare. 5,000 ships, together with
thousands of smaller craft backed by 1,100 aircraft
were about to hurl almost 200,000 men against
Hitler’s Atlantic wall, beyond which Field Marshall
von Rundstedt’s 60 divisions were lying in wait. Once the beaches of
Normandy had been breached, Operation Overlord called for an army of almost two million British, American, and Commonwealth troops to
advance inland across Europe. The objective, nothing less
than the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany. (ominous music) The assault was finally launched on the Sixth of June, 1944, a day that would forever be
known to the Allies as D-Day. (machine guns firing and bombs exploding) The days following the invasion became a fierce battle between the Allies trying to secure their beach head and the Germans preventing
them from doing so. More troops were being
ferried across the Channel, and the advance continued
inland through Normandy. The US Third Army was
unleashed into Brittany and then south towards the River Loire. At the same time, the US First Army was advancing towards the town of Vier with the British Second Army launching an assault on Villers-Bocage. (machine guns firing) The German resistance was fierce, and they launched counterattack
after counterattack. Hitler was adamant that there
should be no withdrawals from Normandy and ordered his generals to keep the Allies contained. (rifles firing) By the end of July, the Allies’ assault was gathering momentum. Nearly two million men had been landed, and town after town was
falling from Nazi hands. Piece by piece, France was being liberated by the Allies and Hitler’s armies were being forced into withdrawal. As the Allies’ advance gathered strength, the Germans had little choice other than to retreat
or risk being encircled and the traps being set for them. Throughout France, there was a joyous cry. After almost five long
years of the horrors of Nazi occupation, the
Allies were finally coming. (machine guns firing) By the 25th of August, two and a half months after the launch of the assault on Fortress Europe, the Allies were entering Paris. Although most of the German
garrison had withdrawn, there were still pockets of resistance. Snipers holed up in buildings were forced to surrender
or face the consequences. As the columns of US troops made their triumphant entry, the city was saturated with joyous and emotional Parisians. For the first time in almost five years, they were free once again. (Parisians cheering) On the Third of September, it was the turn of
Brussels to be liberated. This time, it was by courtesy of the British Guards Armored Division. The Germans were now retreating back into their own homeland, and the gap was closing
up on the German border. If Germany was to remain in Nazi hands, the Siegfried Line would
be the final frontier. However, the Allies did have a problem. Supplies were not reaching
the front line troops. The supply columns could not keep pace with the advance, and they
were rapidly running out of food, fuel, and ammunition. By mid-September, the
Allies were approaching Western Wall defenses between
Aachen and Gailenkirchen. The Siegfried Line was holding. The heavily fortified pillboxes, spaced every distance of
about 150 meters apart, seemed impregnable. (ominous music) The next phase of the
operation was hatched. If the Allies could not
breach the Siegfried Line, then the plan was to go
around it in the north. Three Airborne divisions
would seize the bridges at Eindhoven, Grave, Nijmegen, and across the Rhine at Arnhem. A further division of ground troops would link up with the Airborne forces to support them once the
bridges had been taken. The first two assaults at Grave and Eindhoven were successful. The third managed to secure one side of the bridge at Arnhem, but there was a fierce resistance. (machine guns firing) The British airborne
division with over 10,000 men clung on desperately to
the northern approach, but they were unable
to dislodge the Germans from the southern end. The road bridge remained intact, but the Germans had
destroyed the rail bridge. Two Panzer divisions made it impossible for the Allied reinforcements
to reach the British, and they were soon pinned down. (machines guns firing) (grenade exploding) Hampered by poor wireless communications and bad weather that delayed the dropping of supplies by air, the airborne division
was beginning to succumb to the German counterattacks. On the 25th of September, short of ammunition and
knowing that, by now, reinforcements were too far away to help, the British were ordered to break out and try to reach Allied lines. Of more than 10,300 men engaged at Arnhem, only 2,827 managed to reach safety. By the beginning of October 1944, the Allies were closing in on Aachen. Aachen was defended by
three volksgrenadier and infantry divisions under the command of General der Infantrie
Friedrich Kochling. Though these troops had not as yet engaged in any major action, they
had been decisively weakened in the desperate efforts to stem the Allies breaking
through the Siegfried Line. On October the Seventh,
the Allies were attacking six miles north of the city attempting to encircle Aachen
and attack it from the rear. To the defenders, attempting
to preserve Aachen as a citadel of Nazi
ideology seemed bleak. Even so, the Germans
did try to counterattack attempting to hold the Allies’ advance long enough for von
Rundstedt’s Panzer divisions to be brought in from reserves. (guns firing) This, however, would never happen. The German High Command
had already conceded that Aachen would inevitably be lost and would therefore not risk losing their valuable Panzer divisions. (guns firing) The Allies pressed
southwards towards Wurselen some five kilometers from Aachen. The Western Wall was beginning to show signs of crumbling. (ominous music) (tanks firing) (bombs exploding and rifles firing) By the 10th of October, the Allies were concentrating on the hills overlooking Aachen. The Germans were by now
being pressed on two fronts, and the Allies’ net was
tightening around the city. An ultimatum was sent to the commander of the German garrison. If he failed to capitulate unconditionally within 24 hours, the ultimatum warned, the Americans would pulverize
the city with artillery and bombs and then seize
the remaining rubble by ground assault. The 24 hours came and went. And the final assault
was launched on the city. The industrial suburb of Haaren on the outskirts of that city was first to crumble. To the north of the city,
the US 30th Division was also closing in. (machine guns firing) (bombs exploding) (tanks rumbling) (guns firing and bombs exploding) The fighting around the
outskirts of the city went on seemingly endlessly as the Germans fought ferociously for every meter the Allies gained. (bombs exploding and guns firing) Meanwhile, the British 21st Armored Group under Field Marshall Montgomery were advancing on Antwerp further north. Open farmland, easily crossed by tanks, gave way to impenetrable forests and high commanding hills. German defenses were strong, and the German soldier,
fighting for his fatherland, was a disciplined and formidable opponent. Allied casualties were mounting heavily. (bombs exploding and guns firing) (tanks rumbling) (rifles firing and bombs exploding) After a long five week siege of Aachen, the US troops finally moved
in on the 13th of October, sweeping towards the center through a maze of rubble and damaged buildings. The city had been the victim not only of the Allied assault, but also months of
aerial bombing campaigns by the Royal Air Force. Of the 165,000 pre-war inhabitants, a meager 20,000 remained. German snipers holed up sewers or cellars were flushed out. On the other half of the
attack across the city, the American troops were blocked initially by heavily defended blocks of flats. The soldiers measured
their gains in buildings, floors, and even rooms. Some said that the fight
was from attic to attic and sewer to sewer. Germans sheltered and hid
in all manner of buildings, offices, and private dwellings from which they launched attacks on the rear of the US
soldiers as they passed by. The city had to be searched comprehensively and thoroughly. No building was left untouched. On October the 19th, Oberst Wilck, commanding what was left of
the remaining German troops issued his orders. The defenders of Aachen will prepare for their last battle. Constricted to the
smallest possible space, we shall fight on to the last man, the last shell, and the last bullet in accordance with the Fuhrer’s orders. In the face of the
contemptible, despicable treason committed by certain individuals, I expect each and every defender of the venerable imperial city of Aachen to do his duty to the end. In fulfillment to our oaths to the flag, I expect courage and
determination to hold out. Long live the Fuhrer and
our beloved Fatherland. The defenders of Aachen had been abandoned and left to their fate. They finally surrendered
on the 21st of October. Further north, the British fought hard and began to attack
east of the Maas River. The next phase was the
push towards the Rhine. Germany was by now defending
her borders on all fronts. (guns firing and bombs exploding) The mighty Siegfried
Line, or Western Wall, Germany’s last defense had broken. All that remained were piles of rubble and the shattered
remains of the pillboxes. The Allies were now on German soil, and Nazi Germany’s final
days were numbered. All along the Siegfried Line, Allied troops were hoisting flags and clearing a path for the final assault on Fortress Germany. (ominous music) The British Prime
Minister Winston Churchill flew to the line to see it for himself. He had known that the
risks and responsibility of launching so many men in
one assault were enormous. Much could have gone
wrong between those months of June to October. And no one knew better than he. For 29 years earlier
in the First World War, thousands of British and Empire soldiers had perished under machine gun fire as they sought to land on
the beaches of Gallipoli. As First Lord of the
Admiralty at that time, he had borne the
responsibility of the losses and much of the blame. General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Normandy, also viewed the breached wall in the winter of 1944. Driven by his ruthless leadership, the Allies had raced across France to reach the German border. The speed of its advance kept the Germans always off-balance. He had been the advocate
of attacking Germany on a broad front, a
tactic which had paid off. By December the 13th, the
city of Metz had fallen. Eisenhower then ordered his troops in a bold diversion to strike
at the German southern flank and advance on the Rhine. On March the 22nd, 1945, after
a long and murderous winter, the Allies finally crossed the Rhine, a gigantic vice was now
closing on the Third Reich. This river was the last
major natural obstacle between the Allies and
Germany’s heartland. Once across, the armies would fan swiftly over Hitler’s crumbling Reich and encircle its industrial
heart, the Ruhr Valley. (ominous music) Hitler had promised the
German people invincibility. He had promised that the Third Reich would last for 1,000 years. It lasted barely 12. Hitler’s Reich left hardly
anything tangible in its wake apart from the geographic
and political consequences of the most terrible war in history with one exception, a lasting monument in concrete and steel
which still stands today. The West Wall had held the Allied armies and prolonged the war for seven months. It was finally breached under
the sheer weight of numbers. The cost in Allied dead to breach the wall was higher than that suffered in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. Where Hitler and his generals once walked to a mighty rapture from
the people of Germany, there were now only the
victorious footsteps of an army which had brought
down the final curtain on an earth shaking drama. (explosion) (ominous orchestral music)

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Reader Comments

  1. Fred Nesbitt Jr.

    Totally missed the fact that the US Army Corp. of Engineers had simply paved roads right over the top of those stupid dragon's Teeth…the Kraut's sure knew how to make some good under-layment !
    Plainly visable in the final scenes, the road bed is clearly higher than the tops of the teeth in the background.

  2. Shannon Quinn

    Not sure why the US and UK initially found the Siegfried Wall amusing. Guess they couldn't see the writing on the wall, no pun intended.

  3. btakesa

    DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME. 3min of introduction that you cannot see clearly. Jason Media is made by an amateur that has no idea about media production. The background music was just stupid.

  4. Ross Garland

    Does this really count as a "documentary"? Worthless. You could probably fit every line of narration in this film into 5 minutes flat. The rest is like watching a Nazi propaganda video full of military marches and meaningless footage of people working. Total waste of time which is of no educational value whatsoever.

  5. WTX Railfan

    So many parallels between Nazis and Trumpublicans. They say a person can walk through Arlington National Cemetery and hear the sound of thousands of fallen WWII soldiers spinning in their graves.

  6. Paul Bustamante

    Just an older but well done and narrated documentary. One of the best ones and I'm ex military grampa served with 36ID from before Texas national guard went reg army. So spent 35 years looking for shows books. And taken that long just to watch everything. The War by Ken Burns is a newer one long but very good. This series of programs has great video that not many have. The music is just the time. Think late 1930s and 1940s music. A different way and time. The jitterbug. Understanding the weapons planes tanks units commanders lots of stuff to try to learn about to understand more how it was and who was what and where. The links that were went to hide or to mislead choices of location of armies or to hide. Like a lot of people said if just some decisions or times were different things could have been very different.

  7. Peter T

    I love seeing that huge swastika that we used to see at Nazi rallies being destroyed. First time i've seen footage of the American victory parade past it when they had a US flag draped over half of it. Glad they didn't destroy all the Nazi bunkers & fortifications.

  8. hlf_coder

    That was a good show, but I could've used a bit more intro. I'm telling ya fellas, you're gonna want that longer intro. I mean, I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more intro.

  9. Milind Naik

    In reality British had encouraged Hitler to start WW II, then they entered in war to ran away with heavy losses, British were survived only because of courage of US and Russia…. British were bloody loosers of world war….

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