La Ferté

The fate of the Petit Ouvrage of La Ferté is one of extreme tragedy. The site is preserved today as it was left in 1940 and while it was a German victory, it was not representative of the fighting efficiency of the Maginot Line as a whole. The fort was one of four works, which were collectively referred to as the Tete du Pont de Montmédy or The Montmédy Bridgehead. Due to the topography of the area, these works occupied a salient facing the Belgian border. La Ferté is what is referred to as a Neuve Front (new front) construction; that is to say it was built, to all intents and purposes, as an extension to the original Maginot Line, but with a more restricted budget. The New Front works also suffered from an overall lack of artillery support, due to these forts being largely constructed without the provision of cover from Gros Ouvrages (unlike the Maginot Line proper). Many corners were cut in their construction, which also compromised their potential fighting efficiency. In many respects, the money spent would have been better employed in building fewer forts of a larger type.

The site was approved in 1934, around the time that most of the Maginot Line proper had already been completed and, while under the supervision of the CORF, the works were carried out by a civilian contractor (Chanel of Antibes) with work commencing in 1935 at a total cost of 14.5 million francs. The plans had initially included, like many of the forts of the system, a second phase which in the case of La Ferté, was to provide a third combat block for artillery. As with virtually all of the second phase planned extensions, this was never realised.

La Ferté suffered from a number of deficiencies, as touched upon above. In effect, the fort was little more than two casemates joined by a tunnel. Due to the nature of the site chosen, a large volume of rubble infill was required to support the combat blocks, which because of the late date of the fort's construction, had not had sufficient time to settle naturally and was thus prone to being dislodged by attacking artillery fire. Combat Block 2 was particularly compromised as it was unable to fully cover the surrounding area with fire and the main road was impossible to defend, as it was located in a cutting. While the addition of artillery casemates was used in an attempt to alleviate this problem, they were not designed for protracted periods of occupation. The subterranean tunnels comprised a basic gallery which connected the two blocks; they had been intended to operate separately, only sharing facilities such as the kitchens. At only 24 metres below the ground and because of the basic nature of the constructions, the garrison was barracked in the actual combat blocks, closer to the surface than would normally be the case. There was also no provision for the main drain to double up as an emergency exit; this important aspect was dealt with from the individual blocks. This oversight could in many respects have played a crucial role in the demise of the fort's crew.

In 1940, the fort was under the command of Lt Bourguignon along with three junior officers and 97 other ranks. These numbers placed further strain on the efficiency of the fort, as there were insufficient officers, resulting in Lt Bourguignon not only being in overall command of the entire fort, but also having to command Block One. Block Two was under the command of Sub-Lt Thouémont, who was, due to being originally part of a standard machine gun battalion, unfamiliar with the correct operation of the Maginot forts.

The Germans, who referred to La Ferté as Panzerwerk 505, arrived in the area on May 13th; led by the 71st Infantry Division, who had trained specifically for assaulting the Maginot Line and were thus equipped with shaped charges, they approached the fort, although it was not until the 15th May that an actual engagement took place. The battle proper began on the 17th, following the Germans first capturing some of the surrounding hills which overlooked the site and despite the Gros Ouvrage of Chesnois attempting to support La Ferté with its 75mm guns, The fort was soon under the bombardment of 210mm mortars and 88mm guns. At around noon on the 17th, the Germans cut the telephone lines to the fort, forcing all communications to be made by radio, which the Germans could now openly monitor.

Improved French artillery support allowed for the telephone connection to be repaired on the morning of the 18th, However, by the afternoon, German forces had entered the neighbouring village of Villy and in no time had surrounded the fort. From this point on, the fate of the crew was sealed. Mid-afternoon saw the GFM cloche on Block Two take a direct hit, killing three and knocking it out. It was around this time that the mixed arms turret on Block Two was also struck, smashing it off its mechanism and leaving it incapable of being retracted. This is how it can be found to this day. The German barrage had smashed holes in the outer anti-personnel defences, enabling sappers to approach and pour smoke bombs into the fort, putting Block Two out of action.

Despite an attempted French counter-attack later that evening, the Germans continued to bombard both blocks heavily. Bourguignon's repeated requests to evacuate the fort were refused by his superiors. On the morning of the 19th May, all resistance ceased and when the French tried to contact the fort via telephone, no reply was forthcoming. By this time, Block Two was internally ablaze. On the morning of the 20th, equipped with breathing apparatus, German troops entered the block but found nobody. The following day, they entered Block One, again not finding any sign of the crew, so moved on.

It was not until the 28th that a French patrol attempted to approach the fort, but were unable to reach it due to the continued German presence in the area. On June 2nd, the Germans returned to the fort in order to better assess the damage and it was then that the entire crew was found in the tunnel, having been asphyxiated. It was not until June 9th that the bodies were finally buried in a mass grave next to the fort. Post mortems established that they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning; although most of the crew were discovered wearing their gas masks, these had proved ineffective against concentrations greater than 2%.

To view an 8 minute film about La Ferté, click here.


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