The Plus Gros Ouvrage Hochwald

The Hochwald ridge forms one of the final natural barriers of the northern Vosges. At 508 metres, it can be crossed via the Col du Pfaffenschlick. When the French military was surveying for the construction of the Maginot Line, it was an obvious choice as the location for the construction of a fortress. Additionally, the surrounding area was considered in need of urgent attention due to its close location to the German border.

The Plus Gros Ouvrage Hochwald was one of the original 'big four' works of the Maginot, whose construction was begun before the official funding had been signed off. These works were seen as vital to the defence of the French nation as well as being type proofs for the concept of the Maginot as a whole. Normally, as we have mentioned in the main section on the Maginot, the forts can be divided into two classifications -Gros, (large) and Petit (small). The Hochwald and its three 'sisters' formed the Plus Gros, super-large category. The Hochwald fortress was built astride the ridge whence it took its name and comprised an east and a west fortress connected via an anti-tank ditch which ran over the top of the ridge and which was in turn protected by a series of casemates. The fort was served by a total of three entry blocks; one for munitions and the other two for the fort's crew.

The initial plans had also allowed for the construction of a réduit, which was to be a fort within a fort, located between the entry and combat blocks. This would have been a unique structure on the line. The construction of the réduit begun around the same time as the main fortress and would have seen 145mm or 155mm long-range artillery mounted in non-retractable turrets, accessed via its own entry blocks. However, construction was halted before the work could be fully realised. The réduit now forms a unique example of the construction methods for a Maginot fortress.

In 1940, the Hochwald had a complement of 1022 men and 41 officers and was under the command of Lt. Col. Miconnet. The fortress was in turn served by the barrack complex located nearby at Drachenbronn. Due to its location, the Hochwald was one of the more active forts during the period of the Phoney War, being often called on to fire in support of French patrols. Most likely due to the concentration of the defence and artillery offered by the Hochwald, when the Germans invaded in May 1940, they simply bypassed the work, preferring to wait. When the Germans began to advance in the direction of the nearby town of Lembach in mid June 1940, the Hochwald offered support, firing a number of salvos which were met by a number of air attacks from Stukas.

Following the forced surrender of the Maginot Line, the fortress remained largely unused; not until 1944 was it converted for use as an underground factory complex, before seeing its last actions of World War Two, later the same year when it was hurriedly pressed back into service by the Germans. The biggest issue with the Germans' use of the Maginot Line was that the works were never designed to offer their maximum capabilities against an attack from the rear. While the re-use of the line will have offered a limited delay in the Americans' assaults, the efforts can only really be seen as token and in way offer a true reflection of the potential the Maginot Line offered. On retreating, the Germans blew up a number of the combat blocks in an attempt to prevent them  being used again.

Following the end of World War Two, French Army engineers repaired the damage inflicted by the war and the deliberate sabotage. This was undertaken in order to provide a strong fortified position from which to form a stop line in the event of a Soviet attack into western Europe. However, in 1956 the Hochwald was removed from this defensive aspect and placed into the care of the French Air Force, becoming the Base Aérienne 901. As the BA901, the tunnels were extended to incorporate additional equipment, thus being transformed into a hardened air defence command centre. Recently, the BA901 was closed although the fortress itself remains as an early warning centre, monitoring the skies of Europe.

It is important to note that while most of the other surface works of the Maginot Line can be visited, due to the highly sensitive work undertaken on the site, unless you have express official permission to do so, no such attempt should be made at the Hochwald.

To view images of the réduit, click here.

Photographs © Robert Haag.


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