Operation Kleiner Baer

Operation Kleiner Baer (Little Bear) was little more than a vanity operation to allow Hitler to claim a victory over the Maginot Line. The truth of the situation was that France was already as good as beaten; Paris had been occupied and the part of the Maginot chosen was by far the weakest section of the line.

Map of the battlefront. Please click image for image credit.

The assault involved a number of German units crossing the Rhine, which despite what we have stated above, was still not going to be an easy task. The French were hardly going to allow the Germans an easy passage. While the operation took place over a broad front, it was the French village of Marckolsheim which sat directly at the central thrust of the attack.

On the German bank of the Rhine, almost directly opposite the village, stood the ancient castle of the Limburg. Today it is a shadow of its former self, having been almost obliterated in the fighting a mere four years later in 1944. In 1940, the castle had been integrated into the German Westwall as a command and observation post. The image above was taken using a telephoto lens and gives a clear illustration of the commanding views over the plains of Alsace enjoyed from this position. To further enhance the view, in 1940, the Germans had constructed a concrete tower adding to the advantage that this position provided.

This position also overlooked the Pont du Limburg (Limburg Bridge) which connected the two countries. In the face of the medieval castle's base, the Germans had constructed some machine gun positions, and while there were other defences in the immediate area, these have long since been destroyed. Along with the commanding view over Alsace as a whole, the position also looked directly down on the French front-line defences. A number of casemates and other bunkers protected the French side of the bridge, which had also been rigged with explosives to destroy it in the event of any kind of attack. The image below was again taken from the castle and shows the French bank and remains of where the bridge once was. Most of what you see in the image was constructed after the war, although the former Customs House (front left, closest to the river and bridge) stands on the site of its pre-war predecessor with the basement section being original to 1940 and still bearing the scars of combat.

Following the end of World War Two, the bridge was replaced with a Bailey Bridge which remained in regular use until the mid 1980's; this was in turn replaced by another more permanent structure a couple of hundred metres further downstream. The image below shows a restaurant which was built after the war to cater for the captive audience awaiting passage over the bridge after clearing Customs. The grassy mound in front is the remains of the Casemate Pont du Limburg. Badly damaged in the initial attack, it was eventually demolished in the post-war period. Beyond the actual mound, little remains to even suggest it had once stood there. For the record, a section of the Bailey Bridge is now on display at the Mémorial Maginot in Marckolsheim.

Upstream from the site of the bridge is located the Abri Limburg (image below). In 1940 it served as a command post for the French forces. While it also took the brunt of the initial attack, and has been subsequently ravaged by scrap metal dealers, it remains remarkably intact. Today it stands on private property and while the roof can be accessed from the river bank, we would request that anyone visiting the site respects the land owner and does not trespass.

The image below shows the French bank upstream. Immediately below the tree on the left, is the location of the Casemate du Limburg Sud. Unlike the casemate at the actual bridge, there are visible remains still to be seen, although again it was very badly damaged in the attack.

The next few images are original, taken by the Germans immediately following the battle. These have been reproduced with the kind permission of Wikimaginot. Below is the actual Pont du Limburg Sud. The damage is clear to see.

Below are the remains of the Casemate Fort Mortier. Built in the immediate grounds of a much older fortification, the damage is much clearer. The entire facade facing the river has been blasted away by the German artillery. After about an hour of almost continuous bombardment by the 88 mm guns, a round entered the actual casemate (the result can be seen in the next image); the result was complete devastation with a large number of the defenders severely injured and killed outright.

What remains of the casemate Fort Mortier now stands in the grounds of an industrial complex, which has for many years prevented access to the river bank and adjacent fort. Recently there has been local pressure to see the fortress restored and it is now finally visible from the road as years of neglect are being reversed and the undergrowth cleared.

All other images are copyright of Dunkirk 1940 Museum

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