The Maginot Line, named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, (seen on the background of this page) was a line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates and machine gun posts which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy after World War I, their grand intention being to render their country impregnable against attack for evermore. Those fortifications which face Germany tend to be referred to as 'The Maginot Line' and the fortifications strung out across the Alps facing Italy tend to be known as 'The Alpine Line'.
In brief, the theory behind the construction of the fortifications was to give France time to mobilise whilst funnelling invading German forces into open land, the better to be engaged there in a war of movement. For a somewhat more in depth discussion of the line's raison d'etre please refer to our Gros Ouvrage Latiremont page linked here - RIGHT. As history records, sadly things did not go to plan and the Germans invaded France through the Ardenne Forest, an area the French high command considered to be impassable to the armoured forces of the day.
Ouvrage Billig is a gros ouvrage (large fortification) located in the Fortified Sector of Thionville, in the Moselle region of northern France. It is situated between the gros ouvrages Metrich and Hackenberg directly facing the German border. It saw relatively little action during the war and after a period of reserve duty in the 1950s it was finally abandoned in the 1970s. Billig was designed, and it's construction overseen, by CORF, the Commission d'Organisation des Régions Fortifiées. Construction work, by the contractor Ossude from Paris, began in June 1930 and the fort finally became operational in 1935. The final cost at completion was 65 million francs.
Billig is rather unusual in that it only has one entrance which was used for both ammunition and personnel - most other gros ouvrages have a so called 'EM' (munitions entrance) and a separate 'EH' (personnel or men's entrance) some significant distance away. It also lacks the primary 'M1' magazine found in other gros ouvrages. The dog leg shaped layout is relatively short for a gros ouvrage, with less than 1,000 metres of underground gallery at an average depth of 30 metres. Like all the other gros ouvrages, Billig had a 60 cm railway running through the gallery system to move munitions and supplies. This railway continued out of the single entrance via a slope to the surface where it connected to the re-supply railway system which paralleled the front line of forts some distance to the rear. Several small blockhouses with machine guns and anti-tank guns were located in the area around Billig. The Casernement d'Elzange provided peacetime above-ground barracks and support services to Billig and the other ouvrages in the area. The ouvrage was manned by a garrison of 521 men and 16 officers from the 167th. Fortress Infantry Regiment and the 151st. Position Artillery Regiment. The units were under the command of the 42nd. Fortress Corps of the 3rd Army, Army Group 2.
Billig was not directly attacked by Wehrmacht troops unlike some of the Maginot Line forts which Hitler commanded should be knocked out as a propaganda exercise after the fall of France was practically assured. However on June 15th. 1940, a bomb penetrated the 81mm mortar turret in Bloc 6 and killed two of the artillerymen stationed there. Billig fired 2,030 75mm shots in support of Hackenberg on the 24th. June. After the armistice was declared Billig was used for explosive demolition tests by the Germans. Blocs 1 and 2 and the magazine of Bloc 5 were all subjected to penetration tests with artillery projectiles and Bloc 2's turret was blasted into the air, falling back into its opening.
After the D. Day invasion of France there was an attempt by the Germans to hold up the allied advance by occupation of, and resistance from, several of the Maginot Line forts. Billig was assaulted by the U.S. Army's 90th. Infantry Division in September 1944 and was only captured after two days of hard, close assault fighting. Following capture, Billig was again used for ordnance experimentation but this time by the U.S. Army. After the war the rapidly escalating tensions between the east and west created a need for a barrier to slow up any potential advance by Warsaw Pact troops and the Maginot Line was again pressed into service. At this time most of the north eastern forts were repaired and modernised. Replacement of the aging 75mm guns with 105mm guns was proposed for Billig however the program was abandoned, and after a long period when only routine maintenance was carried out, Billig's status was lowered to inactive reserve, and then it was finally abandoned.
Our visit to Billig was a highly unusual experience and not at all what we were expecting! We had researched several forts in the line and finally, after much deliberating we decided to try four of them. But we had also heard from a reliable source that one fort in particular had recently been subject to an arson attack and as a result it was filled with smoke and toxic fumes. Duly "armed" against the problem with two British army surplus S10 NBC respirators LEFT we set off for France.
But that's where things went slightly pear shaped because the fort we thought had been fired was Mont Des Welches, not Billig.
Access too was, to say the least, a tad difficult! During our research we had come to the conclusion that there was a fair chance Billig would be wide open with no significant impediment to entry. Photographs on various sites, one of which can be seen here on the RIGHT gave the distinct impression that the entrance gate had been cut or levered open and that as a consequence we would be able to simply walk in.
Wrong again! The reality is, the French army have become increasingly concerned of late about the number of metal thieves and vandals who have been attacking the fort interiors so they have started bulldozing massive earth mounds up against the entrance blocks of any of the forts they consider completely expendable, and welding doors shut or plating over any other potential points of entry. Imagine our language when we walked up the idyllic wooded track to the fort entrance, passing a mother deer and two fauns on the way, only to find a dirty great mud hill between us and the fort doors! Somewhat dejected we almost turned straight back around to leave however TJ decided that she would have a little look up on top of the earth mound on the off chance there was a way in. I'm not going to go into detail but eventually we found a narrow and very muddy passage some distance away deep amongst the trees and after slithering through on our bellies and dropping six or seven feet into the area immediately in front of where the gate used to be we found the bars of the gate were still cut through, and a short distance further inside we found a concrete block wall barring further progress. But this too had been broken open and we were able then to squeeze painfully into the main hall of the entrance block immediately in front of the inclined railway slope down to the fort interior. Just to the left of the entrance we found a quite unusual feature compared to what we have seen before - a multi level area built below the entrance block with several rooms opening off it, including one which housed the poison gas filter plant, complete with its original filter stacks still in place! At this point, apart from a slight hint of fumes in the air, and mainly diesel and oil fumes at that - something not at all unusual in a Maginot Line fort we had learned by now - there was absolutely no indication of a fire in the fort. But that was soon to change as we began to descend the ammunition railway down into the fort proper. At first we thought the haze in the distance we could see on the first 'light painted' pictures taken from the top of the railway was the lens misting up with the change of temperature and humidity but as we continued down I noticed a multitude of tiny specks drifting through my torch beam. Again we did not suspect smoke but thought the interior must be excessively humid.
Then the first signs of the haze actually being smoke made its presence felt through our noses and as we turned the corner at the bottom of the ramp we could see a dense cloud hanging in the air directly ahead of us. We carefully ventured a little way further in and looked into the usine (power generation room) only to find that it was almost completely obscured. Naturally we thought this must be where the seat of the fire had been, especially in view of the diesel powered generator engines and fuel and lubricating oil liberally splashed about practically everywhere. So we hurried past. Over just a few yards the fumes seemed to reduce dramatically but then we hit another wall of smoke even thicker than the first and this smelt like it was coming from a fire that was still smouldering somewhere. Enough was enough and we pulled the plug on the explore - it was time to leave, for without our respirators which we had left behind, not actually suspecting that we were at the fort with the fire, there was no way we could continue any further without succumbing to toxic fumes. We quickly made our way back out with our heads banging from inhalation and gulped in lungfuls of fresh air as our heads broke surface at the end of the narrow mud tunnel!
Quite an adventure and an exploration to go back and complete properly now that we know exactly what to expect!