Fort Schiesseck

A key defensive bastion in the Maginot Line, the French Army classified Fort Schiesseck as a "gros ouvrage, or great work." Dug to a depth equivalent to five stories into Schiesseck Ridge, just two kilometers northwest of the citadel in Bitche, Fort Schiesseck was a part of the so-called "Ensemble de Bitche," considered to be one of the strongest -- if not the strongest -- sectors of the Maginot Line.

Observation cupola, air duct and retracted
gun turret at Fort Schiesseck

Partially exposed gun turret at Fort Schiesseck, 1988

Observation cupola Fort Schiesseck destroyed by Company B, 325th Engineers, and partially repaired after the War by the French Army, 1988.

Built between 1932 and 1937, it was officially a part of the Secteur Fortifie de Rohrbach, and boasted a considerable complement of weapons designed not only for tactical defense of the fortress itself, but to dominate the terrain for miles around -- through a 360-degree arc. Its nine "blocs" included retractable turrets mounting twin 75mm howitzers and 135mm howitzers; casemate mounted 81mm mortars, and turret-mounted twin machineguns for local defense. A casemate mounted 47mm antitank gun protected the main entrance. The circular turrets were armored with thick steel shells, and hydraulically rose from positions flush with the ground to fire, before sliding back into their sleeves in the earth, whence they were practically invulnerable to anything but point blank, direct fire from heavy caliber cannon. Although most of Schiesseck's protection was provided by dozens of feet of earth, wherever the blocs projected from the ground, they possessed steel-reinforced concrete walls between three and ten feet thick. Electric narrow-gauge trains connected the garrison's living quarters with the blocs from which the fighting was done; they also carried ammunition from the deeply-ensconced and heavily protected magazine. A huge bellows system provided overpressure throughout the fortress, to keep out poison gas, and filtered all air brought in for ventilation of the tunnels.

Like the other garrisons of the Ensemble de Bitche, the defenders of Fort Schiesseck did not surrender when the rest of the French Army did in June 1940, but rather, over a week later, on the 30th of June. Even then, they could have held on much longer, but the Germans threatened to continue the war and occupy the southern tier of France, which had been left to the "Vichy" government.

Combat Team 398 first assaulted Schiesseck on 14 December 1944. Commencing early on 15 December, Army Air Force Thunderbolts flew 78 sorties against Schiesseck, dropping 54,000 pounds of 500-lb bombs. At the same time, over 60 artillery pieces, including 105mm, 155mm and 8-inch (203mm) howitzers, 4.5-inch and 155mm guns, and even behemoth 240mm howitzers, shelled the fort for 36 hours. Bombs were completely ineffective; artillery shells mostly chipped the concrete; white phosphorus shells failed to choke the defenders, due to the atmospheric overpressure system. During a week-long siege, the infantrymen of the 3rd Battalion, 398th Infantry Regiment and their sappers from Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel, USA - Retired) Jack Upchurch's Company B, 325th Engineers, forced their way into the fortress, fought through the dark galleries at point blank range, and wrested Schiesseck from the Germans with pole-, satchel-, and shaped charges, five thousand pounds of TNT, small arms and, in at least one instance, bayonets. A tank-dozer from the attached 781st Tank Battalion buried several of the blocs to ensure they could not be reoccupied and used again easily, in the event a German counterattack might regain the fort. The last enemy resistance in Fort Schiesseck was snuffed out on 20 December.

Fort Diagram

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