Fort Schoenenbourg From 1953 to 1987
Between 1953 and 1955, the air intake systems of Blocks 3, 4, and 5 were modified. The back wall of each block was pierced so as to allow it to draw air in over the surrounding layer of gravel.
This system had the advantage of being invisible and less vulnerable to bombardment (as compared with armored air intake shafts) and blast effects. Actually, a bomb that fell in front of the intake of the air cooling unit at the Hoffen Shelter had led to a breakdown in power generation and then the evacuation of this position.
In 1955, the internal telephone circuits of Fort Schoenenbourg were all put back into shape. The telephone switchboard in the main command post was updated, and all the handsets were replaced. Also in the main CP, the little space that served as the Officers' Mess in 1940 was converted into a dormitory.
This is how the restoration and renovation work ended up. From this point on, only maintenance work would be done on the Fort. For example, the electricians from the Engineer corps rotated regularly through the four forts in Alsace, as well as through the casemates, shelters, and observation points. The operation of the turrets, the motor room, etc. was carefully monitored; this can be seen from the logbooks that were painstakingly kept up to date.
Painting work was accomplished in part by civilian employees of the Engineers, while a few big projects were contracted out to private firms.
The Fortress Lives Again
In 1952, Capt. Hauer, an artilleryman who was a veteran of the fighting in 1940 at Fort Hochwald, received authorization to create the first Fortress Training Company, made up of reservist-volunteers. Rayond Kieffer, who had taken his basic training during his service with the 37th Fortress Battalion (the only active post-war fortress battalion) had been trained as a fortress observer, communications specialist, and artilleryman.
He took part, between 1953 and 1960, in all the exercises that took place at Fort Schoenenbourg during the winter months. The company included an infantry platoon and a platoon of fortress artillery. The number of participants varied between 20 and 30 men, depending on availability. Together they took the train that ran to the frontal positions of the Fort, the artillerymen going to Block 4 and the infantry to Block 2. The infantry also held exercises on its own.
The artillerymen took turns making up a Command Post team and a turret team, and also operated as observers, since the Supply Service had installed a periscope in the observation cupola of the block. Of course, they could not fire the guns; only the forts making up the Camp of Bitche were authorized to do this.
These exercises went forward in a cooperative spirit. The results were promising, and firing rates as good as those of 1940 were achieved. The skill and concern of the Company commander were largely responsible for this. Commander Hauer (who had been promoted in the meantime), through his determination, knew how to influence the military brass, and this enabled the 1st Fortress Training Company of the Lower Rhine to survive until 1960.
Abandonment of the Fort was a gradual thing. Maintenance levels were reduced, along with the frequency of service. The turrets, which had been put through their paces once a week since 1953, were shut down for good at the end of April, 1961. It really felt like this was the beginning of the end.
Before the budget was finally cut off, in 1968, the Army moved quickly to transfer the Vetra loco-tractor to Fort Hochwald, which was at that time in the midst of modernization work. The 75mm shell racks [used to transport shells from the magazines to the firing positions] were sold for scrap, sort of on the sly, as were tables and stools from the Command Post. Once again, the electrical workshop was completely cleaned out, and the lathe and drill press disappeared. All that remained were the workbench and its marble top. The washbasins were taken down and carried away.
Actually, today it's hard to distinguish salvage carried out by individuals from that done by the Army. As a final touch, the sump pumps were removed from the bottoms of the shafts for the ammunition hoists. Standing orders required these pumps to be kept under pressure at all times, to be able to evacuate the seepage water which was always accumulating in these pits.
After a few weeks, the motors of the ammunition hoists were submerged. This was of little import, however, since the last turn of the key in the entry gate of the Men's Entrance finally condemned Fort Schoenenbourg to abandonment.
The Scavengers Get Involved
The effects of the abandonment would make themselves felt more and more acutely. Many different types of seepage, notably the of mud, filled up the channels inside the Fort. In many places, access became difficult, unless one were wearing boots, For example, at the bottom of Block 2, a crack discharged gallon upon gallon of sandy mud which ended up covering the entire floor to a depth of several inches.
In the main gallery, a flow of red mud spread out for about 100 yds. Generally, the little drain pipes would be choked with mud and chalky deposits in several years' time. The drainage ditches as well were soon full, causing many back-ups. In many places, the rails of the 60 cm. railway became invisible, lost under a brownish mess.
These stagnant pools created significant humidity, which ate away at all the wiring for the electric lights and at any metallic objects. Five years after the abandonment, all the riveted junction boxes in the lighting network were already filled with water. Ten years was enough to transform the turrets into heaps of rust, due partly to saturation in the high humidity and partly to unwanted air currents (the armored gun ports were all left open).
To make matters worse, scavengers would begin to get into the Fort, since it was no longer guarded. Avoiding the infrequent rounds made by the Army and the local police, they would cut away all of the catenary wire for the tractor-train, before carrying it outside (They were caught quite by chance, because they lacked a proper license for transporting copper!). They would also vandalize the electrical distribution system in the motor room, as well as those of the forward and rear sub-stations, again to salvage their copper components. They would take out the injection ramps of the Sulzer motors, and chisel open the transformers of the sub-stations. They would chop out several hunks of hefty electrical cable, but give up when faced by the tough work of stripping cable wrapped in a metal jacket, a lead sleeve, oiled paper, etc.
Vandals (it is not known if they were the same ones) would also attack the high tension vault, to which they would lay waste, going as far as tipping over one of its transformers.
Then came several years of silence. Not complete silence, because an abandoned fortification is never completely quiet. Anyone who has had occasion to be alone in the bowels of a fort knows the many noises, cracking sounds, drips of water, etc., the echoes of which, amplified by the long galleries, can make you shudder.
Since no one was there to counteract it, rust slowly but surely pursued its work. Mud, calcareous deposits, and standing water spread out farther and farther, until the 135 steps of the Munitions Entry were covered to a depth of an inch or two. Poor Schoenenbourg!
Then one day in 1987 a certain Jean-Bernard Wahl had the curious idea of asking the Engineers for permission to visit the Fort. You know what happened next .