Which Took Place
at Fort Schoenenbourg

By Col. P. Stroh
Former Commander Engineers
of Fort Schoenenbourg

I hear from young people an acknowledgement that would have surprised us ten years ago. They affirm that the first resistance fighters were the fortress crews [of the Maginot Line]. The title "Resistance" has taken on, since 1940, and above all since 1944, a particular meaning stemming from clandestine operations; here we must abstract from this somewhat.

The Maginot Line could have enabled us to take the initiative, but our leaders didn't use it as a hardened defensive position from which a mobile army could assault various enemy weakpoints. The operations at Narvik, in Belgium, and in Syria failed because they were improvised; if they had been planned and launched in time, they might have had good results.

The month of June, 1940, brought on unanticipated, extreme situations in the midst of which many French looked for a means of forecasting the Germans' maneuvers and thrusts, in order to avoid them. I am thinking in particular of the industrialists who had concealed strategic stockpiles. General de Gaulle wasn't the only one to resist.

Our feelings as Frenchmen were what infused our hearts during a short Council of War held at Fort Schoenenbourg, and during which we decided to stand and fight.

That day, we knew what the radio had told us about the thrust through the Ardennes, about the race of the Panzers through Amiens and Abbeville, and about the embarkation at Dunquerque. We did not know the extent of the rout and of the "exodus" [by the British, from the beaches at Dunquerque]. This was not the time for us to abandon our position, but at the same time we knew that [the Line] would be stripped of troop elements being called up to fight elsewhere.

During the night of 13-14 June, most of the troops occupying the Fortified Sector of Haguenau as it stood in 1939 (70,000 or 80,000 men) acknowledged their [pullback] orders, saying they understood:

In comparison to the set-up of the Sector in 1939, when, the preceding August, 23,000 men had been stationed there, we were now not more than 6,000 men, comprised of Fort and casemate crews, plus a small reserve force of infantry and engineers, hardly fielding any artillery other than the fortress guns of the Maginot forts. All that remained of the Sector command staff was located at Fort Hochwald, under the command of Lt. Col. Schwartz, a disabled veteran of World War I, who walked with a cane, bent over and limping, in the hope that his handsome face and his large mustache would give him some measure of prestige.

On 14 June, around 2 PM, Schwartz, the new Commandant of the Sector came to Fort Schoenenbourg to inspect our positions. He clearly wanted to make a show of being visible to his subordinates, checking their morale, and encouraging them

Thus took place in the quarters of the Fortress Commander at Schoenenbourg a brief Council of War, about which not enough has previously been said. There were no records kept, but I can remember, as though it had taken place yesterday, that the following attendees were present:

Captain Gros, Fortress Major, arrived in the barracks at the end of the meeting; the Lt. Col. didn't have the time to wait for him.

We had to choose between two solutions put forward to us by Lt. Col. Schwartz:

After an exchange of views, it was time to express our opinions, and being the youngest, it was up to me to go first. The second possibility was agreed to unanimously-that of accomplishing the mission historically entrusted to fortress troops. We based our choice on the following factors:

In the course of his inspection, Lt. Col. Schwartz verified that all the defenders of the Fort had the same determination, and that evening confirmed the order to stand fast to the last man and to fire without any intention of falling back.

The following days were calm enough. Although barely audible, the broadcasts from Radio France were what we were listening for; their news agreed with that from Radio Stuttgart [in Germany], where the traitor Ferdonnet, in a booming voice, reported on the armistice negotiations. This stirred unhealthy thoughts in the feeble-hearted among us, but did not distract them from the common goal of resistance. Neither Ferdonnet nor Radio France had mentioned "the call from London of 18 June". It was Adjutant Gruais, our chief of Communications, the monitoring expert, who informed me of it. Right away I informed Commander Reynier that a General in London with a strange name was pulling together French people who wanted to go on fighting. That same day we began to undergo the German bombing and shelling, and a few of us knew that we had a comrade-in-arms on foreign soil; the name "General de Gaulle" was not known to us until later.

We need to back up to 14 June to appreciate the value of our decision [to remain in the Fort and fight]. One must understand that we could not foresee the rapid rate at which events would unfold:

We would have had full latitude to execute the undistinguished delaying mission conceived by some none too aggressive or realistic general from Supreme Headquarters, but we preferred stand fight. If I report here on the Council in which I participated, the reader should be aware that our leaders did not act alone; I know that our Fort Commander got together by telephone with his neighbors (in other fortified positions):

As all these colleagues remember it, we had a universally high level of esprit to prevail over our attackers (and they acknowledged this in July). The six thousand men of the Fortified Sector of Haguenau tied up two German divisions with a strength five or six times greater than their own, supported by a squadron of dive-bombers, and by the largest artillery of the Wehrmacht. These means of attack gave Schoenenbourg the sad privilege of b ecoming the most heavily bombarded fort on the Maginot Line.

Our resolve showed on the ground. At the time of the armistice on 25 June, 1940, the forts and casemates of the Line hoisted the French flag on the shell-pocked outerworks from Lembach to Fort-Louis. It flew until 1 July, the day on which, stunned and discouraged, we had to turn our unbeaten fortifications over to the Germans, under orders from the French government.

P. STROH. 18 juin 1984

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