With hardly a shot having been fired, a stretch of the Maginot Line fell to U.S. 3rd Army troops on September 11, 1944. Cornelius Ryan, of The Daily Telegraph, found that the Germans had not demolished or mined any part of it; even the guns were still oiled and in working condition.
I stood beside a French boy of 18 this morning in murky, damp darkness, 100 ft. below the level of the earth in the electrical power house, and watched him as by the light of a torch he pressed the starter button of the huge Diesel engine. With a low hissing a flywheel began to spin, and one by one red lights flickered on the control panels flanking each wall, lights flashed on in the damp ceiling and a deep whirring note resounded throughout the miles of tunnels.
Very much as the French had left it in 1940, the Maginot Line had come to life again. It had been "switched on" for our benefit. The whole of that vast power-house was as clean as a new pin, with everything in working order. There were shinning Diesel engines, huge transformers, complete air-conditioning plants, lifts capable of hoisting 250 tons, and an electric railway. This particular fort, only one of a hundred which dot the countryside, had for its occupying force during the four years of occupation only one German. All its complicated machinery has been cared for by three Frenchmen and this boy, and the Germans had paid them 5f. 40c., or about 6d. an hour to do it.
For nearly three hours I was shown over the whole fort by this youth. The main entrance is concealed in a dense forest near the little village of Crusnes. Driving through this forest we came to a squat, black, concrete fort which contained the main entrance. It was about 30 ft. high and about 80 ft. wide. In its centre stood two iron gates wide open. Anybody could have entered.
Just inside the entrance was a pit right across a tunnel, about 14 ft. wide and 12 ft. in depth. To cross, one had to walk over the iron rungs of a ladder. The walls on each side of the tunnel were lined with a heavy electrical cable, and down the centre ran twin railway lines. On one set stood a small electric engine, which received its power from overhead cables.
We reached the lift and began the long walk downstairs, which followed it spiral fashion down to the very depths of the earth. Reaching the bottom we walked perhaps a mile to the power-house, where the young Frenchman busied himself with the giant Diesel engine and then threw the starter which brought it to life. We continued the tour aboard an electric train, which nosed along tunnels, past the men's quarters, magazines, storehouses and gun emplacements commanding each tunnel.
At the end of one such tunnel we stopped at a solid one-food thick steel door weighing 10 tons, which divided the fortifications and could be used as a means of defence or as a fire-door. Then the little train began the long climb to one of the main overground forts. We left the train and walked the remaining distance, passing hand-operated shell hoists, to the interior of a cupola.
In the centre, rising high into the darkness, ran a mass of machinery, which was the main base of the guns on the top, pointing outwards from the overhead fort. On each side of this machinery were two automatic shell lifts, much the same as on battle-cruisers. Here also was mechanism to turn the whole turret. Once again we boarded the electric train and journeyed along another tunnel to one of the observation points. This was another cupola, but instead of guns it had four wind slits about a quarter of an inch in depth.