Nothing like a visit to France to get away from a German summer of uninterrupted rain or non-air-conditioned buildings during a heat wave. Escape is even better when the attraction in France is free or cheap, and steeped in history – like Simserhof this summer.
One hour west of Kaiserslautern and two hours from Spangdahlem, Simserhof was built between 1929 and 1938 as part of the Maginot Line, a chain of fortifications along France’s eastern border, believed to protect against a another German invasion after WWI.
Today it is a museum where visitors walk through miles of well-preserved tunnels, dining halls, barracks, kitchens and medical facilities. They look at the weapons of WWII, the electrical and air-filtering systems, the tables that French troops dined on during their long months underground, the rough beds they slept on, even the toilets they they used.
The dentist’s chair at Simserhof, a World War II fortification that was part of the Maginot Line in eastern France. If the dentist couldn’t fix a soldier’s dental problem, he would simply pull out one or more teeth, according to Benjamin Bellott, a guide at the Simserhof, which has been a museum since 1970 (Karin Zeitvogel / Stars and Stripes)
The operating room at the Simserhof fortification in eastern France, which was part of the Maginot Line. Soldiers requiring surgery in the underground complex during the first nine months of WWII were anesthetized with chloroform or ether. (Karin Zeitvogel / Stars and Stripes)
A depiction of Jesus Christ can be found in a small alcove in one of the tunnels at Simserhof, a World War II fortification that was part of the Maginot Line in eastern France. (Karin Zeitvogel / Stars and Stripes)
One of the French soldiers who lived in the Simserhof fortification in eastern France at the start of World War II painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the walls of one of the dining rooms. French troops lived 90 feet underground in the complex for nine months until they were ordered to surrender to the Germans after the fall of France in June 1940 (Karin Zeitvogel / Stars and Stripes)
A logbook in the barracks of the Simserhof fortification in France records the water pressure and electrical power in the underground complex. The fortification of the Maginot Line produced its own energy and operated air filters 24 hours a day. (Karin Zeitvogel / Stars and Stripes)
A kitchen in the Simserhof fortification, which was part of the Maginot Line in eastern France. French soldiers spent months in the underground tunnel during World War II. (Karin Zeitvogel / Stars and Stripes)
The Simserhof website says it is still closed, more than a year after dark as the coronavirus swept through Europe. But a call to the museum revealed it had quietly reopened, with tours available in English, French or German. And they’re free, for now.
Writing on a travel website, a visitor described a tour of the fortification as a lesson in masterful engineering and “the madness of war.”
The temperature in the tunnel complex in mid-July was around 50 degrees. A musty smell hung in the air, and moisture pierced the fleece tops and leather jackets of a group of 12 French and American visitors who descended into the Simserhof to get a feel for what was going on hundreds of French soldiers, 90 feet underground, in the first month of World War II.
Pre-coronavirus tours included a narrow-gauge train ride, but since the museum reopened in late June, tours have been done entirely on foot. They begin with a video showing how French jubilation at the end of World War I became fear and an effort to strengthen defenses a few years later, as fascist governments came to power in neighboring Italy in 1922 and later in Germany.
The Maginot Line was a key part of the French government’s defensive strategy. It cost tens of millions of dollars in today’s money.
General Charles de Gaulle, who led Free France against Nazi Germany during the war and was elected president in 1958, was against the project, arguing that France would do better to invest in armor, aviation and reconstruction.
“But we were leaders in building fixed fortifications,” said Simserhof guide Benjamin Bellott during a two-hour Bastille Day tour of the site. “Our big mistake was to believe that the fortifications would hold. ”
Soldiers of the 153rd French Fortress Infantry Regiment, the 155th Position Artillery Regiment, and three engineer units entered the Simserhof on September 3, 1939, after the German invasion of Poland triggered World War II. global.
For nine months, these soldiers slept, took a shower, received treatment from dentists and doctors, and during the month-long Battle of France in 1940 attempted to push back the Germans.
One of the soldiers painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the walls of the refectory, adding a little cheerfulness to the underground life.
At Christmas, the troops drank champagne and lit sparklers.
A table-top menu in the kitchen featured daily beef and included a 35-minute recipe of baked potatoes with onions and bacon.
Germany bypassed the defenses of the Maginot Line by invading France via Belgium, where there were few fortifications – the French believed that Germany would respect Belgium’s neutrality.
But France ignored de Gaulle’s exhortation to develop aeronautical capabilities, instead focusing on technologies from the previous war. Germany, meanwhile, had built the Luftwaffe and used its superior air power and airborne infantry to quickly capture or eliminate fortifications like Simserhof.
The soldiers inside the Simserhof were the last in a Maginot Line fortress to surrender when France fell in June 1940.
Germany occupied the fort for nearly five years after that, until the 44th Infantry Division captured it in December 1944, according to the Army’s Center for Military History. It was taken over by the Germans a few months later, before being liberated in March 1945, two months before the end of the war in Europe, by the American 100th Infantry Division.
A photo on the wall of the Simserhof fortification in eastern France shows members of the 153rd Fortress Infantry Regiment, who spent months inside the underground complex, one of the largest forts in the Maginot line. (Karin Zeitvogel / Stars and Stripes)
Address: Simserhof, Rue André Maginot, Le Légeret, 57410 Siersthal, France
Hours: Open to guided tours in English, German or French from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: Visits are generally 13 euros for adults, 9 euros for children from 6 years old, free for children under 5 years old. In July, they were free for everyone.
Food: Coffee and other drinks are available in the reception area cafe, which also has a souvenir shop (currently closed) and restrooms. Many dining options are available in the French town of Bitche, 10 minutes away, or in Zweibruecken, Germany, about 20 minutes away.
Informations: For more information and to book a visit, call +33 (0) 3 87 96 39 40.