24-Nov-2017 -- This is the second CP I visited during a short trip in Lorraine; the trip was a quick "come-back" trip to visit family and friends as Lorraine is my birth place. I wouldn’t miss this opportunity to visit confluence points along my route.
The point is very easy to find as it is located on the site of the water tower near the town of Sarralbe. It is reachable by car after a short drive on a dust road. The CP is close to the west side of the fence framing the water tower. I was able to zero the point from outside the fence while previous visitors climbed over the gate to zero the point inside (see Hansen Ohnesorge visit).
It seems that the owner of the field immediately west of the water tower decided to fence it with barbed wire so that the space between the two fences is now very narrow. Be careful while performing your confluence dance as you may tear your clothes on the barbed wire!
The little town of Sarralbe is worth a visit. The town exists since year 718 and was a possession of the Bishop of Metz until the 16th century, then became a property of the Duke of Lorraine and was ultimately transferred to french Crown in 1766 (King Louis XV). The town is famous for the Albe Tower, which served as a gate when the city was fortified, and the St Martin church.
Confluencing is really something I like because it makes you aware of the Earth geography in a very sensitive way. But to me, latitude and longitude lines also cross human geography and human history. This is specially true with 49N 7E: the point appears to be located in the middle of a battlefield of WW2. Many previous visitors have noticed the bunker, part of the Maginot line (see Henk Pouwels visit n°3 ; Gerhard Kaufmann visit n°5), that can be found 56 meters NE (52°) of the point. This bunker looks unusual as it is of very light construction and I was very curious about that finding. I initially thought that it served only as an observation point or as an artillery spotting site. I decided to do some research and here is what I discovered.
1 – The Western front June 1940
In June 1940 the allied forces are in a desperate situation. The first German attack named "Fall Gelb" (Case Yellow) ran across Belgium and could break through the French and English armies ultimately leading to the complete evacuation of the British expeditionary forces in Dunkerke ("Operation Dynamo" 4 June 1940). The German high command decided to launch a second attack from the positions occupied on 4 June named "Fall Rot" (Case Red). The German forces were ordered to turn 180° and head due south aiming to circle Paris and siege the French capital city. This plan was almost completed on 14 June. To prevent any retreat move of the French forces still defending the Maginot line on the eastern border and allowing them to participate to the defense of Paris, the German High command launched a third attack "Operation Tiger" designed as a frontal assault on the Maginot line. The assault was scheduled on the morning of 14 June. The battle of the Knop Stronghold (Knop, literally meaning "button" in local language, is used to describe "a protruding hill") took place during the first hours of Operation Tiger.
2 – The Maginot line
The Maginot line is a fortification line running almost uninterrupted all along the eastern French borders from Italy to Belgium. It was designed and built during the 30s to prevent and slow down any attack or invasion from Germany and Italy. The buildings were made of heavy concrete with armoured turrets. Some areas were equipped with much lighter, unarmoured buildings where natural defenses could be used. This is precisely the case of the Sarralbe area which could be entirely flooded by using a series of dam and locks (some are still visible in Sarralbe) on the rivers Sarre and Albe and the Sarre canal. This part of the Maginot line was called the Wet Maginot Line or Aquatic Maginot Line.
The Knop Stronghold, part of the "Wet Maginot Line", was built in 1935 and is made of 5 buildings, numbered in the rank of construction (Bloc 1 to Bloc 5), linked by a trench web. The buildings were made of light concrete and bricks and were unarmoured. Here is a sketch of the position designed after the war by a survivor and a screen shot of the Google Earth picture featuring the current situation and the location of the CP . The Stronghold was defended by 23 or 24 soldiers (one name is written twice) of the 2/51 RMIC (colonial machine gun infantry).
3 – The Knop battle of 14 June 1940
Due to the very large flooding of the Sarralbe area, the Knop hill was covered with dense fog on the morning of 14 June. This made the German artillery fire and air bombing completely unaccurate and left the stronghold unharmed after the bombing. The flooding and the fog also slowed down the German progression and the German troops arrived on their starting position only at 9:30 AM. The assault was launched immediately after from the North. The approach of the German assault troops was made under heavy fire from the French defenders and was very costly. 6 German soldiers were killed and 10 more were wounded before reaching the barbed wire web framing the stronghold. The German assault engineers focused their attack on Bloc 3 and after a few attempts succeeded in blowing the Bloc killing instantly the 5 crew members. The complete destruction of Bloc 3 allowed the German troops to enter the perimeter and the assault turned into a brutal close combat around Bloc 5 were the french defenders surrended.
4 – The leaders
The German combat leader was Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) Gerd Freiherr von Ketelhodt (252nd Infantry division). He was decorated of the Iron Cross 2nd class for his behavior during the French campaign. He served during the rest of the war in different positions almost exclusively on the eastern front and survived the war with the rank of Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel). He was captured by the Russian forces during the battle of Dantzig in 1945. He died in 1976, aged 61 in Homburg an der Saar which is located at 43 km, 34.3° from the battlefield and the CP. He was never charged or suited for war crimes.
The French combat leader was Adjudant (in English: chief warrant officer) Drianne. He was killed during the assault after the destruction of Bloc 3, trying to rally his men in and around Bloc 5.
The 17 or 18 French survivors were taken as POW. During their evacuation across the wooded area north of Sarralbe they were caught under French artillery fire and 7 more men were wounded. Operation Tiger failed despite some successes like the Knop Stronghold battle. The Germans were unable to breakthrough the Maginot line. In some parts of the front, the combat lasted until 10 July. Both sides suffered heavy casualties; an estimation gives 750 French and 1200 Germans were killed in action. Operation Tiger was also useless because Paris was declared open city on the morning of 14 June.
This is the story of the fierce battle that took place at 49N 7E.
Through this narration I salute the men who gave their life here on a morning of June 1940.