Ouvrage de la fumée... ***IMAGE INTENSIVE*** (sort of)...

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TeeJF

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As many of you are aware we went across to France last month and had a wander about underground in one of the Maginot Line forts, or ouvrages as they are properly titled. We did it as much as anything to compare it with the underground fortifications from World War 1 which are our more regular stomping ground a short distance away around Verdun. Well we were suitably "fired up" by our experience and seeing a brief window of opportunity again for this last weekend we hopped the ferry and set off to explore a couple of Belgium's delights together with at least a couple more 'Madges'. Day 1 was totally none-Madge, Day 2 was a cracking gros ouvrage, but Day 3 was this erm... delight :question: :p...

More of the other stuff in subsequent reports :exclaim:

L 'histoire...

The Maginot Line, named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, was a line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates and machine gun posts, many of which were deep underground, that France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy after World War I, their grand intention being to render their country impregnable against attack for evermore. Those fortifications which face Germany tend to be referred to as 'The Maginot Line' and the fortifications strung out across the Alps facing Italy tend to be known as 'The Alpine Line'.

In brief, the theory behind the construction of the fortifications was to give France time to mobilise whilst funnelling invading German forces into open land, the better to be engaged there in a war of movement. For a somewhat more in depth discussion of the line's raison d'etre please refer to our Gros Ouvrage Latiremont report linked with this photo here below.


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As history records, sadly things did not go to plan and the Germans invaded France through the Ardenne Forest, an area the French high command considered to be impassable to the armoured forces of the day.

The ouvrage which is the subject of this report is a gros ouvrage (large fortification) rather than one of the much smaller petite ouvrages which abound in some sectors of the line. It saw relatively little action during the war and after a period of reserve duty in the 1950s it was finally abandoned in the 1970s. It was designed, and it's construction overseen, by CORF, the Commission d'Organisation des Régions Fortifiées. Construction work, by the contractor Ossude from Paris, began in June 1930 and the fort finally became operational in 1935. The final cost at completion was 65 million francs.

It is a rather unusual ouvrage in that it only has one entrance which was used for both ammunition and personnel - most other gros ouvrages have a so called 'EM' (munitions entrance) and a separate 'EH' (personnel or men's entrance) some significant distance away. It also lacks the primary 'M1' magazine found in other gros ouvrages. The strange 'bent' layout is relatively short for a gros ouvrage, with less than 1,000 metres of underground gallery at an average depth of 30 metres. Like all the other gros ouvrages, this one has a 60 cm railway running through the gallery system to move munitions and supplies. This railway originally continued out of the single entrance via a slope to the surface where it connected to the re-supply railway system which paralleled the front line of forts some distance to the rear. Several small blockhouses with machine guns and anti-tank guns were located in the area around the ouvrage as was normal and a major barracks some short distance away provided peacetime above-ground barracks and support services to this and all the other ouvrages in the immediate area. The ouvrage was manned by a garrison of 521 men and 16 officers.

The ouvrage was not directly attacked by Wehrmacht troops unlike some of the Maginot Line forts which Hitler commanded should be knocked out as a propaganda exercise after the fall of France was practically assured. However a bomb penetrated the turret in fighting Bloc 6 and killed two of the artillerymen stationed there. The ouvrage fired 2,030 75mm shots in support of the closest gros ouvrage to which it provided flank support on the 24th. June, 1940. After the armistice was declared the ouvrage was used for explosive demolition tests by the Germans. Three blocs were all subjected to penetration tests with artillery projectiles.

After the D. Day invasion of France there was an attempt by the Germans to hold up the allied advance by occupation of, and resistance from, several of the Maginot Line forts. This and another close by were assaulted by the U.S. Army's 90th. Infantry Division in September 1944 and only captured after two days of hard, close assault fighting. Following capture, this ouvrage was again used for ordnance experimentation but this time by the U.S. Army. After the war the rapidly escalating tensions between the east and west created a need for a barrier to slow up any potential advance by Warsaw Pact troops and the Maginot Line was again pressed into service. At this time most of the north eastern forts were repaired and modernised. Replacement of the aging 75mm guns with 105mm guns was proposed for this ouvrage however the program was abandoned, and after a long period when only routine maintenance was carried out, its status was lowered to inactive reserve, and then it was finally abandoned.


Our experience...​

Our visit to this ouvrage was a highly unusual experience and not at all what we were expecting! We had researched several forts in the line and finally, after much deliberating we decided to try four of them. But we also knew that one fort in particular had recently been subject to an arson attack and as a result it was filled with smoke and toxic fumes. Duly "armed" against the problem with two British army surplus S10 NBC respirators BELOW we set off for France.

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But that's where things began to go ever slightly pear shaped because the fort we thought we were visiting that day, a fort which was not supposed to present a toxic fume hazard, actually WAS the one that HAD been fired :exclaim: :exclaim: :exclaim: Thinking it would have relatively clean air we left the rezzies in the car and wombled off.

And access too was, to say the least, a tad difficult! During our research we had come to the conclusion that there was a fair chance this particular ouvrage would be wide open with no significant impediment to entry. Photographs on Panoramio gave the distinct impression that the entrance gate had been cut or levered open and that as a consequence we would be able, quite simply to waltz in.


Wrong!

The reality is, the French army have become increasingly concerned of late about the number of metal thieves and vandals who have been attacking the fort interiors so they have started bulldozing massive earth mounds up against the entrance blocks of any of the forts they consider completely expendable, and welding doors shut or plating over any other potential points of entry. Imagine our language when we walked up the idyllic wooded track to the fort entrance, passing a mother deer and two fauns on the way, only to find a dirty great mud hill between us and the fort doors! Rather dejected we almost turned straight back around to leave however we decided we'd have a mooch about in the woods on the off chance there was another route in. I'm not going to go into detail but lets say we had no end of fun in gloopy mud in narrow holes barely wider than my hips :exclaim:

Inside now we worked our way towards the entrance proper and found a quite unusual feature compared to what we have seen before - a multi level area built below the entrance block with several rooms opening off it, including one which housed the poison gas filter plant, complete with its original filter stacks still in place! At this point, apart from a slight hint of fumes in the air, and mainly diesel and oil fumes at that - something not at all unusual in a Maginot Line fort we had learned by now - there was absolutely no indication of a fire in the fort. But that was soon to change as we began to descend the ammunition railway down into the fort proper. At first we thought the haze in the distance we could see on the first 'light painted' pictures taken from the top of the railway was the lens misting up with the change of temperature and humidity but as we continued down I noticed a multitude of tiny specks drifting through my torch beam. Again we did not suspect smoke but thought the interior must be excessively humid.

Then the first signs of the haze actually being smoke made its presence felt through our noses and as we turned the corner at the bottom of the ramp we could see a dense cloud hanging in the air directly ahead of us. We carefully ventured a little way further in and looked into the usine (power generation room) only to find that it was almost completely obscured. Naturally we thought this must be where the seat of the fire had been, especially in view of the diesel powered generator engines and fuel and lubricating oil liberally splashed about practically everywhere. So we hurried past. Over just a few yards the fumes seemed to reduce dramatically but then we hit another wall of smoke even thicker than the first and this smelt like it was coming from a fire that was still smouldering somewhere. Enough was enough and we pulled the plug on the explore - it was time to leave, for without our respirators which we had left behind, not actually suspecting that we were at the fort with the fire, there was no way we could continue any further without succumbing to toxic fumes. We quickly made our way back out with our heads banging from inhalation and gulped in lungfuls of fresh air as our heads broke surface at the end of the narrow mud tunnel!

Quite an adventure and an exploration to go back and complete properly now that we know exactly what to expect!



The piccies!



Who put all that fr*gg*n' mud in the way :icon_evil :question:

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We are in. The smoke blackening on the walls gave no hint that there was such a huge problem here as metal
thieves often create small fires using Stihl saws to cut up the power cables. No hint then of what was to come :exclaim:


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We are off down into an area below the entrance block, something we haven't seen in either of our other two "madge" fort explorations so far.

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Why she was looking over there when there was such an amazing sight a few feet away beyond the door on her left I don't know :exclaim:

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...and it was a complete poison gas filter plant with the filter stacks still in situ :exclaim:

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Triple level bunk beds in a duty station. These beds were common just 25 years earlier in the Verdun forts too.

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The seal on the submarine style door isolates the two areas against gas.

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More bunk beds though why the main one is only two tiers instead of three was not apparent.

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Time to make our way back up to the entrance area and on down to the fort bottom level proper.

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Part of the pulley system for pulling up or lowering ammunition carts on the fort incline.
Anyone who has visited Farleigh Down sidings near Bath will find this very familiar.


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I thought this was misting up on my lense but inspection proved that not to be the case. At this point we thought it was a humidity "fog".

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A 60cm gauge railway truck.

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And there's still no real indication that it's smoke because there was no particularly strong smell yet.

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There's little doubt now though. This is the usine (power house) and I've crushed the blacks in the picture to try and make out detail through the smoke.
The original pic was very hazy indeed and it was hard to see the back wall.


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One of the generator engines.

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The smoke here was still slowly wafting down the stairs from the area up the stairs and it was clear that the fire was still smouldering somewhere.

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By this point we were getting very concerned so we pulled the plug and bailed out.
Again it is only Lite Room enhancement that makes this picture of a 60cm train axle viewable.


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Peeee eSSSSSS... I'm just waiting to see who the first person will be to tell me that there's no cartridge on TJ's gimp mask... ;)



And that's your lot. Thanks for looking, hope you enjoyed it.​
 
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chubs

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brilliant, wish it was a bit closer to home! :)
the door with the gas seal reminds me a bit of south forelands plotting room!
 

Dirus_Strictus

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Nice report, time certainly has not been kind to this structure. I should like to point out that in the aftermath of an underground fire situation, the smoke particles picked out in ones torch beam are telling you to turn around and get out - you will neither smell nor see the fumes that are going kill you and in an oxygen deficient atmosphere there isn't a respirator in this world that will save you. Only BA in some form can do that.
 
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TeeJF

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I should like to point out that in the aftermath of an underground fire situation, the smoke particles picked out in ones torch beam are telling you to turn around and get out - you will neither smell nor see the fumes that are going kill you and in an oxygen deficient atmosphere there isn't a respirator in this world that will save you. Only BA in some form can do that.

Thank you for the safety lecture.
 

TeeJF

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Why am I not surprised given your propensity for 'bangin' choons bud?

In my case it was Black Sabbath when Ozzy was still with 'em... first 11 rows of chairs at the Free Trade Hall splintered to matchwood before the end of the first song, some guy with a broken nose 'cos he kept jumping on my girlfriend's back, and ripping up bog paper to stuff in our ears so we could actually tell what song it was... and you tell the youngsters of today that and do they believe you?

Eee nooooo. :)
 

night crawler

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Great report as usual but I think I'd have been out after seeing the smoke. I fear my hearing has suffered due to head banging tunes when I was younger, used to be down the front on many gigs and listened to too much music with the sound up and cans on.
 

TeeJF

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I think I'd have been out after seeing the smoke.

Read between the lines mate! :) There was zero smoke in the area directly below the entry block and we didn't hit smoke proper until a few yards into the fort lower level at the bottom of the munitions incline. We ventured about 25 yards down the gare until we realised the smoke was thickening again after initially thinning noticeably then we turned around and did indeed high tail it out.

It was still exciting though! :p
 

TeeJF

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Just for interest's sake here's one I didn't post before which is untreated (apart from re-sizing) so that you get a true idea of the amount of smoke in the "gare" of the ouvrage...

Smoke.jpg
 

maxmix

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Interesting explore, pity you couldn't see more due to the fumes....
 

shane.c

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As always a excellent thread and info, my user name on landships is Tank so hello, :)
 

Mike L

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TeeJF, could always try scuba kit as an alternative to a BA set eh?
Might be classed as 'open circuit' but it's open on the exhaust side, closed on the inlet side isn't it?
Heavy to lug around though, but probably no worse than a BA set.
 

leftorium

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TeeJF, could always try scuba kit

you could borrow Jonney's rubber suits - get some flippers and if someone bumped into the pair of you you'd look like an out take from league of gentlemen

alternatively you could follow the training the fire safety officer at an engineering firm in Sheffield once gave a friend of mine on placement: 'if tha sees or smells smoke get tha sen the f*ck awt'
 

TeeJF

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TeeJF, could always try scuba kit as an alternative to a BA set eh?
Might be classed as 'open circuit' but it's open on the exhaust side, closed on the inlet side isn't it?
Heavy to lug around though, but probably no worse than a BA set.

We have so many options down that line it's just un-real but thanks for the suggestion. We are both qualified scuba instructors and also qualified on rebreather. But you couldn't have got a rebo through the gap we came in through which was just about shoulder width and chest high. I was seriously close to being too big. That said a 7L 205 bar "sidey" would have been an option had it been required. When we planned the original burnt out fort (as I mentioned in the report we got mixed up and mistook this fort for a none fired one) we had all such eventualities covered. And we didn't need a BA on this explore anyway despite what my "learned colleague!" above might say to the contrary. We carry an Aanalox O2 tester in our urbex ancillary kit if we are going undergroun, and although the fort was full of smoke the ambient air was still reading around 19% O2 (2% lower than normal ambient air) so it was WELL able to support human life, even mine! :p

The main problem with a scuba rig is, as you corectly mentioned, the fact that it is open circuit. In a fort the size of this one with only 1000 metres of underground passage we would still only get around 26 minutes (assuming 12 breaths per minute, and an initial WP of 205 bar on a 7 litre sidey. Even using our twinsets which was a practical impossibility due to the access we would still get around 75 minutes max. And if we observed the cave divers' safety rule of thirds we'd be down to 20 some minutes again on the twins and 8 minutes on a single 7L sidey. That doesn't take into account walking up a flight of around 150 steps, sometimes 200 plus, to a fighting bloc from the fort floor, when the air consumption would rise way beyond the 12 breath PM that I have assumed for the calculation. My guess is that in reality we would walk 2-300 metres along the fort floor tunnels and then have to come back. A further problem with using a bigger cylinder (we have the choice of 7L sideys, 10 L back rigged or twin 10L back rigs) is how you mount it. The sidey is easy relatively speaking but the problem with back rigs is these days no one uses the old style shoulder harness back packs, they all use direct attachment of the cylinder to Stab jacket. But wandering around wearing a stab jacket with a dirty great scuba hanging low on my back is not my idea of comfort.

Not terrifically practical as we got at least that amount of time anyway with no breathing aids what so ever. A further "negative" is the fact that in the event of a failure we would have had no back up and having committed to entering an area with poisonous fumes or low O2 on a complete life support system, removing same to bail out would of course lead to a bad case of brown bread or two "stiffs" if we tried to air share because the rigs would empty at double the speed and fail long before we were back to safety. The idea of carrying a third rig as a safety back up... well... it would be easier to install pumps and blow in fresh air frankly!

That's why the original plan (had we not got our wires crossed on which fort had been fired) was to assume the fire was out and therefore no longer consuming O2, visually check same, then check the ambient O2 level with the Analox and if it was high enough to support life we could then use S10 NBC respirators (with a canister :lol: !!!) to negate the possibility of inhaling cyanide or hydro carbon by products of combustion in the residual smoke.

Of course it helps if you're not a silly tw*t who gets his forts the wrong way round! Duh... :confused: :p :)
 
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