Roads in continental Europe during the war

Discussion in 'General' started by BWilson, Jun 4, 2009.

  1. BWilson

    BWilson Member


    I'm looking for people to share their memories of Europe's roads as they were in the 1940's and 1950's.

    Sometimes photographs can be used to tell the type and quality of a road but often not very well.

    Any information is welcomed, such as road widths, material they were constructed of, etc. I'm particularly interested in national roads on the continent (RN, Reichstrassen, etc.) -- were they consistently paved (through mountainous areas as well), or mostly unpaved ? Likewise, although I expect most cities had paved or cobblestone roads, what about the towns and villages -- photos appear to show a lot of dirt roads in villages.

    Thanks for any help.


  2. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

    I think this is a good topic.The availability of road communications determines how swift armies can move, both advancing and on retreat.Poor road communications mean a hard slog for armies irrespective of any advanced transport they may have.One of the main problems the Germans encountered when they waged war against Russia was the lack of metalled roads across the steppes,their predicament was only improved in the areas where they could rely on horse drawn transport.

    Regarding France,there was no motorways and the principal roads were the RN class.You can see what the RN roads looked like in the war.Road straightening gives the secret away in that there are little byways which are now parking stops and looking at the width of the roads of yesteryear gives some indication of how cramped the roads were and how unsuitable the roads were for military transport.Some,since the war can be seen modified with early post war memorials still erected on what was the main road and is now a parking stop or larger loops forming "aires".On the German side,the Germans had completed the autobanns to give swift passage for their armies moving to the frontier for the Low Countries and France.Over the border,the road systems had not been brought up German standards and posed bottlenecks for those in retreat and those chasing the retreating columns.The former roads can be seen in Brittany passing East to West with the original roads cut when the bridges over river estuaries were blown by the retreating Germans heading to Brest.Prewar stone bridges blown and their feeder roads can be seen as they existed during the war.The width would not have coped with modern road freighters.

    In France,the restricted road widths of the RNs and the D departmenal roads resulted in the swift passage of troops, supplies and armour.Bridges were of inadequate load specification to cope with the heavy armour and so represented a restriction to the mobility of the German occupation forces.

    There is a stretch of the RN 141 between Gueret and St Leonard de Noblat where a well know ambush took place involving the Resistance and a leading member of the 2nd Das Reich SS Division.There is a memorial there on the original road which clearly indicates the original width of the road and the curve in the road which provided the ideal place to spring an ambush.

    Visiting East Germany after the wall came down,I noted that the main roads were composed of granite cobles including the roads to the East/West border around Nordhausen.The main road, believe it or not, meandered through a farm yard.In Nordhausen,the streets were cobbled and steam trains ran through the streets.It was if the country was in a time warp and reminded me of the hamlets in England during the war. Additionally,the prewar road bridges were not capable of being recommissioned as they were built for lower loadings and could not be used until the bridges could be updated.

    Hope this input helps.
  3. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Just to throw something else into the equation. There are some great pictures in ATB's D-Day with the build up of the invasion forces taking over the South of England. Vehicles parked all over the place and fascinating 'Now' shots some where M-ways are now that were tank parks back in the 40's.

  4. BWilson

    BWilson Member

    Thanks for the comments, fellows.

    Harry Ree, I also went to E Germany after the wall fell and was fascinated with the appearance of the country (not to mention the large Soviet Army trucks that passed me on the other side of the road, heh). Many areas of rural Poland still convey this impression as well, although I believe the smaller paved roads there were probably unpaved during the war.

    If I understand the comments so far, roads were narrower and less straight -- this matches my own memories of U.S. roads in the 1960s as compared to today. One thing I've seen mentioned, for example in the fighting in the Vosges, is that the Allies had trouble keeping the roads serviceable because of the weight of the military traffic and that entire engineer groups (two battalions or more) were kept occupied behind corps areas keeping the roads in passable order.

    I'm going to look at photos of vehicles underway again to see if I can pick up any more indicators.

    Drew, at the site of the Herrlisheim battlefield in Alsace, the French built a motorway that unfortunately runs over precisely the area where there was severe fighting between a U.S. armored division and various German units dug into a wood called the Steinwald. Very frustrating to move around an old battlefield with such roads in place as they're rather dangerous to cross! (As well as significantly altering the local terrain to accommodate the roadway.)


  5. BWilson

    BWilson Member

    Here's a shot from Germany in 1945 -- village road -- certainly looks unpaved leading into the area with houses.


    There is a photo of British paras in Germany at JUST ORDINARY MEN. HQ Troop, 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron, 1st British Airborne Division (WW2) - 12th Parachute Bn -- again, (if they are on a road), appears unpaved on the outskirts of a rural area.

    Here's another one of U.S. forces -- another apparently unpaved rural road:


    Here's one that is hard to tell, supposed to be the U.S. 1st Division in Germany. Road looks hard-packed but I can't tell if there is pavement:



  6. Passchendaele_Baby

    Passchendaele_Baby Grandads Little Girl

    You would of thought all of them would be bombed, but thats just generally near the battlefields, and ... what am I going on about... dont mind me... eurgh
  7. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

    I think someone mentioned before about visting the Limoges area which the Germans regarded as "Bandit Country",small roads which were difficult to use with the military transport the Germans had at the time.This type of country such that in the region of the Auvergne was hardly negotiable by normal transport.The Correze is another department where the upper villages and hamlets could not, in those days, be accessible to military transport.I spent some time in the Ardech region and even now it is very difficult for vehicles to pass one another.

    (I have never had a problem driving in France but in the hills above Aubenas, a French 4x4, while trying to get a better clearance from a 3 foot drain on the hill side of the road was trying to push me nearer to my side of the road which was unbarriered and presenting a large drop with not much of a safety net such as trees.I can tell you he was ranting and wanting his own way and was willing to see me run the risk of dropping down the hillside. He was probably unhappy about tourists. But what surprised me was the skill of the rubbish lorrry drivers who were able to get to each hamlet to pick up their rubbish and recyling skips even with hamlets as small as 5 houses.)

    The terrain in France with its inadequate roads was the reason why the Germans, unless involved in special rassages,stuck to the RNs and better D roads.So you would find that a town of the appropriate size would be selected as a garrison town with the rural areas left to irregular forces especially as the German postion deteriorated as the war progressed.

    I think that there is no better example of the state of RN roads of the time by the extended time of 3 weeks,that the Das Reich SS Division took to get up to Normandy using the RNs with additional harrassment from French Resistance and FFI units.

    In England, I think the standard width for an A Class is now 24 feet.The old A1 road must have been only 18 feet wide and not duel carriageway and could have been regarded during the war as a military road.It always seemed to be full of military traffic, either way, at all times of the day and the noise of the heavy traffic carried for miles.There is still evidence of this wartime width in the laybys that have been created since the war, usually adjacent to cottages.

    I have just remembered the beautiful bridge at la Roche Bernard over the Vilaine in Brittany which was blown during the Brittany campaign in the summer of 1944.I happened to mention to my friend that a new bridge had been recently erected to replace the bridge that was erected immediately post war which replaced the beautiful stone about 50 metres away.He said my father knows the man who as a Maquis member blew that bridge.Apparently his father and the Frenchman became friends and spent holidays together at each others houses.I will try to update the account.

    From the point of interest look at the approach to the old stone bridge,its supports are still standing on both sides of the Vilaine and that will give you accurate evidence of the width of the bridge in the summer of 1944.The post war modern bridge has now been bypassed by the RN 165 Nantes to Brest road of motorway standard and now just carries local traffic.
  8. BWilson

    BWilson Member

    Not a lot here, but I was surprised at how early metalled roads were used in Europe.

    John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836) designed the first modern highways. He developed an inexpensive paving material of soil and stone aggregate (known as macadam), and he embanked roads a few feet higher than the surrounding terrain to cause water to drain away from the surface. He had noticed in his observations that coaches with narrow, iron-tyred wheels and moving at relatively high speed were causing significant damage to roads, but that areas of small broken stones were most resistant to damage, while the areas that had large surface stones degraded fastest. His solution was to create roads with three layers of stones laid on a crowned subgrade with side ditches for drainage. The first two layers consisted of angular hand-broken aggregate, maximum size 3 inches (75 mm), to a total depth of about 8 inches (200 mm). The third layer was about 2 inches (50 mm) thick with a maximum aggregate size of 1 inch (25 mm). Each layer would be compacted with a heavy roller, causing the angular stones to lock together with their neighbours. It is possible that his initial decision not to use the heavy layer of base stones used by Telford in his subgrade reflected lack of suitable stones, but McAdam quickly saw they were not necessary. In practice, his roads proved to be twice as strong as Telford's roads.[22] He also insisted on raising the roads to ensure good drainage and flat crowned surfaces, rather than ridges built into the road to encourage drainage.[23]
    McAdam was adamantly opposed to the filling of the voids between his small cut stones with smaller material, possibly as a reaction against the use of poor materials, including soil and vegetable matter, on roads in the past. Nevertheless, in practice road builders began to introduce filler materials such as smaller stones, sand and clay, and it was observed that these roads were stronger as a result. Macadam roads were being built widely in the United States and Australia in the 1820s and in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s.[24]

    Development of modern paved roads

    Various systems had been developed over centuries to reduce washways, bogging and dust in cities, including cobblestones and wooden paving. Tar-bound macadam (tarmac) was applied to macadam roads towards the end of the 19th century in cities such as Paris. In the early 20th century tarmac and concrete paving were extended into the countryside."

    from: History of road transport - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    I am -guessing- that all of the RN's were paved by the Second World War and that the majority, if not all, of the D roads were paved as well. Perhaps the road maintenance problems the Allies faced were simply a result of heavy military traffic destroying the surfaces of roads which were never built for that weight of traffic (tracked vehicles in particular).

    In Germany, the Reichsstrassen were probably all paved, but photographic evidence indicates that rural roads were still unpaved (but probably with some kind of rock surfacing, like gravel.)

    Here's a shot of France in 1944, unfortunately, the road is not identified Note the dust being raised:


    Nice shot here of a paved road that is quite narrow:


    Another of France in 1944 -- again, hard to tell what the road is surfaced with:



  9. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

    Regarding the old stone bridge over the Vilaine at la Roche Bernard.

    I have spoken to my friend about the incident.British "Special Forces"apparently were involved and my friend's late father's employee,a Billy Bee was a member of the team.The Maquis were led by Maurice X, he could not remember his surname and who, in 1974 owned a hotel in the centre of la Roche Bernard.With Billy Bee, my friend and his father were able to holiday with Maurice.My friend did state that Billy Bee died in the mid 1970s,quite a character by all accounts and a first class argon welder.

    The new bridge which replaced the stone bridge still stands for local traffic.Its design is similar to others I have seen which replaced blown bridgesin Brittany.

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