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The Spectacular Capture of Fort Eben-Emael (Belgium, 1940)

On May 10th, 1940, Adolf Hitler launched Fall Gelb, the invasion of the Low Countries and France. This Blitzkrieg was meant to overpower the Netherlands, Belgium and France in a surprise attack, preventing their military from properly responding. The Belgian village Eben-Emael lies in the province of Luik, not far away from the Dutch border. Nearby this village lies the similarly named fortress. Completed in 1935, its goal was to guard the vital bridges at the junction of two crucial waterways: the Albert Canal and Maas River. Fortress Eben Emael was the stronghold that both the Germans targeted for capture, and the Belgians and French counted on to resist a German assault… The thing is, the German plan to capture the fortress relied on the use of Fallschirmjäger, or paratroopers. This new elite unit of soldiers dropped from gliders and had to wreak havoc behind enemy lines.

Map of Fort Eben-Emael

Yet when the unit that was meant to capture the fortress, Sturmgruppe Granit, started training, nobody had any idea what their mission or target was… for months. And the unit itself consisted of just 85 Fallschirmjäger, so any rumours that they were to capture the best-defended fortress of Belgium, manned by 1200 Belgian soldiers… well, it would be quite rich if that really was the case, considering they would be outnumbered 14:1… Yet that was the case, and the battle of Fort Eben Emael was one of the most spectacular missions of that fateful day Germany launched its offensive towards its Western neighbours.

Fort Eben Emael

The Maginot-line was a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles and weapon installations with the goal to prevent and fight off a German invasion into France. And Eben Emael, part of this line, was considered the pinnacle of an impregnable fortress ready to fend off the Germans. Now, this wasn’t just the opinion of the general public. The Belgian high command several times stated, confidently, nobody would be able to capture the fortress. 

Construction of the fort started in 1932 following the disastrous experience of Belgium during the First World War, unable to repel the Germans that used the region to invade. The fort was located on a hill, with a triangular shape and a surface of around 800 by 900 metres. On its northeast was a slope that went down 37 steep meters into the Albert Canal. If troops were to try and climb this, two mounted 120mm guns and six 75mm guns were sure to deter any such actions. In addition, the road leading up to the fortress was protected by multiple anti-tank and machine-guns and a large anti-tank ditch. And honestly, the opinion of the Belgian high command that the fortress was impenetrable can be understood very well. In total, the entire fortress had 64 strongpoints, all situated on different layers of height and known to be able to sustain prolonged artillery barrages. Multiple domes on top of the fort housed machine gun nests. 

A retractable dome

The outside of the fortress was protected by barbed wire fences and obstacles, making an assault by soldiers on foot near impossible. If somehow special forces would manage to protrude the barbed wire, they were sure to be halted by the extensive minefields around the fortress, or the machine gun fire picking them off on the killing fields. The Albert Canal itself was defended by the Belgian 7th infantry division, around 16.500 men commanded by General Eugène van Trooyen. 

The inside of the fortress housed a garrison of 1200-odd men, two groups of 500 artillerymen and 200 military personnel. Belgian Major Jean Jottrand commanded the garrison and the defences of the fortress. The barracks of these men were located 45 metres underground, to be able to sustain aerial assaults and artillery bombardments. Yet these aerial assaults the underground location of the barracks was built for, was the known weakness of the fortress as well. Because a shortage of anti-aircraft guns manned the fortress, and once the initial layer of defence would be broken there were no boobytraps or mines to prevent a hostile takeover. But then again, the command figured, nobody would be able to get through the defences to reach the inner layers of the fortress.

Preparing the Assault

Well. After the Second World War broke out and Germany was planning the invasion of France and the low countries, Major-General of the Luftwaffe, Kurt Student, noticed exactly this weakness of the fortress. Memos written to Adolf Hitler about the assault show that he considered the top of the fortress a near-ideal landing ground. If the machine-gun fire was to be survived, gliders could simply land inside the fortress. Hitler agreed, and the planning of the capture of Eben Emael, the impenetrable Belgian fortress, was set in motion. The reason why the fort was so important for the Germans was that they wanted to capture the bridges over the Albert Canal intact, in order to ensure a rapid advance of their Panzer divisions.

Albert Canal seen from a machine-gun position

The group tasked with the capture of the fortress was Sturmgruppe Granit, or Assault Group Granite, part of Sturmabteilung Koch of the 7th Fliegerdivision. Other units of Sturmabteilung Koch received different names and objectives for the mission. Sturmgruppe Stahl, with 92 men, had to capture the Veldwezelt bridge and Sturmgruppe Beton, consisting of 134 men (among them Captain Koch) had to capture the Vroenhoven bridge. In order to secure the bridges the 6th army under command of General Walter von Reichenau launched an assault to capture them at the same time as the capture of Eben Emael and the Fallschirmjäger assault. 

As for Sturmgruppe Granit, tasked with capturing the fort, it consisted of 85 highly trained soldiers. And although it was decided in late 1939 they would take over the fortress, the men themselves didn’t know it. When they were shipped off for training in secret at Hildesheim, a city in Lower Saxony, nobody knew exactly what they were to train for. In addition the commanders of the Sturmgruppe forbid any social interaction with other German soldiers or even leave. From November 1939 to late April 1940 the men trained with scale models and field exercises in Sudetenland. They realised it must be a fortress of sorts to be captured, but still, they were kept in the dark. Until early May 1940. Walter Koch, commander of the Fallschirmjäger, briefed the elite unit of paratroopers about their mission and the vital importance of it. 

On May 10th 1940, at 3:30 am, surrounded in complete darkness, the Sturmgruppe Granit embarked on their mission. They took off from the airfield at Cologne-Ostheim, with 11 DFS-230 transport gliders carrying the paratroopers. DFS gliders were capable of carrying nearly 300 kilos of freight in addition to up to nine paratroopers. These gliders were towed by Junkers Ju52, transport aircraft. When released at a height of two kilometres, the gliders could float for another twenty kilometres, although during this floating stage it remained vulnerable to ground fire. 

A German DFS-230 glider

Now, I want to emphasize that this mission was a groundbreaking mission. Elsewhere, that same day paratroopers also dropped into The Hague and elsewhere in the Netherlands as the Germans launched their invasion of the low countries. Paratroopers were a new phenomenon and had been used earlier, during the German invasion of both Poland and Norway, but never to this extent, and never with a role this crucial. This mission quite literally was cutting-edge and carefully planned.  

And a lot was counting on these men. There were only 85 paratroopers, which had to take the heavily fortified fortress manned by 1200 Belgian soldiers. The paratroopers were armed to the teeth but it wasn’t their rifles or guns that were the weapons they counted on. With them they carried 48 shaped charges, an explosive charge shaped to focus the energy of the blast in a certain direction. These types of explosives were ideal to penetrate the defences of the fortress and blast holes in its armour. After all, the defenders had to be neutralised before full-scale combat could break out and before the Belgians could blow up the bridges over the Albert Canal. 

Although there were 11 gliders, two were lost due to the tows of the Junkers Ju52’s snapping, before they even reached the fortress. And to make matters worse for the Germans: in one of the gliders was Sturmgruppe’s Granit commander, Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig. One of the Junkers made an evasive manoeuvre which led to the cable breaking and Witzig’s glider floating off-course. He landed in a meadow nearby the River Rhine and had to call for another Junkers Ju52 to tow him back up. The second-in-command, Oberfeldwebel Helmut Wenzel, now led the attack on the fortress. Eventually, Witzig did arrive at Eben Emael, but two hours later, after the fighting had already begun.

Assault on Eben Emael

During the night of May 10th, 1940, the moon dimly illuminated the sky. The nine gliders flew on. When they were above Aachen, the Junkers removed the cables at a bit over two kilometres in altitude, and let the DFS-230s silently glide towards Eben Emael. Even though they were silent, the gliders were detected by anti-aircraft artillery. Now, sources vary on whether the gliders responded, but several writings state that as a distraction tactic, the first batch of paratroopers that were dropped… well… they weren’t exactly paratroopers. The Germans made dummy-paratroopers, sacks filled with hay wearing military clothes and stuffed with firecrackers. They let them loose above the Belgian artillery positions, with the firecrackers exploding. It caused quite some confusion among the Belgian defenders. 

Remains of a casemate of the fortress

Either way, even if this didn’t happen, at around 5:20 AM the gliders arrived at the fortress. Two of the nine gliders missed their target, but seven landed onto the fortress. Although the Belgian artillery had alerted the defenders in the surrounding area, the defenders of the fortress were completely taken by surprise. The seven remaining gliders dropped 55 paratroopers of Sturmgruppe Granit, under command of Wenzel, that were now to take on the much, much larger defending force of the fortress. According to witness accounts, Major Jean Jottrand, the Belgian commander, initially screamed orders at his troops. But when only a fraction of the machine gun domes started firing, because the Germans had already neutralised a considerable bunch, he became paralysed. He was isolated in his command post underground. And unable to properly coordinate his forces, suddenly he heard the loud bangs and vibration of explosives going off above ground.

Because above ground the German engineers were already using their shaped charges to blow up the steel domes that shielded the machine- and anti-tank guns. As the steel domes were blown up, the Belgian soldiers manning them were forced to flee into the underground labyrinth, away from the rapidly advancing German paratroopers. One of the weapons shaped charges were put on was the Canon de 120mm L mle 1931, an incredibly heavy field gun. It proved to be able to resist the shaped charges. Instead of blowing up the outer hull the paratroopers simply stuffed the barrel with explosives, which blew the artillery pieces out of service. Using flamethrowers and grenades, the Germans neutralised the bunkers and domes. It took less than twenty minutes, but the surface of the impenetrable fort Eben Emael was already in German hands.

Beneath the surface, Major Jottrand was frantically trying to contact field artillery in the vicinity of the fortress, in a last-ditch attempt to repel the Germans. But none of it proved fruitful, and nearly every minute he received unpleasant surprises, in the form of news that more strongpoints of the fortress had fallen. I think that the damage you’re seeing on this photograph conveys the damage shaped charges inflict pretty well. The tunnels started to fill with smoke and as the fighting progressed the lights went out. 

Bullet damage

Well over two hours after the battle had begun, Lieutenant Witzig finally arrived at Eben Emael. His glider landed on the fortress and he took over command, although admittedly all he could do was order his men to finish the job. The Belgian defenders of the fortress were demoralised and had been suffering brutal attacks for three hours, with their pillboxes and domes exploding and rendered inoperable. They were forced to hide far underground. In the nearby area the other groups, Stahl and Beton, landed around certain vital targets and by this point had nearly overtaken the bridges. 

That afternoon the nearby fortresses of Pontisse and Barchon started launching assaults on Eben Emael to attempt and repel the Germans. These had already taken over the bunkers and domes of the fortress, and weren’t too phased from the artillery shelling. The Belgian equipment wasn’t good enough to properly dent the fortresses defences anyway. There were several poorly executed infantry counter-attacks, such as the Belgian 2nd Grenadiers under command of Lieutenant Wagemans. It was a brave but pointless action, as both German Stukas and Germans within the fortress easily picked off the Belgian infantry. Reinforcements that arrived near the evening didn’t help one bit and by 8 PM the Belgian infantry had to retreat altogether.

Belgian soldiers surrendering

The German Lieutenant Witzig recalled that after night fell “after the hard fighting of the day, the detachment lay exhausted and parched, under scattered fire from the Belgian artillery and infantry outside the fortification; every burst of fire might have signalled the beginning of the counter-attack we expected and our nerves were tense. For the most part, however, the enemy lacked the will to fight.” During the night the Germans planted heavy explosives in northern shafts, rendering a counter-attack from inside the fortress near impossible. 

The enemy indeed did lack the will to fight. Yet it wasn’t until afternoon the next day that the Belgian commander Jottrand came out with a white flag hoisted. By that time Sturmgruppe Granit had been relieved by a detachment of the Sixth Army, specifically tasked with linking up with paratroopers behind enemy lines. The Sixth Army played a central role in the destruction of fortifications of several key strongholds, among which Eben Emael, but Liège and Namur as well. 

At any rate, the last Belgian defenders surrendered that afternoon. The impregnable, heavily fortified fortress Eben Emael had fallen. The propaganda value for the Germans was incredible: merely 55 paratroopers managed to force a 1200-strong garrison to surrender. In total Sturmgruppe Granit lost six men, with twenty wounded, whereas the Belgians lost around sixty. It proved the value of highly trained elite paratroopers, when deployed in situations they were equipped for. 

And to add to that: the capture of Eben Emael had not been possible if it wasn’t for using revolutionary methods of war by the Germans, in combination with the element of surprise and a tiny bit of luck. If Eben Emael was to be captured in a traditional way, with infantry assaults, the Germans would have suffered an immense amount of casualties. 

For his exploits Witzig was awarded the Knight’s Cross and promoted to the rank of Captain. Within thirty hours the Albert Canal line had been breached, the Allied plans of defence were in shambles and it would not take long for the Germans to capture Paris. In short, from a military perspective, it is perhaps one of the most spectacular airborne operations of the war. Although the Bruneval Raid by the Allies in February 1942 too is a fantastic example of the great use of paratroopers. If you’d like to know about that secret mission, Operation Biting, and how the Allies managed to raid and steal German radar technology, make sure you check that video out. It should be on-screen on an end-card shortly.

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