The Battle of Fort Eben-Emael

A Fortress Falls

In the spring of 1940, Europe was engulfed in the flames of the Second World War. The German war machine, under the command of Adolf Hitler, had already overrun Poland and was now preparing to launch a devastating offensive against France and the Low Countries.

The success of this campaign hinged on the swift and unexpected capture of Fort Eben-Emael, a seemingly impregnable Belgian fortress guarding the eastern border. This battle, a seminal event in military history, would forever change the way we thought about fortifications, tactics, and the use of specialized troops.

Fort Eben-Emael, a formidable structure was touted as the most impregnable fortress in the world. Nestled in the Belgian Ardennes near the Dutch and German borders, it was a key element of the Belgian defence line.

The fort boasted massive concrete bunkers, underground tunnels, and a garrison of well-trained soldiers. It was believed that Eben-Emael could withstand any attack, even against the modern weaponry of the time.

German High Command, led by General Erich von Manstein, knew that the success of the upcoming Blitzkrieg (lightning war) against France and the Low Countries depended on eliminating Fort Eben-Emael as a threat.

Their intelligence indicated that the fort was a veritable fortress and would take several days to reduce, which was time they could not afford to waste. They needed a plan that could bypass the fort's formidable defences and neutralize it swiftly.

Belgian preperations

The Belgian 7th Infantry Division held a crucial role in guarding the three bridges spanning the Albert Canal, bolstering the existing troops stationed at Fort Ében-Émael at the time of this historic battle. The defences for each of these bridges were meticulously laid out: a quartet of imposing concrete pillboxes lined the western bank of the canal.

Among these, three were equipped with machine guns, while the fourth boasted a formidable anti-tank gun. The bunker housing the anti-tank gun was strategically positioned near the road leading from the bridge, with one machine gun-fitted pillbox immediately behind the bridge, and the remaining two flanking the bridge, a short distance on either side.

A company position was established on the western bank of the canal near each of the bridges, complemented by a modest observation post on the eastern side, ready for a swift recall if needed. Furthermore, the capability to thwart any enemy advance was integrated into the bridges themselves, as demolition charges were discreetly set into their structures, all controlled by a firing mechanism nestled within the anti-tank bunkers.

Fort Ében-Émael, an engineering marvel of its time, had been meticulously built during the 1930s and was finalized by 1935. The fort's dimensions were imposing, measuring 200 by 400 yards (180 by 370 meters). Its structural integrity was a testament to military engineering, featuring walls and roofs composed of a hefty five feet (1.5 meters) thick reinforced concrete. The fort was fortified with four retractable casemates and sixty-four formidable strongpoints.

Armaments within the fortress were nothing short of impressive. It housed six 120mm artillery pieces, each with a remarkable range of ten miles, two of which possessed the rare capability to traverse a full 360 degrees. Complementing these were sixteen 75mm artillery pieces, twelve 60mm high-velocity anti-tank guns, and a staggering twenty-five twin-mounted machine guns, along with anti-aircraft guns for added defence.

The fort was ingeniously positioned to secure its surroundings. While one side was oriented toward the canal, the remaining three sides faced the land, guarded by an intricate network of minefields, deep ditches, and a towering 20-foot (6.1 meters) high wall. Concrete pillboxes, each fitted with machine guns, provided formidable defense, and a squadron of fifteen searchlights atop the fort further fortified its security.

Additionally, a web of tunnels ran beneath the fort, connecting individual turrets to the central command center and the well-stocked ammunition stores. It even featured its own hospital and living quarters for the garrison, all powered by an on-site station that generated electricity for the guns, internal and external illumination, as well as the wireless communication network and air-purification system relied upon by the fort's inhabitants.

Belgian military strategy, however, did not anticipate a sustained battle for the fort and the attached defending forces. It was presumed that there would be ample warning of an impending attack, affording the detachment on the eastern side of the canal sufficient time to retreat, bridges to be destroyed, and the garrison to be prepared for a strategic delaying action.

The defending forces would then make a tactical withdrawal to the primary defensive positions along the river Dyle, where they would coordinate with other Allied forces for a united defense.

The events unfold

The Germans devised an audacious plan that would become a textbook example of military innovation. Major General Kurt Student, a paratroop pioneer, was tasked with leading the operation, codenamed "Operation Greif." Student would utilize gliders, an emerging technology at the time, to transport his elite paratroopers to Eben-Emael.

Their mission was to disable the fort's guns, seize control of the bridges crossing the Albert Canal, and hold them until the main German army could cross.

On the morning of the 10th May 1940, as dawn broke over the Belgian countryside, the German gliders took off. The element of surprise was crucial, and the silence of gliders in flight ensured that the fortress's defenders were oblivious to the imminent threat. German soldiers, heavily laden with specialized equipment, landed on the fortress's massive steel cupolas and began their attack.

The audacious glider assault on Fort Eben-Emael stands as a remarkable example of meticulous planning, innovation, and swift execution. This daring operation, codenamed "Operation Greif," caught the Belgian defenders completely off guard and resulted in an astonishingly swift victory for the German paratroopers.

The key to the operation's success was the element of surprise. As the gliders silently approached the fortress under the cover of darkness, the defenders remained oblivious to the impending threat. The paratroopers, equipped with specialized training and equipment, landed with precision on the fortress's massive steel cupolas and immediately went into action.

Their primary objective was to silence the fortress's formidable artillery, which posed the most significant threat to any attacking force. Using a combination of explosives and direct assaults, the paratroopers quickly neutralized the artillery positions. This not only protected the gliders and their precious cargo from being targeted but also disrupted the fortress's ability to mount an effective defence.

With the fortress's guns silenced, the German paratroopers wasted no time in securing the entire garrison of Fort Eben-Emael. The Belgian defenders, unprepared for an attack from the sky, were taken by surprise and overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity of the assault. The audacity of this glider-borne operation left the defenders disoriented and unable to mount a coordinated response.

By the afternoon of May 10, 1940, Fort Eben-Emael, once thought to be impregnable, had fallen into German hands. The entire garrison had been captured or neutralized, and the fortress was under German control. What was expected to be a prolonged siege lasting days was accomplished in a matter of hours.

Simultaneously, German forces crossed the Albert Canal, securing key bridges and paving the way for the advancing Panzer divisions. Fort Eben-Emael's guns were neutralized, and the Germans continued their lightning-fast advance into France and the Low Countries.

Men of Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment 1 enjoying some cigarettes at the Luftwaffe barracks in Cologne-Dellbrück after the battle of Fort Eben-Emael, 12 May 1940.

Julius Backman Jääskeläinen (@julius.colorization) • Instagram photos and videos


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