Fort Eben-Emael was reputed to be the strongest military stronghold in the world. On May 10th 1940, Fort Eben-Emael was attacked by the Germans as part of their blitzkrieg attack on Western Europe. The speed with which Eben-Emael fell and how the raid was executed was symptomatic of just how devastating blitzkrieg could be.
Fort Eben-Emael was north of the large Belgium city of Liege. It commanded the Albert Canal and was seen by the Belgium military as being the principle barrier against an attack from her eastern borders. As well as the Albert Canal, the fort also had a commanding position over the high bridges over the canal. If an enemy captured these bridges, their ability to move military vehicles and troops would have been greatly helped. Without the control of these bridges, such movement into Belgium would have been severely restricted and the mobility that blitzkrieg needed for success would have been blunted.
The fort itself was awesome. Built between 1932 and 1935, it abutted the Albert Canal at Caster. From north to south, the fort was 900 meters long and from east to west, it was 700 meters. The fort was a base for infantry and artillery units, and the defences of the fort were placed so that each mutually covered the other should the fort come under attack. Getting into the fort would have been very difficult. Two of the walls were 40 meters high and nearly vertical. Climbing them in an assault would have been all but impossible. The other sides of the fort were protected as a result of a man-made ditch around them, again making any assault difficult. To further complicate any assault, outer trenches had been built and more walls, the majority of which were 4 meters high.
The weaponry within the fort was also awesome. The fort contained 7.5-cm cannons, 12-cm revolving cannon; machine guns; searchlights; anti-tank cannons and anti-aircraft cannon. Dummy weapon emplacements were built to fool the enemy.
The fort itself was connected within by a series of tunnels that totalled many kilometres. There was only one access to these tunnels at Fort 17 in the south-west of the vast complex. The fort was effectively self-sufficient as it contained barracks, sick bays and a communication centre. The tunnel complex was built with a ventilation system complete with filters in case of a poison gas attack.
However, Eben-Emael had one major weakness. It was vulnerable to an attack from the air. The German High Command knew that they had to capture intact the bridges over the Albert Canal if blitzkrieg was to function. They also knew that a paratrooper attack – so devastating in Holland – would be unlikely to be successful at Eben-Emael as it would give the defenders too much time to react as the paratroopers descended. They therefore decided on a mode of attack the defenders would be surprised by – the use of gliders carrying troops. The gliders would land at half-light inside the fort thus negating its defences. Such an attack would possess a high surprise factor which would not be achieved using paratroopers.
The attack had to be carefully co-ordinated so that it took place just at the same time as the main Wehrmacht attack across the Belgium border. In this way, the Belgium army would be fully occupied and no units outside of the fort could come to its aid.
The raid was full of risks. Take-off and landings were potential problems. When the gliders came within range of the fort’s anti-aircraft guns, they were at risk. To compensate for the latter, the attack was planned at half-light – making the task of the glider pilots even more difficult as visibility would be a key issue. The plan was to release the gliders 20 kilometres from the fort at a height of 2000 meters. The pilots selected for the raid were considered to be the best and were given a target of landing their gliders within 20 meters of their chosen target.
The attack was entrusted to the Koch Storm Detachment formed in November 1939. The main section of this unit comprised of paratroopers, including those trained in sapping. The actual attack on the fort itself was carried out by these sappers led by Colonel Rudolf Witzig.
The unit led by Witzig trained for six months for this attack. They were to use 11 gliders and the glider pilots were also expected to fight in the attack. Each glider was to fly seven or eight men, excluding the pilot. Each glider unit had two targets to attack. The sappers carried large quantities of explosives and such weapons as flame throwers.
The attackers landed at 05.25 on May 10th 1940, five minutes before the main attack across the Belgium border. To confuse the Belgium military around the area, the Germans also used dummy gliders that ‘landed’ in areas around the canal but served no other purpose but to confuse the defenders. Nine of the eleven gliders got through to the fort – one glider being lost to anti-aircraft fire and one having to land just outside of Cologne as its towrope had broken.
The Koch Storm Detachment had given themselves just 60 minutes to create a base in the fort which they could defend. In this time, they destroyed many of the gun emplacements in the fort and captured a large section of it. Some of the complex remained in the hands of the Belgium army but by May 11th, the fight was over as the advancing German army arrived in force. Confronted with an enemy literally within and surrounded by a massive army without, the defenders had no real choice but to surrender.
The attack was a success for the Germans as the fort was taken and the vital bridges captured intact. The Germans lost 6 men killed out of the 85 who set out on the attack with 15 wounded. The Belgium defenders lost 23 men killed and 59 wounded.
The attack on Fort Eben-Emael shows how blitzkrieg worked within a small environment as opposed to an attack on a whole country. The element of surprise was key, as was the use of a method of attack not really considered possible by other Western European armies. The use of troops specifically trained to become experts in explosives, parachuting etc were also vital. The defensive mentality of the Belgium army was exposed by the success of the attack on Fort Eben-Emael.