The fortifications at Eben-Emael were key to the Belgian delaying operations in front of the Dyle-Breda Line. The German plan to send its Sixth Army around Liège required that the river crossings west of Maastricht be captured intact. The bridges across the Albert Canal at Kanne, Vroenhoven, and Veldwezelt were under the fortress’s guns, and they had to be neutralized for any invasion in this sector to succeed.
Built in 1935, Eben-Emael was thought to be the strongest fort in the world. Its armaments included two 120-mm guns and sixteen 75-mm guns – all of them in armored turrets or casemates. To the northeast, the canal cut’s steep sides rose 40 meters above the canal waters and formed an ideal glacis for protection from attack across the canal. In other directions, antitank trenches, barbed wire, and bunkers provided protection. Machine guns swept the approaches. Defensive positions were linked by tunnels that also linked the underground barracks, storerooms, and hospital. Ventilation was provided through filters which offered protection from poison gas. Twelve hundred men commanded by Major Jean Jottrand were assigned to the fort, although many were billeted in the neighboring villages and hence not permanently within its perimeter.
40 Capture of Fort Eben-Emael
10 May 1940
A French Battlefields “Virtual Battlefield Tour” as described in Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium.
Summary: In the predawn darkness of 10 May, eleven gliders left airfields around Cologne. Their departure was timed for arrival at the fort at 05:30, H-hour for the invasions of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. Towed behind fifty-two Junkers JU 87 transport aircraft, the gliders climbed to an altitude of 2,100 meters before being released 20 km from the Belgium frontier. Two of the attack gliders became lost during the flight, including that of the assault commander, Oberleutnant Witzig.
Major Jottrand had alerted his troops at approximately 03:00, when he received reports of German troop movements toward the border. The confusion caused by the silent approach of the gliders and small arms fire from the direction of the canal bridges, however, had prevented the fortress from firing. Antiaircraft gunners hesitated to fire against aircraft that they could not definitely identify as hostile.
View Capture of Fort d’Eben-Emael – A Virtual Battlefield Tour by French Battlefields (www.frenchbattlefields.com) in a larger map
In Witzig’s absence, Hauptfeldwebel Helmut Wenzel took command of the paratroopers, who disembarked immediately upon landing. First the antiaircraft guns were attacked and destroyed. Within ten minutes the fort’s surface armaments were disabled, most through the use of the cone-shaped charges. Flamethrowers destroyed machine gun positions. The turret housing the twin 120-mm cannon was too well armored even for the special explosives. Before firing a single round, it was eliminated by placing charges into the cannon barrels. The northern gun emplacements, thought to be critical because of their proximity to the bridges, were found to be dummies.
Repeated attempts by Jottrand’s fortress troops to exit the fort for reconnaissance or counterattack were met with fierce machine-gun fire and handgrenades. Since they were not skilled infantrymen, Major Jottrand called upon the Belgian 2nd Grenadier Regiment outside of the fort for assistance. Belgian infantry moved against the fort across its northwestern slopes; however, the defenses designed to protect against outside attack now benefited the Germans. In addition, the troops were strafed and bombed by Stuka dive-bombers. During the afternoon, the fort’s exterior came under artillery fire from Belgian gunners, while the fortress troops continued to cower within the fort’s interior. The paratroops assembled 55-kg charges and dropped them down cannon access shafts. The effect was devastating as explosions rocked the fort and convulsed the passages.
German reinforcements came under fire from canal-side emplacements that were still under Belgian control. During the night, elements of the German Infantry Regiment Nr 151 managed to cross the canal in inflatable boats and reinforce the small paratroop force on the fort. German artillery moved sufficiently close to keep the remaining casemates under fire. Around noon, with all hope of relief gone and at risk of suffocation from the contaminated air, the last shell-shocked defenders surrendered.
Although the bridge at Kanne was successfully blown, German paratroops had captured the other two bridges and defended them against counterattack until the arrival of the 4th Panzer Division. The Belgian 7th Division, which had responsibility for 18 km of the front, was completely overwhelmed, forcing King Leopold to issue an order for withdrawal. Allied bombers attempted to sever the German lifeline to its advanced troops by destroying the bridges. On 11 and 12 May, attacks by a total of thirty-nine aircraft resulted in twenty-eight losses and no damage to the bridges. Additional attempts were cancelled.