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.
A volunteer special force known as Storm Detachment Koch - named after its commander, Hauptmann Walther Koch - was established to capture the fort and the three critical bridges. Under tight security, training began in November 1939. A parachute sapper (engineering) detachment codenamed Sturmgruppe Granit was designated to capture the fort.
|OBJECTIVE||To neutralize the fortress, which barred German troops from utilizing the bridges across the Albert Canal|
750 men (Major Jean Jottrand)
|GERMAN:||85 men (Oberleutnant Rudolf Witzig)|
|RESULT||The fort was quickly neutralized|
|BELGIAN:||23 dead and 59 wounded|
|GERMAN:||6 killed and 15 wounded|
|LOCATION||Liège is 370 km northeast of Paris; Eben-Emael is 25 km north of Liège|
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.
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.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels celebrated the use of shaped charges, mysteriously describing them as a ‘new method of attack.’ Rumors of saboteurs and fifth columnists spread, but the truth was more poetic - and daring. The dramatic conquest of Europe’s most formidable military installation brought the security of France’s Maginot Line fortifications into doubt. Combined with attacks against other northern targets, the episode strengthened Germany’s plan to misdirect allied efforts away from the primary attack through the Ardennes.
Eben-Emael is situated on the west bank of the Albert Canal, north of Liège, and near the junction of the Albert Canal and Maas - the Dutch name for the Meuse River - only 8 km from the Dutch city of Maastricht. The triangular-shaped fort runs 900 meters from north to south and 700 meters from east to west at its wider, southern end. It remains a Belgian Army military establishment, and admission is restricted. Its position and surroundings are suitable for a tour even without an internal visit, but a fort tour significantly enhances the experience.
Leave Liège toward Maastricht on the E25 (A25) Autoroute. Just before entering Holland, take exit #1 toward Lixhe (N602). In that village turn north toward Lanaye (rue de la Croix); exit the highway to the left and proceed down the ramp before making the right turn toward Lanaye. The road changes names several times as it passes through Lixhe and Nivelle and proceeds into Lanaye. This mostly industrial area lies between the Albert Canal on the left and the Maas River on the right. Continue through Lanaye and proceed north (quai de Caster). Stop at a convenient location with views of the Albert Canal.
The canal divides at this point providing a connection to the Maas through the locks in the Canal de Lanaye to the right. The roadway crosses over the locks, and although the roadway looks private, it is accessible to the public. The left channel is the continuation of the Albert Canal, where it passes through the deep cut in the limestone hill known as the tranchée de Caster.
This route allows for observation of the defensive nature of the eastern side of the fort. The 40- to 60-meter limestone cliff face still has two casemates and multiple air intakes. Both casemates contained rapid-fire cannon, machine guns, and searchlights to illuminate nighttime targets. Visible on the summit of the cliff opposite is one of these casemates, showing its gun embrasures and armored cupola. During the afternoon of 10 May, fire from the casemate to the north frustrated elements of the German 51st Engineer Battalion in their attempts to cross the canal and reinforce the assault team. They were eventually successful the following morning.
Reverse direction, turn right and before re-entering Lanaye, toward the village of Emael (rue du Garage), and follow the zigzag road up into the village. Turn north on the main highway (N609) and proceed a few hundred meters to the signed access road to the fort. Turn right (rue du Fort).
Before reaching the Fort Eben-Emael entrance, memorials stand to the defenders of Eben-Emael and to the Chasseurs Ardennais artillery, which fired upon the German attackers on 10-11 May 1940. Heavy weapons line the approach to Bloc I, which was the well-defended personnel entrance. If the fort is not open for tours, the entranceway may be blocked; however, much can still be viewed. The cannon and machine guns still visible on the pockmarked façade protected the fort from an attack from the direction of the village. To the right, the similarly shell-pocked Bloc VI guarded approaches to the main entrance, as did Bloc II, located farther to the left.
Inside the entrance, a long, ascending stairway provides access to the fort’s 5 km of interior galleries. The fort tour visits various rooms, including the kitchen, hospital, and barracks. Seventy-five mannequins have been placed to demonstrate life in a 1940 underground Belgian fortification as well as the actions of the attacking Germans. Rooms have been outfitted with authentic artifacts, and sound effects have been added to heighten the experience. The damage wrought by German explosives remains mostly unchanged. The twisted blast door that the Germans destroyed to gain entry still hangs in place. Some corridors are blocked by wreckage from the charges dropped down the airshafts. Gun mechanisms for the operation of retractable turrets are visible. Open one weekend per month in March through November from 10:00 to 16:00; tours are conducted in French and Dutch only. Special tours of selected bunkers are available at certain times during the year. Fee. Call ahead for tour information. Tel: +32 (0)4 2862 861
The roof of the fort can be assessed via a path to the left of Bloc I. The fort’s armaments remain mostly intact and the deadly effect of the German shaped charges is still visible on the armored cupola. The rotating turret containing the twin 120-mm guns remains in its down position, but the two shielded gun openings are visible. They were prime targets because their range covered all of Maastricht, to a distance of 15 km from the fort.
The northern approaches to the fort are not recommended because ditches and drainage canals block much of the way; however, the southern approach gives another impression of the fort’s defenses. The western side and a portion of the roof are now heavily forested. Keep outside the fences and be mindful of the steep drops into the ditches that surround the landward sides of the fort. Avoid damage to any crops that might be in the fields. Before the path diverges from the fort, a good view of the defensive guns is possible. Bloc V is difficult to see because of the growth of new vegetation; however, Bloc IV protrudes into the ditch. Its two 60-mm antitank guns and machine guns provided defensive fire along the ditch and against the approaches to Bloc V.
The path leads away from the fort and approaches ‘Eben 1,’ a separate casemate which guarded the southeast approach from outside the fort. It was surrounded by tetrahedrons and barbed wire entanglements. Approach this site very carefully because the cliff edges are not protected and can be extremely dangerous. The casemate sits upon the cliff, above the point where the Albert and Lanaye channels split. Views are possible along the Albert Canal and across the flat countryside to the east, where the backwaters of the Maas create numerous lakes, islands, and channels. The shear limestone cliffs of the tranchée are visible.
Other Sites of Interest:
The forts protecting Liège were captured or destroyed in the early days of the First World War. During the interwar years a second ring of forts was constructed at a greater distance from the city. Some of them can be visited. Of special interest is Fort de Loncin, northwest of Liège on the rue de Loncin near the N3 highway. This First World War fortification was hit by a shell from an Austrian super heavy mortar in August 1914, resulting in an internal explosion and its complete ruin. The fort shows the enormous destruction wrought on seemingly impregnable thicknesses of concrete and armored steel. Two hundred and fifty soldiers’ bodies are still entombed in the ruins. Audio guides will soon be available to tell the story of the fort in four languages; guided tours are possible on Sunday afternoons. A small, adjacent museum, which is open every Sunday afternoon during April to October from 14:00 to 16:00, is very interesting and has displays on the construction of the fort and the operation of the fort’s retractable guns.