The Belgian fortress Eben Emael, built between 1932 and 1935, is located about 24 kilometers from Liege and about four miles from Maastricht. Like many other Belgian fortresses, the fortress Eben Emael was made under the French doctrine which was based on building fixed stronghold. With this fortress, the Belgians, attempting to block the passage through the Albert Canal four bridges: Lanaye (south), Cane (north), Vroenhoven and Veldwzelt. The Albert Canal, which was connected with Meuse in Antwerp, was completed in 1939 and was the first defensive line in Belgium.
Ironically, workers in the construction of the fortress were Germans, and this has facilitated plans for the training of the German attack force.
An underground fortress
The fortress had a form of an isosceles triangle, and occupied an area of 75 acres, measuring 900 meters from North to South and 800 from West to East. It had been built near the mountain of Saint-Pierre and consists of three levels, each one separated by airtight doors.
As stated, the fortress was located alongside the Albert Canal, and this served as a channel gap like the medieval castles. In addition, also other excavated pit smaller between the stated channel and Block II, from which gap an antitank was surrounding the fortress, with a wall of three meters high.
The fortress was protected by two batteries, the first consisting of two domes (Coupole Nord and Coupole Sud) which concerned two revolving towers each with two 75mm cannons, and the second consisting of the facilities Maastricht 1 and 2 and Vise 1 and 2 that comprised blocks I, II, IV, V, VI, channel to channel to North and South. The facilities of the second battery consisted of three 77mm cannons. At the center of the fort stood the Coupole 120 with twin 120mm cannons. The 120mm and 75mm guns had a range of 17.5 km and 11 km respectively.
The fortress also had seven bunkers on the anti-cars wall; with a 60mm cannon, two machine guns, reflectors, grenade launchers and armored observation cupolas, respectively.
Finally, there were two blocks placed on the fortress, which were also equipped with machine guns and reflectors: Mid-Nord and Mid-Sud.
Helpless by land and air
The fortress was completely unprotected, since no trenches were built on the surface and no mines or barbed wire barricades were placed on the large flat area of the fortress. Furthermore, in the case of a raid, the fortress was equally unprotected, as there was only a small battery antiaircraft located South.
All 17 bunkers were united by seven miles of tunnels, with accommodation for a garrison of 1200 men, which included 500 and 200 artillery soldiers responsible for technical matters. When the Germans attacked, 500 were in the village of Wonck, so only 700 men participated in the defense. The fortress was entirely self-sufficient; had power generators, water pumps, kitchens, bathrooms, showers, a hospital, petrol tanks and barn.
The surprise as key to success
The aim of the Germans was to control all the bridges along the Albert Canal, allowing the rapid advance of their forces. To do this, gliders would be used to transport troops to the fortress. For about six months, the German paratroopers were trained in Hildesheim, near Hannover, and then on the Sudetenland, unaware of the purpose of training. Captain Koch ran the whole operation and named unit as Sturmabteilung Koch. The First Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig was the chief commander of the detachment of the battalion Parachute Infantry in charge of the attack.
For the attack, the Koch group was divided into four groups: the first, codenamed Stahl (Steel), included nine gliders and intended to take the bridge Veldwezelt. The second group, codenamed Konkret (Concrete) aimed to take the bridge Vroenhoven. The third group, codenamed Eisen (Iron) included ten gliders and had targeted the bridge of Canne. The last group, codenamed Granit (Granite), consisted of eleven gliders and 84 firefighters, with the aim of taking the fortress of Eben Emael. For this mission, weapons of flame-throwers, grenades, loads of drilling and light weapons would be used.
The Sturmabteilung Koch moved from the airfields of Ostheim and Butzweilerhof at four-thirty in the morning of May 10, 1940. They should have landed quietly five minutes before the German troops cross the border, but a breakdown in glider of Lieutenant Witzig brought them near three hours later. In total were 86 men in 11 gliders.
The glider was released at a height of 1800 meters to fly 20 kilometers to their objective. Another assault group landed in Duren to take the Vise 1. The two units regrouped later with the ground forces and reached the Albert Canal.
The fragile Belgian Resistance
The Belgian air defenses saw the gliders at five o'clock in the morning, but did not open fire until twenty minutes later, when they landed. The battery was captured immediately. The glider 8 struck the barracks and the Coupole Nord. While the occupants of the barracks were immobilized by a machine gun, it was tried to blow up the dome with two loads of 50 pounds of explosives. Although their steel had not been passed through, it got locked and then burst due to another load of twelve pounds of explosives.
The glider 5 attacked the Block IV and the glider 3 assaulted Maastricht 1 at five-thirty. The glider 1 was in charge of a Maastricht 2, where the general of the Belgian Vertbois died.
The air support from Stukas
Each command paratrooper group was taking so forth its objectives in the fortress. The only fort not attacked was the Vise 2 as it was only able to shoot for South.
The Coupole Sud concerned especially the Germans. A load of 50 pounds of explosives had no effect. The tower continued to shoot at other shelters and the town of Eysden. At nine, the Germans began an air attack with Stukas, but the tower was also not damaged and continued active until the surrender of the fortress.
However, the German troops decided to attack the interior of the fortress. All entries had been studied and the premises occupied, but the Belgian artillery bombarded the area and the infantry advanced on the German positions in the woods.
It was thanks to air support of Stukas that German forces managed to overcome the attacks of the 7th Belgian Division. All attempts from the Belgian army to repel the German forces failed (these attacks came from the fortresses of Pontisse, Barchon and Evegnée).
At seven next morning, the 51st Battalion of Engineers managed to cross the canal and joined the paratroopers who had taken the bridges of Veldwezelt and Vroenhoven. This battalion approached the Block II, who once caught would leave defenseless the northern part of the fortress. The dome had already been bursted with 50 loads and 12.5 kilograms of explosives, Sergeant Portsteffen opened the attack with a flamethrower and the third group of Panzer divisions took the direction of Tongeren.
The remaining shelters, the Coupole Sud, Canal Nord and Sud ceased fire shortly after noon and a half of May 11. It sounded a trumpet, and a Belgian soldier appeared with a white flag at the entrance of Block I. The battle had ended.
The fortress resisted only thirty-six hours. The battle cost the lives of six German soldiers and wounded 15, while the Belgians suffered 23 casualties, 53 soldiers and about 600 wounded soldiers were made prisoners in the fields of Fallingbostel, Germany. With this operation, the Germans were able to neutralize the strength and preserve intact the two bridges Albert Canal and boost the advance of German troops in Belgium.
Decorated by Hitler
After the battle, Lieutenant Witzig was promoted to captain and Hitler personally decorated the troops of the assault force. The Germans used the castle as a workshop and barracks. From the six existing generators in the fortress of Eben Emael, five were transported to the Atlantic Wall and the other still works.
Fortress held by the Allies
The Germans had not repaired the damaged guns, a fact that was ignored by the Americans when the fortress was recovered by the 30th Infantry Division in September 1944.
At seven-thirty in the afternoon of September 10, 1944, the Third Allied Battalion arrived at the abandoned fortress. At midnight it was in U.S. hands. But they learned that six German officers and 300 soldiers had abandoned the fort.
Finally, Eben Emael played his last role in the war of Mosella river canals. It was essential to capture the dams intact, as if the Germans managed to blow them, the resulting flood would have weakened the Allied right flank.
At five and a quarter in the afternoon of September 11, a team came to the canal through a tunnel of the fortress, having captured the dams without damaging them.
Since there was no struggle to take the fortress in 1944, today it can be seen as it was in 1940. Currently there are cultivated fields where years before German troops put their explosives to conquer the mythical Belgian fortress of Eben Emael.