Eben Emael, Belgium
Eben Emael was a Belgian fortress between Liege and Maastricht, near the Albert Canal, defending the Belgian-German border. On 10 May 1940, 78 paratroopers of the German 7th Flieger (later 1st Fallschirmjager Division) landed on the fortress with gliders. One day later, they were reinforced and on 11th May the fortress surrendered, yielding 1000+ prisoners.
Eben Emael, an underground fort, was Belgium's hope to defend the eastern side from invasion and charged with defending or destroying three key bridges. It also gave protection to the south of what was called the Gap of Vise near the Dutch border. The fortress was only completed in 1935, being sited between the river and the canal that bypassed it. With its steel and concrete cupolas, Fort Eben Emael was thought to be impenetrable.
However, the Germans had planned the capture of the fort and had practised assaulting a full-scale mock up of the fort's exterior in occupied Czechoslovakia. It would have been difficult to parachute a large number of men into the area and still achieve surprise so the glider was used for the first time in warfare. Also new was the top secret shaped charge ('hollow charge') bombs to penetrate the cupolas. This operation goes down as one of the most innovative plans of the war and also allowed the Germans to pass unhindered into Belgium.
22 Nov 2008 - Eben Emael (Fort Eben Emael), BelgiumWhen I first read about the attack on Eben Emael fort by the first military use of gliders I found it hard to understand how this could have been performed. However, there is no better way of understanding a battle than to walk over the ground it was fought on.
The fortress is underground with a number of artillery casemates and cupolas on the surface. Most of the surface though is just open field and though some trees now cover the top, much is still uncovered and it is apparent how gliders managed to land here so precisely. The Belgians never expected a glider attack and therefore did not place obstacles to such a landing. Once the Germans had landed, speed and aggression allowed them to quickly place the new type of charges to disable the Belgian artillery pieces.
As impressive as the tunnel complex is, all the Germans had to do was to disable the guns and to keep the Belgians trapped underground. With the guns disabled the fort no longer fulfilled any function. Within hours, an outnumbered attacking force overcame what was supposed to be an impregnable fortress.
Eben Emael - Fortress Main Entrance
Few entrances to the fort helped it to become so called 'impregnable' but in reality, the fort did not need to be taken - only to neutralise the guns that covered the river crossing points that could have played a part in hindering any German invasion. In reality, the Germans gained control of the top of the fort, disabled the guns and then kept the Belgians below ground.
Eben Emael - Fortress Approach
Back in 1939, the trees on top would not have existed leaving the large top of the fortress, flat and ideal for glider landings. This innovatation in warfare completely took the defenders by surprise and is an example of a perfectly executed plan. Innovation, speed and aggression allowed the numerically inferior Germans to take control of the fort and to disable the artillery that threatened the vital bridges over the river and canal.
Eben Emael - Main Entrance Closeup
This shows the gun recesses which can be explored from the inside. The white cuppola on top of this structure affords views of the outside through small observation slits. To access it though requires a bit of dexterity and would be a struggle for the ... large boned person. A visitor to the fort can explore most of the inside but this is best done with a tour guide as it is easy to get lost within the 5 km of tunnels and the guide will show you a short film and provide an interesting set of stories.
Eben Emael - Belgian Army Memorial
Fort Eben Emael measured approximately 200 by 400 meters and was roughtly triangular. It was completed by 1935, by blasting the required space out of granite and possessed walls and roofs composed of 1.5 m thick reinforced concrete, as well as four retractable casemates and sixty-four strongpoints. This former barrack room has been converted into a memorial dedicated to the Belgians who died in the attack.
Eben Emael - Barrack Block
A large number of tunnels ran beneath the Fort, connecting individual turrets to the command centre of the Fort and the ammunition stores. The Fort also possessed its own hospital and a number of living quarters for the garrison, as well as a power station that provided electricity to power the guns, provide internal and external illumination, and to power the wireless network and air purifying system used by the garrison.
Eben Emael - Tunnels
A fairly typical view of the inside of the fort. With all the tunnels, some of which lead to interesting areas such as the smashed still doors which were damaged in the original attack, a good tour guide is needed.
Eben Emael - Artillery Emplacement
On the top levels within the fort are the gun emplacements. The tour guide brought to life what it was like to be garrisoned within the fort, and why it was designed the way it was. It was fascinating to actually see where the the War in the West began in earnest and to consider the huge advances in technology, death and destruction that was to engulf Europe for the next five years.