The Battle of Fort Eben Emael
by Carolyn Yeager and Wilhelm Mann
The Belgian fort at the triangle border area of Germany, Belgium and Holland was located at a commanding position overlooking the Maas River and three bridges spanning the Albert Canal. It presented a major obstacle for any troops to advance into Belgium and Holland.
Some of the awesome, threatening casemates of Eben Emael. (photo courtesy Fronta.cz)
The fort drew the early attention of Hitler as he began to plan for the May 1940 campaign in the West. In late 1939, he arranged for special commandos of parachute troops (Fallschirmjaeger) and airborn units (Luftlandetruppen)—using glider planes because of their silence, and with brand new weapons and explosives (Haftladung)—to train under top secrecy at the similar border fortifications in Czechoslovakia.
The assault on the fort Eben Emael was part of the much larger campaign, “Fall Gelb,” of combined airborne troops, parachute troops, Stuka Aircraft and transport aircraft (400 Ju 52 transporters) against bridges, airfields and fortresses in Belgium and Holland. On May 9, 1940 these forces were gathered around Cologne. The force tasked with assaulting the Fort and capturing the three bridges was named Sturmabteilung Koch (Assault Detachment Koch) after the leader of the force, Hauptmann (Captain) Walter Koch.
Hauptmann Koch divided his force into four assault groups. Group Granite, under First Lt. Rudolf Witzig, was to assault and capture Fort Eben Emael from above. The other three groups were to capture the bridges. Eleven gliders carrying the 85 men of Group Granite, rope-towed by Ju 52s, left an airfield near Bonn at 4:30 on the morning of May 10 with the task to land on top of the fort and assault the cupolas and casemates with the new “hollow explosives,” flamethrowers and automatic weapons.
Absolute radio silence was enforced; the Ju 52 pilots were navigated by vertical searchlights toward the Belgian border and released the gliders at 7000 ft., about twenty miles before the target. Witzig’s glider was hit by a snapping tow line, forcing it to land in Germany; another glider released too early. Thus undermanned, only nine gliders landed on the roof of Eben Emael, where the troops quickly emerged and began attaching explosive charges to emplacements housing the artillery pieces. Each glider troops had their own objective. Some of the larger guns were more difficult to destroy and troops from two gliders, and then even more than that, had to join together to finally disable them.
A cupola in Fort Eben Emael after penetration by a shaped charge.
The fighting in the major part of the fort was fierce, and Stuka bombers had to be called in to quell some pockets of resistance. Entrances and exits located by the airborne troops were destroyed with explosives to seal them off.
In the meantime, Witzig had quickly called up another glider and, after flying through anti-aircraft fire, landed on top of the fortress and participated in the fighting. Group Granite was not relieved by the 51st Engineer Battalion until 7 a.m. May 11 because the Belgian engineers managed to destroy some bridges over the Maas River, which the Germans had to repair before crossing. Under great pressure, Group Granite suffered six killed and 19 wounded. But the defenders suffered 60 killed and 40 wounded, and surrendered at 12:30 on May 11, with an estimated 1000 Belgian soldiers taken into captivity.
The three bridges across the Albert Canal were also successfully captured by the other three glider groups under the command of Captain Koch. As result of these successes, the armored division of the 18th Army was able to enter the heart of Belgium. For their outstanding efforts, both Koch and Witzig were rewarded with the Knights Cross.
General Kurt Student, Commander of the Fallshirmjaegertruppen and advisor to Hitler on Eben Emael, wrote of the operation, and the efforts of Group Granite in particular, that "It was a deed of exemplary daring and decisive significance [...] I have studied the history of the last war and the battles on all fronts. But I have not been able to find anything among the host of brilliant actions—undertaken by friend or foe—that could be said to compare with the success achieved by Koch's Assault Group." (Volkmar Kuhn, German Paratroops in World War II. Ian Allen, Ltd. 1978. Page 36)