An ally of France after the First World War, Belgium declared its
neutrality in 1936. In the 1920s and 30s Belgium built a series
of forts along its eastern border. A fort had been recommended at
Eben Emael as early as the late 1800s, and with the building of the
Albert Canal to bypass the portion of the Meuse River in the
Netherlands, an additional barrier was available. The fort at
Eben Emael was built atop the cut where the Albert Canal passes through a
large hill, Mount St. Peter. Eben Emael was the strongest of a
system of forts built to cover all crossings of the Meuse
with artillery. It was, in fact, considered to be the strongest
fort in the world. If the Germans attempted to invade
Belgium again, they would have to deal with the fort.
Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939 forced France and Britain to declare war on Germany. German plans for the conquest of France in the fall of 1939 were delayed until the winter, then a German officer's plane crashed in Belgium, possibly revealing the German plan, including the violation of Belgian neutrality. For the Germans, this was unexpectedly fortuitous, as it forced a change of plan. To deal with Fort Eben Emael, Hitler asked Kurt Student, commander of the Luftwaffe's 7th Flieger Division, the first airborne division in the world, if glider troops could be landed on the fort. Yes, they could, but how could they capture the fort? For this, Hitler had a secret weapon, the shaped charge.
|The western face of the fort sloped down to a creek and the town of Kanne. A wet ditch extended from the canal to Bloc 2. Bloc 1 was the entrance. On the other side of Bloc 1 was a wall, which extended to Bloc 6. Beyond Bloc 6 was an anti-tank ditch which extended past Blocs 4 and 5 to the cliffs overlooking the canal. These were formidable defenses, but the glider troops who were to circumvent these defenses and land on top also faced strong defenses, machine guns positions, and anti-aircraft position, and artillery casemates armed with guns capable of using the 20th century version of canister shot.|
|Now the tourist entrance, Bloc 1 is still formidable, with an
anti-tank gun and machine gun positions. You can see the wall
extending from Bloc 1 to Bloc 6. To the left of Bloc 1
administrative buildings stood. Receiving a warning of war with
Germany, the fort commander, Maj. Jottrand, followed orders to
immediately destroy the administrative buildings. Unfortunately,
the fort was already understaffed with 989 men, and to accomplish the
demolition in a timely manner, men had to be taken away from their
fighting positions on top of the fort. This would be the fort's
As the action unfolded atop the fort that morning, sorties were made from Bloc 1, but they were repulsed.
|The glider targeting Coupole Nord barely missed the fort's wall and
pulled up at the last moment to land 25 meters from the target. Seeing
the threat through the periscope, the cupola crew scrambled to get
canister rounds, but the ammunition hoist failed. Two 50kg shaped
charges failed to penetrate the cupola, but metal particles killed and
wounded several men, forcing the crew to evacuate. Another explosion
took off the door of the infantry exit.
The Germans who had captured the AA position moved to reinforce the attack on Coupole Nord, but they were fired on from the hut in the middle of the four gun AA position. Capturing the hut, the Germans used their prisoners as human shields as they approached Bloc 4.
Vise 1 was hit with a 12.5kg charge, which convinced the gunners to abandon the position. Some returned to the guns but were ordered back out of the position.
|Separated from the rest of the fort, Bloc 01 did not figure prominently in the battle, but it is well worth a visit for the view of the canal, the Meuse River, and even into Germany on a clear day.|