“Nothing about the town of Eben Emael suggests that it would be etched into the pages of history. …a forgotten village in its early days, the origin of its name not known although some say it is inherited from several prehistoric caves close by, now turned to growing mushrooms.” This description might not be especially pleasing to the residents, but it’s the one given by James Mrazek in his book The Fall of Eben Emael. In fact, Eben and Emael were actually two villages that had, over the years, merged into one.
Eben Emael rests in a vale a couple of miles a couple of miles west of the Meuse River, which served as Belgium’s border with the Netherlands. And between the villages and the river, the Belgians built Fort Eben Emael, and that’s where the “etching into history” part begins.
When we think of forts here in the U.S., we think of box-shaped frontier outposts made of tree trunks sunk vertically into the ground with a main gate and lookout towers at each of four corners. Eben Emael was not that kind of fort. Mostly underground, it was a massive concrete fortress housing artillery pieces where more than a thousand men could fight. It featured a 450-yard concrete-lined moat, steel-reinforced concrete casements, armor-reinforced cupolas, anti-aircraft guns, and interlocking fields of fire.
It was built in the early 1930’s overlooking the junction of the Meuse and the Albert Canal, and with good reason. In 1914, German forces had invaded Belgium in this area and, had a fort of this size been there, things might have gone differently. It was a very similar line of reasoning to that of the French when they constructed the Maginot Line…that “if they come back this way again, they’ll get plastered” kind of thinking. And most armies would have simply stayed away. Historian William Shirer wrote, “This modern, strategically located fortress was regarded by both the Allies and the Germans as the most impregnable fortification in Europe, stronger than anything the French had built in the Maginot Line or the Germans in the West Wall.”
Of course, none of this accounted for daring and ingenuity, both of which Adolf Hitler possessed in 1940. In October of 1939, he called on General Kurt Student to devise a way to take the Fort as part of an upcoming invasion. And after months of planning and practice, it went down. In the early morning hours of May 10, 1940, as the German armies prepared to roll into France, 78 German paratroopers were packed into gliders and dragged into the night skies. They were released and floated down silently to land the engine-less craft on top of Eben Emael.
They brought with them what were possibly the first shaped-charge devices ever used in combat. These bombs didn’t just blow up, but rather focused their explosive potential on a central point, which gave them the power to blow holes in the super-thick concrete of the cupolas and casements, and rapidly disable the artillery pieces. And while the Fort’s compliment of men was reduced (several hundred defenders were bivouacked a couple of miles away), the fighting was still fierce.
But Student’s men carried the day, and were soon reinforced by German forces crossing the Meuse…on the bridges that were not destroyed in time due to this attack. Eben Emael would surrender the following day.
Both the Belgians and the French looked at a potential problem (Teutonic invasion) from a First World War perspecitive and attempted to answer it with a static solution. The French had their Maginot Line. The Belgians, Eben Emael. In both cases, the answer was the wrong one.
Recommended Reading: The Fall of Eben Emael