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Posts Tagged ‘Belgium’

Joachim Peiper was getting a bit frustrated, because he was getting further and further behind schedule.  Operation Watch on the Rhine (which we know so well as the Battle of the Bulge) had gotten off to a good start for him and his German compatriots.  Having achieved complete surprise with a 30-division offensive in the dead of winter in the Ardennes Forest, the Allied forces (comprised mostly of American troops in this area) were forced to retreat in the face of the onslaught.

The German objectives were simple.  Reach Antwerp, create a divide in the British and American forces, and hope for a peace deal.  Once that was accomplished, the German High Command could move all its arms and men eastward and try to slow down the Russians.

But the American troops hung in desperately, in many places fighting with a tenacity that surpassed even that of the desperate Germans.  And Peiper was seeing the results of that first-hand.  The offensive was just two days old, and already he was running late.  His final objective, the Meuse River, was taking too long to reach.

Peiper had lost time as he neared the village of Malmedy.  The next town on the road, Stavelot, had seen resistance slow him even more.  On December 18, 1944, he arrived at the village of Trois Ponts, which presented him with a chance to make up some lost time.  If he could cross the Ambleve River using the town’s three bridges (hence the name…Trois Ponts), there was good road ahead, which would allow his tanks to rip through the Belgium countryside and reach the Meuse in a just a couple of hours.

The Americans, however, had other plans.

As Peiper’s lead tanks rolled toward the bridges, they were met by opposing tanks.  The two enemies had barely begun their engagement when, to Peiper’s dismay, the sound of a blast and the rumble of a bridge falling into the Ambleve was heard.  Shortly after, the second major bridge at Trois Ponts was detonated.

This was disastrous.  The German commander now had to move his charges north to the bridge at Cheneux (a tiny village near La Gleize), which meant yet another delay and more precious fuel wasted.

An exasperated Peiper finally reached Cheneux in the last light of day.  He rounded the bend and watched in horror as, just two hundred yards away, the bridge (this time crossing the Lienne River) disappeared in a flash and a crash.

Joachim Peiper’s advance to the Meuse had been stopped.

The Battle of the Bulge, from a German perspective, was all about advancing and covering tons of ground in a very short time.  The German war machine had precious little fuel to use, so rapid movement and the capture of enemy depots was vital before the weather cleared and the Allies’ unbelievable advantage in the air could be used to its fullest.

The dedication of American engineers and sappers, like the ones Peiper faced, played a key role in blunting the German advance and eventually turning the German advance into a retreat and rout.

Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter

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General Student left Hitler’s presence with his mind in a blur.  Hitler’s proposal, the capture of Fort Eben Emael, was a bombshell.  To say it was a fortress was to grossly understate just how well-defended it was.  Massively thick concrete, steel-reinforced doors, and large artillery pieces made it the most impenetrable bunker on the planet.  This would not be easy, and Hitler wanted an answer quickly.

He did some good hard thinking and picked up his conversation with Hitler the next morning.  The Fuhrer had said nothing about the corresponding invasion of the Low Countries, so Student still didn’t have a very good context from which to work.  But he was ready with his answer anyways…and that answer was “yes”…with conditions.

Kurt Student told Hitler that such a difficult mission could not be done at night.  Rather, it would have to be done in daylight or (at the least) in morning twilight.  Hitler agreed quickly.  What Student had not yet voiced was his other major concern – firepower.  Eben Emael was incredibly strong.  Breaking through its outer shell would not be the work of artillery pieces, but rather of massive siege cannon, firing huge shells and point-blank range.  Siege guns couldn’t be carried on gliders, and conventional trucks or trains would immediately tip off the Belgians, ruining the surprise.

But Student didn’t have to bring it up, because Hitler already had the answer.  German munitions experts had developed an amazing new technology – the Hohladung (hollow charge).  Unlike typical shells and bombs that exploded outward, hollow charges focused their explosive potential on a central point.  The Fuhrer explained that even the super-thick concrete of Eben Emael’s cupolas could not withstand the power of these new devices.  Best of all, each one weighed just 110 pounds.  It would require the efforts of 2 or 3 men to position it, but if that could be done, it would do the job.

Kurt Student was, once again, stunned.  Here was the answer to his most pressing armaments question.  Hitler needed surprise (provided by Student’s gliders) and Student needed firepower (provided by the work of Hitler’s specialists).  Student was ready and asked, “My Fuhrer, may I now have your order?”  To which Hitler replied, “Yes.  I order you to take Fort Eben Emael!”

And so, on October 28, 1939, the plan to capture the world’s toughest military installation began.  General Student’s men would spend months in rigorous training under a blanket of utmost secrecy.  And when the time came, Adolf Hitler’s mission would be carried out in spectacular fashion.

Recommended Reading: The Fall of Eben Emael

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Kurt Student turned toward the door as it opened and glowered at the aide who entered through it.  The General, now approaching 50 years old and having just been given command of the 7th Flieger (airborne) Division, had given strict orders that no one was to disturb this meeting.  But when he read the note the aide handed him, his demeanor changed.  The single sentence read, “Marschall Goering is on the telephone about a matter of utmost urgency.”

Field Marshal Hermann Goering and General Student knew each other quite well.  The Marshal was in charge of the Luftwaffe, and Student had enjoyed a long association with aircraft as well.  In his book The Fall of Eben Emael, James Mrazek notes especially Student’s “experiments with parachuting and the transportation of units and supplies by aircraft.”  This Student was also something of a pioneer.

Anyways, Goering told Student to fly to Berlin as quickly as possible, because Adolf Hitler had requested a meeting with him at the earliest possible moment.  No, he had no idea of the subject matter, just that Student needed to get to Berlin.

And that’s how General Kurt Student found himself, twenty minutes later, in the cockpit (he was an accomplished pilot) of a plane, bound for the German capital.  And while the plane he flew was no screamer, it didn’t hold back his brain, which was probably running at warp speed in an attempt to figure out what could be so pertinent to require this kind of rapid response.

It was October 27, 1939, and the war in Poland was already over.  Things had quieted down a bit.  Was there an upcoming operation?…a clandestine mission?  Just a high-level meeting?  He had no clue…but he didn’t have long to wait.

Arriving in Berlin shortly before 2pm, he was whisked into Hitler’s presence, who dispensed with any small talk and got straight to the point.  He noted that Student had some experience with gliders and that 7th Flieger had gliders.  Student nodded in confirmation.

Hitler continued (as recorded by Mrazek), “I have a job for you.  I want to know if you can do it.  The Belgians have a fort here.”  Hitler pointed at a map.  “Do you know it?”

Student’s response:  “Yes, my Fuhrer, I know it well.  It is a tremendous fortification.”

Hitler proceeded to describe some of the particulars of the fort, and then said, “I have an idea.  I think some of your attack gliders could land on top of Fort Eben Emael and your men could storm the works.  Is that possible?”

General Student was stunned, not only by the idea’s audacity, but also by it’s almost ridiculous simplicity.  He requested a bit of time to think it over, which the Fuhrer granted.  Student returned the next day and…

Well…let’s tackle that tomorrow…

Recommended Reading: The Fall of Eben Emael

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“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

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