We have mentioned the German airborne forces’ capture of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael before a few times, but we’ve never explored it in depth. In this incredible special operation, an overstrength engineer platoon, 78 men, led by a first lieutenant who wasn’t even there for the bulk of the battle, captured a fortress held by a garrison of approximately 1,100 men. It was not an old, obsolete fortress, either: it was one built just a few years prior. The concrete was scarcely dry!
The place was the Belgian fort of Eben Emael, named for two villages it sat between: its function was to protect the approaches to Liége. Ir did this by puttin the crossroads at Maastricht and the Albert Canal under gunfire, especially the bridges crossing the canal and related rivers, which were natural choke points. It was well equipped with 120mm and 75mm artillery pieces and 60mm AT guns, in reinforced concrete, steel-armored casemates.
This documentary shows how the Germans used new weapons (shaped charge explosives, assault gliders) to deliver an effective, economical attack that the defenders had not even conceptualized a defense against. It has five parts, which should load and play after the first.
It was produced by a thing called the History Channel, which used to exist before it discovered that more of the sort of people who watch TV like welfare recipients do drugs were interested in Finding The Ghost of Sasquatch than the history of a global war.
There are some interesting small arms in the video, including some MG.34s mit und ohne Lafette, and the relieving engineers are seen marching in with an MP.34 (or -28, perhaps) slung over an officer or NCO’s shoulder.
Eben Emael is the subject of a number of worthwhile books and papers; it’s a frequent flyer in war and command-and-staff college papers (here’s an example), and it was one of the case studies in Admiral William McRaven’s compendium, Special Operations.
We’ve been reading a lot about European fortresses of the 20th Century lately. They essentially were a lesson mistakenly learned from the First World War, where defensive technology, tactics and operational art deadlocked offensives, a lesson obvious in 1914 that did not sink in until the generals who ran up the butchers’ bills on all sides were looking back at the event over port and cigars postwar.
Four nations built fortress chains, none of which availed them much in the 1939-45 unpleasantness. They were France, whose fabled and well-engineered Maginot Line was flanked; Germany, whose post-repudiation fortress construction seems to have been a propaganda effort; Belgium, the fate of whose fortresses in the face of Blitzkrieg is here recounted; and the Czechoslovak Republic, whose fortresses, similar to those of the francophone nations, were in those regions of the nation inhabited primarily by ethnic Germans, and ceded to Germany by the Munich Agreement in 1938.
In fact, the ex-Czech fortifications in the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen u. Mähren were used by Lieutenant Witzig’s Abteilung Granit troops to practice fortress takedowns, before they had to do it for real.
This is a tourism video promoting visits to Eben Emael in the here and now. Five minutes.
Here’s some B-roll (mostly) of a 2010 reenactment. In the historical case, there does not seem to have been this many Belgian defenders on the surface… just a few AA gunners with Lewis guns. The gliders also had wings, and the German guns didn’t jam this much…. Voice-over en français.
And this is a video of the fort today, with some role-players at work. Best part: you get to hear the actual sound of the fort’s alarm siren. And see what’s for sale in the gift shop.
Here’s another recent-day visit. Different views of some of the same role-players as above!
A tactic, technique or procedure is only new once. Even though Billy Mitchell proposed vertical envelopment in 1918, and even though Germany, Italy, Japan and the USSR had been training for it since the 20s and 30s, the paratroop elements of the invasions of April-May 1940 took Britain, France, and the neutrals by complete surprise.
The cost of the German victory in Crete the next year took the Germans, who had been encouraged by their 1940 results, by even greater surprise. But that’s another story!