Great Special Operations: A Platoon Seizes a Fortress, 1940

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!

45 thoughts on “Great Special Operations: A Platoon Seizes a Fortress, 1940

  1. Toastrider

    Do you have any recommendations for books on this? Sounds like it’d be an excellent read!

    1. archy

      *Do you have any recommendations for books on this? Sounds like it’d be an excellent read*

      ***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.***

      In case it slipped past you Admiral McRaven was the architect and chief planner for the raid on Osama bin Laden’s safehouse at Abbottabad, Pakistan. He wrote Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice back in the 1990s, when he was not so far from the age that German Lt. Witzig was when he trained his men for the Operation Granite, so I’d say his chapter on the operation is a must-read for you, particularly since McRaven interviewed both Rudolf Witzig and Helmut Wenzel for his study.

      A couple of other details should be noted though: the attack on the Eben Emael gun and observations positions was only one-fourth of the tactical goal of the op; the other three-fourths were three bridges across the Albert Canal that needed to be taken intact for the overall plan to s ucceed. And so they were, and so it did.

      And there were other innovative weapons and techniques involved that day. One more reason that Combat Engineers were such a large part of the force, in addition to the work with very large demolition charges and the care and possible repair of those three critical bridges was the introduction of another nasty surprise for the Belgian defenders: the M35 flamethrower. The eleven completely silent DFS 230 glider aircraft in which the Germans arrived were themselves innovative and surprising, and for close-in heavy support at the bridges, the Luftwaffe provided coordinated dive bombing and strafing near to but not harming the bridge structures themselves.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Actually, les Belges blew at least one of the bridges. But to deny crossing, you have to get ’em all. Most of the bridges had German glider forces right on them as part of the overall attack.

  2. Mike

    The best book that I can recall is ‘The Fall of Eben Emael’ by James Mrazek. There’s also a book on Rudolf Witzig called ‘Hitler’s Paratrooper’.

  3. SPEMack

    Heh. An absent first lieutenant makes me chuckle. That was me as a Scout Platoon leader trying to shepard multiple sections around. Never seemed to be with the one in contact.

    I think I watched that show as a kid when it aired on tv.

    1. Kirk

      Goes back to the dictum that while a set of good squads and squad leaders can pull the most outrageously poor OPORD out of the shit and over the finish line to victory, poor squads and poor squad leaders won’t do jack to enable even the best OPORD in the world to achieve the same thing.

      That Lieutenant’s work was done long before he left the airfield; he’d trained his men to succeed in his absence, and they did. Those guys were drilled to death on the mission, and by the time it went off, they were practically able to do it in their sleep.

      I met a German who claimed to have been one of the initial assaulters at Eben Emael; he managed to pull off a Forrest Gump, and survived WWII as a German paratrooper who’d been just about everywhere significant for German Fallschirmjager operations, if he wasn’t bullshitting me. I checked what he told me, and aside from his rather unlikely survival and participation in all the crap he described, it all seemed to hang together. Interesting guy–I wish I’d been able to spend more time with him. He didn’t get out of the Soviet prison camps until late in the mid-fifties, and as soon as he got his ass out of there, he unassed Germany for the US, intending to get himself and his family as far away from the Soviets as possible. I may have been the first person he talked to that recognized the significance of him having been at Eben Emael, and according to his wife, I was the first person he talked to about the war, ever, to her knowledge. He hadn’t even brought it up with his sons, who were fully Americanized. Interesting guy–spent a life here in the US working in the defense industries of Southern California, and died before the end of the Cold War, convinced that the Soviets were going to win. I kinda wonder what his take on the world today would have been, had he not died in the mid-1980s.

  4. Kirk

    One of the fascinating details to the whole thing is the German use of the shaped charge in this assault: The world was all aghast at the cutting-edge nature of this “secret weapon”, and eager to get their hands on it. The US, in particular, was desperate enough that a Swiss engineer who claimed to know all was listened to eagerly, and the Army wanted to buy his little grenade using the “secret principle” unveiled at Eben Emael…

    That grenade is what got turned into the warhead for the bazooka, when married to a solid rocket motor based on Robert Goddard’s work, ohbytheway…

    Anyway, once Andres Mohaupt had convinced the Army that he had the goods, the Army started the purchase process, and the lawyers got involved.

    It was at that point that the lawyers started asking questions about this whole thing, namely, why on earth was the Army going to pay big money for something the Navy had initially observed and named back in the 1890s… Namely, the Munroe Effect, which had first been described and noted back when one Charles Munroe was playing around with explosives at a torpedo testing station.

    Mohaupt went on to further develop his little shaped charges into devices used in the oil field, and those devices are today still used in things like fracking…

    Anyone ever wondering at the source for my angst with regards to our weapons procurement and development can easily grasp how it might develop from learning all this as a young man… Idiocy in the weapons procurement realm ain’t exactly new, or surprising.

    1. SPEMack

      God. I thought the Kelsey Grammer flick about the Bradley was satire on new a occurence

      1. Hognose Post author

        Pentagon Wars is a comedy, with Grammer and Carey Elwes, but it’s no-$#!+ based on a non-fiction book. We reviewed it here — use the search box.

    2. Kirk

      Oh, and one thing I forgot to point out, here, with regards to the whole Mohaupt thing: The lawyers, on this occasion, earned their money–Once they got involved, he settled for a lot less money than he’d been asking. So, there is that to remember, when it comes to cursing the legal profession.

    3. Hognose Post author

      Goddard is another interesting cat. As head of the physics department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he was so focused on his rocket work that he ran the department into the ground and he was the first and last celebrity physicist that WPI ever had. (Lots of world-class engineers, though).

      All of Goddard’s fellow rocketry pioneers were either hands-on experimenters with limited theory (von Braun) or theoreticians with no hands-on (Tsiolkovskiy). He was the only one who was both.

      In the sixties, space buffs used to ring the bell on the modest house he had lived in and bug the new owners.

      In the eighties, a memorial was posted in an out of the way place at Fort Devens — exactly where he’d fired off his rockets. It was a welded replica of his first liquid-fueled rocket and launch gantry. There was a small sign on the nearest road, and a couple of trails that passed it, but it was so out of the way that SF teams used it as a landmark on runs and rucks, and hardly anyone else ever saw it. When the Bureau of Prisons made part of the post into a jailbird hospice, it vanished.

      1. Ken D

        There’s also a modern art-y looking memorial in stainless steel a couple miles down the road from WPI at Clark University. I believe Goddard taught there as well for a time.

  5. Pericles

    In 1987, I was responsible for my unit’s OPD program and we toured Eben Emael which at the time was still an active military installation. We got a different version of events. The ineffective AA fire was due to the crews being on detail to move kitchen equipment and food stocks into the fort as part of the plan in operation to transition the fort from peacetime garrison operations to war footing.

    As for all of the AA MGs experiencing malfunctions within the first 50 rounds fired…..

    1. Boat Guy

      Toured it in the late 90’s as part of our JPME (Joint Professional Military Education). We’d read McRaven’s book, of course and got to meet one of the Falschirmjagers who took one of the bridges, as well as a couple of defenders. We had lunch with the German; the Belge opted out. Next tour at the command I got to work for McRaven.

  6. robroysimmons

    Brits paid em back on D-Day, recently read a book about the German troops at Normandy on D-day itself and one of the Lts was in command of a nice piece of concrete and the chaps in red hats (Scots) glidered in, cleaned off second tier ground level troops and then proceeded to FUBAR a gun position. The Lt and a few men survived by barricading themselves in the troop quarters and then spent a few days harassing the Brits before they wised up and surrendered.

    That book was interesting what I found especially interesting was the one engineer officer who gushed over the Soviet’s area defense of Kursk and how they wanted to turn Normandy into the same.

    1. Kirk

      “That book was interesting what I found especially interesting was the one engineer officer who gushed over the Soviet’s area defense of Kursk and how they wanted to turn Normandy into the same.”

      Thing is, the Germans didn’t have the resources available to do that. Rommel tried, but the root of the problem was that they had far too large an area to defend, no idea where the attack would come, and their intel sucked ass. The Soviets, on the other hand…? They knew where the Germans meant to attack, they had the resources to prepare the defense, and it was a small enough area that they could make a defense like that work.

      What the Germans should have done, in all three of the cases where they got bogged down, was to simply prepare attacks, and then not make them. Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Citadel were all things that they should have made look like they were going to, and then… Not. Imagine the dislocation of Soviet efforts if, instead of attacking into the prepared defenses, the Germans had said “Nope… Not gonna…”, and done their attack elsewhere. The dislocation would have done more to damage the Soviet effort, and the resulting discrediting of Stalin’s work in preparing the whole thing…?

      The Germans screwed up on the Eastern Front primarily by not sticking to a maneuver battle, and allowing the static fights like Stalingrad to even happen. You don’t fight to keep terrain; you fight to destroy the enemy, and they forgot that fundamental strategic lesson. Which is kinda humorous, considering that they were supposedly the master race, and so much more sophisticated than their opponents–Who simply bludgeoned them to death with mass. Although, that is something of a simplification of what happened.

      I’m kinda with the school of thought that says the Germans might have been able to win, with better strategy. I can see places where they screwed up, and where they might have been able to do a lot more damage than they did–The surprising thing is, though, just how far they got with their limited resource base. Had Hitler been able to build up his military power the way the original plan went, and he’d made his stab for glory in the mid- to late1940s, the actual results might have been very interesting. German innovation and military capability coupled with actual depth in material/technology? I’m not sure the Allies would have, or could have kept pace. As it was, it was a much narrower-run thing than it ever should have been, and that’s a testimony to German mastery at the tactical and operational level, of which the subject of this post is an exemplar.

        1. Kirk

          Too true. But, they can definitely make a difference when the competing strategies are close together in terms of quality and underlying resources.

          Tactics are like my quip above, with relation to “good squads”: They can pull victory out of history’s ass with a lesser strategy, but you’re gonna need the resources behind it all to make it really work.

      1. Brad

        What the Germans should have done during the defense of France is fallen back to the Westwall fortifications once it was clear that Rommel’s defense plan of defeating the invasion at the beaches had failed. Persisting in France only wasted more German lives and resources.

      2. Norman Yarvin

        By 1939, the Allies had realized that they too would have to build up, so if Germany had waited they would no longer have been facing opponents whom they’d stolen a march on. Also, Germany was rapidly going bankrupt; the loot from the 1939-40 conquests provided the “return on investment” necessary to keep their war machine going. (Somehow this economic aspect hasn’t made it into most histories of the war, but Tooze’s _The Wages of Destruction_ goes into it in excruciating detail. Or for a briefer overview, one can read the start of _Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933-1945_, by Murray, which is freely available online.)

  7. John M.

    “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.”

    Sure. I remember back when the “H” in the bottom corner of the History Channel’s programming stood for “Hitler.”

    -John M.

      1. Aesop

        Yes, but only when reprising the virally celebrated rant from Downfall.

        I love those, BTW. There should be an Emmy given annually, and membership in the Writer’s Guild, to the best one.

        1. John M.

          I agree. One of my favorites was Hitler finding out that Tebow had won his playoff game with Denver several years back.

          -John M.

          1. archy

            ***I agree. One of my favorites was Hitler finding out that Tebow had won his playoff game with Denver several years back.***

            The one in which the projected price for a new Bushmaster ACR rifle was actually followed by a MSRP over double what had been forecast, topping $3000, has its classic moments as well.

            Der Fuhrer:* I should have bought a Larue OBR like Stalin…*


    1. Aesop

      Quite so.

      They’re doing much better with its current replacements: Hokum, Hooey, and H*rsesh*t.

      It’s what they know best.

    2. Daniel

      Back when the History Channel was more like The War Channel and before The Learning Channel turned into the Trashy Life Channel.

  8. Docduracoat

    You are right
    We called The History Channel, the “World War 2 channel”

  9. Scipio Americanus

    Ah, the halcyon days of the History Channel. I remember the first ever thing I saw on it was a documentary about supergun development, from the Paris Gun up through Gerald Bull’s work.

    I hate to be “that guy” and respond to an excellent post with criticism, but I can’t help but think you’re being a little unfair to the Maginot Line. After all, it’s entire purpose was to induce the Germans to outflank it – right into the face of the French and British armies. It performed this task perfectly; one can hardly blame the fortifications for the fact that those armies then folded like an overused chart.

    1. Brad

      I don’t know if this is true, but I had heard that the disposition of the French mobile forces were distributed *evenly* across the front, instead of thinned at the most heavily fortified lines.

      1. Scipio Americanus

        There were forces in every sector of the front, just in case, but by far the bulk for the forces were up north. That’s why when the Germans punched through the Ardennes they were able to catch the so much of the French and British armies in their sack.

  10. Brad

    That was a very interesting story. Makes me wonder how it might have turned out differently if Fort Eben-Emael had been properly fully manned.

  11. Swamp Fox

    Does this special operation rise to the strategic level or operational or only tactical?

    1. Hognose Post author

      You could most probably call this operational, but it also was a special operation in conjunction with and enabling general purpose forces operations. It allowed the Germans to reduce Fort Eben Emael (and just as important, seize several of the river crossings) with considerable economy of force, compared to (for example) German attacks on the fortress of Verdun in WWI.

  12. obdo

    sadly the fort opens only occasionally to the individual visitor, unlike the fortifications of the maginot line who run a thriving tourist business.

    walking the grounds on top of the fortress is still a great experience, and the trout almondine highly recommendable.

    pro-tip for travelling belgium: driving a british vehicle (or irish, for that matter) for instant sympathy points. less so with a french number plate, 200 ys after waterloo still way down the list, just ahead of les boches.

  13. Boone T

    Made my day, Thanks Hognose!
    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.

  14. Pingback: WeaponsMan: A Platoon Seizes A Fortress | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  15. SemperFi, 0321

    My father is somewhere in this movie, he was a Sanitäter with this company that attacked the south end of the Moerdijk bridges, was awarded the EK 1&2 from Herman Goring for helping take out bunkers in the dike (he and 2 buddies) as seen at 9:52. The Dutch had built their bunkers into the dikes and were almost impossible to see, until they opened fire on you. The first Fallschirmjäger casualty he worked on had a bullet thru the forehead, top of his head came off with his helmet, he said the Dutch were fantastic marksmen.
    He made it thru Russia, Norway and Normandy, and 2 yrs as a US POW.

  16. Joseph Martino

    Regarding shaped charges. The summer of 1950, after my sophomore year in college, I had a job with the bricklayer gang among the open hearth furnaces in a steel mill. The molten iron would would be poured into the open hearth where it would be “cooked” into steel. There was a small hole in the back of the furnace, which was plugged with clay while the iron was being converted. When the melt was finished, a worker with a shaped charge on the end of a long pole would blow the clay plug out, and the molten steel would pour into ingot molds, which were then taken to the rolling mill. One day I was watching the operation, with one of the bricklayers standing next to me. When another worker blew the plug out, the worker beside me dropped the the floor. He got up with a sheepish grin and said, “That’s the way the German 88’s sounded.”

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