Eben Emael
Home Up

 

 

The taking of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael was a brilliant use of gliders in a 'coup de main' assault.  The British were to do something similar with their taking of Pegasus Bridge on D-Day 1944.

Diagram from the book showing the glider landings.
The Germans had appreciated the usefulness of airborne forces and then within these to have yet a further level of elite troops for 'Storm Troop' assault operations.  Also, during the 1930's when they were not allowed to build up an air force they got around the rules by an extensive use of gliders both as a vehicle for pilot training, but also as a means of delivering troops silently to an objective.  Assault Battalion Koch (Major Koch would also land close to Hill 107 during the invasion of Crete) was one such crack group within 7th Flieger Division commanded by General Kurt Student.

The photo above shows a DFS 230 glider of the type used at Eben Emael.  The glider is in the Luftwaffe museum at Gatow; the photo is from http://homepage.mac.com/a.biermann/Photoshows/PhotoAlbum31.html

In the plan for the German attack in the west Hitler gave his backing for General von Manstein's plan which called for am armoured thrust through the Ardennes as this would surprise the Allies - they would have been led to believe that the main German attack would be through Holland, basically the 1914 Schliefen Plan.  Manstein's plan relied on the right flank of the panzer attack being covered by the infantry of the 6th Army.  This army would need to cross the Albert Canal and in their way, defending the bridges over the canal was the Belgian fortress complex at Eben Emael.  Koch's 500 man Assault Battalion would be assigned to take Eben Emael and following that, airborne forces would be dropped on targets around Rotterdam.  The whole timing of the German attack in the west was dependent on this relatively little known airborne assault.  The German army would not begin its general assault until 5 minutes after the assault gliders landed, and the airborne operations in Holland would be timed for 30 minutes after those landings.
The fortress was, as you would expect, sited in a strong defensive position.  It stood on a 150 foot high ridge with the River Maas and the Albert Canal protecting it from the East and North East, while the South and South West perimeter were the sites of field fortifications and anti-tank ditches.  The guns on the fortress were like those of the old fort Douaumont at Verdun, mounted in retractable cupolas or thick steel 'helmets'.

A retractable turret at Douaumont 

(photo J Dillon)

A machine gun post at Douaumont

(photo J Dillon)

The attack was to come from 11 gliders, each with 7 - 8 men inside, and they would be landed on the roof of the fort complex which was some 800 yards long by 650 yards wide, with gun emplacements as physical obstructions.  The whole operation depended on the element of surprise, their would be no declaration of war on Belgium before the attack.  The Germans would rely on stealth and their specialized training to '....put out of action the armoured cupolas... destroy the enemy's resistance and defend the gains you have made until relieved.' (Koch's orders to Witzig whose force would land in the gliders.)   While Lieutenant Witzig's group were taking the fortress there would be three other elements of Koch's battalion to seize bridges at Veldwezelt, Vroenhoven and Canne.

The diagram above is from the Osprey book "Fort Eben Emael" and shows the landing positions of the gliders on top of the fort.

The general German offensive in the west, of which the airborne assault was the spearhead, was codenamed 'Gelb' and would begin at 5.25 am on 10 May.  Koch's battalion took off from airfields around Cologne at 4.30 am, there were 42 gliders carrying 493 officers and men but as with most airborne operations (Crete, Arnhem) not all goes to plan.  The Eben Emael Commander's glider was one whose tow line parted and he had to land back in Germany and try again.  His second in command, Lt. Delica, would have to command the fortress assault and the action on the southern edge of the attack area, Sgt. Wenzel would now take control at the northern end.
Released at 7,000 ft. with some 20 miles to run the assault gliders began their silent approach to the bridges and the fortress at Eben Emael.  The gliders for the fortress were all assigned individual gun positions and cupolas to attack with hollow-charge grenades and flame throwers, and this was accomplished within 10 minutes of the gliders touching down.  in the original planning the Germans believed that the Belgians might recover sufficiently within 60 minutes to start counter-attacking, so rapid support of the glider-borne troops was necessary to capitalize on early success.  This would require the other elements of Koch's battalion to take their objectives, the three bridges.  While two were seized, the nearest to the fortress, the bridge at Cannes, was blown by the defenders.  Witzig, after his glider lost its tow, landed back in Germany and took off again.  He landed at Eben Emael at 8.30 am just as his group's energy and morale were flagging because of the failure to take the Canne bridge, he rallied them sufficiently for them to hold their position until they were relieved at 07.00 on the 11th May.
The success of the airborne troops used against Rotterdam were mixed and will not be gone into here, suffice it to say that their success was dependent upon the accuracy with which they were dropped and the time it took their support to arrive.  Some had no support until the 14th May.  The gliders at Eben Emael carried out a successful 'coup de main', as the Allies would do later with 3 gliders against Pegasus Bridge on D-Day.  This success, and the effect of the drop on Rotterdam gave General Student and his ideas on airborne assault the credibility needed to propose the assault on Crete in May 1941, and have the plan backed by Hitler.