By May 9, 1940 German forces had shocked the world with the lightning successes it unleashed against Poland, Denmark, and Norway. During that time another war, the strange ‘Phony war’ or ‘Sitzkrieg,’ had played out along the French border with Germany. Here, hardly a shot had been fired, and neither side appeared willing to up the ante by attempting an offensive.
Along another border, Belgium expected the Germans to honor their claim of neutrality and not attempt an invasion. Belgium held faith the French and the British would stave off another attempt to conquer the continent.
Tactics of the lie. Exactly what Hitler and his strategists intended.
There was no way Germany could achieve its objectives in Europe by allowing France the ability to make war. France still possessed the Continent’s largest army, causing the questions and ‘what ifs’ that so worried German planners.
Therefore, France had to fall. This became priority number one, and also, if Germany pulled it off, a proper and just retribution for the humiliation of 1918 and subsequent Versailles Treaty.
The plan involved an offensive undertaken through the Netherlands and Belgium, then down through the Ardennes Forest region into France. If successful, this would enable German forces to bypass the formidable Maginot line and trap the bulk of French and British forces looking in the opposite direction. Afterwards, units could begin the thrust toward Paris and the coast, conquering the country in just a few weeks.
It was audacious and, as such master plans are, it teemed with risk. Code named Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), it was discovered its primary problem area lay in the Leige Region of Belgium, where a massive fort named Eben Emael overlooked all activity through which German forces had to travel.
To deal with this, the capture of 3 nearby bridges (Vroenhoven, Veldwezelt, and Cannes) in the opening phase was vital if the offensive was to maintain any hope of success.
Unfortunately for the Germans, these bridges lay within easy artillery range of the fort, which was the largest and most powerful of its kind in the world, and bristling with armament to the point that it was deemed impregnable. There it sat like a squat beast on a hill, dominating a nearby canal, and all knew there remained no way to capture the bridges intact without it being taken. And quick, before it decimated the miles of columns trying to cross.
Looking at aerial photos of Eben Emael revealed just how difficult tackling it would be. The irregular-shaped fort was monstrous: 600 meters (2,000 ft) in the East-West dimension, and 750 meters (2,460 ft) North-South. Reinforced concrete with 60mm Anti-Tank guns, and 75mm to 120mm artillery guns in turret (some with multiple barrels) and casemate (stationary) positions. Anti-aircraft guns peered skyward and machine guns poked from apertures ready to bloody anyone attempting to assault by water or ground. Providing this capability were 1,200 men living deep beneath its shell one week at a time, before exchanging with another group of equal strength.
Powerful as it was, Eben Emael was found to possess a glaring weakness: it was vulnerable from the air. Not from bombs or shelling, but from men. Paratroopers, to be exact. But the Belgian Army dismissed this threat as the planes would be detected by listening devices nearby long before jump time, enabling a warm reception to be ready.
The Germans understood this, so Hitler ordered a plan drawn up whereby hundreds of men could be moved silently through the air to come down almost simultaneously on Eben Emael and the three bridges using the tool proposed by his pilot, female Hanna Reitsch. A wood and canvas invention that was perfect for the job.
More specifically, the DFS 230, a small craft with a single pilot and up to 9 passengers. These were to be towed to the German border and released just before their tow planes crossed.
As routes were drawn up, the assignment for hitting the fort and bridges was given to Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment) Koch, named after its commander, Captain Walter Koch. This was a an airborne specialty unit formed in 1939, under the direction of General Kurt Student, father of the German Airborne divisions.
Hundreds of these men were moved in secret about Germany, and began training in Czechoslovakia against concrete fortifications and replica bridges some six months prior to the launch date of May 10.
Throughout, they rehearsed and debated any suspected problems to be encountered, especially at Eben Emael, including the decision to use for the first time an innovation that flourishes today in weapons like the LAW and RPG, the shaped charge. These were to be employed against the steel turrets and doorways to gain entrance to the fort’s underground galleries. To back that up, flamethrowers would shoot streams of fire through apertures as the detachment swarmed about the roof.
With the launch date upon them, the detachment moved to its staging area. Comprising the unit under specific designations were Group Steel, under command of 1st Lieutenant Gustav Altmann, 92 men in 9 gliders to capture Veldwezelt. Group Concrete, under Lieutenant Gerhard Schacht, 96 men in 11 gliders for Vroenhoven, Group Iron, under Lieutenant Martin Schachter, 90 men in 10 gliders for Cannes.
Most important, Group Granite under 1st Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig, 85 men in 11 gliders, was designated to claim the prize, Eben Emael.
At 0430 hours May 10, 493 men in 42 gliders lifted off into the darkness over Germany. Flying each glider were the most experienced pilots who could be found, pilots who could land within 60 feet of an objective. These men scanned the sky as they saw the first edges of light peep over the horizon.
Case Yellow was to begin at 0525 hours. The gliders were expected to land at their objectives around 0520, and at 7,000 feet, some 16 miles from their targets, they began the journey as the tow ropes released while they were still over Germany. Now, the silent craft began slow descents and course corrections in the predawn light. Fate was in the steady hands of the pilots.
As they crossed the border, a smattering of flak began bursting amid them causing little damage as they neared ground.
This flak followed Schacht’s men as they landed first, 10 of the 11 gliders (one forced to land short due to AA fire) making it down at 0515.
Barbed wire, placed on the undersides of the craft to slow them on landing, dug into the ground as the birds lurched to a stop beside Vroenhoven bridge. Men poured out, blasting the guards with submachine gun fire, and stormed a fortification where demolition detonator wires ran. They ripped these out ensuring the bridge couldn’t be blown and continued the fight outside, pushing the Belgians off the bridge and resisting several counterattacks, while more machine guns and ammunition were dropped to them at 0615.
When Schacht’s men were relieved at 2140 hours, the cost tallied had been 7 killed and 24 wounded.
All 9 gliders of Altmann’s unit landed beside Veldwezelt at 0520, again under anti-aircraft fire. The men shot the guards and assaulted a pillbox by tossing grenades through its aperture. Others ran along the bridge and climbed onto the girders, pulling off charges of dynamite before they could detonate.
Further away, two artillery pieces sprung into action and began shelling the unit. Their fire and the rest of the defenders prevented movement to knock them out. So Altmann ordered a group of Stukas to bomb the positions. Once complete, his men still had to deal with snipers and automatic fire harassing them until they were relieved at 2130. For them the cost had been 8 dead and 30 wounded.
At Cannes, misfortune struck Schachter’s force as 9 of 10 gliders (one lost because of navigation error) prepared to land at 0535 hours. Pilots watched in horror as the bridge went up in a thunderclap of smoke and water. They managed to land where intended and the paratroopers killed the defenders, but they achieved nothing else.
Schachter’s force had arrived late to the target, and a German column on the road tipped the Belgians off to the danger. Their experience proved the worst of the three groups. 22 dead and 26 wounded, having to fight off counterattacks, including one that had to be dealt with by Stukas.
Group Granite’s 9 gliders came down on Eben Emael’s roof with incredible precision, using parachutes to slow them to a stop before they tipped over the side. The men ran to their assigned targets, placing the shaped charges and blowing holes in several turrets. Others hit the casemates and secondary targets. They followed up by shooting flamethrowers through every machine gun slit they could find,
The startled Belgian garrison managed only a meaningful resistance with one twin 75mm cupola before it was hit by Stukas. Now, the Belgians only hope was that the reinforced doors could keep the assault from gaining entrance.
That the Germans worked this task so well was made more astounding by the fact that their commander, Witzig, was not among them. His glider had released too early and he had to land in Germany, leaving his second in command to carry out the assault. Witzig arrived later as small arms fire died down from inside enemy positions, and they took up defensive positions around the fort.
Witzig assessed the situation and realized what they achieved, though he wasn’t out of the woods yet. They would have to hold the top of the fort into early May 11th, repulsing an infantry counterattack from the outside, while the garrison, having suffered 60 killed and 40 wounded, emerged with their hands up at 1230 hours surrendering, not to the detachment, but to an engineering battalion that had arrived late and relieved Granite at 0700.
Granite’s casualties were 6 killed and 19 wounded.
Upon hearing the news of Eben Emael’s fall, Hitler was so impressed by Granite’s accomplishment that he flew in to personally decorate each surviving member. A number of them received promotions and the Knight’s Cross, then Germany’s highest decoration, for their efforts.
Below and around them, the German Army swarmed while the Luftwaffe commanded the sky. Storm Detachment Koch’s success allowed many Belgian units to be bypassed and a rapid thrust shot into the heart of the country. The Netherlands fell just as quickly, while to the south, in the coming weeks, they would witness the collapse of the arch-nemesis France, and the eventual fall of Europe.
All of this harkened back to a single day when less than 500 highly-trained specialists set in motion the spread of history’s greatest conflict.
On Eben Emael, Kurt Student said it best:
“It was a deed of exemplary daring and decisive significance. I have studied the history of the last war and the battles on all fronts, but I have not been able to find anything among the host of brilliant actions – undertaken by friend or foe – that could be said to compare with the success achieved by Koch’s Assault Group.”
(Featured Image Courtesy: WW2Gravestone.com)