Eben-Emael Plus 40 Years

This year we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The coverage of this event got me thinking back to when I was stationed in Germany. It was 1980 and I was in the Air Force stationed in Germany. My friend Chris and I had just gotten back from a temporary assignment. We were given a couple of compensation days off so we decided to go on a spur of the moment road trip. We journeyed to the site of one of the pivotal historical moments 40 years prior at the start of WWII. We went to the one place that could have stopped the German drive into Europe dead in its tracks. It was the Belgian fortress of Eben-Emael. This position with its 120mm and 75mm cannons defended both the junction of the Albert Canal and the Maas River and could deny the Germans the strategic road junctions and bridges at Maastricht. Here, in an audacious attack, Germany unveiled a secret weapon. Instead of trying to attack the fortress in a classic ground assault, for the first time ever, Germany landed 81 parachute engineers via glider onto the roof of Eben-Emael at dawn. On May 10, 1940, a total of 8 gliders landed on the roof. 7 landed together while the 8th landed some time later. (The tow rope on this glider broke. Ironically, it carried the commander of the attack. However, the paratroopers were so well trained that the sergeant took over and led the attack.) These 81 troops captured a fortress manned by 1,500 Belgian troops. They used specially designed explosives called “shaped charges” to put the 120mm and 75mm guns out of commission. This allowed the main body of the German army in that sector to enter Maastricht and cross the Maas River and Albert Canal unmolested.
40 years later, on a cold fall day, Chris and I found Eben-Emael. I scanned in the photos from the original negative film.

EbenEmael 14The brooding entrance of Eben-Emael shows the scars of battle and the ravages of time.

EbenEmael 11The main gate into the fortress with its plaque to the fallen also shows the damage from battle and the ravages of time. From here we followed a path that led us to the top of the fortress.

EbenEmael 02This vast expanse of field on the top of the fortress is where the German gliders landed. There were few antiaircraft guns and they were unmanned.

EbenEmael 21A rise in the center of the field caught our eyes. We had to explore. 

EbenEmael 03Closer inspection shows a path leading through 40 years of overgrown vegetation.

EbenEmael 04Within that rise are the remains of the main prize: the 120mm cannons that could have stopped the Germans from taking the strategic town of Maastricht.

EbenEmael 20The top of the cupola shows the damage inflicted by the specially designed “shaped explosive charges” on May 10, 1940. They were designed to use a jet of molten copper to sear a hole through the armor. 

EbenEmael 17The fortress has several triple 75mm canon casements for close-in artillery support. They too were knocked out of action.

EbenEmael 18A single canon within the casement shows the rust and the ravages of time.  

EbenEmael 01Chris examines one of the false cupolas on the top of the fortress. These were designed to emulate actual gun positions and would show up on aerial photos so the position looked stronger than it really was. It also meant that the attacker had to consider these positions in any attack plan and divert resources for their elimination.

EbenEmael 06A view of the strategic junction of the Maas River and the Albert Canal that the Germans had to capture intact as seen from the top of the fortress.

EbenEmael 07This is one of the actual manned cupolas defending the fortress and the vital water junction showing the rust and ravages of 40 years of decay.

EbenEmael 08view of the vital water junction of the Maas River and Albert canal from the perspective of the defenders of Eben-Emael would have seen it.

EbenEmael 09down on the Albert Canal from the antitank ditch and cliff the Germans would need to scale if they attacked Eben-Emael in the conventional way.  

EbenEmael 23Chris and I left Eben-Emael to continue its brooding over the countryside. It was a lonely and silent sentinel of the past and reminder to the future. Now 75 years have passed since men fought a desperate battle here. Europe has remained at peace. Eben-Emael can slumber in peace.  


P.S.  Since my visit in 1980, and with the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of WWII, Belgian authorities has made Eben-Emael available for tours.  They have cleaned up the old fortress and have a website: http://www.fort-eben-emael.be/en/  .   Some parts are still under construction but pay it a visit anyway.


Copyright © 2015  John J Campo

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