A small band of paratroopers mounts a daring assault on a vast underground fortress. Swooping down silently in gliders, they disable its big guns with secret weapons and compel the 1,300-man garrison to surrender in short shrift.
Sounds like the implausible plot of a Hollywood action movie?
In fact, it’s exactly what happened on May 10, 1940, to Fort Eben Emael, one of the world’s largest and most powerful fortifications which Allied war planners counted on to halt the German attack on Western Europe.
Dug into a limestone cliff, with only the domed gun turrets visible above ground, the fortress was regarded as impregnable to surface attack or aerial bombardment.
Its fall was the key to the Nazi victory in the West. German units advanced to the Atlantic, trapping more than 500,000 British and French soldiers, triggering the panicky evacuation from Dunkirk and making Hitler master of Europe for the next four years.
But this site of one of the most spectacular actions in military history has somehow failed to feature in Belgian tourist brochures. Very few of the millions who visit Belgium ever venture to the nondescript village near the Dutch-German border after which the fort is named.
Belgium’s strategic location between France, Germany and Britain has meant that throughout history their armies met in battle on its plains. But even military buffs, who flock to Waterloo — the best known site from the Napoleonic Wars — or WWI and WWII battlefields such as Ypres, Passchendaele or Bastogne, rarely bother to make the two-hour drive from Brussels to Eben Emael.
“We do get regular visits by special forces from Belgium, Holland, Britain and Germany and other NATO countries who still study this action in detail,” said Joost Vaessens, a tour guide at the fort. “And for good reason. This attack was groundbreaking in several ways.”
German historical documents record that Hitler himself conceived the method of assault — the use of combat gliders, each bearing nine hand-picked and highly trained soldiers. Just before dawn on that May morning, 74 paratroopers landed on the broad, grass covered roof of the fort and quickly spread out to destroy its observation posts and gun turrets.
This they achieved in 15 minutes, by using a new explosive device never before tested in warfare — shaped charges designed to shoot a jet of superheated gases which would penetrate the 22 inches of steel that protected the cupolas. The charges knocked out the observation posts and guns and killed the soldiers stationed around them.
The fortress was blinded and eventually surrounded by German ground units, forcing its surrender — at the cost of only six paratroopers killed.
Visitors to the Eben Emael today can still see evidence of the power of the blasts, as they view the twisted steel remnants of an ammunition hoist descending from one of the cupolas down to the base, some 60 yards below.
On top of the massive structure — the size of 70 football fields — where the gliders landed in 1940, farm fields and forests obscure the guns’ old emplacements.
The fort, which still belongs to the Belgian Army, was used during the 1950s and ’60s as a munitions depot. But with the end of the Cold War, the facility was turned over to a volunteer civilian association.
“I found out about it accidentally on the Internet while I was doing a search of World War II fortifications,” said Rob Kerste, a visitor from the Dutch town of Delft.
Members of the association take turns as guides on weekends, ushering small groups of visitors through the vast maze of underground tunnels, galleries, barracks, gun rooms and ammunition storage depots — most of them located 50 or more yards beneath the surface of a limestone hill. This overlooks the Albert Canal and the Dutch city of Maastricht just three miles to the east.
“This was such an important part of the history of World War II, and yet nobody seems to know anything about it,” said Jochen Hermanns, a visiting telecommunications engineer from the nearby German city of Aachen.
Eben Emael was completed in the late 1930s as the centerpiece of Belgium’s defenses and at a cost of $3 billion in today’s money. British and French generals had counted on its 1,300-man garrison to block the Nazi Blitzkrieg for weeks.
“We were prepared to fight, but nobody ever expected gliders or these new shaped charges because we had never even heard of them,” said Henri Lecluse, an 87-year-old veteran of the battle. “The Germans completely surprised us, and in the end all we could do was to walk out with our hands in the air.”