JUST BEFORE DAWN, more than 80 elite German paratroopers gathered in an airfield hangar to listen to final instructions from their commander. Their mission? A bold attack on the world’s strongest fortress and an enemy that outnumbered them nearly 10 to 1.
‘Airplanes are overhead,’ one Belgian soldier reported. ‘Their engines have stopped! They stand motionless in the air’
It was May 10, 1940, and all across Germany thousands of troops were preparing to invade Belgium and the Netherlands, the first strike of Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg into the west. Yet the campaign’s success hinged in large part on this small unit. At 3 a.m., the hangar’s lights were extinguished, its doors rolled open, and the troops marched onto the tarmac. Loudspeakers filled the air with the stirring tones of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and the men climbed into gliders. Eleven planes stood ready, packed with guns, ammunition, grenades, and five tons of a new, powerful explosive. The glider had never been used in combat; indeed, the Germans had cloaked their new weapon in great secrecy. Now they were about to unleash it with devastating effect.
Hitler and the German High Command began to plan an invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands, and France soon after taking Poland in September 1939. The main thrust was to go through the Ardennes region that stretches into Luxembourg, southern Belgium, and northern France. But the attack was to start farther north, in northeast Belgium.
Tactically, one of Hitler’s biggest obstacles was Fort Eben Emael. Looming over Belgium’s border with the Netherlands, Eben Emael sat astride the planned invasion route. Its guns protected the city of Maastricht to the north, the roads leading west from Maastricht, and, most important, three bridges over the Albert Canal. Hitler’s tanks and armies would have to cross those bridges to strike the heart of Belgium.
Located just miles from Germany and designed specifically to defend against that menacing neighbor, Eben Emael seemed impregnable. It was the world’s biggest and strongest fortress, covering more than 175 acres and housing some 1,200 men. Built into a ridge, it had nearly five miles of underground tunnels, reinforced-concrete walls, and an earthen roof almost impervious to artillery fire or aerial bombing. The east wall of the triangular fort ran atop the Albert Canal and soared 200 feet above the water level, making a tank assault impossible. A 450-yard antitank ditch offered similar protection along the west wall. Barbed wire, hedgehogs, and minefields defended the remaining approaches. The fort also bristled with steel-reinforced casements and armor-reinforced cupolas; its armament included 120mm and 75mm artillery pieces, 60mm antitank guns, antiaircraft guns, and mounted machine guns, all coordinated to provide mutual cover.
According to glider historian Robert Mrazek, the Germans had concluded that a conventional assault on Eben Emael would cost thousands of lives and take months—too long for a blitzkrieg. Hitler is said to have come up with the idea of landing a commando force of paratroopers on the fort’s earthen roof to take out the enemy guns and trap the Belgian soldiers inside, ensuring a safe crossing of the Albert Canal for the Wehrmacht tanks and troops. General Kurt Student, commander of Germany’s airborne forces, decided to use gliders, which could approach the fort silently. At Hitler’s urging, Student devised a four-pronged surprise attack that would simultaneously target the three vital bridges and Eben Emael.
TRAINING BEGAN IN NOVEMBER 1939 in a large, remote area at Hildesheim, near Hanover in north Germany. Student chose Captain Walter Koch, an experienced paratrooper and commander of 1st Company, Parachute Regiment 1, to lead the 480-man mission. Koch created four assault groups—one to take each of the three bridges, and a fourth to capture Eben Emael. This last detachment, given the code name Granite, was led by 23-year-old First Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig—an unusual assignment for such a junior officer.
Preparations began under tight security. The men did not wear air force insignia. No leave was granted, and calls and mail were screened. “Once we ran into some girls we knew and the whole unit had to be transferred,” recalled Sergeant Major Helmut Wenzel, Granite’s senior enlisted officer. Any man who leaked word would be executed.
Witzig had 85 men in his command—11 glider pilots and 74 veteran combat engineers qualified as paratroopers. Yet everyone had to be trained on the DFS 230 glider, which had been specifically built for the Luftwaffe. With a steel-tube fuselage nearly 40 feet long and a 72-foot wingspan, the DFS 230 had a maximum gliding speed of 180 miles an hour. The roof of Eben Emael afforded only a short landing space, so the gliders’ wheels were dropped after takeoff and the nose skid was wrapped with barbed wire and metal strips. In training, the pilots found they could land in just over 20 yards.
Each glider would carry a squad of seven or eight men armed with weapons and equipment that included 9mm MP 38 submachine guns, 7.9mm MG 34 light machine guns (most with bipods and 75-round saddle drum magazines), 7.9mm Kar 98k rifles with detachable grenade launchers, and M35 flamethrowers. The men would also have a new weapon: the hollow charge, a dome-shaped explosive with a concave bottom that focused the blast in a single direction. The biggest of these charges weighed 110 pounds and had to be carried by two men; there was also a 27.5-pound version.
Rehearsals for the raid were meticulous. The men studied aerial photos of the fort as well as a large sand-table model. A German contractor who helped build the fort provided blueprints that were used to construct a scale mockup, complete with large guns and fields of fire. Witzig’s men ran through their assignments there, and at the lieutenant’s urging, they were quietly taken to the Sudetenland to practice on former Czech fortifications.
BY MARCH 1940, Koch’s detachments were ready. The gliders had been secretly moved west in furniture vans to heavily guarded hangars at the departure airfields, near Cologne. Tension was high; the men knew that the time for attack was near and much depended on them. They would land at their targets only minutes before the army stormed across the Dutch-Belgian frontier.
Finally, on the evening of May 9, the men received the fateful command: Tomorrow at dawn. They had a final hot meal of sausages, potatoes, and coffee. Ju-52/3m aircraft that would tow the gliders to their target began to arrive and taxi up to the hangars. Ground crews pushed the gliders out to the runway, where they were hooked up to the Junkers.
As they waited, the men drank coffee, smoking and talking nervously. Sergeant Wenzel distributed energy pills and made sure each man completed his will.
Finally, Witzig ordered them to fall in and head to their gliders. The Junkers sputtered and roared to life, taxied out, struggled down the runway, and took off into the dark sky.
EBEN EMAEL WASN’T TOTALLY UNPREPARED for the attack. Engine noise from the Ju-52s had roused Dutch antiaircraft guns around Maastricht, and their blasts were heard at the fort. But the Belgians were startled by these strange, silent apparitions emerging from the darkness. “Airplanes are overhead,” one reported. “Their engines have stopped! They stand motionless in the air.
An antiaircraft gunner on the roof began firing. Tracers and bullets tore through the fabric covering of the gliders. The first plane to land leveled off in a flat glide and put down at 4:25 a.m. on top of an antiaircraft machine gun pit. The startled Belgians threw up their hands in surrender, but the Germans came under fire from another gun and scrambled to silence it with grenades and submachine gun fire.
Within minutes, eight other gliders swooped in and landed; two were missing, including Lieutenant Witzig’s plane. Sergeant Wenzel took command, but the squads needed little direction. Each had been assigned casements or cupolas to neutralize. The first target for the squad led by Sergeant Hans Niedermeier was the fort’s observation cupola, from which spotters would direct artillery fire. Niedermeier ran to it carrying the top section of a 110-pound hollow charge; another man followed carrying the bottom part.
They centered the charge on the steel dome, set the fuse, ran down the slope, and threw themselves on the ground. The charge punched through, killing the men inside and wrecking the equipment.
Niedermeier’s squad next attacked a 75mm gun in a casemate, this time placing a 27.5-pound hollow charge under the gun’s barrel. The explosion blew the Belgian gunners from their seats and against the wall, killing two. The Germans entered through the breach, ran through the smoke to the casement’s stairwell leading inside the fort, then sent long bursts of submachine gun fire down into the interior.
Clearly, the hollow charge was a devastating weapon. During the first 10 minutes of the assault, the men successfully attacked nine positions. The hollow charges destroyed nine 75mm cannons. Despite heavy fire from the Belgians, the men carried out their mission bravely and with great skill. When one of the hollow charges failed to penetrate an armored dome housing twin 120mm cannons, they dropped small charges down the barrels, destroying the guns. When machine guns opened up from an embrasure in the fort’s southern corner, they cut through the barbed wire and silenced the gunfire with a flamethrower.
Within 15 minutes, Sergeant Wenzel later recalled, the Germans had disabled all of the guns that threatened the canals and the roads leading from Maastricht. At 5:40, he radioed Koch: “Object reached; everything in order.
THE GARRISON ITSELF, meanwhile, was in chaos. When the attack began, only about 750 soldiers were in the fort; most of the others were on leave or quartered in nearby villages. The besieged soldiers tumbled into the fort from the roof and told of planes with no engines appearing silently out of the night sky. “What is going on above us?” wrote a Belgian chaplain in his diary. Adding to the confusion, the Germans had dropped explosive charges and smoke bombs down ventilation shafts into the fort’s interior.
The Belgian fortress commander, Major Jean F. L. Jottrand, ordered artillery in the area to fire onto the top of the fortress. Wenzel in turn radioed for air support, and in 20 minutes Ju-87B Stukas were screaming down on enemy artillery.
At about 6:30, two hours after the assault began, another glider swept in and landed on the fort. Out leaped Lieutenant Witzig. According to the Granite leader’s postwar account, the tow rope on his plane had broken shortly after takeoff. After landing in an open field, Witzig seized a car, drove to a village, and contacted base. A Ju-52 soon arrived, hooked up Witzig’s glider, and towed it into the air to complete the mission.
Together, Witzig and Wenzel determined that the squad had achieved most of the mission’s objectives. Now, they had to keep the Belgian defenders bottled up until German ground forces arrived. The paratroopers fought alone through the morning and into the afternoon and night, sheltering in the destroyed casements and cupolas as the Belgian artillery continued to lob shells on the roof. To block the Belgians’ exits, they exploded the 110-pound hollow charges at stairways leading into the fort. Sparks flew as bullets and grenade fragments ricocheted off the fort’s interior walls, and men fought hand to hand in the dark, smoky tunnels.
The Belgians launched counterattacks, only to be beaten back. Between midnight and 2 a.m. the next day, May 11, advance elements of the German army reached the fort. But it wasn’t until 8:30 a.m.—28 hours after the assault began—that the 51st Engineer Battalion arrived and relieved Witzig’s unit. The fight for Eben Emael was all but over. Around noon the Belgian commander Jottrand opened surrender talks with the Germans. Not willing to wait for the result, his troops began filing out of the fort under a white flag to lay down their weapons.
The success of the mission was breathtaking. The other glider assault detachments had captured two of the three vital bridges over the Albert Canal, giving the German army’s motorized units access into Belgium. The Belgians had blown up the third bridge, at Kanne, but German engineers repaired it. At the fort, the Granite detachment had destroyed most of the casements and cupolas; Belgian casualties were 25 dead and 63 wounded. Witzig, meanwhile, counted 6 Germans dead and 15 wounded. Perhaps the only glitches in the operation came early, with Witzig’s late arrival and the absence of a second glider. But like Witzig, the troopers on the second glider had improvised. Released from its tow early, their plane had landed in Germany, well short of the fort. The men commandeered a truck and drove to one of the three targeted bridges, where they captured 121 Belgians.
Several days after the assault, Hitler met Koch’s officers and presented each with the Ritterkreuz, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, then Germany’s highest award for valor. Each enlisted man received the Iron Cross 2nd Class; some men and NCOs, including Sergeant Wenzel, were awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class. While Hitler’s passion for paratroopers would cool a year later with the costly airborne attack on Crete [see “Dead on Arrival,” Winter 2010], he was buoyed by this success.
The Allies, meanwhile, were shocked by the fall of the mighty Eben Emael. They were also mystified. Publicly, the Germans said nothing of the gliders or the hollow charges, announcing only that they had deployed a “new method of attack.” Rumors swirled suggesting Hitler had developed a paralyzing nerve gas.
Life magazine gave readers a fanciful account by a Dutch officer that claimed German endive farmers married to Belgian women had planted explosives, having built tunnels beneath the fort under the guise of fertilizing their crops. “At the push of a plunger,” the soldier wrote, “the ‘fertilizer’ was detonated and whole sections of the fort were flung skyward.”
Few would know the truth until years after the war.
C. G. Sweeting is the author of several books, including Hitler’s Personal Pilot: The Life and Times of Hans Bauer.
SIDEBAR 1940: Blueprint for the Osama bin Laden Mission?
ADMIRAL WILLIAM MCRAVEN is America’s top special op- erations officer, the mastermind of last year’s assault on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And he’s drawn more than a few lessons from the Germans’ work at Fort Eben Emael.
Nearly 20 years ago, McRaven, then a young Navy Seal officer, wrote Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, which digs deeply into the details of eight successful commando raids, including such gems as the 1942 British raid on docks in German-occupied Saint-Nazaire, France; the 1945 U.S. Ranger rescue of POWs from the Japanese camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines; and the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe.
McRaven singles out the German attack on Eben Emael as “one of the most decisive victories in the history of spe- cial operations.” The attack plan, he adds, “was brilliant both in its strategic vision and in its tactical simplicity.” He was enamored enough of the operation that he even tracked down and interviewed Rudolf Witzig and Helmut Wenzel, two key leaders of the raid.
McRaven, who now heads the U.S. Special Operations Command, in Florida, has not publicly suggested that his bin Laden plan was influenced directly by any of these case studies.
But as one commentator put it shortly after the raid, the book’s “Cliff ’s Notes were on display in Abbottabad.”