According to one source it was Adolf Hitler himself who first floated the idea for an aerial assault on the lynchpin of Belgium’s frontline defenses. “I have read something of your work with gliders,” he told General Kurt Student, commander of Germany’s first paratroop division. “I think some of your attack gliders could land on top of Fort Eben-Emael and your men could storm these works. Is that possible?”
Yes, it was. Commanding a strategic spot on the Albert Canal in eastern Belgium, the fort overlooked three bridges vital to the planned German invasion of France through the Low Countries. Eben-Emael bristled with artillery, was manned around the clock by rotating shifts of troops and was thought to be impregnable. While gliders had not yet been used in warfare, they seemed a good choice for a surprise assault on Eben-Emael—the motorless aircraft were silent and could actually land right atop the fortress.
Just after dawn on May 10, 1940, nine German gliders did just that. With in 20 minutes the 78 men they carried had destroyed the fort’s major gun emplacements and bottled up the defenders inside. The glider troops held on until reinforcements arrived, while other German units secured two of the bridges before the Belgians could destroy them. So much for the Maginot Line; the Germans had simply run around it. World War II was about to be taken to France.
The attack was a masterpiece of planning, training and execution. The fort was built in the early 1930s partly by German subcontractors, so the attackers knew the fort’s internal design and layout. Training was intense and began in November 1939, six months in advance. The Germans constructed a model fort so soldiers would know the layout intimately when they landed. Since no force anywhere had ever used gliders in combat, secrecy shrouded their construction and dispersal as well; they were disassembled and shipped to their destinations in furniture vans. Pilots were recruited from nonmilitary types who pursued gliding as a sport; they were by far the most qualified.
Another key element in the Germans’ success was the use of shaped charges to penetrate the fort’s thick concrete gun emplacements. The Belgians had no system for defending the fort internally; all personnel on-site were artillerymen, and all the guns pointed outward. Of the 78 troops who landed on the fort, only six were killed and 12 wounded. It was an amazing feat, one of the great raids of the war.
It was the Allies, however, not the Germans, who learned the most from the operation. The only other major glider attack launched by the Germans was on Crete, and glider losses were very high. But later Allied attacks by glider, based on the lessons of Eben-Emael— intensive training and mission rehearsal, surprise and speed—were largely successful. By late 1944 the United States had more than 10,000 assault gliders; they were used on D-Day in Normandy, in Operation Dragoon during the invasion of southern France and to cross the Rhine in Operation Varsity.
Though helicopters eventually replaced gliders, the German victory at Eben-Emael was a brilliant demonstration of how militarily effective the motorless aircraft could be.
No fortress is impregnable—not even the Death Star.
The element of surprise can enable even a tiny force to beat a large one.
Envelopment from above can be more effective than the traditional flanking movement.
How do you get to Fort Eben-Emael? Practice, practice, practice.
Don’t let a potential future enemy build your defenses.
Plan to defend against any eventuality, including those difficult to imagine.
Even a corporal turned madman can have a brilliant idea.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.