You are Oberleutnant Rudolf Witzig, commander of 85 glider- borne German fallschirmjäger (paratroopers). Your mission is to attack Fort Eben Emael, a formidable Belgian fortress located on the Belgium-Netherlands border near the Dutch city of Maastricht. The fort’s nearly two dozen artillery guns – supported by anti-tank guns, machine guns and a 1,000-man garrison – dominate the surrounding area and are an impediment to a massive German offensive aimed at invading Belgium and France to defeat Belgian, French and British allied armies. Before the Germans can strike the two countries with the same lightning speed used to overrun Poland in their September 1939 blitzkrieg that started World War II in Europe, your fallschirmjäger must first neutralize the fort’s artillery guns.
Traveling in 11 DFS 230 gliders towed by Ju 52 transport planes, the men in your assault force took off at 4:30 a.m. today, May 10, headed for Fort Eben Emael. They are armed with P38 handguns, MG34 machine guns and MP38/40 submachine guns to deal with the fort’s defenders, while they carry explosives and flamethrowers to destroy the enemy’s artillery guns. After months of intensive training, you are confident you can lead your fallschirmjäger assault force in a swift, successful attack.
Unfortunately, however, while your glider was still over Germany, far from Fort Eben Emael, its towrope parted prematurely, forcing the pilot to land it in a field. Through extreme effort and initiative, you secured another transport plane, which then towed your glider to the objective area and released it over the fort.
Now, as your glider soars toward the fort three hours behind the rest of your assault force, you observe that the other gliders have landed on top of the fortress as planned. The scene below is chaotic as your fallschirmjäger press their attack, led by your senior non-commissioned officer, Hauptfeldwebel Helmut Wenzel. Explosive charges detonate, flamethrowers spray liquid fire and bullets fly everywhere.
“Witzig,” your glider pilot calls out, “where do you want me to land? Using one of the open fields next to the fort seems much safer than landing in the midst of all that heavy fighting.”
WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, OBERLEUTNANT WITZIG?
ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION
Constructed of thick, reinforced concrete and occupying an area of high ground measuring 600 meters by 750 meters, Fort Eben Emael is the most heavily fortified defensive point in Western Europe. Machine guns and anti-tank guns protect the fort’s ground approaches, while 75 mm and 120 mm artillery guns mounted on top of the fortress in steel cupolas and casemates serve as its long-range weapons. Although the Germans possibly could isolate and bypass the fort, your fallschirmjäger must destroy or neutralize the artillery guns to ensure they don’t impede the German advance.
Three hours ago, while executing a brilliant but risky plan, your assault force’s gliders landed atop the fortress in a surprise attack that placed your men near the artillery guns. They immediately began destroying them using newly developed “shaped charge” explosives that focus the force of the blasts to achieve unprecedented penetration of steel and concrete. As they attacked the artillery emplacements with explosives, they engaged the Belgian defenders with flamethrowers and small arms.
Since your assault force numbers only 85 men, every fallschirmjäger and weapon is needed to ensure victory. In fact, the eight soldiers in your glider (you, six fallschirmjäger and the pilot, who is trained to fight) account for nearly 10 percent of your entire force. Moreover, the explosives were divided among the gliders, and the ones you have are vital to accomplishing the mission. Finally, although Wenzel is an experienced non-commissioned officer, you are the assault force’s commander. It is imperative that you take control of the battle to provide the critical leadership and split-second command decisions that will ensure the mission’s success.
You must now decide where to set down your glider and enter the ongoing battle.
POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION
With only moments to choose a landing site for your rapidly descending glider, you consider two courses of action.
The first option is to land on top of the fort, as the other gliders successfully did earlier. This is the fastest way to insert your remaining men and explosives into the fight and assume command of the ongoing attack. Yet this landing is risky given the maelstrom of bullets generated by the heavy combat taking place below. Your glider is extremely vulnerable to ground fire, particularly during the “low and slow” final approach to the landing area.
The alternative course of action is to land in an open field near the fort and then move your men and explosives to join the battle atop the fortress. While this plan offers a safer landing site and lowers your risk of encountering the battle’s crossfire, it also slows your effort to enter the fight and requires you to move through the fields of fire of the machine guns and anti-tank guns protecting the approaches to the fort, which your fallschirmjäger have not yet engaged.
In response to your pilot’s landing site question, you order: “Set us down on top of the fort! A field might be safer, but from there we would have to fight through the enemy defenses just to reach our men and the battle. It’s worth the risk of flying through heavy fire to get to the fight as quickly as possible. Land on the fort – now!”
Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of 10 books, including “Hell’s Highway” (randomhouse.com).
HISTORICAL NOTE: Despite the late arrival of Witzig and his remaining men, the May 10, 1940, attack on Fort Eben Emael was a stunning success. The fallschirmjäger assault force suffered six killed and 20 wounded, but the fort’s artillery was neutralized or destroyed and most of the 1,000-man garrison eventually was captured.
The victory at the fort allowed the right wing of the German offensive to advance rapidly, while farther south the offensive’s left wing broke through French army defenses in the Ardennes. The Germans quickly attained their goal of defeating the allied armies; British and some French forces evacuated to Britain through Dunkirk May 27-June 4; and France fell June 22.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.