|Part of Fortified Position of Liège|
"Maastricht 2" one of Fort Eben-Emael's casemates.
|Built by||Belgian Army|
|Materials||Reinforced concrete, deep excavation, rock excavation|
|Battles/wars||Battle of Belgium|
Fort Eben-Emael (French: Fort d'Ében-Émael) is an inactive Belgian fortress located between Liège and Maastricht, on the Belgian-Dutch border, near the Albert Canal. It was designed to defend Belgium from a German attack across the narrow belt of Dutch territory in the region. Constructed in 1931-1935, it was reputed to be impregnable and at the time, the largest in the world. The fort was neutralized by glider-borne German troops (85 men) on 10 May 1940 during the Second World War. The action cleared the way for German ground forces to enter Belgium, unhindered by fire from Eben-Emael. Still the property of the Belgian Army, the fort has been preserved and may be visited.
The fort is located along the Albert Canal where it runs through a deep cutting at the junction of the Belgian, Dutch and German borders, about 20 kilometres (12 mi) northeast of Liège and about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) south of Maastricht. A huge excavation project was carried out in the 1920s to create the Caster cutting through Mount Saint Peter to keep the canal in Belgian territory. This created a natural defensive barrier that was augmented by the fort, at a location that had been recommended by Brialmont in the 19th century. Eben-Emael was the largest of four forts built in the 1930s as the Fortified Position of Liège I (Position Fortifiée de Liège I (PFL I)). From north to south, the new forts were Eben-Emael, Fort d'Aubin-Neufchâteau, Fort de Battice and Fort de Tancrémont. Tancrémont and Aubin-Neufchâteau are smaller than Eben-Emael and Battice. Several of the 19th century forts designed by General Henri Alexis Brialmont that encircled Liège were reconstructed and designated PFL II.
A great deal of the fort's excavation work was carried out on the canal side, sheltered from view and a convenient location to load excavated spoil into barges to be taken away economically. The fort's elevation above the canal also allowed for efficient interior drainage, making Eben-Emael drier than many of its sister fortifications.
Fort Eben-Emael was a greatly enlarged development of the original Belgian defence works designed by General Henri Alexis Brialmont before World War I. Even in its larger form, the fort comprised a relatively compact ensemble of gun turrets and observation posts, surrounded by a defended ditch. This was in contrast with French thinking for the contemporary Maginot Line fortifications, which were based on the dispersed fort palmé concept, with no clearly defined perimeter, a lesson learned from the experiences of French and Belgian forts in World War I. The new Belgian forts, while more conservative in design than the French ouvrages, included several new features as a result of World War I experience. The gun turrets were less closely grouped. Reinforced concrete was used in place of plain mass concrete, and its placement was done with greater care to avoid weak joints between pours. Ventilation was greatly improved, magazines were deeply buried and protected, and sanitary facilities and general living arrangements for the troops were given careful attention. Eben-Emael and Battice featured 120mm and 75mm guns, giving the fort the ability to bombard targets across a wide area of the eastern Liège region.
Fort Eben-Emael occupies a large hill just to the east of Eben-Emael village (now part of Bassenge) and bordering the Albert Canal. The irregularly-shaped fort is about 600 metres (2,000 ft) in the east-west dimension, and about 750 metres (2,460 ft) in the north-south dimension. It was more heavily armed than any other in the PFL I. In contrast to the other forts whose main weapons were in turrets, Eben-Emael's main weapons were divided between turrets and casemates. The 60mm, 75mm and 120mm guns were made by the Fonderie Royale des Canons de Belgique (F.R.C.) in the city of Liege.
Underground galleries extend over 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) beneath the hill, connecting the combat blocks and serving the underground barracks, power plant, ammunition magazines and other spaces. Fresh air was obtained from intake vents over the canal.
In 1940, Fort Eben-Emael was commanded by Major Jottrand. There were around 1,200 Belgian troops stationed at the fort, divided into three groups. The first group was permanently stationed at the fort and consisted of 200 technical personnel (e.g. doctors, cooks, weapon maintenance technicians, administration staff). The two other groups consisted of 500 artillerists each. In peace time, one group would be stationed at the fort for one week, and the other group would be in reserve at the village of Wonck, about 5 km (3 mi) away. These two groups would change places every week.
Except for some of the officers and NCOs, most of the men were conscripts. The majority of these were reservists and were called up after the Invasion of Poland in 1939. Infantry training was poor, since the men were considered to be purely artillerists.
On 10 May 1940, 78 paratroopers of the German 7th Flieger (later 1st Fallschirmjäger Division) landed on the fortress with DFS 230 gliders, armed with special high explosives to attack the fortress and its guns. Most of the fort's defenses were lightly manned and taken by complete surprise. Much of the fort's defensive armament was destroyed in a few minutes. The attackers were unable to penetrate inside the underground galleries, but the garrison was unable to dislodge them from the surface of the fort. The fortress surrendered one day later, when the paratroopers were reinforced by the German 151st Infantry Regiment. While 1,200 soldiers were authorized to be at the fort on any given day, only 650 were there, with an additional 233 troops six km away at the time of the German assault.
The Germans had planned the capture of the fort well in advance. In preparation they had practised assaulting a full-scale mock up of the fort's exterior in occupied Czechoslovakia using the recently built and captured border fortifications that were modeled to a large degree on western designs.Adolf Hitler himself conceived a plan to take over the fort by getting men onto it by using gliders to overcome the problem of concentrating an airdrop on a small target, and utilizing the new top secret shaped charge (also called "hollow charge") bombs to penetrate the cupolas.[better source needed]
Good espionage and superior planning, combined with unpreparedness on the Belgian side, helped make the execution of Hitler's top secret plan a swift and overwhelming success. The capture of Eben-Emael involved the first utilization of gliders for the initial attack and the first use of hollow charge devices in war. The gliders, led by First Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig, landed on the roof of the fortress and being totally silent, took the defenders by complete surprise. They were able to use the hollow charges to destroy or disable the gun cupolas. They also used a flamethrower against machine guns. The Belgians did destroy one of the key bridges, preventing it from being used by the Germans but also preventing a relieving force from aiding the fortress. The Germans lost only six of the assaulting engineers and had 21 wounded, keeping all the defenders pinned down until the arrival of the main attacking army. After the extraordinary success in the capture of the fort, Hitler personally decorated all the participants of the assault. Eben Emael, considered the strongest fortress in the world, was the linchpin of the Belgian main line of defense and dominated all terrestrial communications around the Albert Canal. It was a sensational coup and its loss delivered a hard blow from which the Belgian Army could not recover.