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Fort Eben Emael

The most modern and strongest of the Belgian forts at the time, Fort Eben Emael was considered, by many, impossible to capture. Named for the nearby villages of Eben and Emael, the fort was constructed from 1932 to 1935 on a granite ridge overlooking the Meuse River and Albert Canal. Eben Emael was one of the twelve forts around Lige that dominated eastern Belgium. Eben Emael, a diamond shaped fort measured 1,200 yards north to south and 800 yards at it widest point, was a reinforced artillery position that had a commanding view of the countryside.

The attack of Fort Eben Emael by the Germans at the outset of the 1940 western offensive illustrates the value of meticulous training. Commanders must ensure that training a raid force involves all participants. Well-planned and aggressive training prepares the individual troop, uncover flaws in the plan, match capabilities of elements to assigned tasks, allow the employment of a smaller force, and provide situational awareness to all raid force members. Thorough training of the raid force fosters initiative and confidence to overcome unforeseen obstacles.

The German offensive begun on 11 May 1940 ended the "phoney war" on the western front. In addition to seizing the Netherlands, Army Group B was tasked with making the Allies believe the attack through northern Belgium was the main attack. A key element to the plan was the gliderborne attack of the "impregnable" fortress, Fort Eben Emael and key bridges along the Albert Canal. The fort, considered to be the strongest in Europe and manned by 800-1,200 Belgian troops, was the objective assigned to Assault Force Granite (75 troops and 11 glider pilots noted for their individualism and fearlessness). As mission success was critical to the Army Group's rapid movement into Belgium, no effort was spared in preparing and training the assault force.

Once they mastered the general scheme of maneuver, the squads needed real fortifications to train on. Hauptmann Koch had the perfect solution; the Benes line in theGerman Sudetenland gave the glidermen similar fixed fortifications to develop techniques andprocedures to reduce the hardened gun emplacements. Assault Force Granite was provided over 300 miles of the Benes line fortifications, located along the Czechoslovakian border, for casemate assault training. The glidermen trained on attackingcasemates and cupolas with flamethrowers, bangalore torpedoes, standard demolition charges, and small arms.

Training ranged from how to get in and out of gliders to piloting them at night in formation, combat loaded, and landing with pinpoint accuracy. Assault troops were instructed in the use of new weapons, most notably the 110 lb shape charge, that were critical to destroying key parts of the fort. Airplanes and gliders were matched to ensure the pilots, familiar with each other through extensive training, could anticipate the other's actions. Troops studied terrain models, photos, and table models to ensure complete knowledge of the objective area. Glider pilots took part in ground training as they became an integral part of the assault force after their piloting duties were over.

After months of training, the assault force knew every detail of the fort and the overall plan. Corporal Alefs, reflecting on the training, mentioned that the 85 troops felt stronger than the 1,200 they were to attack. The operation started with a harbinger of disaster. The attack commenced without the commander when his glider was released before reaching proper altitude. A sergeant assumed command as the nearest officer was involved in another action and could not be reached. However, in spite of these serious problems, the operation was a resounding success. The sergeant who took command later remarked that "the officers had trained all of the men so well that the officers were expendable."

The vaunted Eban Emael was taken easily by German paratroops. German gliders landed engineers atop Fort Eban-Emael in Belgium and achieved complete tactical surprise; the strongest fort along Germany's western border fell quickly, unlocking supply lines into the Low Countries and France for the Panzers that had advanced through the Ardennes Forest.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:08:12 ZULU