The Battle of Belgium or Belgian Campaign formed part of the greater Battle of France, an offensive campaign by Germany during the Second World War. It took place over 18 days in May 1940 and ended with the German occupation of Belgium following the surrender of the Belgian Army.
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The Mechelen Incident of 10 January 1940, also known as the Mechelen Affair, was an event which occurred in Belgium during the Phoney War in the first stages of World War II. A German aircraft with an officer on-board carrying the plans for Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), the German attack on the Low Countries, crash-landed in neutral Belgium near Vucht in the modern-day municipality of Maasmechelen within the Province of Limburg. This prompted an immediate crisis in the Low Countries and amidst the French and British authorities, whom the Belgians notified of their discovery; however the crisis abated relatively quickly once the dates mentioned in the plans passed without incident. It has been argued that the incident led to a major change in the German attack plan, but this hypothesis has also been disputed.
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Coup From the Air: The Capture of Fort Eben-Emael
In the early morning of May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the Low Countries. One of the Wehrmacht’s first and most decisive blows was the capture of Fort Eben-Emael, reputed to be the strongest fort in the world. No one had even suspected that gliders would be used to take the fort, but on the other hand the potential of glider troops and paratroops was well known. It would have been wise – and indeed simple – to place obstacles atop the fort to impede or prevent this type of landing. And although orders had in fact been issued to this end, they were still awaiting execution when the enemy struck. The story of this brilliant German success is told by the man who commanded the glider-borne contingent that achieved it.
As the northernmost fortification of Liége, Eben-Emael held a dominant position, commanding the Albert Canal, the roads leading from Maastricht to the west, and, above all, the vitally important high bridges over the canal at Vroenhaven and Veltwezelt. The fortifications were built between 1932 and 1935 and abutted the canal on the western bank of the enormous canal-cutting at Caster.
Extending some 700 metres from east to west and 900 metres north to south, the fortifications were a tight complex of artillery and infantry installations, coordinated to provide mutual cover, and with carefully constructed exterior defences on all sides. On the north-east side, a steep slope descended the cutting 40 metres to the Albert Canal, providing complete security. On the north-west side, the flood plain of the River Jeker had been raised by the fortifications and, in addition, extra security had been attained by digging a trench with steep embankments. In the west and south, where the surrounding countryside is more or less on the same level, the fortifications were protected by wide trenches and by walls at least 4 metres high.
All individual installations, including those extending to the south, were linked by a system of tunnels many kilometres long, with access only through the entrance of Fort 17. The installation included a barracks with sick bay and rooms for machines, troops, officers, staff, and stores. It had radio and telephone communications and an elaborately constructed ventilation system with protective filters.
In 1940 the rapid breakthrough by the German VI Army [VI Army (Wehrmacht) wikipedia] between Roermund and Liége depended on overcoming these frontier obstructions at the onset. For this reason, it was just as necessary to take the Albert Canal bridges, undamaged, as to put Eben-Emael out of action. In view of the preparations of the Belgian army, however, neither of these aims could have been achieved by orthodox methods of warfare, even using parachute troops. So the German command decided to use freight gliders, which could approach silently and invisibly in the half-light and which would, moreover, possess a high ‘surprise potential’, as they had never before been used on such a scale as a weapon of war.
In order to achieve this surprise, it was essential for the gliders to land at the same time as the German army first crossed the frontier. Thus the army had, in fact, to time its attack to suit our requirements, and only reluctantly did it grant this priority to an unfamiliar and untried weapon.
For one thing, the failure of the whole mission could be brought about by heavy losses during take-off, flight, landing, and particularly during the critical period when the airborne force was within range of enemy infantry weapons. This critical period could, however, be reduced by means of nose-dive brakes, parachute-brakes, and landing spurs. Moreover, with its minimum gliding angle of 1:12 at a towing height of 2,000 metres, the freight glider could be released 20 kilometres from its objective and an experienced pilot could make a spot landing within a radius of 20 metres. This meant that we could approach noiselessly and, moreover, in the dark. For the spot landing proper, however, a shooting light was required. Once landed, the group could then start its assault fully armed and with closed ranks.
The mission of capturing Eben-Emael and the Albert Canal bridges was entrusted to the Koch Storm Detachment [Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment wikipedia], under the command of Captain Koch [Walter Koch (1910-1943 wikipedia]. This unit comprised the I Company of the I Parachute Regiment, the Parachute Sapper Detachment of the VII Flying Division (at that time the only German parachute division), the Freight Glider Unit, a beacon and searchlight detachment, and an airfield ground staff. To these were added a towing unit of Ju 52s [Junkers Ju52 wikipedia]. The parachute company was responsible for the capture of the three bridges: Vroenhaven, Veltwezelt, and a less important one at Canne, about 1 kilometre north-west of the fort.
It was to the sapper detachment (under my command) that the attack on the fortress of Eben-Emael was entrusted. We were the only parachute unit composed entirely of sappers, and we were all volunteers. Among us were the best amateur glider pilots from pre-war days when the Germans already excelled in the sport of gliding; and during the two years of the unit’s existence, it had grown into a sturdy, close-knit community in which each man had confidence in his fellows.
For six months, top priority had been given to this operation. Security was vital, since our success – indeed, our survival – depended on taking the enemy by surprise. We were all made aware of this, and drastic, measures had to be taken; our training and details of equipment, tactics, and objective had to be kept completely secret, and even among ourselves the name of the fortress was not generally known until after its capture. No leave was granted, nor were we allowed out, to mix with men from other units. The sapper detachment was constantly moved around under different code names, and all parachute insignia and uniforms were left behind. Even glider practice in the Hildesheim area was carried out on the smallest possible sacle; the gliders were then dismantled, moved to Köln in furniture vans, and reassembled in hangars surrounded by wire entanglements guarded by our own men.
We were allocated 11 gliders for the job, and as the plan of campaign developed, it became necessary to divide the detachment into 11 sections of seven or eight men. Each section was to capture two emplacements or casemates and, in addition, to be equally ready to take over for any section out of action. Moreover, unlike other pilots, a glider pilot, who is in command up to the time of landing, cannot stand aside during the actual battle. So our pilots took their turn as sappers in the detachment and the section to which they were allocated, so that they would be reliable in action.
After the fullest use had been made of the training facilities in Hildesheim, the detachment practised attacking strongly defended fortifications in the Sudetenland, and also carried out trial demolitions at Polish installations near Gleiwitz. Lectures at the sapper school at Karlshorst introduced us to the principles of fortress construction. Finally, deserters from Belgian fortifications were interrogated, and we were able to check what we had been learning against the information they supplied. This the picture became complete, and the sappers acquired confidence in their weapon: none of us would have changed places with anyone, not even with men in armoured forts.
X-Day was several times postponed, but our time was fully occupied in practising new techniques – such as pin-point landing with explosives on the airstrip and in the open country, or rapid disembarkation when fully armed. In addition to flame-throwers and the collapse assault ladders which we had built ourselves, the special equipment, for the operation consisted chiefly of 2 1/2 tons of explosives, predominantly cavity charges, which were used for the first time at Eben-Emael for cracking the armoured domes.
The 50-kg cavity charges, carried in two parts were in the shape of hemispheres. They could penetrate armoured domes 25cm thick, and even where this armour was 28cm thick, it was likely that weapons and troops below would be put out of action by flying splinters. Where the armour was thicker still, several explosions in the same hole would be necessary. Even the smaller 12.5-kg cavity charge penetrated armour of 12 to 15 cm, and it was also suitable for precision blasting of loop-holes and heavy artillery. All charges were detonated by ten-second fuses.
The rest of the storm detachment carried the usual arms: six light machine guns, sub-machine guns, hand-grenades, pistols, smoke bombs, entrenching tools, and a radio. A final stroke of ingenuity, characteristic of our thorough preparation, was the plan to drop by parachute several groups of uniformed dummies behind the Albert Canal to the west. As we had guessed, this caused considerable confusion to the Belgian command.
After half a year of strict isolation, the alert in the afternoon of May 9 came as a relief. The Koch Storm Detachment met according to plan at the airfields of Köln-Ostheim and Köln-Butzweilerhof, some of them being brought in by the towing unit. At night the towing craft were brought to the runway, loaded, and the places occupied. Take-off was at 0430 hours precisely; this had been calculated to allow our four storm groups to land simultaneously, at 0525 hours, at the bridges and at Eben-Emael – five minutes before the army crossed the frontier. In complete darkness the aircraft took off from the two tiny airfields and started their journey through the night – a magnificent achievement. Height was gained by circling to the south, then we turned westwards, following a route which had earlier been marked with beacons.
In a light ground mist, through which the outlines of the fortification could be dimly perceived, nine gliders landed on Eben-Emael itself (two, including my own, having been lost during the flight). They had been met with anti-aircraft machine-gun fire as they approached, but then the sections attacked, as soon as they disembarked, under the command of Sergeant-Major Wenzel, who took over until the arrival of the detachment commander.
We had all been thoroughly drilled in our tasks, and in the strict order’s which our small number – 85 men, including the pilots and allowing for no losses during the flight – made it imperative to observe. Our earlier study of aerial photographs and a relief model, made to scale on a sand table, had convinced us that our initial assault had to be restricted to the central installations. First, we were to destroy all infantry weapons and anti-aircraft guns firing in the open and after that, the artillery, particularly where directed to the north. Speed was essential, since anything not accomplished in the first 60 minutes would be made practically impossible later by the increasing strength of enemy defence.
Anti-aircraft Post 1 was captured immediately. The occupants of Hut 2 offered some resistance, but were soon silenced, and in the first ten minutes the sections successfully attacked nine occupied and defended installations (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11), although installation 7 later started firing from its sunken dome. Charges were placed on seven armoured domes and five exploded with complete success; nine 7.5-cm guns in three casemates were destroyed, and in Installation 8 – a flat armoured dome 6 metres in diameter, which was not penetrated by the 50-kg cavity charge – twin 12-cm cannon were effectively attacked by two 1-kg charges thrown into the barrels, jamming their breeches as they detonated.
Only seven sections with 55 men took part in this action, because two others had been sent to attack the northern area, which we had assumed would be particularly strongly fortified. As it happened, Installations 12 and 13 proved to be dummy works with tin domes of large diameter, so that the efforts of these two sections were wasted during those first decisive minutes. As a result, until the struggle on the surface area was over, we could only move under cover against fire from within the area of the southern corner. We came across no mines anywhere. The only installations protected by barbed wire were in the north, where the sappers had to free themselves with wire cutters and turn their flame-thrower on a machine-gun firing from an embrasure, before they could place their charges at Installation 4.
As I have mentioned, mine was one of the two sections lost during the flight, our tow-rope having broken just south of Köln, and we had landed in a field. I called up a reserve towing craft, and we hastily prepared the ground by cutting down willow hedges, but we could hardly have become airborne again without the nearly indestructible Ju52 to tow us off. In due course I arrived at Eben-Emael, more than three hours late. The other section was not so fortunate; they were forced to land near Düren, where they joined the first ground troops advancing to the west. They crossed the Maas at Maastricht and eventually fought with the storm detachment on the western bank of the Albert Canal.
Our final task at Eben-Emael was to blow in the fortified entrances and press the attack into the depths of the fortress, holding all captured positions until relief arrived. During some hours of moderate fighting, we managed to reconnoitre the entrances and we penetrated the installations already captured, but then the Belgian artillery started to shell our positions and their infantry attacked us repeatedly over the north-western slope, which was covered with dense under-growth. This situation forced us to defend ourselves in the north-western area, so that we managed to remain in occupation of this part. Later we learned from Belgian sources that this was no counter-attack, but merely reconnoitring advances.
During that afternoon and night we detonated charges of up to 100-kg at the bottom of the ascent shafts, each about 40 metres deep, below installations 3, 4 and 6, defended by barricades of rails and sandbags; in the narrow passages, the explosions had a devastating effect.
Meanwhile, the storm troops which had landed at Vroenhaven and Veltwezelt had successfully carried out their mission: the bridges were captured undamaged, small bridgeheads were established and, with the help of machine-gun detachments dropped later by parachute, were defended.
During the afternoon of May 10 these troops were relieved by infantry. The Belgians had blown up the Canne bridge in time. Here our paratroopers were engaged in a whole day of hard fighting, which prevented the 51st Sapper Battalion, detailed to relieve us, from crossing the canal. Their attempts to cross in rubber dinghies were made extremely difficult by the shooting from Emplacement 15, by the side of the canal – we could ourselves hear the gunfire far below us. Eventually, we managed to bring this emplacement under partial control by using hanging charges to block the look-outs slits in the observation dome with smoke and dirt.
That night was uneventful. After the hard fighting during the day, the detachment lay, exhausted and parched, under scattered fire from Belgian artillery and infantry outside the fortification; every burst of fire might have signalled the beginning of the counterattack we expected, and our nerves were tense.
About 0700 hours on May 11 the advance section of the 51st Sapper Battalion at last arrived at the fortification, having crossed the ditch in front of Installation 14 in a rubber dinghy. Led by Sergeant Portsteffen, they silenced Ditch Emplacement 14, which we had twice attempted to blow up on May 10 – and thus the way was open for the whole battalion to enter the fortification. Towards noon, more groups came up over the western edge, and the last Belgian installations – 7, 15 and 16 – ceased firing. The garrison had capitulated.
As we retired, after burying our dead and handing over 30 Belgian prisoners to the 51st Sapper Battalion, we saw scattered around the entrance installations the weapons of the garrison forces, who, with their commander, Major Jottrand, were taken away into captivity. According to a Belgian source, at the beginning of the attack there had been about 750 men present out of a regular force of 1,200; it seems that some 15% were absent on leave and that others were quartered in nearby villages – many arrived later. They had lost 23 dead and 59 wounded. Of the 85 German sappers who had set out on May 10, six were killed and, apart from injuries caused by the hard landing, 15 were wounded.
The speedy capture of Eben-Emael, mentioned in barest outline in the army report, puzzled the press – particularly abroad, where they drew some fantastic conclusions. In 1941 an American magazine quoted a statement from a Dutch captain, according to whom workmen from German construction companies – which had helped to build the Albert Canal – had married local girls and remained in the country. For years, it was said, these Germans had been growing chicory in underground caves, taking the opportunity to pile up explosives under the fortress, which had therefore only to be detonated on the day of the attack! Needless to say, the true circumstances – involving as they did new methods of combat and transport – remained a military secret for many years.
The real reasons for the capitulation of Eben-Emael seem to be as follows: although an attack was clearly not expected, our use of tactical and technical surprise made the installations, artillery, and observation posts possible, and this in turn made the enemy uncertain about the general situation. Damage to the ascent shafts and ventilating system only increased their confusion: all help from outside, including the field artillery, failed. They felt captives in their own fortress and their fighting spirit was stifled. Although defeated only in their surface positions, they were not prepared to make a counterattack in the open field, even before the fortress was surrounded; while they may have been trained only to fight under armed cover, this nevertheless reveals shortcomings. Certainly, an attack by night would have hurt us considerably.
The disposition of the fortification itself seems to have been a disastrous mistake: defended trenches in front of the casemates would have made entry into the gun embrasures much more difficult for us – but there were no such close defences, even for the heaviest guns. Moreover, the defenders should have had sufficient imagination to cover the surface with mines and wire entanglements. On the other hand, the two dummy installations 12 and 13 were extremely effective in deceiving us, and the canal defences, which were immune to attack at close quarters, ensured for a long time the security of the canal cutting.
However, an examination of Belgian sources suggests that, in spite of all preparations, the Belgian soldiers did not believe in the war, and, furthermore, that what happened at Eben-Emael was typical of the whole 18-day campaign. Morale in Belgium had been weakened by neutralistic politics, and an ill=prepared army fought badly because it was badly led. For the most part it lacked the will to fight.
The storming of Eben-Emael was the first sapper attack ever made from the air. That it was successful is due to the efficiency and enthusiasm of the parachute sappers, using new weapons and new means of transport, aided by careful preparation, the participation of the Luftwaffe, and clear conditions of command.
Oberst Rudolf Witzig
taken from History of the Second World War
[Phoebus Publishing Ltd in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum]