Constructed between 1931-1935, Fort Eben-Emael on the Belgian-Dutch border was designed to defend Belgium against a German attack. Positioned in a strategic location astride the likeliest German invasion route, with artillery dominating vital bridges and roads leading into Belgium, Eben-Emael was the world’s largest fortress, reputed to be impregnable and the toughest military stronghold on earth. 80 German paratroopers captured it and its 1200 defenders in 24 hours, in a daring assault on May 10-11, 1940.
In the pre-dawn hours of May 10th, 1940, at the start of the German blitzkrieg against the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and France, a company of 80 elite German Fallschirmjaegers, or paratroopers, under the command of Hauptman (Captain) Walter Koch, boarded gliders tethered to Ju 52 transport airplanes, which towed them to the vicinity of Eben-Emael and released them on an approach path to the fortress.
The gliders landed atop the fortress, which had been built to thwart attacks from land, but whose designers had not contemplated a direct assault from up above by airborne soldiers. Exiting the gliders and quickly forming into assault teams, the German paratroopers threw explosives down Eben-Emael’s ventilation shafts to explode within the fortress’ vitals. With an aggressive display of shock tactics, in which flamethrowers featured prominently, the Germans soon paralyzed the defenders, who found themselves trapped inside a fortress whose exits had been blocked.
Unable to effectively fight back against attackers who rained explosives down upon them from above, followed by aggressive room clearing tactics with which the garrison was unfamiliar and against which it had not trained, the demoralized defenders were steadily pushed deep into the bowels of the fortress, and away from the guns commanding the roads and bridges leading into the Belgian heartland.
With the guns unmanned, other paratroop units seized and secured the vital bridges Eben-Emael had been built to safeguard. The paratroopers suffered heavy casualties but stubbornly held on to the bridges, beating back Belgian counterattacks long enough for relief to arrive from regular German army units that raced from their jump-off positions to secure the objectives seized by the paratroopers.
Inside Eben-Emael, their situation now hopeless, the garrison surrendered early in the morning of the following day, May 11th, within 24 hours of the gliders’ landing atop the fortress.