12. Airborne Special Forces Make Their Debut With the Capture of Fort Eben-Emael
Fort Eben-Emael was constructed on the Belgian-Dutch border in the 1930s to defend Belgium against a German attack. Overlooking the likeliest invasion route, with artillery dominating vital bridges and roads leading into Belgium, it was the world’s largest fortress, and one reputed to be impregnable and the toughest stronghold on earth. It took 80 German paratroopers less than 24 hours to capture the fort and its 1200 defenders.
It began in the wee hours of May 10th, 1940, at the start of the German blitzkrieg against western Europe. 80 elite German paratroopers, led by 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. They landed atop Eben-Emael.
The fort had been constructed to thwart attacks from land, but its designers had not contemplated an airborne assault from up above. Exiting the gliders and quickly forming into assault teams, the Germans threw explosives down ventilation shafts into the fortress’ vitals. An aggressive display of shock tactics, in which flamethrowers featured prominently, soon paralyzed the defenders, who found themselves trapped with the exits blocked.
The Germans followed up their rain of explosives with aggressive room clearing tactics with which the garrison was unfamiliar, and against which its members had not trained. The demoralized defenders were steadily pushed ever deeper into the bowels of Eben-Emael, and away from the guns commanding the roads and bridges leading into the Belgian heartland.
Other paratroopers then seized and secured the vital bridges the fortress had been built to protect. The Belgians counterattacked, but the Germans stubbornly held on, until relived by regular army units, which raced to secure the objectives seized by the paratroopers. With their situation now hopeless, Eben-Emael’s garrison surrendered on the morning of May 11th, less than 24 hours after Koch and his men had landed atop the fortress.