The fortress Eben-Emael is located along the Albert channel in Belgium above the city of Liege (Luik), a few kilometers from the Dutch border. It was built in the early to mid 30’s for the defense of the east side of Belgium against Germany. Its triangle shaped size is approximately 800 by 900 meters with several bunkers, artillery gun batteries, retractable artillery domes, machine-gun posts, anti-tank ditches, underground pass ways and living quarters divided into two levels housing for 1200 soldiers (of which 1000 artillerists working in two shifts).
Already before 1940 the Germans had planned an operation to capture Eben Emael together with three bridges over the Albert canal. Leader of this operation was Hauptmann Koch, so the assault unit was called Sturm-Abteilung Koch. Part of this plan was the assault of group “Granit”, which had the task to land with 85 men (“Fallschirmjäger”, paratroopers) in 11 gliders on the roof of the fortress that was hardly protected against an air landing, and also had no anti aircraft guns on it. Together with the newly developed weapon, the hollow charge, this operation turned out to be a great success.
Part of the operation was a ground assault on Eben Emael with army pioneers. The story below was found in a book published by the “Oberkommando der Wehrmacht”, Upper Army Command, in 1940 and tells the story of Pionier-Bataillon (mot) 51. I have tried to translate this story into English as strictly as possible. After it the mentioned persons (all Knights Cross holders!) are listed.
One of the most excellent actions during the opening offensives at the western front is the capture of the Belgian fortress complex Eben Emael, in the south of Maastricht, one of the strongest bunker complexes in the world, by the combined attack of airborne troops and army units. For the implementation of this unrivaled brave venture, the Führer and Upper Army Commander, awarded a couple of officers and non-commissioned officers with the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, including Oberstleutnant Mikosch and Oberfeldwebel Portsteffen, both where member’s of the pioneer battalion, that took part in the assault on the fortress.
9th May 1940 in the afternoon. The pioneer battalion enters its quarters, just back from an exercise. It only takes a short time, until the men are being called-out again. This time everyone senses that it this is the call for some serious action, at this moment an order rushes through the unit’s quarters.
The commander of the battalion, Oberstleutnant Mikosch, has got a sealed letter in his hand. In a calm manner he opens the cover. And with the same calm expression of an experienced unit commander he reads to the end of his order.
Together with the setting sun, the battalion leaves its accommodation in the Westwall. Westwards! Due to the heavy exercise they have been dealing with, the soldiers could get hardly any sleep. The front calls, and the column strides towards it with strong engine power.
On the way, leaders of other units check in with the commander of the battalion. And so the combat group Mikosch is formed. Order: the group will together, with the airborne troops capture the fortress Eben Emael!
10th May 1940. During the morning hours the German troops go over the Dutch border, marching in the direction of Maastricht. Special duties task forces are in front to take possession of the bridge that crosses the Albert channel at Maastricht. Airborne troops have already captured several locations on the other side of the river. The advancing combat group Mikosch has to make contact and shake the hands of the air force troops that landed approximately three to four kilometres to the south of Maastricht on the armoured turrets of Eben Emael, the strongest fort of fortress Liege.
Before the German troops reach the bridge at Maastricht, it explodes due to a devastating detonation. The advance stops. At the same moment the fortress Eben Emael begins wild artillery fire to prevent the crossing of the German troops. Now every minute counts because the airborne troops are already in heavy combat with the Belgians, and is in urgent need of help. At this moment Oberstleutnant Mikosch decides to cross the river in inflatable boats. The anti aircraft guns that are assigned to his fighting group are brought in position at the east of the river Maas and secure the operation with a barrage against the Belgian bunkers. As one of the first the Oberstleutnant leads his men across the river in one of the boats, which are launched in to the water under the toughest conditions, with rope ladders over the steep channel walls. Under a continuous hail of heavy fire of machine gun and grenades from the fortress Eben Emael combined with other serious firing from other fortresses and bunkers.
Boat after boat crossed the river, without being deterred by the bombardment. The first pioneer assault company, to which also infantrymen have joined, reached the western bank. The vehicles that are available regardless of condition are seized, and in battle vehicles, carts and on bicycles, the company starts moving in the direction towards the northern point of Eben Emael, under heavy fire from the enemy at the western bank. While fighting the pioneers advance, the places of heavy resistance by the defending Belgians are eliminated and the trenches at their positions are rooted out, their counterattack is met by the German assault. Contending with roadblocks, huge bomb craters, barricades, minefields and the constant increase in strength of the enemy fire did not curb their advance. In the afternoon the forward line of the unit rushed into the Belgian village Kanne. In the distance over the enemy positions, the comrades of the airborne troops are visible; they support the progress of the pioneers with all their strength. By radio both German groups get in contact, between them are the Belgians.
The night sky is lit by enemy flares and searchlights, fierce and without intervals the battle continues. In spite of the intense fire, with devastating strength is now even stronger because the Belgians easily pinpoint the German fire on the steep channel walls, which has the effect that the grenades glance off and produce crosswise impacts, by three o’clock the following morning four companies had crossed. With the calmness of a cultivated and experienced active front officer, Oberstleutnant Mikosch is giving his orders.
South of Kanne a side channel splits of off the major channel, which lies safely together with a broad and twenty meter high dome in front of the armoured bunkers of Eben Emael. Unforeseen circumstances of the opening of the sluices, the only access roads and all the surrounding grounds are flooded. The assault unit is now in position at the northern point of the fortress, standing in front of a new obstacle that seems to be impregnable. But on the other side, on the domes of the fortress, the comrades of the Luftwaffe are waiting. There has to be a solution found to solve this problem.
In this situation Oberfeldwebel Portsteffen comes up with a daring plan. Together with 50 selected men he takes the partly demolished inflatable boats, gets them afloat and goes, fearlessly into the light of the search lights and flares defying the fierce firing of the Belgians, over the flooded area. Without casualties the men reach the opposite wall, and steer through the dangerous terrain towards the armoured domes. The Oberfeldwebel shouts the password across and the name of Oberleutnant Witzig. Indescribable is the delight of the reunion of both groups that takes place on 11 May in the early morning between five and six o’clock. For 24 hours the airborne troops had stood up to the enemy and kept their position. For 24 hours the pioneers had battled towards them. This hour was perhaps the most happy and most proud one of their military career. Immediately Oberfeldwebel Portsteffen starts the combat against the fortifications that are still firing fiercely towards the channel road.
With concentrated charges the men are fighting against the concrete encasements, from which artillery barrels and machine gun barrels stick out. The effect is devastating. The barrels burst and are smashed to pieces, followed by a rain of debris with steel, stone and soil. The sound of the detonations shatters the morning and can be heard in a wide area. Devastated, the Belgians leave their bunkers. Fort by fort is taken in the same way. In the meantime a second and a third assault company have joined the battle. Fighting side by side the pioneers and infantrymen are advancing. One after the other the artillery guns stop firing. Also six anti tank guns have been successfully transported over the channel on inflatable boats, which start firing towards the furthest placed guns of the fortress, and they win this battle.
At ten o’clock in the morning the battle group Mikosch starts the last assault. At 12.15hr the fortress Eben Emael stops firing, and at 12.30hr the member of the Belgian parliament appears with a white flag. 100 dead and wounded enemies lay between the debris of the armoured forts and bunkers. Approximately 1000 men, exhausted and demoralized by the pressure of the unstoppable German assault, are made prisoners of war; a few men seek safety in flight.
With four German pioneer companies an unrivalled victory has been made upon the superior strength of 1200 enemies, upon a believed impregnable, built with the strongest steel and concrete, and equipped with the most modern heavy weapons, armoured fortress – a victory made by a determined group of German soldiers with total contempt for death, lead by men who are not afraid of anything or anyone.
• Hauptmann Walther Koch, commanding officer of L.L.-Sturm-Abteilung Koch. Born 1910, died 1943 (due to an automobile accident). Knights Cross 10.5.1940, German Cross in Gold 31.3.1942.
• Oberstleutnant Hans Mikosch, commanding officer of Pionier-Bataillon (mot) 51. Born 1898, died 1993. Knights Cross 21.5.1940, Oak Leaves with the Knights Cross 6.3.1943 (Stalingrad), German Cross in Gold 13.11.1942.
• Oberfeldwebel Josef Portsteffen, assault leader at 1./Pionier-Bataillon (mot) 51. Born 1913, died 1974. Knights Cross 21.5.1940.
• Oberleutnant Rudolf Witzig, leader of the assault group „Granit“ of L.L.-Sturm-Abteilung Koch. Born 1916, died 2001. Knights Cross 10.5.1940, Oak Leaves with the Knights Cross 25.11.1944, German Cross in Gold 17.10.1943.
Sieg über Frankreich, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Zeitgeschichte-Verlag Wilhelm Andermann Berlin, 1940.
Ritterkreuzträger 1939-1945, Veit Scherzer, Scherzers Militaire-Verlag Ranis/Jena, 2005.
Special thanks to Ally Terry for revising the text.