Fort Eben-Emael: Invincible Until It Wasn’t

Fort Eben-Emael has an intriguing history and surprising story that will excite many a history buff.

It was built in the 1930s as a part of the French/Belgian defense line against Germany, after the end of the First World War. It was supposedly an impenetrable fortress of impressive size built with cutting-edge engineering that would defeat any attack that was thrown at it.

Despite all the hype at the time, it was famously captured by German paratroopers in May 1940 during the Battle of Belgium. So, if you are interested in learning more about this amazing marvel of engineering that failed to live up to expectations, you have come to the right place.

General Information

Here is all the information you need for your visit to Fort Eben-Emael:

AddressRue du Fort 40, B-4690 Eben-Emael / Bassenge (Google Maps)
Opening HoursSummer (June – Sept): Tuesday – Sunday; 10 am – 5 pm
Feb 17 – May 30 & Oct – Dec: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; 10 am – 5 pm
January 3 – 8; 10 am – 5 pm
Jan 9 – Feb 16: Closed
Ticket PricesAdult: €10
Teens (12 to 18 yrs): €8
Children (7 – 12 yrs): €4
Child under 7 yrs: Free
Persons with reduced mobility: €4
Senior (65+), Belgian Veterans, Students/Teachers: €8
Active Belgian military: Free
AccessibilityWheelchair accessible to many of the areas (some limitations)
Public TransportLine 76 daily through Eben-Emael (Walloon transport company TEC) Buses of the Flemish transport company De Lijn only run
Line 39b through Eben-Emael – weekdays only (Flemish transport company)
Fort Eben-Emael General Information

Visiting Fort Eben-Emael

Today Fort Eben-Emael has been turned into a museum that you can visit at your leisure. You can visit the fortress on your own, or take a guided tour to explore 90% of the fortress structure that is open to the public.

Coupole 120 gun emplacement at Fort Eben-Emael
Coupole 120 gun emplacement at Fort Eben-Emael (Image via Wikimedia)

It is actually quite impressive that so much of the fort is available to see. There are

  • 2 underground and 1 above-ground level
  • Barracks for 1200 soldiers
  • 5 km of underground galleries
  • 17 battle bunkers
Gun emplacement at Fort Eben-Emael
Gun emplacement at Fort Eben-Emael (Image via Wikimedia)

There are also a variety of different rooms and facilities to see from the original plan and life that took part in the fort:

  • power plant
  • original showers
  • the kitchen
  • the water pump
  • the commandant’s office
  • the officers’ mess
  • sleeping quarters
  • An infirmary, with operating theatre and a sterilisation room
Underground in Fort Eben-Emael (Image courtesy of Patrick Verbeeck)

You can also see a version of the original German glider that was used to carry out the attack on the fortress as well as a number of gun emplacements that were there when they arrived.

It really is amazing what the team has done with the museum and our ability to dive deep into the underground tunnels and rooms that are up to 45 meters underground!

The Construction and Design of Fort Eben-Emael

After the end of WWI, all countries surrounding Germany were concerned about future aggression. As a result, Belgium decided to construct this imposing fort which took four years, starting in 1931.

It was indeed an engineering marvel designed to be one of the most formidable defensive structures of its time. It was built high on a hill along the Albert Canal, near the Meuse River and the Dutch-Belgian border. The idea was to protect Belgian should the Germans decide to invade again.

The fort covered an immense area of some 75 hectares and was constructed primarily of reinforced concrete. The overall design used a mix of both above and underground structures connected by a network of tunnels. There was a range of gun emplacements, barracks and other facilities to support the troops stationed there.

The underground constructions were incorporated into the native limestone in the area, further strengthening the fort. This, along with the heavy artillery, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft defenses made it something that would hopefully send the Germans packing – should they come.

The German Invasion and Capture of Fort Eben-Emael

Bunker in the foreground. Background – destroyed bridge to Fort Eben-Emael (image via Wikimedia)

Early in the morning of May 10th 1940, the Germans launched a surprise invasion of Belgium. The fort was obviously a key to capturing Belgium and then later France.

The German paratroopers from the elite Fallschirmjäger (codename GRANIT), under the command of Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig carried out a daring assault on the fort. They used whisper-quiet gliders landing a small number of troops right on top of the fort. Once they had landed, they used hollow charges to neutralize the fort’s gun emplacements and gain quick access to the underground facilities.

The Belgian defenders were definitely caught off guard by the swift and audacious attack. Within 36 hours the fort was captured and the once formidable feat of Belgian engineering had fallen into enemy hands. As such, this specific attack was in fact one of many military firsts:

  • first glider attack
  • first use of hollow charges
  • first use of Hitlers Blitzkrieg tactics

Aftermath and Lessons Learned

The lessons learned from the capture of Fort Eben-Emael are many. But fundamentally it showed that despite apparent military superiority, adapting to the situation with new technology and tactics could lead to an easy victory.

The German Army actually kept hold of this fort for the reminder of the war and it was not returned to Belgian hands until the Allies liberated Europe.

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