Battle of Fort Eben-Emael - Background


On 10 May 1940 Germany launched Fall Gelb, an invasion of the Low Countries. By attacking through the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, the German Oberkommando der Wehrmacht believed that German forces could outflank the Maginot Line and then advance through southern Belgium and into northern France, cutting off the British Expeditionary Force and a large number of French forces and forcing the French government to surrender. To gain access to northern France, German forces would have to defeat the armed forces of the Low Countries and either bypass or neutralize a number of defensive positions, primarily in Belgium and the Netherlands. Some of these defensive positions were only lightly defended and intended more as delaying positions than true defensive lines designed to stop an enemy attack. However, a number of them were of a more permanent design, possessing considerable fortifications and garrisoned by significant numbers of troops. The Grebbe-Peel Line in the Netherlands, which stretched from the southern shore of the Zuider Zee to the Belgian border near Weert, had a large number of fortifications combined with natural obstacles, such as marsh-lands and the Geld Valley, which could easily be flooded to impede an attack. The Belgian defences consisted of one delaying position running along the Albert Canal, and then a main defensive line running along the River Dyle, which protected the port of Antwerp and the Belgian capital, Brussels. This delaying position was protected by a number of forward positions manned by troops, except in a single area where the canal ran close to the Dutch border, which was known as the 'Maastricht Appendix' due to the proximity of the city of Maastricht. The Belgian military could not build forward positions due to the proximity of the border, and therefore assigned an infantry division to guard the three bridges over the canal in the area, a brigade being assigned to each bridge. The bridges were defended by blockhouses equipped with machine-guns, and artillery support was provided by Fort Eben Emael, whose artillery pieces covered each of the two bridges. Having become aware of the Belgian defensive plan, which called for Belgian forces to briefly hold the delaying positions along the Albert Canal and then retreat to link up with British and French forces at the main defensive positions on the River Dyle, the German High Command made its own plans to disrupt this and seize and secure these three bridges, as well as a number of other bridges in Belgium and the Netherlands, to allow their own forces to breach the defensive positions and advance into the Netherlands.

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