WALKING THE TUNNELS OF FORT EBAN EMAEL

Fort Eban Emael Belgium

Morning, Philip here; while Michelle is cooking up a storm in the kitchen, I thought I’d tell you about a trip that we took a little while ago, one that has really stuck with me:

We’ve been living in Belgium for nearly 3 years and during that time we’ve visited many towns and cities and seen first hand the wealth of history that the country holds within its borders.  For such a small and relatively new country, a lot has happened here.  It’s impossible not to see the effects however that the second World War has had on the building and landscape.

Although most people probably think of the trenches of World War One, and Flanders Field, we decided to go visit one of the fortifications that the Belgians had built as a result of that conflict.

In order to ward off the chance of the war ever happening again, Belgium sunk a large part of its defence spending in the 1930s into a series of large forts, which it was thought would hold off any German attack for long enough to deter them from launching one in the first place.  They placed them in front of strategic towns and canals as a way of slowing any German advance, and as structures they are mightily impressive.

Unfortunately for the Belgians, warfare had moved on, and a defensive line built around these forts fell in a few days to the onslaught of the German Blitzkreig.  They had been out thought and flanked by tanks, planes and the German Army, who had learnt new tactics and tried them out in the Spanish Civil war.  Belgium collapsed a week after being invaded.

Many of these fortifications are still in place, and some can be visited.  Fort Eban Emael is one of those, but has a very short opening time, something like one Saturday every month for the summer months, and that’s it.  We managed to make it to the last weekend before the whole complex shut for the winter, and I’m glad we did.

The fort itself isn’t very impressive when you arrive in the car park – indeed if you weren’t looking for it you could miss it completely.  This is because it isn’t a conventional looking structure – there are no walls or turrets at all.  What the Belgian army did was turn an existing hill into a rabbit warren of tunnels, galleries full of hospitals, engine rooms, and guns.  The place was enormous, protected by machine guns, cannons in concealed emplacements and thousands of troops.

My impression when we entered through the main gates was one of awe.  Huge corridors gouged into the rock led away to a town’s worth of dormitories, bathrooms, everything that was needed to keep a small army alive underground.  It was a little overwhelming so I decided to concentrate on some of the experiences for this post:

I climbed up a steel staircase into one of the gun emplacements, and realised just what had happened to the inhabitants, crouched in the dark while the Germans captured the fort.  What happened was that the Germans flew gliders onto the top of the hill, and then blew up the emplacements with new types of bombs.  It was obvious how the Belgian army had been out thought when I was in the gun area.  Buried deep, you couldn’t see anything, just through a periscope.  We then visited another gun site, which had been blown up and stormed.  Everything looked as if the explosion had just happened- twisted metal, blackened walls from the fire, broken equipment.  A very sad and provoking sight.

The other sad thing we saw was a blocked off tunnel.  The guide (who was excellent), told us how a soldier had raced into the tunnel and blown it up to stop the Germans advancing down it and into the heart of the fort.  His heroic act had also turned the tunnel into his tomb, as the ceiling came down on top of him and sealed him in forever.  Another example of the brave way that Belgium tried to resist the Nazis, only to be ultimately overwhelmed.

I had mixed feelings on viewing the fort.  It’s a symbolic and moving tribute to a country that tried to hold back a war and lost, but it’s much more than that.  The soldiers trapped within, air getting stale and guns blown up, continued to try to fight back for 2 days until forced to surrender.  4 years of brutal occupation would follow, but here, in the maze of corridors below the hillside, I got a real sense of the sheer bravery that Belgium showed for the second time in 20 years at the start of the 20th century.

Fort Eban Emael is open next on the 28th of March – find out more on their website.

Michelle will be back tomorrow with her third Weekly Wrap-Up Post.

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