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“This is turning out to be no phony war,” Edward Summit said as he ran alongside Enville. They heard the clanking rattle of small arms fire and bullets spattered puffs of dust in the dirt on the road ahead of where their feet pounded. That was enough to make them seek better cover and simultaneously, without missing a step, they jumped into a ditch that paralleled the road. More rounds whizzed overhead and they pulled their helmets tight to their skulls.
They were no longer targets. They slowed their pace and duck-walked a hundred meters further down the shallow muddy gully. A welcome silence persisted as they stopped to catch their breath.
“Can you tell me how the fort fell so quickly?” Enville asked with astonishment. “I was told it was impregnable.”
“A fort’s a fort. Any of them can be over run.” Summit’s statement was delivered with a studied insouciance he often employed to cover his true lack of knowledge. “Eben Emael was not prepared for an assault from all sides and the air, that is all.”
In truth, the correct answer was considerably more complex. The German war machine had been preparing an assault on the fortresses surrounding Liège for more than a year. Paratroopers practiced on full-scale replicas of Belgium’s strategic buildings and limestone citadels which German engineers recreated in life-sized detail right down to their crenelated walls.
The result of this meticulously planned year-long drill was an astonishingly precise attack that immediately overwhelmed King Leopold III’s forces. When the time came, gliders silently brought Nazi soldiers directly to Belgian bridges which were taken before they could be destroyed.
The most important of the strongholds around Liège was Fort Eben Emael which had 1,200 defenders including Enville and Summit. The entire complement was thrown into disorder when the concentrated attack began. Paratroopers landed on them from above just as ground troops began a frontal assault. The irony was the invulnerable fort on the Meuse with its huge number of defenders surrendered to a mere eighty German soldiers led by a sergeant.
Enville and Summit were outside the fort’s walls when the early morning attack came. They were assigned to the commissary and were picking up supplies in town. At first they attempted to return to their company but found themselves on the fringes of an ever increasing enemy army. Rather than raise their hands when the garrison fell, they decided to take the provisions they had collected and a two-horse wagon team and head toward France. They sneaked out of town under the nose of the victorious German army, huddled in wool blankets to conceal their uniforms from any but the closest scrutiny.
They barely escaped with their lives. Less than two kilometers south, they were fired upon by a passing tank and had to abandon the wagon as too easy a target.
Now they found themselves on the run with no fixed goal other than to stay alive. The shallow trench would not be a good hiding place for long. Where the roadway made a gradual turn they flattened their bodies against the built up shoulder and heard but could not see troop transports rolling past. Both knew better than to lift their heads. They continued to waddle their way along the gutter dragging their rifle butts in the mud. Several German half-tracks passed without discovering them.
That night they crossed the Meuse in a stolen rowboat, a difficult feat since the river ran fast and deep. They were only slightly in front of the advancing German military machine. By the second sunset they felt safe enough to actually try to get some sleep and spelled each other on guard duty. They were surprised to find themselves alive when the sun rose. In the early morning hours they were discovered by an advance patrol of British Tommies, part of an Anglo-French force sent belatedly to assist their stricken neighbors across the Channel.
The two Belgians stumbled into camp and explained their predicament to a British officer. He spoke passable French and immediately wrote out a message based on the information they provided which was relayed to headquarters by courier. Then he gave them orders to bivouac and draw rations with the nearest platoon.
They ate hard bread and an unrecognizable type of pressed meat out of tin cans, found a shovel and traded turns digging. The British soldiers, along with the best fighting divisions France had to offer, formed a defensive line that stretched between Antwerp and Namur.
That evening Enville and Summit were seated around a small cook fire. They glumly ate their first hot meal in two days, compliments of the combined expeditionary forces, and tried to comprehend both their situation and the language.
“Don’t worry, Froggie,” a corporal said in a heavy English accent. “We have arrived to save your sorry arses.”
The two soldiers knew theirs was very nearly a defeated country. Any consolation or hope no matter how rude was welcome.
“The Meuse will stop the Germans,” one member of the company said confidently.
Enville had a college education but English was not his strong suit. He spoke somewhat better than he comprehended and did his best to translate for Summit all the while thinking how the strident British words were delivered with a bravado similar to his countryman Summit’s supremely confident but ignorant style.
“Nothing can get across that water without getting blown to pieces by our boys,” the soldier said. “And even if they somehow managed, the Boche would arrive with no backup. Nothing larger than a motorcycle can get through them Ardennes woods of yours. ‘At’s wot happened in the last war, anyways”
In addition to food, the Belgians were allowed to pick up bedding and enough ammunition to make them feel as if they could put up a fight. They had not fired a shot and carried only 20 rounds each in anticipation of returning to Eben Emael.