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Liège WW2

Liège WW I and WW II - 2h45 drive from Calais:

Both during WWI and WW II, Liège had to face, in less than a generation, the most unexpectedly violent attacks from the German troops. Built in the 19th century, the Liege Defence Line ‘Position fortifiée de Liège' had the very sad privilege of being on the front row of the attacker's assault and of their attempts to invade Western Europe. Most of the forts (Loncin, Eben-Emael ...) are very well-preserved. 

World War Two at Fort de Loncin

One of the fort’s display rooms is dedicated to an act of bravery in the Second World War which took place a short distance away. The Halifax Room is a museum-within-a-museum, containing fascinating mementoes of a Halifax bomber shot down in 1943 as it returned from a raid on Cologne. Four of the eight-man crew were killed, including the Canadian pilot, who managed to steer the stricken aircraft away from densely populated Liège before crash-landing beside the fort. One of the four survivors, John Redman, is still alive.

Liège forts – second generation 

After the Fort Loncin disaster in 1914, Belgium prepared for future German aggression by constructing a new generation of four ‘modern’ forts, carved out by miners in the 1930s. The last of these constructions was Fort Eben-Ebael, 12 miles north-east of Liège near the German border. Hailed as the most formidable defensive fortress in the world, Eben-Emael’s statistics make extraordinary reading. The complex sprawled over 75 hectares - roughly the size of 150 football pitches. Seventeen separate bunkers were connected by a complex network of galleries resembling London Underground tunnels and measuring in total more than three miles. The fort commander needed four hours - on a bicycle - to inspect every section, and at full strength this extraordinary, mainly subterranean garrison numbered nearly 1,200 men.

But the Germans had studied it closely, and Hitler spotted the fort’s essential flaw: it was vulnerable to an airborne attack. In May 1940 German paratroopers descended from gliders, armed with high explosives, and caught the defenders unawares. The paratroopers landed on the roof and quickly destroyed or disabled most of the guns. The fallen are commemorated on a plaque outside the entrance. Although the Germans failed to penetrate the underground galleries, the fort’s commander was forced to surrender the following day when the Germans’ back-up infantry force arrived.

The loss of this lynchpin of Belgium’s defensive ring dealt a devastating blow to the morale of the Belgian army, and the remaining forts soon capitulated. Today, Eben-Ebael is still run by the Belgian military, and because the underground section of the fort is intact, there’s much to explore. The gas klaxons – alarmingly – still work. Because of its size and confusing warren of tunnels, the fort is generally open only to groups, who need to make an appointment at least 15 days ahead and must have a guide. Individuals can explore the galleries without a reservation on certain weekends throughout the year, and English-speaking guides are available on request. It’s an atmospheric place, where it’s possible to imagine the strange, dank, troglodyte world of the soldiers who were billeted there, and a reminder that however carefully you plan, your enemy might have planned more carefully than you.

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