Operation Stahl

steel

This was a German airborne operation by part of Hauptmann Walter Koch’s Fallschirmjäger-Sturmabteilung ‘Koch’ of Generalleutnant Kurt Student’s 7th Fliegerdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s 22nd Luftlande-Division to seize and hold the bridge near Veldwezelt in Belgium as part of ‘Sichelschnitt’ (10 May 1940).

The undertaking was one of a quartet of small-scale operations, together with the related ‘Beton’, ‘Eisen’ and ‘Granit’, to take and hold key defensive positions whose retention or destruction by the Belgian forces might otherwise hinder the German advance in Belgium. The German special force tasked with the undertaking was part of the 1st Luftlande-Sturmregiment, otherwise the Fallschirmjäger-Sturmabteilung ‘Koch’, of the Luftwaffe’s airborne arm.

Led by Oberleutnant Gustav Altmann, the 92 men of the ‘Stahl’ detachment were transported in nine DFS 230A assault gliders, all of which landed next to the bridge at 05.20, the barbed wire wrapping itself round the landing skids and thereby bringing the gliders to a rapid halt. Altmann’s glider had landed some distance from the bridge, and a second had landed directly in front of a Belgian pillbox, which began engaging both groups of German airborne troops with small arms fire. The non-commissioned officer in charge of the troops from the second glider hurled grenades at the pillbox as another of his men laid an explosive charge at the pillbox’s door and detonated it, allowing the bunker to be assaulted and removed as an obstacle.

Simultaneously, Altmann gathered his troops and led them along a ditch running parallel to the bridge until two men were able to reach the canal bank and climb onto the girders, disconnecting the Belgian demolition charges. The airborne troops thus prevented the destruction of the bridge, but were still opposed by the rest of the Belgian defenders, who did not give up their positions until the arrival of a platoon of German reinforcements forced them to retire to a nearby village. However, two Belgian field guns located some 545 yards (500 m) away from the bridge could not be overcome by small arms fire, forcing Altmann to call for air support in the form of several Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, whose attacks knocked out the guns.

The ‘Stahl’ detachment was to have been relieved by 14.30, but Belgian resistance ensured that the troops meant to relieve them were able to arrive in strength only by 21.30. During the fighting, the ‘Stahl’ detachment lost eight men killed and 30 wounded.