Reinforced Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 2 seizes the Isthmus of Corinth II

This aerial photo, taken by a reconnaissance airplane of on 26 April 1941 at 0659 hours, shows the Corinth Canal and the terrain either side of it shortly after the landing of Gruppe Sturm. The bridge across the canal is still intact.

This aerial photo, taken at 0701 hours on 26 April 1041, documents the destruction of the bridge across the Corinth Canal. The bridge had blown up a minute earlier, and its smoke can be clearly seen, drifting in a north-westerly direction.

In the meantime parts of the 7th and 8th companies of II./FschJgRgt.2, assigned to Hauptmann Schirmer, had attacked into the town on their own. Two platoons and the command section from 6th (NZ) Field Coy had stubbornly resisted the advance from a lemon grove at the edge of Corinth. When their situation had become hopeless they had managed to break out in small groups. Most of them eventually reached the port of Kalamata, where they too were evacuated on 27 April. Another platoon of 6th (NZ) Field Coy, with the exception of about 20 men, was captured in an air raid shelter. The few Greek troops in Corinth, consisting exclusively of staff, administrative and logistical personnel, offered no organized resistance. Hauptmann Schirmer’s 6th Company had bypassed Corinth in a southerly direction. On the way it occupied a barracks where it captured three air-defence guns, two light and one heavy. At 1400hrs, reinforced II./FschJgRgt.2 formed a defense line toward the south from the eastern entrance of the Corinth Canal, to the position of 6./FschJgRgt.2 south-west of Corinth. About this time, Oberst Sturm also moved to Corinth, from where he began to establish personal contact with subordinate units. Incomprehensibly, no attempt was undertaken to occupy the airfield at Corinth.

Together with the first paratroopers of II./FschJgRgt.2, a shock troop from 1./FschSanAbt.7, led by Oberarzt Dr. Mallison, had also entered Corinth. Not yet marked as medical personnel, the shock troop confiscated a Greek military hospital and immediately prepared the operating rooms for the surgical treatment of wounded. The main dressing station of 1./FschSanAbt.7 was moved to the hospital, leaving behind only a collection point for wounded in the original location. At about 1530hrs a Ju 52 dropped medical supplies at the hospital. Shortly afterwards a medical Ju 52 landed at the hospital, loaded the first seriously wounded and took off again. Some transport aircraft delivering supplies also touched down at the hospital and after unloading, took wounded aboard. By 1700hrs 37 of them were on their way to a German military hospital in Saloniki. Among them was Hauptmann Pietzonka, who had handed over command of his battalion to Hauptmann Schirmer.

In the operation area of Untergruppe Kroh, 3./FschJgRgt.2, under Oberleutnant von Roon, had arrived as last unit shortly after the canal bridge had been blown, even though it should have been dropped before the staff of I./FschJgRgt.2. Two of its platoons came down as planned and attacked the village of Kalamaki from the north. The village was occupied after a short fight because the Allied and the Greek troops there immediately made for the high ground north of the railway and coastal road. A ferry, which was found in Kalamaki, was immediately utilized, but it started to sink with the first truck aboard. Thereupon work commenced to construct a provisional bridge with boats found in the small port of Kalamaki. With the support of engineers from platoon Häffner, the 8-tonbridge was ready in the early afternoon and constituted the only permanent crossing site for troops and light vehicles for the time being. As the telephone exchange in Kalamaki still worked, communication across the canal was soon possible again via commercial lines. A platoon from 14./FschJgRgt.2 (anti-tank), dropped in support of I./FschJgRgt.2, arrived at Kalamaki without difficulties and set up positions on the eastern edge of the village toward the east. The platoon from 13./FschJgRgt.2, which had also been assigned to I./FschJgRgt.2, however, was dropped wrongly into the Gerania Mountains. The salvage of the individual loads of its two recoilless guns turned out to be extremely difficult and time consuming.

The third platoon of 3./FschJgRgt.2 was dropped incorrectly south-east of Corinth, west of the canal. It advanced toward its eastern entrance near Isthmia and captured an air-defence battery, which had already been abandoned by its crew. At about 1345hrs the gliders with guns of 3./FschArtAbt.7, which had been brought along from Plovdiv/Bulgaria via Larissa arrived near the regimental command post of Gruppe Sturm. A situation report from VIII.Flieger-Korps, about a possible enemy attack against the Isthmus of Corinth from the north-east, caused these guns to be assigned to Untergruppe Kroh. At 1900hrs their leader reported to the command post of I./FschJgRgt.2 and in the course of the night managed to bring along his two guns.

As the two platoons positioned as combat outposts of Untergruppe Kroh, in the defile west of Aghia Theodori, were attacked several times before midnight and VIII.Flieger-Korps had warned of a strong thrust by the enemy from the east within the next few hours, they were finally withdrawn into the main defensive line of I./FschJgRgt.2 just east of the Corinth Canal.

Except for the sporadic exchange of shots during reconnaissance or mopping up actions, the fighting in the operational area of Untergruppe Pietzonka came to a temporary end in the evening of 26 April. Since the begin of the glider and parachute assault, the sub-group, now commanded by Hauptmann Schirmer, had taken 554 soldiers of the British expeditionary corps as prisoners, among them 19 officers. Additionally more than 450 Greek soldiers were captured. Among the heavy equipment captured undamaged were 14 heavy and 10 light air-defence guns, two Bren Carriers, about 50 trucks and numerous smaller motor vehicles. However considerable forces of the British expeditionary corps, including some brigade groups, were known to have reached the area around Argos and Navplion. As the defence line, which was occupied by Hauptmann Schirmer’s force in the evening, was thought to be vulnerable to a counter-attack from the south it was relocated to that as of 1000hrs. A counter-attack had indeed been initiated in the morning. This had been based on an erroneous report by the command of the 4th Hussars, that just a hundred or so German paratroopers had been dropped near the Corinth Canal. Two companies from the 26th Battalion of the 6th (NZ) Brigade and a number of its Bren Carriers had been dispatched as reinforcements from the area around Argos to the Isthmus, in order to support the still intended movement of the 4th (NZ) Brigade Group to the Peloponnese. Informed by stragglers on the way toward Corinth about the true dimensions of the German parachute assault and attacked from the air, the commander of the reinforcement column decided to stop the further advance of his force and to initially occupy a blocking position at Solomos, about 7km south of Corinth. There, the force covered the rearward passage lines of a company of the Australian 2/6 Infantry Battalion, from the area north of Examilia and provided motor transport for this company further to the south. A German reconnaissance patrol, which had pursued the retreating Australian company from Examilia, was ambushed in the ravine in front of Solomos and was almost totally wiped out.

In the ports of Navplion and Tolon, about 40km south of Corinth, covered by the remainder of Lee’s task force and by the 26th (NZ) Infantry Battalion from the greater area around Argos, about 4,500 soldiers of the British expeditionary corps, among them the headquarter troops of General Wilson, were embarked during the night 26/27 April. As no further opportunity for an evacuation from these ports had been seen, the evacuation fleet had attempted to take aboard as many soldiers as possible. Therefore at daylight on 27 April the ships were still within the range of German dive bombers. These promptly attacked and managed to sink the transport Slamat, the Polish destroyer Wryneck, and the British destroyer Diamond, causing the loss of more than 500 soldiers and sailors. Furthermore about 2,200 soldiers of the expeditionary corps, mostly administrative and logistic personnel, were left behind for good on the coast of the Argolian Gulf. On 26 April General Wilson had passed command over all remaining forces of the expeditionary corps on the Greek mainland to the commander of the New Zealand Division, Major General Freyberg, and had left for Alexandria in a flying boat. In addition to the evacuations in the Argolian Gulf, about 8,700 soldiers of the expeditionary corps, including the two almost complete Australian 16th and 17th Brigade Groups, were evacuated during that night from the port of Kalamata for Egypt.

Owing to the uninterrupted replenishment of aviation fuel on the airfield at Larissa, the air transport formations which had returned from their tasks at the Isthmus of Corinth in the course of the late afternoon of 26 April were able to move III./FschJgRgt.2, a great part of the staff of Detachement Süßmann, and additional medical troops from the area around Plovdiv to Larissa. There, they were earmarked for delivery by air into the operation area of Gruppe Sturm on 27 April.

At dawn on 27 April, when attacks by the enemy from the north-east had failed to materialize, 1./FschJgRgt.2 pushed forward reconnaissance in front of its entire sector. Two platoons from its 2nd Company, advancing toward Kineta, came across motorcycle-infantry of the 5.Panzer-Division at Aghia Theodori. These light troops moved onto the Corinth Canal and crossed it using the provisional bridge at its eastern entrance. Thereby the combat operations of Untergruppe Kroh definitively came to an end. From its overall personnel strength of 30 officers and 973 other ranks, it had lost five killed, five wounded and 13 missing. On the side the enemy, about 1,120 soldiers had been captured, with about 380 of them belonging to British, New Zealand and Australian units. In view of the now approaching advance forces from 5.Panzer-Division, Hauptmann Kroh at 1730hrs received the order from Oberst Sturm to move his sub-group to Corinth.

As Untergruppe Pietzonka was also not counter-attacked, its positions, abandoned at nightfall on 26 April, were reoccupied shortly after first daylight on 27 April. At the western entrance of the Corinth Canal, four of the captured heavy air-defence guns were positioned against possible attacks by British naval forces. On the orders of Oberst Sturm, all Greek soldiers captured so far during the parachute undertaking were now released and sent home.

At about 1100hrs, a liaison officer from 5.Panzer-Division arrived by a light reconnaissance aircraft at the regimental command post. No need, however, was seen to accept his offer for an acceleration of the arrival of advance forces, and for the relief of the Fallschirmtruppe.

About this time, 1./FschJgRgt.2, which was deployed to protect the regimental command post, was also ordered to move to Corinth. Swinging far to the south the company suddenly came across elements of the enemy, which still held out in the park-like ruins of ancient Corinth. It took a costly flanking movement, which cost nine killed and four wounded, before the company managed to drive the enemy off. Its 3rd Platoon now advanced toward the airfield at Corinth, about 3km further to the north, at the beach of the Gulf of Corinth. On the way to this objective the platoon captured about 80 soldiers of the expeditionary corps, among them 14 officers. When it reached the undefended airfield at about 1345hrs, it found some Ju 52s in which Generalleutnant Süßmann and parts of his staff in the meantime had arrived.

By 1430hrs Generalleutnant Süßmann and Oberst Haseloff, the commander of 5.Schützen-Brigade from 5.Panzer-Division, who had driven ahead of his troops, shook hands at the command post of Gruppe Sturm. Around 1500hrs, probably based on an agreement between Generalleutnant Süßmann and the operations staff officer of 5.Panzer-Division, Oberst Sturm ordered Hauptmann Schirmer to immediately seize the airfield at Mykene, utilizing captured motor vehicles. Before Hauptmann Schirmer’s task force was ready to move, the staff of II./Schützen-Regiment 13, the 1st and 8th companies of this regiment and three 15cm guns from 8./ArtRgt.116, led by the commander of II./Schützen-Regiment 13, Oberstleutnant Kieler, managed to cross the Corinth Canal over the provisional bridge of the paratroopers. However the bridge had broken down under the weight of the third gun and as such the connection between both banks of the canal had to be maintained with boats until the arrival of engineers from the 5.Panzer-Division with bridging equipment.

For the advance toward Argos, task force Schirmer was now placed subordinate to Oberstleutnant Kieler. It was to advance to Argos ahead of Kieler’s troops. There, it was to wait for the arrival of the 15cm guns prior to the further advance toward Navplion.

At 1640hrs task force Schirmer moved off toward Argos. On the way Schirmer was informed by a report dropped from reconnaissance aircraft that the area around Argos was unoccupied by the British expeditionary corps. Therefore he decided to immediately pass through the defile north of Argos and occupy the nearby airfield. On the abandoned airfield the task force discovered a number of damaged British fighter aircraft, some air-defence guns and about 8,000 liters of aviation fuel. Leaving behind a parachute platoon, an anti-tank gun and a light anti-aircraft gun for the protection of the airfield, Hauptmann Schirmer hurried on. At 1915hrs his task force arrived in front of Argos. Although the 15cm battery had not yet made its appearance Hauptmann Schirmer sought out the mayor of Argos and the Greek garrison commandant, who immediately surrendered the town to him. The task force then moved on for about 8km toward Navplion. There, under the protection of sentries, it rested for some hours. During the night a platoon from 1./FschJgRgt.2 delivered an 80-watt radio set. By means of this communication, Gruppe Sturm tasked Hauptmann Schirmer to advance to Navplion and Mily early in the morning of 28 April and return from there to the area around Corinth after the arrival of follow-on forces from the 5.Panzer-Division.

During the afternoon of 27 April, III./FschJgRgt.2 landed on the airfield at Corinth and was initially kept in readiness there. With the departing transport aircraft a number of the less seriously wounded paratroopers were taken back to German medical installations in the north-east of Greece. A patrol from 1./FschJgRgt.2, moving along the coastal road, unexpectedly met elements of the 2./AufklAbt from the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler at Xylokastron, about 30km west of Corinth. The Leibstandarte, which had commenced crossing the Gulf of Patras on 26 April and in the meantime had gained control over Patras and its port, had not been informed about the actual situation at the Isthmus of Corinth. Four of its companies therefore were sent from Patras by train for the relief of Gruppe Sturm late in the afternoon of 27 April. As there was no need at all for their presence, they returned to Patras on the morning of 28 April for the subsequent advance along the western part of the Peloponnese.

At dawn on 28 April, 5./FschJgRgt.2 occupied Mily, which had been cleared of the enemy. The 7th and 8th companies of Schirmer’s task force, supported by sub-units of the motorcycle-infantry from 5.Panzer-Division, took possession of the town and the port of Navplion. There was no sign of the British expeditionary corps with the exception of the wreck of the troop transport Ulster Prince, which after some bomb hits listed alongside the pier of the port. In the town the paratroopers captured the general who was in command of all Greek troops on the Peloponnese, except for those in Patras. The Greek general declared himself willing to surrender all troops under his command. This intention, however, caused some difficulties, as the telephone system on the Peloponnese had partly broken down and radio contact between Schirmer and Gruppe Sturm was not reliable.

Schirmer’s 6th Company in the meantime bypassed Navplion and around midday approached Tolon. There it was confronted by numerically superior British troops, who had not yet given up hope of being evacuated from this port. In the ensuing fighting 6./FschJgRgt.2 lost three killed and 14 wounded and was forced to fall back some distance toward Navplion. Upon Schirmer’s situation report, Oberst Sturm immediately dispatched a reinforced company from III./FschJgRgt.2, still available elements of 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 and a platoon each of the regimental-level gun and anti-tank companies, in support of Schirmer.

In the meantime Oberleutnant Knobloch, Schirmer’s adjutant, had won over a captured British officer as a negotiator with the stranded British forces at Tolon. He had obviously been able to convince him about the (non-existent) presence of numerous German troops close to Tolon, of the imminent arrival of armored forces and of a pre-planned dive-bomber attack. How effective his ruse was became visible a few hours later. At about 1900hrs 72 officers and 1,200 other ranks formed up at Tolon to march into captivity. In addition numerous enemy wounded were transported by ambulances to the field dressing station, which the medical officer of Schirmer’s task force had set up in Navplion. The amount of booty was also considerable, although most of the about 500 motor vehicles of the enemy were made permanently unusable.

The task force of 5.Panzer-Division under Oberstleutnant Kieler moved off from the Isthmus of Corinth late in the evening of 27 April and in the early hours of 28 April commenced to cross the Peloponnese in direction toward the port of Kalamata. In the course of this day it was joined by two 8-wheeled signals reconnaissance armored cars. These had used the light war bridge, which in the meantime had been constructed across the southern part of the Corinth Canal by the engineer battalion of 5.Panzer-Division.

After the capitulation of the British troops at Tolon Hauptmann Schirmer drove to Corinth. For the first time since the employment of his task force Oberst Sturm and Generalleutnant Süßmann now received a complete and precise report about the situation on the coast of the Argolian Gulf, as most of the radio traffic from there had been garbled. As this region was now considered safely in the hands of troops from the 5.Panzer-Division Schirmer’s force was ordered back to the Isthmus. The reinforcements for Schirmer, which had reached the area around Argos, had been called back earlier.

With the return of Untergruppe Pietzonka from the south, the mission of Gruppe Sturm on the Peloponnese had definitively come to an end. Of its overall strength of 28 officers and 830 other ranks, the sub-group had lost four officers and 43 other ranks in killed, wounded and missing. As it had taken the brunt of the fighting, it alone had captured more than 1,900 soldiers of the British expeditionary corps on the Peloponnese, among them 91 officers.

After the end of the campaign by the Wehrmacht on the Greek mainland, Detachement Süßmann was moved into quarters around Corinth and Megara. The fighting on the Peloponnese had cost the detachment 65 killed, 89 seriously and 123 less seriously wounded and 17 missing. With eight killed and 18 wounded, the losses of Häffner’s parachute engineer platoon was particularly high. During its involvement in the actual fighting, 1./FschSanAbt.7 had also lost four killed, 20 wounded and two missing. Among the killed was the commander of FschSanAbt.7, Oberstabsarzt Dr. Berg.

With the seizure of the Isthmus of Corinth, the parachute force again had proved its value as a military instrument of high shock effect. The command of the British expeditionary corps had not disregarded the threat of an attack from the air against the eye of the needle along the route of withdrawal for the majority of its troops to the planned embarkation sites on the Peloponnese. Consequently it had assembled what had remained of its air-defence forces on the Isthmus and had also arranged for some ground forces for the protection of the bridge across the Corinth-Canal. The command of the 12.Armee had evidently firmly counted on the success of the requested parachute assault, although it had been well aware of the enemy’s ability to cleverly and expertly block the advance routes of its ground forces and thereby to gain the time required to deal with the landed paratroopers on the Isthmus. In this context it is interesting to note that the command of 12.Armee evidently did not realize that most of the British expeditionary corps had already crossed the Corinth Canal on the way to the embarkation sites on the morning of 26 April. Seen from this point of view the decision to seize the Isthmus of Corinth by a parachute assault had mainly served the purpose of generating the conditions for an unhindered crossing of the canal upon the arrival of mechanized ground forces. As a result of the masterly executed evacuation operation Demon by Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, the opportunity to capture a large portion of the British expeditionary corps on the Peloponnese had not materialized.

On the side of Detachement Süßmann and VIII.Flieger-Korps, the planning for and the preparation of the parachute operation on the Isthmus of Corinth had been extremely well thought-out. One of the most important aspects had been the use of a glider force immediately prior to the parachuting of the majority of the assault force, utilizing the surprise effect of a fully combat-ready platoon against the bridge. In order to achieve the desired success the cooperation between the supporting combat aircraft and the glider force had to be accomplished in such a way that the former by their suppressive fire, prevented the air-defence weapons in the vicinity of the bridge from firing against the landing gliders, whereas as their first combat-action their passengers had to neutralize the air-defence positions before the crews of the guns were able to man them and to open fire against the approaching transport aircraft. How efficient this method of attack had been, was confirmed by the fact that not one of the Ju 52s was lost in the airspace over the Isthmus.

The gallantry and skill of the paratroopers of Gruppe Sturm went without saying. Nevertheless their quick success was also built on the fact that the defenders on the Isthmus of Corinth had consisted of a scratch force from British, New Zealand and Australian units which had never fought together before and had lacked any cohesion. Brigadier Lee, who was assigned as their commander, had been the artillery officer of I Australian Corps and as such was neither known by the detached troops, nor was he overly familiar with ground combat at the tactical level. It was therefore no wonder that the troops left behind on the Isthmus, with the feeling of all soldiers for a cause lost, had primarily seen their escape and survival as their main focus at the begin of the parachute assault. This explained why the about 900-1,000 defenders with a great many heavy weapons and a number of lightly armored vehicles at hand, had only in a few cases fought to the best of their abilities and, in some cases, had prematurely left the battlefield.

The decision to make use of the absolute air supremacy of the Luftwaffe such that the attack force was flown in and dropped in one formation, had proved correct. It had not been seen as necessary to seize the airfield at Corinth by parachute assault, as it had not been defended at all and landings had been planned for the remainder of Detachement Süßmann only after the occupation of Corinth and of all of the operation area on either side of the canal.

Some experience was also gained for future parachute missions. For the first time heavy weapons had been dropped by parachute together with troops. The planning and execution of the resupply with aviation fuel by the staff of Detachement Süßmann, for which the two squadrons of Ju 52s put together from the aircraft of the parachute schools were used, was also noteworthy; these had been retained in the zone of operations against the orders of Berlin. As in previous operations, the ability of the troops to come up with makeshift solutions had helped to solve a serious problem.

The opportunity to employ Detachement Süßmann in an earlier phase of the campaign in Greece had obviously never been contemplated. After the British had given up the defense of the Aliakmon line and of the Olympus mountain range and had conducted a fighting withdrawal toward the south, the seizure and blocking of the Domokos Pass at the southern end of the Thessalian Plain, 65km south of Larissa, by Detachement Süßmann, could have prevented the escape of strong elements of the ANZAC Corps, until the 5. and 2.Panzer-Divisions of the 12.Armee had approached from the north. Without doubt this operation could have led to the end of the planned resistance by the British expeditionary corps and to its piecemeal defeat, at a time when its evacuation had not yet been considered by the Middle East Command.

The second reason has to be seen in the attitude of Student himself. He had remained in his headquarters in Berlin during the transfer of Detachement Süßmann to Bulgaria for the execution of Operation Hannibal, as well as after the begin of Marita, and obviously had paid little attention to the fighting in Yugoslavia and Greece. As neither the OKW nor the high command of the Heer had thought about an operational-level role for XI.Flieger-Korps in Operation Barbarossa and as Student had also not developed his own ideas for this use, as one should have expected, he had concentrated his efforts on the build-up of his parachute corps and its employment according to Göring’s views about the extension of the war against the British Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. The sudden use of Detachement Süßmann against the Isthmus of Corinth certainly must have been against his own intentions. His assertion after the war that he was informed about this operation only after its execution is, however, difficult to understand. There can be no doubt that Generalleutnant Süßmann had informed him immediately after the receipt of the execution order from Luftflotte 4. In addition the measures related to the reinforcement of the detachment, with further parts of FschPiBtl.7 and the assignment of aircraft from the parachute schools for their transport to Bulgaria had not gone unnoticed by his staff in Berlin. More to the truth, therefore, probably is that in light of the command arrangements for Detachement Süßmann and the involvement of Göring and Generaloberst Löhr, Student had evidently accepted having no more influence on its use at Corinth.

How much the OKL already at this time was willing to comply with Hitler’s intuitions became clearly visible when Göring ordered the employment of Detachement Süßmann at the Isthmus of Corinth despite the fact that only a few days prior to this operation Hitler had decided to take Crete using parachute forces and calculations about the required strength of these forces had not yet been made.

The employment of parachute troops on the Peloponnese had, as in the previous operations in Belgium and Holland, ended with their quick relief by ground forces. Some of the lessons which were important for the planned operation against Crete, however, were not thoroughly taken into account, because the paratroopers had not been forced to fight a conventionally-armed or determined enemy. Despite the tremendous armament efforts of Germany, the issue of equipping the parachute force with organic means for the air transport of its forces and for fire support from the air remained unresolved. Both elements had to be drawn away from other users for every operation, which not only had a negative impact on the accomplishment of their other tasks, but was also time consuming and costly in effort. Therefore airborne operations on a large scale would always require approval at the highest command level.

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1 thought on “Reinforced Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 2 seizes the Isthmus of Corinth II

  1. My good friend – sadly now gone – Johannes Suttinger was here – he is one of the guys on the bridge in that famous news reel. He would later fight under V.d. Heydte in and around Carantan, ending the war in Berlin. He was later arrested for making anti-Stalin statements and was released from Soviet/DDR imprisonment only in the mid 60’s – and he was sold to the west as a dissident.

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