German Paratrooper Operations on the Italian Mainland 1943

Kriegsberichter Batz drawing showing paratroopers destroying a railway bridge in Italy, in the face of the Allied advance.

FALLSCHIRMJÄGER-REGIMENT 1 AT TARENT

When the British 8th Army landed on European soil on 5 September, Oberstleutnant Heilmann’s FJR 3 was the first German formation to oppose it. On the evening of 10 September, the village of Battipaglia was taken back from the enemy. Without using any artillery preparation, it was the I./FJR 3 that took it.

Up to then, events were occurring at a rapid pace in Italy. On the morning of 8 September, Allied forces had also landed at Pizzo. That evening they were also at Tarent. On the morning of 9 September, the main body of the Allied forces landed in the broad bay of Salerno. Brought onto land from 450 ships were 169,000 men and 20,000 vehicles. The force was commanded by General Harold Alexander, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the 15th Army Group.

At about the same time, the announcement was made that Italy was leaving the Axis. In addition to fighting the Allies, the Germans had to disarm the Italian forces as well. Once again, the operations of a single regiment—in this case, FJR 1—will be highlighted as illustrative of all. Oberstleutnant Schulz’s FJR 1 had originally been intended for employment on Sicily, but it was then held back on the mainland. The regiment was sent from the Naples area on 7 September

To Francaville, which is along the Brindisi-Tarent road. When Schulz and his men encountered a roadblock about 3 kilometers north of Tarent, he had his vehicle halt. He was held there by an Italian guard force. Even when Schulz requested to speak to the Italian commander, he was not allowed to pass. Via radio, Schulz asked Generalleutnant Heidrich whether he should break through using force. The general initially forbade any violent activity.

The next day, Schulz received the news that the Italians had changed sides. Because he had too few vehicles, he ordered his men to go to a nearby Italian officer school and “procure” some. Schulz led the way in his staff car and arrived at the school that housed 800 Italian officer candidates.

Schulz had the officer candidates form up on the drill square and recalled the events in Africa and in Russia in a fiery speech that appealed to their sense of former comradeship. The talk was not without effect. More than 400 officer candidates requested to remain fighting with the Germans. The commander of the school, whom Schulz had wanted to see, had committed suicide in his office.

The Germans took the necessary vehicles, and no one stopped them. Now fully motorized, the regiment rolled on to Tarent. By the time they arrived there, the enemy had already landed. The fighting of the regiment against the landing force commenced. Gradually, all of the remaining divisional elements arrived in the area and, by the end of September, Heidrich had his entire division assembled there.

The German paratroopers put up extremely tough resistance at Tarent. The paratroopers pulled back, but only house-by-house and position-by-position. That was the start of the infamous “centimeter offensive”, which inflicted heavy and bloody casualties on the enemy.

On 20 September, when Oberstleutnant Schulz headed to an area that had been penetrated by the enemy that morning—the enemy never attacked at night—his command car was strafed by low-flying fighter-bombers. Before he was able to get out of the vehicle, the fighter-bombers were already over him. Cannon and machine-gun rounds peppered the vehicle. The driver was killed immediately. Schulz’s liaison officer was badly wounded, but the regimental commander emerged unscathed. He rallied his soldiers to the left and right of the enemy’s point of penetration and pushed back the enemy forces, which included airborne personnel as well. After three hours of hard and uncompromising fighting, the enemy pulled back, defeated and decimated.

Two prisoners were then brought to the regimental commander. One of them was a captain, who introduced himself as Lord Brickleton. The British nobleman asked Schulz in broken German if he would be so kind as to let his unit know that he was still alive.

Schulz smiled as he heard the request and granted it. A few days later, in a sort of act of reciprocity, he received news that a German patrol, which had fallen into the hands of Italian partisans and had been freed by the British, was also in good health.

With the surprise landing of strong enemy forces on 21 and 22 September at Bari, the 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division was once more involved in bitter defensive fighting. The regiment gradually had to pull back to behind the Ofanto River, 30 kilometers north of Bari. The fighting for Foggia lasted three days, before the important air base was lost. In Cerignola, Schulz’s paratroopers participated in bitter street fighting with the enemy. The paratroopers fought under the arcades and along the drainage canals that lead to the sea. The enemy continued to advance, thanks to his superior numbers, and forced the paratroopers behind the Biferno River in the High Apennines.

The fall of Rome also saw turbulent scenes, which will be described from the point of view of the airborne forces.

A NOTEWORTHY DISCUSSION

On 25 July 1943, Student was called late in the afternoon from the Führer headquarters and summoned to Rastenburg immediately. An hour later, the Commanding General was in his utility aircraft and flying to Rastenburg, where he landed five hours later.

Hitler received him immediately in his study, where there were only the two of them. They then went to the large briefing room. It was the same room in which the attempt on Hitler’s life would be carried out nearly a year later. Student provided the author with a firsthand account:

“I have selected you and your paratroopers,” Hitler explained, “for a very important mission. The Duce was removed from power today by the Italian king and taken into custody. That means that Italy will soon fall and go to the enemy camp.

“Student, I am asking you to go to Rome as soon as possible with all available airborne forces. I am holding you responsible for Rome being held. Otherwise, our forces on Sicily and in southern Italy will be cut off. You and your corps are being attached to the Commander-in-Chief South, Feldmarschall Kesselring. He has already been informed.”

I was then briefed in detail. Hitler concluded in a raised voice: “One of your special missions is to find and liberate my friend Mussolini. He’s going to be delivered by the Italians to the Americans.”

Early on the morning of 26 July, I started for Rome. With me was SS-Hauptsturmführer Skorzeny, whom I had not met up to that point. During the night, he and an SS paratrooper detail had been attached to me for the execution of any missions of a police nature.

I reported to Feldmarschall Kesselring in Frascati.

He oriented me in more detail concerning the situation in Italy and asked me to stay there at his headquarters. I gladly accepted and enjoyed his tremendous hospitality until the middle of September, the conclusion of the fighting for Rome.

At the same time, airborne forces were being sent as rapidly as possible to Rome. Within 48 hours, 20,000 paratroopers landed at the Pratica di Mare, an airfield southwest of Rome. They took up billets in military facilities in the Pontine Swamps.

In Rome, Student attempted to find out Mussolini’s location. He discovered that Mussolini had initially been taken to the island of Ponza. The police attaché in Rome at the time, SS-Sturmbannführer Kappler, confirmed the Italian dictator’s presence on that island a short while later.

Student, who had received complete freedom of action from Hitler, started his preparation to free the imprisoned Duce. In the middle of those preparations, however, the news arrived that Mussolini had been taken to Maddalena.

Student was then ordered back to Rastenburg, where Hitler spoke privately to him. During the conversation, Student requested Hitler for permission to include Skorzeny in any search operations. It was Skorzeny who had located Mussolini in Maddalena.

The rescue operation’s planning at high speed continued again, when Skorzeny reported to Student that Mussolini had also disappeared from Maddalena. Kappler’s intelligence section had been given a tip that Mussolini was at the Campo Imperatore hotel in the mountains on the Gran Sasso. Student acted on his own at that point and sent his personal physician, Dr. Krutoff to Gran Sasso. The doctor returned and reported that the hotel had been closed over the past few days.

Then another event occurred that caused the rescue mission for Mussolini to move into the background: On 8 September, the Italian forces officially surrendered, five days after secret meetings in Cassible on Sicily between the Allies and General Castellano.

At the same time that the announcement was made, a powerful air strike was executed on Kesselring’s headquarters at Frascati and von Richthofen’s headquarters at Grottaferrata. Both command posts were destroyed, but thousands of Italian civilians also lost their lives.

During the afternoon of 8 September, Major Gericke’s II./FJR 6 received an unusual order. This was a follow-up to a conversation Gericke and Student had had at the end of July. At the time, Gericke’s men were guarding the airfield at Foggia, when the Commanding General summoned the battalion commander to Frascati.

In July, Student had told Gericke that he had selected him “and his battalion for a special mission. It is top secret.”

After a pause, Student continued: “We have to believe that the Italians will get out of the war, sooner or later, and join the Allies. It is imperative that the danger that could result for the German forces in Italy and even for Germany be averted. Therefore, you have the following mission:

“In case of an Italian capitulation you are to jump with your battalion on the Italian headquarters at Monte Rotondo, capture it and thus paralyze the entire command and control apparatus of the Italian Armed Forces. You are on your own for this mission. Support before the jump or during the fighting cannot be guaranteed, due to the necessity for secrecy.”

Gericke went back to Foggia and started preparations. He studied the maps that had the location of the headquarters northeast of Rome marked on them. It was a 160-meter high hill that was packed full of concrete bunkers, dugouts, roadblocks and tank obstacles. Artillery pieces and antiaircraft guns were positioned all the way around the hill.

On his own initiative, Gericke flew in a Fieseler Storch from Frascati to the restricted area. He wanted to get a firsthand look. The Storch was greeted by a few rounds from antiaircraft guns. The pilot waved his wings as a sign that he understood and was turning away.

That was not enough for Gericke. He tried to get through to Monte Rotondo on the ground. He was able to get as far as the main roadblock, before he was stopped. Accompanied by an escort, however, he was allowed to move through the restricted area, which he studiously observed.

The plan was transformed to action on 8 September, when Gericke received orders to execute at 1830 hours on 8 September. At 0630 hours the following day, the battalion headed out in 52 Ju 52’s to Rome and a jump operation on the Italian headquarters.

When the formation neared the mass of antiaircraft guns guarding Monte Rotondo, it started to receive fire. The first few aircraft turned away, hit. One blew up as the result of a direct hit. A portion of the battalion jumped at the wrong spot, and some squads landed as much as 4 kilometers from the objective.

Despite all that, the men who had landed on target stormed the redoubt. In bitter fighting, the paratroopers penetrated deeply into the Italian defensive network. Leading his men, Gericke attacked the fort in which he assumed the Italian command was located. The attackers received heavy fire from there, but they were able to advance, step-by-step. The fort was assaulted and Gericke and his men took 15 officers and 200 enlisted personnel prisoner.

The communications center was also taken. But General Roatta, the Italian Chief-of-Staff was not captured. He had sought his escape in the nick of time and was already waiting in Pescara for a flight to the Allies. By the end of the operation, Gericke and his men took 2,500 Italians prisoner, of which 250 were officers.

When Italian reinforcements arrived at Monte Rotondo in the afternoon, things became critical for Major Gericke. In fact, an Italian armored division was headed for his location from Rome. Gericke determined it was time to negotiate.

That afternoon, however, he discovered that Student had already sent an emissary to the Italians to allow his battalion to leave the Monte Rotondo. The Italians said he could do that on the morning of 10 September, while retaining all of his weapons.

Despite the assurances, the fighting continued until finally an Italian captain appeared and informed those fighting that a ceasefire had been arranged. It took until that afternoon for everything to crystallize, however. The battalion was allowed to leave, and it quickly linked up with German forces that were positioned around Rome, which were also involved in fighting in Rome’s southern suburbs. They were forces of the 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division.

THE FIGHTING FOR ROME

Starting on 26 July 1943, the forces of the 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division started out for Italy from air bases at Istres and Avignon. Just from the air base at Istres alone, there were transport flights over the course of three days by 90 Ju 52’s, 45 He 111’s 80 gliders, six Gigant Me 323’s and a few Go 242’s.

The 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division, which was billeted in the Pontine Swamps outside of Rome had an on-the-ground strength of 13,000 men at the time. The I./FJR 6 of Hauptmann Finzel and the III./FJR 6 of Major Pelz were bivouacked in a grove of pines along the Tiber. Among the men of FJR 6 was Oberfeldwebel Rudolf Harbig, a platoon leader in the 2./FJR 6, who held the world record in the 800-meter run. Needless to say, he was always the winner in similar events whenever the regiment hosted sports competitions.

When the head of government of Italy, Marshal Badoglio, announced his country’s capitulation at 1945 hours on 8 September on Radio Rome, that was the trigger for the Germans to issue codeword “Achse”—Axis—which was the signal to disarm the Italian armed forces.

A short while later, Luftwaffe reconnaissance assets identified a large formation of ships cruising to the south of Naples.

Major Mors, the commander of the Airborne Instruction Battalion, personally heard Badoglio’s address and raced to Student’s headquarters to report what he had heard. Student then immediately went to Kesselring, who gave the Commanding General complete freedom of movement in accomplishing what needed to be done.

Student ordered the 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division to free itself from any constraints that the Italians had imposed upon it in recent weeks. The division then sent complete battalions to designated Italian military facilities and disarmed them early on 9 September.

Then orders were issued to march on Rome. In place of the division commander, Generalleutnant Ramcke, who was on temporary duty elsewhere, the division was led by Oberstleutnant Meder-Eggebrecht, assisted by the division operations officer, Major von der Heydte.

At first light on 9 September, the battle groups of the division advanced in the direction of Rome. Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 2 moved along both sides of the Via Appia, while FJR 6, augmented by the divisional artillery regiment and other divisional elements, moved along both sides of the Via Ostiense between Rome and Lido di Roma. The I./FJR 7 (Airborne Instructional Battalion), which had been bivouacked at Lake Nemi, was engaged with Italian forces that morning. After a few sharp encounters, the battalion was able to disengage from the “Piacenza” Division.

The 3. Panzergrenadier-Division, which had been attached to the airborne corps, advanced on Rome from Lago di Bolsena. By evening, it had fought a pathway through to the city.

Kesselring then had all of his forces stop after they had encircled Rome. He took pains to avoid fighting in the middle of the city, so as to protect valuable works of culture and art. Instead, he asked the Commanding General of the forces in Rome, Carboni, to lay down his arms on 9 September.

When there was no adequate response, the paratroopers moved forward. During the early-morning hours of 10 September, Major von der Heydte personally took command of a divisional battle group that consisted of six battalions. The mission, which had been personally given to him by Student, was: “Move into Rome from the sea. Break all resistance by the Corps d’Armata di Roma.”

When von der Heydte’s Kampfgruppe reached a Roman suburb, it was greeted by fires from a Sardinian division. The German advance came to a standstill, and the airborne division’s artillery was brought forward to engage the Italians.

Major Pelz’s III./FJR 6 also got stopped by a fortress-like building along its path. Major Pelz summoned Hauptmann Milch, the battery commander of the 4./Fallschirm-Artillerie-Regiment 2, to discuss artillery support. Major von der Heydte also showed up at the same time in an armored car.

The building was engaged from a distance of 20 meters by two light infantry guns and blown to pieces. The armored car then took over the lead in the advance, the commander of the battle group sitting on top. He went from one attack group to the next. Wherever he appeared, the men renewed their efforts to advance. When Hauptmann Milch wanted to set up for the defense at the station for Radio Rome, von der Heydte told him to continue to advance into the city.

“I’ll take the lead,” von der Heydte called out to Milch. “Follow slowly with your battery … be prepared to engage at any time!” Following behind von der Heydte was an Army Hauptmann in a staff car. Milch followed him and provided the following firsthand account:

The lead element drove into Rome peacefully. Major von der Heydte stopped at a marketplace and bought grapes, which we immediately ate. As we continued, we kept on seeing motorcycle messengers in Italian uniforms. Then we got to a tank obstacle. Since my Kettenkrad was the most maneuverable, I turned around and then formed the head of the column. I went ahead, followed by the staff car and the armored car. When we were not too far from the famous obelisks along the Via Ostiense, not far from the Coliseum, I saw tanks in a side street that were following our movement with their main guns. We were in a trap.

In order to warn the vehicles following us, I fired at the closest tank with my rifle. A salvo from tank main guns was the answer. The tanks rolled out, pursued the armored car, which was able to escape, and ran into my battery. The battery turned back all of the Italian attacks into the afternoon.

Despite those incidents, Kampfgruppe von der Heydte and the other airborne and Army formations were able to successfully complete the disarming of the Italian forces in the greater Rome area by 11 September. Towards the conclusion of the operation, Major von der Heydte had to be hospitalized again. He was conducting an aerial reconnaissance from a Fieseler Storch in the vicinity of Rome, when it crashed. Although the audacious officer survived, he was badly injured.

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