SS PARATROOPERS

SS PARATROOPS 1: SS-Jäger, SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 500; Bucharest, October 1944 Parading after the successful Operation Panzerfaust, this man is identifiable only by his Waffen-SS belt buckle. He wears the Luftwaffe paratroop helmet without insignia; the Luftwaffe second-type jump smock in splinter camouflage pattern, again without insignia; field-grey jump trousers, and front-lacing jump boots. For parade his equipment is reduced to the belt and two sets of triple rifle ammunition pouches, and he presents arms with the Mauser 98k rifle. 2: SS-Sturmann, SS-FJ Btl 500; Memel bend, Baltic front, July 1944 This senior private MG42 gunner also closely resembles an Air Force paratrooper; he is identifiable to his service only by his buckle, and by the fact that the field-grey collar of his M1943 tunic is turned outside his jump smock, exposing the collar patches of service and rank. As the gun `No. 1′ he has a holstered Walther P38 pistol for self-protection. 3: SS-Oberscharführer, SS-FJ Btl 600; Eastern Front, November 1944 This figure is based on a photo of the decorated senior NCO Walter Hummel wearing M1936-style service dress, complete with the enlisted ranks’ service cap with infantry-white piping. His status as a paratrooper is shown by his bloused trousers and jump boots, and the Luftwaffe Paratrooper Badge on his left pocket. His other awards are the Iron Cross 1st Class, the Wound Badge in Silver and the Infantry Assault Badge, and his buttonhole-ribbons are those of the Iron Cross 2nd Class over the Ostmedaille for the Russian winter campaign of 1941/42. Apart from the odd use of an Army Panzer-pattern breast eagle in place of the SS sleeve eagle, the most noticeable thing about Hummel’s insignia is the continued display of the distinctions of his former unit – the `D’ shoulder strap cipher and `Deutschland’ cuff title of that regiment of the `Das Reich’ Division. This was normal practice among combat veterans who transferred into the parachute battalion from other units, as opposed to military convicts.

The existence of these battalions has caused some confusion down the years, partly over the question of whether it was a penal unit and partly over whether there were one or two battalions. Both questions were actually resolved as long ago as 1985 when former SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Siegfried Milius, the battalion’s last CO, visited a re-enactment group in the United States shortly before his death. The answers to each are both yes and no.

The evolution and history of the Waffen-SS have no place here but in 1937, the year after the creation of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (special disposal troops), the energetic and imaginative CO of the Standarte `Deutschland’, Felix Steiner, proposed the creation of an SS parachute company modelled on the lines of the recently formed air force and army units. At the time, any further expansion of Heinrich Himmler’s SS was viewed with intense distrust by the army hierarchy, while Göring was plotting to get all parachute forces incorporated into the Luftwaffe. Thus, despite an abundance of volunteers, Steiner’s promising proposal fell on stony official ground and was not resurrected until six years later.

SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 500

The origins of the SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon lay in the disciplinary processes within the Waffen-SS, and the concept of Bewährungsschützen – `disciplinary soldiers’ or B-Soldaten. These were men who had committed offences serious enough to warrant trial by court-martial (as opposed to minor offences dealt with within the unit), and who in many cases had been sentenced to either long periods of imprisonment or, in extreme cases, to death. Such sentences were usually carried out at the SS penal camp at Danzig-Matzkau.

In August 1943, Himmler issued an order that up to 600 of these men were to be transferred to a new paratroop unit and given the opportunity to redeem themselves in combat – this despite his having been advised that only a small proportion of them were considered suitable for training as paratroopers. It was originally intended that the new unit would be used primarily on anti-partisan operations, and indeed the unit’s first title was SS-Fallschirm Banden-Jäger Bataillon (`SS Parachute Partisan-Hunter Battalion’). However, by the time of the official announcement of the formation of the unit, on 6 September 1943, the title had changed to simply SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon.

The men allocated to the battalion were sent to the Luftwaffe’s Paratroop School No. 3 at Mataruska Banja to begin their jump training. Not all the personnel were military prisoners; a cadre of regular Waffen-SS combat veterans were also transferred into the unit, some of whom were decidedly unhappy to find themselves serving alongside convicts. The fact that many of the disciplinary cases were indeed unsuitable was confirmed when around 100 of them were returned to the SS authorities, either as being physically unfit or, in some cases, having being caught selling equipment (including weapons) on the black market. After completing their training at the Hungarian airborne base at Papa, to which Fallschirmschule III had relocated, the remaining men of the SS Paratroop Battalion were allocated to anti-partisan duties in Yugoslavia, and during this period the unit was officially renamed as SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 500.

The unit’s first real test came during Operation Maibaum in April-May 1944 when, under the command of SS-Hstuf Kurt Rybka, it assisted V SS-Gebirgskorps in an operation intended to destroy Tito’s 3rd Partisan Corps near Srebrenica in Bosnia. Partisan units attempting to advance into western Serbia were halted by the SS troops and suffered heavy losses.

Almost immediately afterwards the unit began preparing for their next operation, as the Germans prepared to follow up their success with an attack on Tito’s own headquarters at Drvar.

The battalion at this time consisted of 15 officers, 81 NCOs and 896 men, now commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Kurt Rybka, divided into the Stabskompanie, Nachrichtenzug, 1-3 SS-Fallschirmschützen-Kompanien (each of three Züge) and 4 SS-Fallschirm schwere-Waffen-Kompanie with a platoon each of heavy machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers and anti-tank weapons. Of these, 634 men plus a 20-man team of Luftwaffe communications and intelligence specialists took part in the initial assault.

The plan envisaged various Army and Waffen-SS units converging on the area from north, south, east and west, whilst SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 500 parachuted directly into Drvar. A total of some 280 men, divided into three groups, were to parachute into the immediate area of Tito’s headquarters in the hills to the west of Drvar, and attempt to capture the Partisan leader. At the same time a further six groups were to land by glider, with subsidiary targets including the capture of the British, American and Soviet military missions with the Partisans and also the radio station at Drvar.

The operation began in the early morning of 25 May 1944 and almost immediately hit serious problems. Many Fallschirmjäger were injured during landing on the rocky slopes, and the glider-borne element was particularly unlucky, one entire squad being killed when their glider crashed. Rybka himself was seriously wounded by grenade fragments; his troops eventually secured the cave in which Tito’s headquarters had been located and the immediate surroundings, but all that they captured was his new dress uniform.

Strong Partisan forces were still in the area, and the SS-Fallschirmjäger found themselves under increasing pressure as their adversaries attempted to recapture the lost ground. Casualties were heavy, but the paratroopers got some support from Stuka dive-bombers and some airdropped ammunition resupply. By the following day troops of 7. SS-Freiwilligen Gebirgs Division `Prinz Eugen’ were arriving, and the Partisan forces were finally forced to withdraw. The survivors of SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 500 remained in the area, carrying out numerous anti-partisan sweeps along with mountain troops from `Prinz Eugen’ before, in June, the battered battalion was withdrawn to Ljubljana for rest and recuperation.

Many accounts of `Rösselsprung’ state that SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 500 was `destroyed’ in the fighting, claiming that of the 874 men that had landed at Drvar only some 200 survived fit for service at the end of the battle, but this assertion needs to be differentiated. According to official German after-action figures dating from June 10, the battalion had 61 killed, 114 seriously and 91 lightly wounded and 11 missing, making for a total of 277 casualties. An earlier report from June 7 quoted even lower figures: 50 killed, 132 wounded and six missing, i. e. a total of 188. Even if one allows for the casualties suffered by the attachments (of the 36 glider pilots five had been killed and seven wounded; of teams Zawadil and Benesch two men had been killed and 24 wounded, etc) this is far from the reputed 650 casualties.

Command passed to SS-Hstuf Siegfried Milius and work began on rebuilding the unit. Reinforcements arrrived, in the shape of men who had been left out of battle, fresh volunteers and more probationary troops. The problems involved in allocating too many men with bad disciplinary records to what should have been an elite combat unit had been appreciated, and only the `best’ of the B-Soldaten were now posted in. (Others who were considered `redeemable’ would join Skorzeny’s Jagdverband, and the worst of what remained would be sent to the infamous SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger. The battalion was subsequently sent to Gotenhafen in East Prussia, from where it had been planned to use the SS-Fallschirmjäger in an operation to the Aaland Islands to block the Gulf of Bothnia. The operation was cancelled, and instead the paratroopers found themselves attached to III (germanische) SS-Panzerkorps under SS-Ogruf Felix Steiner on the Narva front, where some albeit temporary success was achieved in halting several Soviet advances. The battalion were sent to Lithuania in July 1944, and attached to a Kampfgruppe from the elite Panzerkorps `Grossdeutschland’ for an operation to relieve the city of Vilnius. The German force succeeded in penetrating Soviet-held territory, reaching Vilnius and thereafter escorting thousands of cut-off German troops back to the relative safety of German-held territory. Though the battalion suffered only minor losses during this operation, subsequent heavy fighting south-west of Vilnius saw the approximately 260 men who then remained with the battalion reduced to only about 70 survivors. These were transferred to Sakiai, where the unit was to receive around 100 much-needed replacements.

At the end of August 1944 the remnant of the battalion was moved first to East Prussia and then on to Austria, where they were placed at the disposal of Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny employed them during Operation Panzerfaust in Budapest on 15 October, when the SS paratroopers took part in the successful occupation of Castle Hill in Budapest; they infiltrated passages under the castle, and from these into the War and Interior ministries.

SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 600

In fact, on 1 October SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 500 had been officially disbanded, and its survivors became the nucleus of a new unit, SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 600.

The reason for the change was that the `500′ number series was typically used for probationary units, and Himmler had decided that he no longer wished the unit to be `tainted’ with the implication of second-rate character. Indeed, the percentage of disciplinary cases within the battalion had decreased by now from around 70 per cent to 30 per cent, and even these were considered the most promising of the potential material. Recruits were by now mostly regular personnel rather than military convicts, including men from the Army and Kriegsmarine as well as the Waffen-SS, and by November unit strength was back up to just under 700 men.

The battalion’s association with Skorzeny was made permanent on 10 November, when SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 600 was formally absorbed into the SS-Jagdverbände. At the end of January 1945 the unit formed part of Skorzeny’s force for the defensive bridgehead at Schwedt on the Oder; the paratroopers were positioned in the Königsberg area, operating with SS-Jagdverband Mitte around Grabow. There, on 4 February, its 3. Kompanie was completely overrun by the Soviets, suffering heavy casualties; the survivors took part in efforts to retake the city a few days later, but after some initial progress the battered German formations were once again forced out of Königsberg. The battalion’s defensive positions around Grabow came under repeated attack by Soviet armour, and many tanks fell victim to the Panzerfausts of the SS paratroopers.

It was decided that SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 600 and SS-Jagdverband Mitte were to be temporarily merged to form an SS regiment, which would be held as the reserve for Skorzeny’s Schwedt bridgehead. Shortly afterwards, however, Hitler decided that the defenders of the bridgehead could be withdrawn. SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 600 was then moved southwards to another east-bank bridgehead at Zehenden to the south-west of Königsberg. Here, on 6 March, in its merged form with Jagdverband Mitte, the battalion joined a number of other smaller Waffen-SS units in a new SS-Kampfgruppe Solar, which came under the control of the newly formed Division zbV 610 (Special Duties Division 610) – by now, of course, the term `division’ was purely nominal.

On the evening of the same day a stray Soviet artillery shell hit an explosive charge on the bridge over the Oder near Alt-Cüstrinchen which had been prepared for demolition. The bridge was destroyed, effectively cutting off the SS-Fallschirmjäger on the east bank as the Red Army approached. The next two weeks passed quietly enough, but on 25 March a new Soviet offensive began. For two days the SS troops held out against overwhelmingly superior opposition, but on the third day, after sustaining huge losses, they were forced to withdraw. Due to the loss of the bridge the troops were forced to swim the Oder, many being lost to drowning or enemy fire.

In the weeks that followed, the battalion was yet again reinforced and brought up to a respectable strength of well over 800 men. In mid-April 1945 the unit was absorbed into a new SS-Kampfgruppe Harzer, in which it temporarily became part of SS-Polizei PzGren Regt 7, assigned to the bridgehead around Eberswalde north-east of Berlin. This was intended to threaten the flank of the advancing Soviets, but the Red Army’s advance was so fast and powerful that the proposed attack was cancelled. In late April the battalion found itself assigned to XXXVI Panzerkorps in the defence of the area around Prenzlau, among German units by now at only around 10 per cent of their nominal strength.

The battalion was pushed back to positions west of Fürstenwerder and then to Neubrandenburg, where on 28 April it was involved in heavy defensive fighting before withdrawing west in an effort to avoid Soviet captivity. The remnants of the unit were under constant attack as they withdrew westwards; in one engagement with Soviet horsed cavalry at Neuruppin, the 400 or so SS-Fallschirmjäger who engaged the enemy suffered more than 50 per cent losses. The survivors, numbering fewer than 200 men, surrendered to US forces at Hagenow on 2 May 1945.

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