Hitler’s Paratroopers in Normandy II

General Schimpf, Commander of the 3rd Parachute Division, on the battlefield. The 3rd Parachute division was the backbone of the II Parachute Corps in Normandy. A Bavarian, Schimpf had been awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Cross in the First World War, where he fought on the Western Front as an infantryman. The division commander expected his men to live by his motto: ‘a paratrooper dies in his foxhole’.

3rd Parachute Division

The backbone of II Parachute Corps was Generalleutnant Richard Schimpf’s 3rd Parachute Division. A Bavarian, Schimpf had served as an infantryman on the Western Front during the First World War, earning both the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class. He transferred to the Luftwaffe in 1935 after training as a pilot and later served on the Luftwaffe General Staff during the German invasion of the Low Countries and France. In December 1941 he was made commander of the Kiev Air District in Russia and served as Chief of Staff of the Kharkov Air District. In September 1942 he took command of the Luftwaffe Field Division Meindl, the first German Air Force division-size formation formed. Later Schimpf went on to lead the 21st Luftwaffe Field Division. In February 1944 he assumed command of the 3rd Parachute Division ‘The ranks of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger looked upon their commander, Richard Schimpf, as a god,’ reported one First U.S. Army assessment of the 3rd Parachute Division and its commanders, based on interrogations of its paratroopers. ‘Schimpf, for his part, expected his men to live by his motto: a paratrooper dies in his foxhole.’ Oberst Max Josef Johann Pemsel, Chief of Staff of Generaloberst Friedrich Dollman’s Seventh Army in Normandy, called Schimpf ‘a highly qualified officer with a technical career and practical parachute experience.’

The initial organisation of the 3rd Parachute Division was ordered by the Luftwaffe High Command in October 1943, within the area of Châlones-sur-Marne, Bar-le-Duc and Joinville fixed as its place of assembly. The division headquarters were at Joinville. When the 2nd Parachute Division was sent to Russia the following month, the division’s 6th Parachute Regiment was left in Germany to serve as the cadre for the 3rd Parachute Division. ‘In order to have this valuable Division near the expected invasion front line, in Normandy, the Seventh Army proposed the commitment of this division in the area of Rennes in December 1943,’ remembered Pemsel. ‘OKW, however, wanted to commit it to the defence of the important town of Brest, along with a static division and one additional reserve division (the 3rd Parachute Division being the second reserve division).’ Schimpf was assigned as the commander of the division at the beginning of January 1944 and immediately assumed command. In February the division was sent to Normandy. ‘The Division was in every respect subordinated to the II Parachute Corps, which at that time was located in Melun,’ he remembered. ‘The troops arrived gradually in separate transports at strength of about 500 each. They consisted of young, still insufficiently trained men, all of whom had volunteered for parachute service and were on the average 21 to 22 years old. Their fighting spirit and morale were accordingly excellent, and a uniform standard of fighter was secured.’

The 3rd Parachute Division was considered the best of the German parachute infantry formations at the time. According to Generals Meindl and Schimpf, there were many reasons for this. First, the division’s all volunteer ranks averaged twenty-two years in age. All were true Fallschirmjäger, having completed one of the Luftwaffe’s jump schools in either Germany or France, a qualification later replacements lacked. Indeed, according to Schimpf, almost 90 per cent of his soldiers had completed the parachute jumping course. Parachute school candidates were not only extremely well trained but were also subjected to tremendous physical and mental stress and taught to think on their feet. They were tough soldiers imbued with an offensive spirit of independent combat action and convinced they were truly an elite band of brothers. To some extent, they were better than the average German Landser simply because they believed they were.

A second factor that made the 3rd Parachute Division such a superior formation was the fact that it’s regimental and battalion commanders were hand-picked and, according to Meindl, were of ‘top notch’ quality. Additionally, many of the division’s paratroopers were veterans of Crete and Monte Cassino. Indeed, some 30 to 40 per cent of its soldiers were described as ‘old and experienced’ paratroopers. The division’s unit commanders, who were described as ‘young’ and ‘vigorous’, infused a spirit of leadership in the troops. According to one interrogation report, ‘Espirit de corps within the Division was very high because of a combination of these two factors.’ Schimpf confirms that the cadre, subordinate commanders and small unit commanders were ‘experienced’ and ‘battle-tested’. ‘This gave a good basis with regard to personnel and training of the division,’ he recorded, ‘if only enough time could have been made available for the proper training of the young replacement troops, who were most eagerly interested in their work.’

During the last days of January 1944, the 3rd Parachute Division was suddenly ordered to move to Brittany. There its organisation and training were to be completed. The transfer into the area around Monts d’Arrée was executed by rail transport. Situated in the centre of Finistère, the Monts d’Arrée are the highest and oldest hills in Brittany. The terrain would have been familiar to the German veterans of Italy. Not exactly mountains in size, they nevertheless provide striking scenery, unique in the region, and perfect walking territory. Consisting of high open moorland (landes) and peat marshes (tourbières), the Monts d’Arrée run roughly east/west, forming the heart of the Armourican area. According to Schimpf, the move delayed the organisation of the division and caused considerably less favourable supply conditions. However, Schimpf soon found the new assembly area far superior to their previous location due to its ideal training conditions. The division trained extensively until June 1944 in sparsely populated areas of the Brittany peninsula, paying particular attention to combat in the hedgerows and in close quarters, small unit defence and attack, and live-fire training with all weapons, particularly the Panzerfaust, a hand-held, anti-tank rocket launcher that Allied troops would grow to respect and fear. ‘The thinly populated area, hardly used for farming, offered everywhere the best training possibilities, even for shooting with live ammunition,’ observed Schimpf. ‘Besides, there were no unwholesome diversionary influences in the line of amusements, such as were usually found in France.’ These were exactly the skills and weapons that would be required if an Allied landing in France was to be contained. It’s no surprise that Max Pemsel, himself a combat veteran and member of another elite branch of the German Army, the German Mountain Infantry Corps, considered the 3rd Parachute Division the equivalent of two regular infantry units. ‘The weakness of the Division lay in its artillery equipment,’ he added, qualifying his praise of the unit. ‘As the Division had only one artillery battalion at its disposal, it had to be reinforced by Heeres [German Army] artillery.’

Shortly after transferring to its new assembly area, the 3rd Parachute Division received its first combat mission – preventing an Allied airborne landing by annihilating the enemy parachute troops before they were able to establish an airhead and become ‘tactically effective’. The focus was the open ground around the heights of Monts d’Arrée, which OB West considered quite favourable for parachute landings. As a result, the division was deployed in a ring around the potential or probable enemy airborne objectives. ‘Considering the relative ease with which Brittany could be defended and the importance of the port of Brest,’ remembered General Schimpf, ‘such an operation was held possible as the first stage of an invasion.’ For such a contingency, the 3rd Parachute Division was assigned to the XXV Infantry Corps. However, the unit’s previous subordination to II Parachute Corps remained unaltered. As a result, plans were made to quickly reach any possible terrain favourable for enemy airborne operations and to cover that terrain with fire. Accordingly, some formations, especially the artillery and anti-aircraft units, were quartered in temporary billets on the dominant heights of Monts d’Arrée and a permanent air signal service was established. According to Schimpf, this mission did not overburden his troops and only slightly delayed their training, which remained the main mission of the division.

‘The training to make them qualified soldiers made good progress, because of the enthusiasm shown by the young troops, the qualified and experienced officers and the favourable training conditions,’ remembered Schimpf. ‘Therefore, by the beginning of the invasion this training had been brought up to such a high level that the troops were qualified to hold out and meet the extraordinary requirements of the invasion battle, which lasted for months, without a rest.’ The 3rd Parachute Division commander went on to record that instruction consisted first in training the individual soldier for guerilla warfare, considering terrain and weapons. Later it was extended to training for combat at the company and battalion level. ‘By instructing the subordinate commanders in the art of map manoeuvre, their ability to make tactical decisions and the techniques of command were strengthened,’ recorded Schimpf. In order to prepare the division for commitment in accordance with its specialisation and to awaken and develop esprit de corps among the troops, jump training was carried out rotating the division’s troops to the Luftwaffe’s parachute training schools in Lyon and Wittstock. By the beginning of the invasion, the bulk of the division had already passed through these courses of instruction, which lasted from three to four weeks.

The 3rd Parachute Division was made up of three parachute regiments and supporting formations. Two of Schimpf’s regimental commanders were proven exceptional front line leaders. Major Karl Heinz Becker commanded the 5th Parachute Regiment. The thirty-year-old Becker was a veteran of the airborne invasion of Holland and the Eastern Front, where he had been wounded in January 1943. Becker was a Knight’s Cross recipient and would later be awarded the German Cross in Gold. Oberstleutnant Sieback commanded 8th Parachute Regiment. Major Kurt Stephani led the 9th Parachute Regiment. The forty-year-old Stephani was also a veteran of the Eastern Front and another future recipient of the Knight’s Cross and the German Cross in Gold.

Each of the parachute infantry regiments consisted of three parachute infantry battalions, a mortar company, an anti-tank company, and an engineer company. Divisional combat service and service support units included the 3rd Parachute Artillery Regiment; the 3rd Parachute Engineer Battalion; 3rd Parachute Anti-Tank Battalion; and the Division Trains (supply services). The division was armed with ample heavy weapons. The nine parachute infantry battalions alone were equipped with a total of 332 machine guns and 122 mortars. The three regimental engineer battalions added another fourteen machine guns and eighteen flame-throwers. The 3rd Parachute Engineer Battalion contributed still another thirty-three machine guns and twenty-two flame-throwers to the mix. The parachute anti-tank battalion had three companies, each with three 75mm anti-tank guns, one medium anti-tank gun and four light anti-tank guns. The anti-aircraft battalion, however, had no guns and probably didn’t receive any either prior to or during the division’s commitment to Normandy as the 2nd Parachute Anti-Aircraft battalion of the 2nd Parachute Division was placed under the operational control of the 3rd Parachute Division during the fighting. Looking at the personnel factor, the division was up to wartime strength except for small parts. However, despite its many strengths, especially in comparison with other Wehrmacht formations in France, its commander was still not satisfied.

‘The equipment was only partly up to the T/E [Table of Equipment and Organisation],’ remembered Schimpf. ‘Machine guns, mortars and anti-tank weapons were lacking and in transportation we were still 50 to 60 per cent short of vehicles. The state of training and the striking power of the troops was good. Their fighting spirit could even be called very good. Eighty-seven per cent of the division had also completed the parachute training course.’ However, he lamented, ‘The distribution of equipment unfortunately did not proceed as quickly as would have been desirable, considering the comparatively rapid arrival of troop replacements,’

Although it was supposed to be fully motorised, the 3rd Parachute Division suffered from a shortage of motor vehicles. This was a problem endemic to the Wehrmacht in 1944, not only in France, but in Russia and Italy as well. German industry in the Second World War never came close to supplying the armed forces of the Third Reich with the vehicles required to wage modern war. Indeed, the Wehrmacht required as many horses as it did motor vehicles to move men, supplies, and equipment. And Hitler’s armed forces never captured or seized enough vehicles to make up the difference. Historian Niklas Zetterling goes so far as to state that the chronic shortages of vehicles and fuel were a much greater hindrance to the rapid movement of Wehrmacht units to Normandy following the invasion than Allied air attacks. He notes, for example, that the quartermaster of the German Seventh Army in Normandy had fewer than 250 trucks available, with a total lift of 500 tons to move fuel, ammunition, and rations as well as to assist non-motorised formations moving to the Normandy front. This was clearly insufficient to sustain a multiple division army. And even when motor vehicles were present, a chronic shortage of fuel prevented units from training. On the eve of the Allied invasion of France, even the elite 3rd Parachute Division was only 40 to 45 per cent motorized, according to a report dated 22 May 1944. The division could only motorise one battalion of each parachute regiment at any given time. The remainder of the division was about one-third motorised.

Estimates vary on the strength of the German 3rd Parachute Division on the eve of the Allied invasion. Schimpf, however, whose estimate should be taken as authoritative, notes that by 6 June 1944, the day of the Allied invasion of northern France, the 3rd Parachute Division, with a few exceptions, was manned at 100 per cent of its authorised personnel, and this is confirmed by General Meindl. The strength of the division stood at 15,075 men on 1 March 1944. Twelve weeks later, on 22 May 1944, shortly before the Allied invasion of Normandy, it stood at 17,420 personnel, or in excess of 100 per cent. This made the 3rd Parachute Division the largest infantry division at Normandy. Only three other divisions were larger, and all were part of Hitler’s elite SS: 12th SS-Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’ (20,516 personnel), 1st SS-Panzer Division Liebstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ (19,618), and 2nd SS-Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ (18,108). General Meindl records that 70 per cent of the personnel were veteran paratroopers. The 3rd Parachute Division was well equipped and rated as fully qualified for all combat operations by 6 June 1944. II Parachute Corps commander rated the division as ‘Ready for combat action, as long as it did not require special preparations,’ but added that the unit had only 70 per cent of its authorised weapons and was still missing MG 42 machine guns and anti-tank armaments. Schimpf rated the ammunition situation as ‘Satisfactory’, noting that there were three to six basic loads (or sufficient ammunition for three to six days of fighting) for the weapons on hand. Meindl’s pre-eminent division commander continued to complain about the lack of mobility for what should have been a fully motorised division, calling it ‘insufficient’. He assessed the spare parts situation as ‘very poor’, adding that there was no uniformity in the types of motor vehicles possessed by the division. Moreover, the amount of fuel available for the few vehicles available was ‘insufficient’.

Nonetheless, compared with the remainder of German divisions in France in the early summer of 1944, 3rd Parachute Division was a veritable powerhouse. It was well manned, trained, and equipped and one of the few formations in France capable of offensive operations. Even by Allied standards Schimpf’s division was considered a force to be reckoned with. According to the British Joint Intelligence Staff (JIS), Schimpf had a third more paratroopers in his division than expected in a normal German Fallschirmjäger formation of its type. The JIS estimated that 3rd Parachute Division had twice the strength of the average infantry division in France. ‘In reality, only one field infantry division stood in France, 3 Paratroop,’ writes Normandy historian John Ferris. ‘The rest were just slightly better LE [Lower Establishment – defensive units ranging from poor to decent in quality] formations, and many of the latter were far worse than even that title would indicate.’