Hitler’s Paratroopers in Normandy I

3rd Parachute Division Fallschirmjäger at St-Lô with an early model FG-42. Developed specifically for the use of the Fallschirmjäger airborne infantry in 1942, the FG-42 was used in very limited numbers. Most of Hitler’s paratroopers in France were armed with the Mauser Kar 98L carbine or the MP-40 submachine gun. A select few carried the G043 self-loading rifle or the MP-43, MP-44 or StG-44 assault rifles.

General Eugen Meindl with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in Normandy. A veteran of the Wehrmacht’s campaigns in Scandinavia, Russia, and Crete, Meindl cared deeply for his soldiers, trained them hard, and squeezed the very best performance from the commanders and paratroopers of the II Parachute Corps.

In 1944 the best infantry divisions in the Wehrmacht belonged not to the German Army but to the Luftwaffe. These were the elite parachute divisions subordinated to the OKW. Until the fall of 1943, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s senior Fallschirmjäger headquarters had been the XI Fliegerkorps, commanded by Generaloberst Kurt Student, the father of the German Fallschirmtruppe. The corps was comprised of 1st Parachute Division at Avignon and 2nd Parachute Division at Arles in France. Later that year, Göring proposed a programme aimed at building up Germany’s airborne forces to two parachute armies numbering 100,000 men by the end of 1944. In the light of the military manpower shortages facing the Third Reich at the time, Hitler was quick to accept. The two parachute armies were to be an elite arm, equal in status to the SS units in recruiting, armament, equipment, and training. Left unsaid was the fact that these new formations would compete with the depleted divisions of the German Army for manpower, equipment, and weapons.

On 5 November 1943 the High Command of the German Air Force (OKL, Oberkommando der Luftwaffe) ordered the establishment of a series of higher headquarters to command and control the Luftwaffe’s expanding parachute forces. The first of these was the Fallschirm-Armeeoberkommando (Parachute Army High Command), which was formed from XI Fliegerkorps on 1 May 1944. The Commander in Chief was the former Commanding General of the corps, Generaloberst Kurt Student. The fifty-four-year-old Student was a recipient of the Knight’s Cross, which he was awarded for the successes of his airborne forces in their assaults on Eben Emael and Holland in May 1940, and the Golden Pilots Badge with Diamonds, presented to him personally by Göring. Student had been badly wounded in Rotterdam and required eight months of convalescence to fully recover. Upon his return to service, he took over the formation and command of the Air Landing Corps formed from the 7th Flieger Division and the German Army’s 22nd Division. For reasons of secrecy, the corps was designated the XI Flieger Corps. Student had been instrumental in persuading Hitler to use his Fallschirmtruppe on a massive scale to seize the island of Crete from the British. Despite the success of Operation Merkur (Mercury), however, his paratroopers had suffered horrendous losses. ‘I miscalculated when I proposed the (Crete) operation, and my mistakes caused me not only the loss of very many paratroopers – whom I looked upon as my sons,’ admitted Student later, ‘but in the long run led to the demise of the German airborne arm which I had created.’ The heavy losses suffered by his Fallschirmjäger caused the Führer to dispense with further large-scale parachute operations. ‘Of course, you know General, that we shall never do another airborne operation,’ Hitler told Student. ‘Crete proved that the days of the parachute troops are over. The parachute army is one that relies entirely on surprise. In the meantime, the surprise factor has exhausted itself.’ Instead, Hitler, had decided to use his Fallschirmjäger as elite defensive troops. They had proved their mettle on the Eastern Front, in North Africa, Sicily and in Italy, and the leader of the Third Reich planned on expanding them and committing them as select ground forces in the defence of France. As for Student, Hitler was critical of his commander of parachute forces, telling his entourage: ‘Every time I tell him to do something, he takes minutes to think it over. He is a complete dull oaf but does his work splendidly. It’s just that he is terribly slow.’

Located at Nancy in France, First Parachute Army was put at the disposal of OKW, the High Command of the German Armed Forces. Its tasks included (1) official care of all parachute units on all fronts and on the home front; (2) training and deployment of all replacements for the parachute forces; (3) further development of parachute and air-landing tactics; and (4) a command and control headquarters if more than a single parachute corps should be utilised at any one time. The new parachute army was to include a parachute demonstration regiment, a heavy rocket launcher battalion, a bicycle battalion, an engineer battalion, and a signals battalion (later expanded to a regiment). These formations received the unit designation ‘21’. First Parachute Army Troops would continue to grow, adding a flak regiment and a flak machine gun battalion. An army staff augmented by specialised staff sections for planning the use of transport and glider aircraft and the development and training of airborne units in parachute and landing tactics, a Luftwaffe Technician’s section, and a Meteorologist section added another approximately 3,000 personnel. Student’s new headquarters joined ‘without prejudice to its subordination to the High Command of the Luftwaffe’ the OKW Reserve. At the end of July 1944, Student moved to the Berlin–Wannsee area, with elements of his general staff, quartermaster and adjutancy sections, to be able to personally exert influence on Hitler regarding the setting up of new projects related to his Fallschirmtruppe.

All parachute troops were subordinated to the First Parachute Army, even if they were fighting under the command of other services, especially the German Army. This included all parachute training and replacements units, as well as all parachute schools. Among these formations were three parachute training regiments (though not all were fully formed), four parachute schools (each with a battalion of cadre, located at Stendal, Wittstock and Braunschweig in Germany, and Maubeuge near Paris), two air-landing schools (at Stendal and Hildescheim), two weapons schools (at Gardelegen and Paderborn), and a parachute packing school (at Oppeln). To the delight of Student, these numerous formations were brought together for the first time in the summer of 1944 under a newly designated Commanding General for Parachute Training and Replacement Units and Inspector General of All Parachute Forces, General der Fallschirmtruppe Paul Conrath with its headquarters at Berlin-Wannsee. The First Parachute Army HQ also managed two storage depots located in Germany (one for weapons and equipment, another for chemical warfare gear). Officially, the Hermann Göring Parachute Armoured Division was also subordinated to First Parachute Army, but this was only on paper. Historian and Student biographer Major General Anthony Farrar-Hockley estimates that the commander of First Parachute Army had some 160,000 men from the Luftwaffe and Heer at his disposal by the beginning of the Allied invasion in June 1944.

The same order that created First Parachute Army also officially created two parachute corps headquarters. II Parachute Corps, formed from the I Luftwaffe Field Corps on 1 February 1944, was the first Fallschirm-Armeekorps (Parachute Army Corps) established. Commanded by General der Fallschirmtruppe Eugen Meindl and based in France, its subordinate elements included a reconnaissance battalion, an assault gun battalion, a corps’ artillery regiment, an anti-aircraft regiment, and a signals battalion, all with the unit designator ‘12’. I Parachute Corps was formed a month later, on 1 March 1944, from the II Luftwaffe Field Corps. Commanded by General der Fallschirmtruppe Richard Heidrich and based in Italy, its organisation mirrored that of I Parachute Corps and all its subordinate formations had the unit designator ‘11’. Also authorised at the same time was the formation of the 3rd, 5th, and 6th Parachute Divisions. These new formations were meant to augment the combat capabilities of the Wehrmacht at a time when the German 1st and 4th Parachute Divisions were heavily engaged in the ground war in Italy, while the 2nd Parachute Division was fighting for its life in Russia. The 3rd Parachute Division was ordered formed at Rennes in Brittany on 1 February 1944. The location was later changed, however, to Brest. Its three major subordinate formations included 5th (a new unit), 8th and 9th Parachute Regiments. All combat support and combat service support divisional formations received the unit designator ‘3’. The 4th Parachute Division began forming on 1 February 1944 near Venice with 10th, 11th, and 12th Parachute Regiments and the unit designator ‘4’. The 5th Parachute Division began forming near Reims on 1 March 1944 with 13th, 14th and 15th Parachute Regiments and the unit designator ‘5’. Later, in June 1944, the 6th Parachute Division was ordered formed near Amiens with 16th, 17th, and 18th Parachute Regiments and the unit designator ‘6’. Of these new parachute divisions, OB West received the 3rd and 5th Parachute Divisions and the 6th Parachute Regiment (from the 2nd Parachute Division). Both the 3rd Parachute Division and 6th Parachute Regiment were described in the United States’ Army’s official history of the Normandy campaign as ‘first-rate fighting units.’

To facilitate the formation of each division and provide them with a corps of seasoned paratroopers, the 3rd and 5th Parachute Divisions each received a Stamm-Bataillione (cadre battalion) from the 2nd Parachute Division, while the 4th Parachute Division received one from the 1st Parachute Division. The same order called for the formation of a fourth parachute school, a paratrooper leadership school (for 200 officers and 400 NCOs), two parachute training regiments with three battalions each, and a parachute replacement battalion. Much was expected of the Luftwaffe’s parachute formations in France. All were reportedly manned with volunteers and morale and firepower were considered excellent. This, however, was far from the reality and the parachute formations varied greatly in their quality.

II Parachute Corps

II Parachute Corps headquarters was formed around Melun, south-east of Paris. There it trained the new units that were to make up one of the Third Reich’s largest parachute formations at the time. German corps-level organisations were normally command and control headquarters with no combat units assigned on a permanent basis. A normal Wehrmacht corps headquarters consisted of just over 1,000 personnel, with the Corps Staff numbering 195 personnel and Headquarters Troops (service and support units) adding another 738. The remaining personnel normally consisted of a mapping department, military police and auxiliary staff. Infantry corps (Armeekorps) formed the backbone of the German Army, with each normally commanding two to three infantry divisions. The command structure, however, was flexible with respect to the number of divisions assigned as well as to parent army assignment based on operational requirements. Corps were frequently switched from the control of one army to another as the tactical situation dictated. Armies might normally command two to four corps, and in some cases as many as seven. During the war, the German Army fielded infantry, panzer, mountain, reserve infantry, reserve panzer, artillery, cavalry, and even a Cossack corps. The German Air Force fielded four Luftwaffe Field Corps (I–IV) as command and control elements for its twenty-two Luftwaffe Field Divisions. The creation of parachute corps in 1943 was a first for Hitler’s Wehrmacht and indicative of the pressing need for ground combat forces and commensurate headquarters to make up for the heavy losses on the Eastern Front. Just as the number of corps varied per army, so did the number of divisions assigned to each corps, and during the Normandy campaign, Meindl would find himself commanding one to four divisions at any one time.

Like many German higher-level formations, II Parachute Corps possessed a unique organisational structure. Its components included the 12th Parachute Reconnaissance Battalion, 12th Self-Propelled Assault Gun Battalion, 12th Artillery Regiment, 12th Flak Regiment and 12th Signals Battalion. This was more than an attempt at empire building on Göring’s part. The light airborne troops had to be capable of conducting high-intensity offensive and defensive operations and required the heavy weapons to do so. All subordinate units, except 12th Flak Regiment located in Germany, were in or around Melun. The authorised strength of II Parachute Corps, excluding attached divisions, numbered 8,951 personnel. However, by the beginning of June it was still at 3,363.

According to General Meindl, 12th Parachute Reconnaissance and 12th Signals Battalions were fully manned, well equipped, and consisted of trained paratroopers. Ideally the assault gun battalion and artillery and flak regiments would have provided the corps with tremendous anti-aircraft, anti-armour and anti-personnel firepower. However, while at 80 per cent of authorised strength, these units were still being reorganised and lacked essential weapons and equipment. Meindl notes that 30 per cent of the Corps Train (service and supply units) was comprised of qualified paratroopers and its subunits were also well equipped. As for the 3rd Parachute Division, between 70 and 75 per cent of the division’s personnel were qualified paratroopers and its component units had between 30 to 70 per cent of their equipment authorised. Meindl reported in a post-war interview that the remaining personnel of II Parachute Corps were undergoing parachute training at the German jump school at Wahn. He added that a number of the 3rd Parachute Division’s subunits, including the 12th Parachute Reconnaissance Battalion, had been trained in the use of troop-carrying gliders and were available for use as airborne troops.

The II Parachute Corps commander failed to mention in his post-war interviews 2. Fallschirmjager Ersatz und Ausbildungs Regiment (2nd Parachute Replacement and Training Regiment). Two of the regiment’s battalions were in Brittany. The third was located just south of Cherbourg. The regiment numbered approximately 1,000 to 2,000 personnel, had no equipment, was short of uniforms and was considered ‘poorly trained’. The low level of readiness of this formation prevented it from fulfilling its training mission. This necessitated Meindl sending his non-jump qualified personnel to Germany for parachute training. Nonetheless, the regiment would play an important role during the Battle of Normandy by providing parachute infantry replacements for 2nd Parachute Division’s 6th Parachute Regiment.

For tactical purposes, II Parachute Corps, along with 3rd Parachute Division and later 5th Parachute Division, was directly subordinate to Rommel. ‘On Rommel’s orders, 3rd Parachute Division was moved to the centre of the Brittany peninsula in the middle of March 1944 in order to be ready to repel any large-scale enemy airborne landing,’ remembered Meindl. The Noires Mountains and the hills of Brittany were considered ideal for enemy airborne operations by the Germans and were weakly occupied at the time. II Parachute Corps staff, Corps’ troops and 5th Parachute Division were also moved to Brittany shortly thereafter with the same mission. Neither 3rd nor 5th Parachute Divisions in France were equipped with parachutes.

In theory, each German parachute infantry division was composed of a regimental headquarters company; three parachute infantry regiments (each with three parachute infantry battalions, a 120mm or light artillery company, and an anti-tank company); a parachute artillery regiment (with one medium and two light artillery battalions); a parachute antiaircraft battalion (with two heavy and two light anti-aircraft companies); a parachute 120mm mortar battalion (with three 120mm companies); a parachute anti-tank battalion (with one motorised and two self-propelled anti-tank companies); a parachute engineer battalion (with three parachute engineer companies); a divisional services battalion (consisting of supply, administrative, medical, maintenance, military police, and field postal units); and a reconnaissance company (made up of three parachute infantry platoons, a machine gun platoon, and a light artillery platoon). Total authorised strength for the division was 15,976 men. Of these, less than 10,000 were considered front line combatants. However, in German parachute formations all officers and soldiers were trained and expected to fight.

The 1944 parachute division was equipped with tremendous firepower. Fallschirmjäger units were usually very well equipped and had access to the best weapons of the Wehrmacht. German paratroopers were among the first combat units of any army to use assault rifles and recoilless weapons in combat. They also readily employed the best of several foreign-made small arms. The German airborne division’s vast and hard-hitting arsenal included more than 3,000 submachine guns, more than 900 light machine guns, eighty heavy machine guns, 125 81mm mortars, sixty-three 120mm mortars, twenty flame-throwers, twenty 88mm dual-purpose anti-tank guns (extremely lethal in the anti-armour role), some forty towed or self-propelled dual-purpose 20mm anti-aircraft guns, and almost 100 75mm and 105mm motorised or self-propelled light and medium artillery pieces. The German parachute division was authorised more than 2,000 motor vehicles, and almost 400 motorcycles for reconnaissance and transportation.

Most of Hitler’s paratroopers in France were armed with either the Mauser Kar 98L carbine or the MP-40 submachine gun. The Mauser was the standard shoulder weapon of the German Landser. Bolt-operated and with a five-round magazine, it was accurate and reliable. Moreover, it fired a powerful 7.92mm round, the standard German military rifle and machine gun ammunition. Originally designed for the Fallschirmtruppen, the iconic MP-40 submachine gun fired 120 to 180 rounds per minute and was in general use among the Wehrmacht’s ground forces by 1944. Simple in construction and reliable, it had a maximum effective range of 200 yards. A few Fallschirmjäger in Normandy carried the technologically advanced, but problematic, 7.92mm FG 42 Fallschirmjägergewehr (Paratrooper Rifle). Another weapons specifically designed for the Luftwaffe’s parachute forces, it was intended to provide them with superior firepower over their opponents. First produced in 1942, this ground-breaking, all-metal gun featured an acutely slanted pistol grip and a ten- or twenty-round box magazine mounted on the left side of the weapon, which fired 750 to 900 rounds per minute. Others carried the Gewehr G-43, a self-loading rifle with a ten-round magazine. Finally, a select few carried the MP-43, MP-44, or StG-44 assault rifle, capable of firing 550 to 600 rounds per minute. Standard sidearms included either the Luger or Walther 9mm pistols, with the latter replacing the Luger by 1944. German Fallschirmjäger were also armed with several different types of hand grenades, including the Model 1924 and Model 1939 Stick Hand Grenades (Stielhandgranate, called ‘the potato masher’ by the Allies) and the Model 1939 Egg Hand Grenade (Eierhandgranate). The former had a range of approximately 15 yards, while the latter were smaller and could be thrown considerably further. German paratroopers also carried various types of smoke grenades and flares for obscuration or signaling purposes.

Crew-served weapons included two light machine guns and three different types of mortars. Reliable and robust, the MG-34 could fire 800 to 900 7.92mm rounds a minute, while the new and improved MG-42 delivered a stunning 1,200 rounds a minute.23 The Model 1936 50mm light mortar fired a three-pound high-explosive round more than 550 yards, while the Model 1934 81mm medium mortar fired a seven-pound shell almost 2,000 yards. A lighter, shorter version of the latter, developed in 1942, could still throw the standard 81mm ammunition some 1,200 yards. Finally, the Model 1942 Heavy 120mm mortar, virtually an exact German copy of the standard Red Army weapon, could fire four different types of high-explosive rounds 6,600 yards. The Fallschirmjäger also deployed two different types of recoilless rifles, the 75mm L.G. 40 and the 105mm L.G. 40. They were the first military force in the world to do so. Light for their calibre, these weapons, which fired high-explosive, armour-piercing and hollow charges, nonetheless weighed 320 and 855lb respectively and required a prime mover for mobility. Both packed a lethal punch and could destroy armoured vehicles at relatively close range. Developed for airborne operations, these weapons were augmented by the Model 1936 75mm Mountain Howitzer, which could be broken down into eleven loads, the heaviest weighing some 250lb. It could fire an almost 13lb high-explosive or hollow charge more than 10,000 yards. Some airborne formations were equipped with the Model 1940 105mm Mountain Howitzer, capable of throwing a more than 30lb shell almost 14,000 yards. These weapons – reliable, accurate, and hard-hitting – were the foundation of the Wehrmacht’s victories in Europe and Russia. They would be put to good use in the hedgerows of Normandy and Brittany by Hitler’s Fallschirmjäger.

Each German parachute division was organised, manned and equipped differently due to shortages in trained personnel, equipment and armaments, and even motor vehicles. By mid-1944, standardisation of weapons, equipment and even uniforms in Hitler’s Wehrmacht, let alone his Fallschirmtruppe, was problematic. Some of Hitler’s paratroopers wore either the regular M-35, M-40 or M-42 Stahlhelm steel helmet, the iconic symbol of the German Landser. Others had the much sought-after round and thickly padded M-38 paratrooper helmet, a truncated version of the M-42 without the neck shield. This helmet, commonly worn with a cloth cover, became increasingly hard to find as the war progressed. The same holds true of the camouflaged and waterproof Fallschirmjäger Type III Jump Smock, worn over the uniform and under the equipment. The paratrooper trousers were quite long and loose and grey in colour, with pockets on the sides of the thigh. Finally, the boots were of heavy leather with thick rubber soles. They laced up on the sides and extended some way above the ankle, where the trousers were tucked into them. The most important and coveted uniform item was the parachutist’s badge, a diving eagle, golden coloured with a swastika in its claws, in a wreath of oak and bay of oxidised silver colour. This was worn low on the left breast. Each Fallschirmjäger also had an identity disk and a camouflaged identity card.

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.’

Hitler’s Paratroopers in Normandy III

Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke, Commander of the 5th Parachute Division in Normandy. Although one of the Luftwaffe’s newest and least capable formations, the 5th Parachute Division would acquit itself well at Hill 122 and Monte Castre. Its accomplishments and sacrifices, however, have never been truly recognised

5th Parachute Division

Among the ranks of the 3rd Parachute Division were the cadre and filler personnel for a second airborne formation that was being formed at the time and would be engaged heavily in Normandy, the 5th Parachute Division. To train this new formation, instructors and weapons were taken from the 3rd Parachute Division, undermining Generalleutnant Schimpf’s efforts to man and train his own unit. The 5th Parachute Division was formed in March 1944 and sent to Brittany in May. The division was commanded by Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke. Born in Deutsch-Eylau, West Prussia, on 6 March 1898, Wilke had entered the German Imperial Army in 1916, serving as an officer candidate in the 4th Grenadier Regiment and ending the war as a second lieutenant before leaving service in 1920. During the post-war period he served in various grenadier, infantry, and even artillery regiments. On 1 October 1935 Wilke transferred to the Luftwaffe, where he served in a series of increasingly noteworthy positions. During the campaigns of 1940 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and he continued to rise through the officer ranks, commanding Luftwaffe Infantry Regiment Wilke in 1942 as a colonel on the Eastern Front and then the newly formed 1st Luftwaffe Field Division in 1943, which he led into battle in the Lake Ilmen area of Russia. Promoted to generalmajor, he was appointed commander of the 2nd Parachute Division shortly after it was transferred to the Eastern Front. The division was almost wiped out over the next several months in the heavy fighting that ensued and by January 1944 was down to 3,200 paratroopers. Nonetheless, it continued to hold its 13-mile long sector. In April 1944, Wilke was given command of the 5th Parachute Division. Like most of his Fallschirmjäger contemporaries, Gustav Wilke was an extremely knowledgeable and combat-hardened veteran.

The 5th Parachute Division’s organisation included three parachute infantry regiments. The 13th Parachute Regiment was commanded by forty-five-year-old Major Wolf Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, a Knight’s Cross recipient and First World War veteran. Schulenburg had participated in the airborne invasions of Holland and Crete, served two tours on the Eastern Front with the 1st Parachute Division’s Parachute Regiment 1, and fought with the same division at Monte Cassino in Italy. Major Herbert Noster led the 14th Parachute Regiment. A former policeman, Noster was a veteran of the General Göring Regiment, which later became the 1st Parachute Regiment. He fought with the 2nd Parachute Regiment in the airborne invasion of Holland 1940 and was taken prisoner during the battle for Ypernburg airfield, which initially went very badly for the Germans. Noster was one of many paratroopers, including officers, captured by the Dutch Army and transported to Great Britain. Promoted to major in absentia, he was released from British captivity in November 1943, due to his heavy war wounds, in a POW exchange between Great Britain and Germany. The 15th Parachute Regiment was led by thirty-seven-year-old Major Kurt Gröschke. Gröschke was a recipient of the German Cross in Gold and a future recipient of the Knight’s Cross. The regimental commanders in the 5th Parachute Division were as strong as in any formation in the German Seventh Army, including the 3rd Parachute Division.

Each of the three parachute infantry regiments consisted of three battalions, with each made up of three companies and a heavy weapons company (81mm mortars and Panzerschreck or Panzerfausts). In addition, each regiment possessed two heavy weapons companies, one with 120mm mortars or light artillery pieces (75mm mountain or light guns) and another with anti-tank guns (75mm AT guns and Panzerschreck or Panzerfausts). For support, the division had the 5th Parachute Artillery Regiment (with three artillery battalions); 5th Parachute Anti-Aircraft Battalion (with one battery of 88mm guns); 5th Parachute Anti-Tank Battalion (with three batteries of 75mm guns); 5th Parachute Engineer Battalion (with four companies); and 5th Parachute Signals Battalion. The 5th Parachute Engineer Battalion was commanded by twenty-five-year-old Major Gerhart Mertens, a recipient of the German Cross in Gold and future recipient of the Knight’s Cross and Wound Badge in Gold. There was no shortage of exceptional leaders in Wilke’s division.

The 5th Parachute Division had an authorised strength of 17,455 men but reported a ration strength of 12,836 men on 22 May 1944. This made the division the only German formation of its size in Normandy to have the strength of what the British termed a ‘second-quality’ infantry division (12,000 soldiers). In comparison, four other infantry divisions in Normandy were much weaker than what the Germans termed ‘defensive infantry divisions’ (10,000 men). The soldiers of the 5th Parachute Division were a mixed lot, with many apparently poorly trained and equipped. ‘Actually, you could divide the men into two groups,’ observed Obergefreiter Karl Max Wietzorek, a member of the division. ‘The first lot had been stationed in France for a year and did not believe in an invasion, only in the Thousand-Year Reich and their beloved Führer, Adolf Hitler. The second group consisted of all the men who had come from the Russian front; mostly sick soldiers, in shoddy patched uniforms, not interested in any more fighting.’ Wietzorek was one of the latter. While he had been in hospital recovering from wounds, his unit had been annihilated at Zhitomir on the Kiev road and in February 1944 he was sent back to the Channel coast near St-Malo. ‘I was a parachute corporal, wearer of the black wound badge, wearer of the Iron Cross second class, wearer of the parachute badge,’ he recounted, ‘in other words, a “fully-licensed” parachute soldier, completely entitled to my ration of six cigarettes a week, plus some inferior food, just like my comrades.’

In addition to the questionable quality of his troops, Wilke noted that many of his units were seriously short of equipment, especially artillery and anti-tank guns. And like most Wehrmacht formations in France, the 5th Parachute Division was short of motor vehicles, possessing only 30 per cent of the number authorised. ‘The 5th Parachute Division was of little combat value,’ assessed Major Friedrich August Freiher von der Heydte, somewhat harshly. Perhaps his unforgiving evaluation was simply a case of an ‘old’ veteran paratrooper taking the measure of a new generation of Fallschirmjäger that simply couldn’t measure up to the giants that came before them. Von der Heydte, a veteran first-generation Fallschirmjager, was the commander of 2nd Parachute Division’s 6th Parachute Regiment in Normandy. Evaluating the 5th Parachute Division on the eve of the Allied invasion, he wrote: ‘Less than 10 per cent of the men had jump training [and] at most 20 per cent of officers had infantry training and combat experience’. ‘Armament and equipment [were] incomplete; only 50 per cent of authorised number of machine guns; one regiment without helmets, no heavy anti-tank weapons; not motorised.’ The highly opinionated von der Heydte rated the officers of the division as ‘extremely poor’, noting that they consisted mainly of Luftwaffe ground personnel without any infantry experience or tactical knowledge. And he recorded that the 5th Parachute Division’s commander, Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke, ‘was regarded by all the parachute troops as an ignoramus.’ Later, a battalion commander of the 6th Parachute Regiment ordered to take command of a regiment of the 5th Parachute Division would report to the First Parachute Army that command and control of the division ‘were absolutely shocking’. Finally, the division had had only 60 per cent of its authorised manpower, 25 per cent of its light weapons, 23 per cent of its heavy weapons, and only 9 per cent of its motor vehicles. The 5th Parachute Division was the last Fallschirmjager division to receive jump training.

‘The Seventh Army was aware of the extremely low combat efficiency of 5th Parachute Division,’ recorded Generalleutnant Max Pemsel, the Army Chief of Staff. As a result of its low readiness, the German Seventh Army planned on committing the parachute infantry regiments of the 5th Parachute Division piecemeal to the fighting in Normandy once the invasion began and then only for a short period of time in order to ensure that each formation fed into the battle was as trained and combat ready as possible. The intense and prolonged nature of the battle, however, along with heavy losses and the shortage of replacements would doom Wilke’s Fallschirmjäger to remain on the front lines, where they would suffer calamitous attrition.

At the time of the Allied invasion, the 5th Parachute Division sector was located between St-Michel and St-Brieuc. The division command post was located 4km south-south-east of the Dinan, with the 13th Parachute Regiment located at Plancoet, 6km to the north-west; the 14th Parachute Regiment located at Amballe, 19km to the east-south-west; and the 15th Parachute Regiment located 13km to the north-east of Dinan. The division staff, supply and administrative units were located at Evran to the south-south-east. ‘The mission assigned was to prevent enemy groups from landing,’ recorded General Wilke. ‘To repulse by attack any group that had perhaps landed; to hold the positions to the last man.’ Under II Parachute Corps, one of the Luftwaffe’s best and most capable combat ready formations in June 1944, the 3rd Parachute Division, would be paired with one of its newest and least capable, the 5th Parachute Division. This was a situation all too familiar to German commanders in France on the eve of the Allied invasion.

2nd Parachute Division

Elements of two other German parachute divisions, the 2nd and 6th, would also fight in Normandy. The 2nd Parachute Division in France was commanded by General der Fallschirmtruppe Hermann Bernhard Ramcke, a living legend, even among Hitler’s elite paratroopers. He had distinguished himself during the First World War as a member of the Marine Assault Battalion and was commissioned an officer. After the end of the First World War he transferred to the Army, fought with the Freikorps, and was accepted into the Reichswehr, the armed forces of the German Weimar Republic, where he commanded an infantry company and then a battalion. In July 1940 he transferred to the Luftwaffe’s 7th Flieger Division (which would later become the 1st Parachute Division). Ramcke earned his parachutist–rifleman badge and joined the ranks of the Fallschirmjäger at the age of fifty-one. Following the battle of Crete, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross. In the summer of 1942, he oversaw the formation of the Italian elite Folgore Parachute Division. He went on to command the Ramcke Parachute Brigade in North Africa, which distinguished itself in combat against the British, earning him the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross. In February 1943, Ramcke was named the commanding officer of 2nd Parachute Division. The following month he and his paratroopers were sent to the Eastern Front. The 6th Parachute Regiment, which was left in Germany to serve as the cadre for the 3rd Parachute Division in Normandy, was reconstituted under the direct command of the First Parachute Army but remained a formal part of the 2nd Parachute Division. Ramcke led the division in intense fighting against the Russians on the Eastern Front and took command again in expectation of the Allied invasion. Three other officers had commanded the division in the interim; Generalmajor Walter Barenthin, Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke and Oberst Hans Kroh. An extremely tough and demanding commander and adversary, Bernhard Ramcke would squeeze the very best performance from the men of his division.

The 2nd Parachute Division, which had been badly mauled on the Eastern Front, was moved in May 1944 to Köln-Wahn for a period of rest and rebuilding. It comprised the 2nd Parachute Regiment, commanded by Oberst Hans Kroh; 6th Parachute Regiment, commanded by Major Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte; and 7th Parachute Regiment, commanded by Oberstleutnant Erich Pietzonka. Each parachute infantry regiment consisted of three battalions each. The division also consisted of the 2nd Personnel Replacement Battalion; 2nd Replacement Training Battalion; 2nd Parachute Artillery Regiment (with three artillery battalions of three batteries each); 2nd Anti-Aircraft Battalion; 2nd Parachute Anti-Tank Battalion; 2nd Parachute Mortar Battalion; 2nd Parachute Machine gun Battalion; 2nd Parachute Engineer Battalion; 2nd Parachute Signals Battalion; and 2nd Parachute Medical Battalion. Of these units, the 6th Parachute Regiment and 2nd Anti-Aircraft Battalion would be detached from the division and assigned to various higher formations during the battle for Normandy. The division would not begin arriving in Brittany until 19 June and would not complete its concentration until the end of the month. During this period, it would remain part of the German Seventh Army reserve in the Quimper–Landerneau area still building its strength. It was far from combat ready, suffering from a number of deficiencies. Although authorised 306 officers and 10,813 NCO and enlisted personnel, it could muster only 161 officers and 6,470 personnel. As for heavy armament, it could only muster four anti-tank guns (of the sixty authorised), twenty-eight mortars (of the 108 authorised), 497 machine guns (of the 739 authorised) and 171 motorcycles, passenger cars, and trucks (of the 1,875 authorised). During the Normandy Campaign, the division, (minus the 6th Parachute Regiment) would find itself defending the port of Brest in western France under the XXV Army Corps and Army Group D.

Hitler’s Paratroopers in Normandy IV

Fallschirmjäger of the 6th Parachute Regiment move into position during the fighting for Carentan. Frequent changes of position and camouflage were the German key to survival on the Normandy battlefield. The Wehrmacht quickly discovered that the U.S. Army was well-trained in combat in urban terrain. At Carentan, American infantry, armour, and artillery, fighting as a team, quickly overwhelmed the Fallschirmjäger and SS troops.

6th Parachute Regiment

Only the 6th Parachute Regiment of the division was considered combat ready and fought at Normandy. A cavalryman in the Reichswehr, Major Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte left the Army in 1926 to study law, earning his Doctorate in 1932. He re-entered the Army in 1935, serving as the commander of an anti-tank detachment of the 246th Infantry Division during the French campaign. In a 15 November 1939 Efficiency and Promotion report, his rater described him as: ‘a very impassioned officer characterised by flexibility, verve and a pronounced mental attitude for operations. Relishes independent decision making and responsibility. Open, decorous in opinions, reliable. To summarise, a personality of probably high warrior-like quality.’ A British military intelligence assessment noted: ‘Von der Heydte was an enthusiastic Nazi until he was disillusioned in 1933/34, when he became strongly anti-Nazi.’

Von der Heydte joined Hitler’s paratroopers in August 1940, earning his parachutist–rifleman’s badge. He commanded the 1st Parachute Battalion, 3rd Parachute Regiment during the battle of Crete, where his paratroopers tied down a numerically superior Allied force, going on to serve with the same unit in Russia. According to another Efficiency and Promotion report, he ‘Distinguished himself through prudent leadership of his battalion and ruthless personal action.’ He then fought in North Africa as the leader of Kampfgruppe von der Heydte, part of the Ramcke Brigade. In February 1943, he became Chief of Staff of 2nd Parachute Division, but was seriously injured in an aircraft accident requiring more than four months of hospitalisation and convalescence. During his time with the division, Generaloberst Kurt Student, commanding the XI Flieger Corps, submitted a request for an accelerated promotion for Major von der Heydte. Student wrote: ‘During the formation of the [2nd Parachute] division, he put his far-reaching knowledge and thorough experience of parachuting to good use for the division and used it to such a great extent that he was able to support the successful establishment and training of the division under the most difficult of circumstances. Major von der Heydte is, without reservation, qualified for promotion to the next higher service grade. His preferential promotion is most warmly recommended by me.’ This is high praise indeed, coming from the father of the German Fallschirmtruppe. Major von der Heydte wore the Knight’s Cross, awarded in July 1941, and the German Cross in Gold, awarded in March 1942. He assumed command of his newly formed regiment on 1 February 1944.

The 6th Parachute Regiment was reconstituted in early January 1944 at the troop training grounds in Wahn. Training and equipping of the regiment was completed by 1 April. On 1 May the regiment received orders from the Luftwaffe Operations Staff, bypassing the headquarters of the First Parachute Army, to move to the area of Army Group B in France, bringing with it all its air-landing equipment. The regiment was assigned to General Marcks’ LXXXIV Corps at St-Lô. ‘Corps headquarters and the prearranged command post were located at the northern edge of St-Lô on the road to Carentan,’ remembered von der Heydte. ‘Corps was in charge of the coastal defence of the entire Cotentin peninsula and the area on both sides of the Vire Estuary … this covered a coastal strip of about five hundred kilometres.’ The regiment’s orders were to assume responsibility for defensive measures against enemy parachute and air-landing assaults in the southern part of the Cotentin peninsula. The road distance from the western to the eastern border of the area was almost 35km and from the northern to the southern border almost 20km. ‘Corps advised the regimental commander that the defensive measures, planned and directed by Army Group Rommel required that troops were to be scattered throughout the area and that small strong points were to be established from which the surrounding country could be controlled,’ recorded von der Heydte.

Allied parachute units, no matter where they landed, would encounter a handful of well-placed, combat-ready German soldiers. In view of the advantages which such an arrangement offered, the dispersion of the regiment and the difficulty or even impossibility of assembling its units for rapid deployment had to be risked. The regimental commander was under the impression that the commanding general of the LXXXIV Corps was not in complete agreement with this order from Army Group Rommel.

Major von der Heydte recounted that during a visit to the regimental headquarters, Field Marshal Rommel, who had known the regimental commander since the North African campaign, summarised his views concerning the ‘proper’ strategy. ‘The coast,’ advised Rommel, ‘should be our main line of resistance for the following reasons: the enemy must be destroyed before he even sets foot on land. Once he has succeeded in establishing himself in a beachhead it will be very difficult for us to drive him out again; the invasion will have already been halfway successful.’ Von der Heydte writes that Rommel’s views were at odds with those of the commander of the Seventh Army. ‘In view of the thin line of coastal defence, we will scarcely be able to prevent the enemy from establishing a beachhead,’ Dollman had told von der Heydte. ‘It must be our task then to bring up all our forces as rapidly as possible to this beachhead in order to crush the enemy during the first days while it is still weak and before the enemy has had a chance to extend and improve his positions.’ The commander of the 6th Parachute Regiment in Normandy added: ‘General Marcks appeared to be of the same opinion.’ And he points out that while there was general disagreement among German commanders in France on the most likely locations for the Allied landings, the LXXXIV Corps commander expected them to take place north of the Vire estuary on the eastern coast of the Cotentin peninsula in the Coutances area. ‘At the top level,’ recorded von der Heydte, ‘it was evidently expected that the landings would be concentrated north of the Seine estuary, approximately in the Boulogne area.’ This was the German Fifteenth Army area opposite Dover, England.

If they disagreed on the most likely location of the Allied assault, most German commanders recognised the tremendous likelihood of large-scale American and British airborne and air-landing operations. ‘It was the general opinion that paratroopers would prefer wide open spaces,’ wrote Major von der Heydte. ‘When Generaloberst Student, the commanding general of the German Parachute Army, objected to this on the grounds that modern paratroopers were also prepared to jump into wooded areas and villages, his objection was dismissed on the grounds that he was boasting.’

The 6th Parachute Regiment was composed of three battalions, each consisting of three companies, a heavy weapons company (equipped with heavy machine guns and heavy mortars), 13th Mortar Company, 14th Anti-Tank Company, a parachute engineer platoon and a bicycle reconnaissance platoon. The latter were later expanded to form 15th Parachute-Engineer Company and 16th Reconnaissance Companies. In the summer of 1944, the 17th Anti-Aircraft Defence Company, 18th Motor Transport Company, 19th Supply and Maintenance Company and 20th Replacement and Training Companies were added to the regiment. At the same time, the 13th Mortar Company was added to the 17th Anti-Air Defence Company to form the 4th Heavy Weapons Battalion. Each battalion had one signal communications platoon and one supply platoon in addition to the formations already mentioned. The supply platoon was responsible for the establishment of a battalion ammunition distribution point and the transportation of ammunition from this point to the front lines by way of transportation units. The regimental staff also had at its disposal a signal communications platoon as well as a motorcycle messenger platoon and a parachute services platoon. The parachute services platoon was responsible for packing the parachutes of the regiment and ensuring they were kept in serviceable condition. The total wartime strength of the regiment was slightly more than 4,500 officers, sergeants and enlisted men.

‘The personnel replacements of the regiment at the beginning of 1944 were of high quality,’ remembered Major von der Heydte. ‘One-third of the officers and about one- fifth of the non-commissioned officers were battle-tried paratroopers, some of whom had fought in Crete, in Russia, and in North Africa.’ Oberleutnant Marin Pöppel was one of those officers. A veteran of the German invasions of Poland, Holland, Norway and Crete, he fought as an elite infantryman on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1943, followed by additional combat tours in Sicily and Italy. Pöppel had been involuntarily drafted into the 6th Parachute Regiment and placed in command of 12th Company and all the heavy weapons of the III Parachute Battalion. An ardent supporter of Hitler and his Nazi Party earlier in the war, he had joined the Fallschirmtruppe as an enlisted soldier and was later commissioned an officer. Wounded in Russia and Italy, his belief in the Führer and the Third Reich had begun to wane as the fortunes of Nazi Germany declined. ‘Commanding officers and prospective officers were drawn from paratroopers of the Parachute Training Battalion,’ Pöppel wrote in his post-war memoirs. ‘Old names appeared, such as Hauptmann Trebes (III Parachute Battalion commander), Hauptmann Bartelmes and that old campaigner Oberleutnant Wagner (9th Company commander), holder of the Wound Badge in Gold. All three were recipients of the Knight’s Cross.’

The enlisted personnel of the 6th Parachute Regiment consisted entirely of young volunteers averaging seventeen and a half years in age, making them considerably younger than the typical German soldier in Normandy in 1944, who was thirty-one years old. Indeed, this was even younger than the average soldier of Himmler’s elite Waffen SS. ‘Four months of training sufficed to weld the regiment into a unified whole adequately prepared for ground combat as well as airborne operations,’ recalled the regimental commander. Major von der Heydte was known to be opposed to the training methods used at the Luftwaffe’s parachute schools in Germany. He requested and was given permission to provide his own jump training to his men and was provided with a squadron of Ju 52s as well as a flight of Me 111s. Using the training grounds at Wahn, he ensured that every member of his regiment completed nine parachute jumps, including three night jumps. About 10 per cent of the men were eliminated at his jump school.

With its high proportion of automatic and heavy weapons, the parachute infantry regiment of 1944 was the ideal formation for defensive operations. On paper the 6th Parachute Regiment would have been armed with a myriad of automatic and heavy weapons, providing it with tremendous firepower and making it the ideal formation for defensive operations. This would have included 750 submachine guns, 224 light machine guns, twenty-four heavy machine guns, forty-eight 81mm and 120mm mortars, fifty-four bazookas, six 75mm light artillery pieces and three 75mm anti-tank guns. Each rifle squad was provided with two machine guns, in contrast to the single machine gun in a German Army infantry squad. Likewise, the firepower of the parachute regiment’s heavy weapons companies, with twelve heavy machine guns and six heavy mortars each, was somewhat greater than that of the German Army heavy weapons companies. This increase in firepower of the Luftwaffe parachute infantry regiment in 1944 was no doubt intended to compensate for both the lower quality of soldier and the smaller size of the infantry and parachute regiments that made up the Wehrmacht in 1944.

Not all parachute infantry regiments were created equally. The 6th Parachute’s 13th Company was at first equipped with twelve so-called chemical projectors. These were 105mm mortars with a range of 3,500m. However, German industry had discontinued the production of these weapons and obtaining replacements became problematic. As a result, they were later replaced with medium and heavy mortars. The 14th Parachute Anti-Tank Company was made up of one 75mm anti-tank platoon with four guns and three Panzerschreck platoons with six weapons each. The Panzerschreck, or ‘Tank Terror’, was the popular name for the Raketenpanzerbüchse (abbreviated to RPzB), an 88mm reusable anti-tank rocket launcher (or bazooka). Another popular nickname was Ofenrohr or ‘Stove Pipe’. Wehrmacht and Waffen SS soldiers in Normandy also had available the 44mm, one-shot, disposable Panzerfaust. Portable, easy to operate, and deadly at close range, it filled a very real battlefield need for soldiers confronted by enemy armour.

Later, the 6th Parachute Regiment’s anti-tank company was also equipped with the Raketenwerfer 43 ‘Püppchen’ or ‘Dolly’ heavy, anti-tank rocket launcher, a carriage-mounted recoilless rifle with a breechblock that fired the same 88mm rocket used by the Ofenrohr. Because the Püppchen’s carriage was not strong enough to stand up to being towed at high speed, and since horse-draft sacrificed valuable time and involved the problem of replacing animal casualties, the Püppchen was generally transported on trucks and used only in positional warfare. Like their Fallschirmjäger brethren, all personnel in 6th Parachute Regiment were also trained in the use of magnetic anti-tank panzerwurfminen, or ‘hollow charge anti-tank grenades’ as well as the Panzerfaust or ‘tank fist’, recoilless anti-tank grenade launchers. These were large calibre anti-tank weapons packing a tremendous punch and allowing the trained German soldier or paratrooper to knock out even the heaviest of Allied tanks, albeit at relatively close range, with a high probability of a hit at between 30 and 200 yards, depending on the weapons. It took steady nerves and a well-trained hand to engage a tank at such close range. But in the hedgerows of Normandy, the Panzerfaust, Panzerschreck and Püppchen would prove themselves deadly, if not always reliable, weapons capable of stopping Allied armour in its tracks. The Wehrmacht in Normandy, however, was short of its most effective short-range anti-tank weapons, with some 16,000 Panzerfaust (instead of the 120,000 called for) and only 879 Panzerschreck on hand at the time of the invasion.

Boasting about his regiment in a post-war interview, von der Heydte noted that his 15th Company, by way of an experiment, was also provided with several einstoss-flamenwerfers (paratrooper’s flame-throwers). According to the regimental commander, these were highly effective weapons. He also noted that his 17th Company, following its activation in the summer of 1944, was equipped with twelve 20mm antiaircraft cannon and four 20mm triple-barrelled guns. These were not only for air defence, but also for direct fire missions against enemy infantry and even light vehicles. As for the regiment’s communications systems, it was assessed as ‘considerably better than that of an infantry regiment.’ Addressing the regiment’s motor transport, von der Heydte called it ‘inadequate’. On the average, each company had only two trucks. At the time of the Allied invasion, the regiment had seventy-two trucks with a total capacity of slightly more than 100 tons. The inventory included more than fifty different types, including German, French, Italian, and British. Still, the 6th Parachute Regiment was fortunate to have even this number in a corps and army suffering from a severe chronic shortage of vehicles.

Major von der Heydte and many others in OB West considered the 6th Parachute Regiment to be one of the best formations in all of OB West, perhaps the most elite. It received a high priority in manning, training, equipping, and arming. As a result, von der Heydte was immensely proud of his paratroopers and his regiment, although pride in their elite soldiers seemed to be a trait of all Fallschirmjäger commanders. This stood in stark comparison to his opinion of the German Army in France in general. The combat-hardened veteran of the Eastern Front wrote:

The troops available for a defence against an Allied landing were not comparable to those committed in Russia. Their morale was low; the majority of the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers lacked combat experience, and the officers were in the main those who, because of lack of qualification or on account of wounds or illness, were no longer fit for service on the Eastern Front.

Indeed, the commander of the 6th Parachute Regiment went on to note that the senior commanders of the Wehrmacht in Germany ‘did not appear to have any great confidence in the troops in the west’. Even General Marcks made ‘disheartening’ comments, following training manoeuvres in the Cherbourg area, when he described the situation as follows: ‘Emplacements without guns, ammunition depots without ammunition, minefields without mines, and a large number of men in uniform with hardly a soldier among them.’ His remarks would have done little to raise moral or endear Marcks to his soldiers. Finally, von der Heydte assessed the armaments situation in Normandy as ‘deplorable’, pointing out that ‘weapons from all over the world and from all periods of the twentieth century seemed to have been accumulated in order to convey the impression of a mighty force’.

For operations in Normandy Major von der Heydte and his Fallschirmjäger would be under the direct command of Generaloberst Kurt Student’s First Parachute Army. Assigned as a reserve formation for the LXXXIV Corps, it would be under the tactical control of the corps, the logistical control of the 91st Air-Landing Division, and the administrative control of II Parachute Corps. During the Allied D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, the regiment would find itself in the Carentan area of the Cotentin peninsula, near the U.S. 101st Airborne Division’s drop zones. There it would engage in a series of fierce battles with American paratroopers in the defence of St-Côme-du-Mont, Carentan and St-Lô, making it the first of Hitler’s paratroopers to offer battle to the invaders and one of the few to fight the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division in a series of separate and bitter encounters that would leave scores of Fallschirmjäger and paratroopers dead and wounded.

6th Parachute Division

Elements of yet another new Luftwaffe parachute division, the still forming 6th Parachute Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Rüdiger von Heyking, would also be committed to the fighting in Normandy. Born in 1894 in Rastenburg, East Prussia, von Heyking entered military service in March 1914 and served as an infantry regiment company commander in 1917. The following year he was posted as an observer in a German aviation bombardment wing. Captured during the war, he was held in a French prisoner of war camp until May 1920. During the inter-war period he had served as the Commander of the Berlin garrison and then on the staff of the 4th Flieger Division. By 1940 he was commanding the 21st Aviation Replacement Regiment and then rose quickly through the ranks to command an aviation bombing wing and the Aviation Demonstration Regiment. In 1943 he commanded the 6th Luftwaffe Field Division, which served with Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front. ‘Generalmajor v. Heyking has led the Division since 26.11.42. He is a strong, vigorous personality, commander-type,’ wrote his rater in his Efficiency and Promotion Report for the period. ‘From the first day on he has held the reins of his Division very tightly. Well-liked by his subordinates. Enjoys being at the front, always well forward, quick to adapt to new situations. Master of the principles of military tactics and is able to explain them in training. Proven National Socialist.’

In 1944 von Heyking found himself as part of the Luftwaffe High Command Führer Reserve. In May 1944, he took command of the 6th Parachute Division. He recorded after the war:

I was to get all men and material as quickly as possible from the Homeland and I was instructed to reconnoiter personally an area for the Division’s initial organisation. The Army High Command assigned to me a Training Staff, which was commanded by Colonel Hartung, with its headquarters at Pont a Mousson. This is where I sent all commanders and sub-commanders for a training course. It was my intention to give training classes ranging from three to four weeks for the cadres of the regiments and battalions to be activated later. These cadres would then be joined with young volunteers coming from the Homeland. Most of the officers and small unit commanders consisted largely of combat experienced personnel and of paratroopers who had been wounded and discharged from hospitals. The total division strength was, according to the latest Table of Organisation, to be increased to about 20,000 men.

The activation of the 6th Parachute Division’s artillery and its training took place separately at Luneville. However, the Allied invasion in France interfered with the training and only one class, lasting three weeks, was completed before further training was cancelled.

Von Heyking selected a sector on the Loire, between Bourges and Nevers, for the division’s activation and formation. The division headquarters were established at La Charité. ‘This was the very same area where 5th Parachute Division, under Generalmajor Wilke, was activated a short while before,’ recalled von Heyking. The 6th Parachute Division, which was to have been subordinated to the German Fifteenth Army guarding the Pas de Calais once it was formed, was to have consisted of three parachute infantry regiments, a parachute artillery regiment, a parachute anti-tank battalion, a parachute engineer battalion, and a parachute motor transport battalion. However, when formation was competed it was composed of the 16th Parachute Regiment and Fallschirmjager Lehr Regiment (Parachute Demonstration Regiment), which formed the core of the 18th Parachute Regiment. Theoretically, each regiment was organised with three parachute infantry battalions of four parachute infantry companies, along with a mortar company and an anti-tank company. The 16th Parachute Regiment was commanded by Oberstleutnant Gerhart Schirmer. A former policeman and pilot, the thirty-one-year-old Schirmer had joined the Fallschirmtruppe in 1939. He had participated in the parachute operation at the Corinth Canal in Greece as commander of the 6th Company, 2nd Parachute Regiment, and later took command of the regiment’s II Battalion after its commander was injured. Schirmer and his men captured seventy-two British officers, 1,200 British soldiers, and 9,000 Greek soldiers, including the commander-in-chief of the Greek Army on the Peloponnese. Hauptmann Schirmer later landed in Crete during Operation Mercury as commander of the strategic reserve, capturing Hill 296, for which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross. Later, in Tunisia, Schirmer led the 5th Parachute Regiment’s III Battalion in heavy defensive fighting, assuming command of the regiment after its commander, Oberstleutnant Walter Koch, was put out of action. On 1 January 1944 the thirty-one-year-old Schirmer took command of the 16th Parachute Regiment.

The 18th Parachute Regiment was commanded by forty-one-year-old Oberstleutnant Helmut von Hoffmann, a former German Army cavalry officer, pilot, and Luftwaffe General Staff officer. Fluent in Spanish, he may have served in Spain as part of the Condor Legion. Hoffman spent much of his career prior to 1944 serving on various staffs with only one tour as the commander of a Luftwaffe squadron at the beginning of the war in 1940. He did not enter the ranks of Student’s Fallschirmtruppe until March 1944, when he joined the staff of the XI Flieger Corps. Shortly thereafter he was appointed the commander of the 18th Parachute Regiment. Considering the rapid expansion of Hitler’s paratroopers, the versatility of the Wehrmacht’s officer corps, and the needs of the Luftwaffe, Hoffman was one of a growing number of outsiders who would find themselves commanding Fallschirmjäger formations. One of von Heyking’s two regimental commanders was a battle-hardened, experienced and highly decorated leader, with combat tours in Greece, Crete, and North Africa. The other was an ‘outsider’ and experienced staff officer who had never commanded German ground forces, let alone elite paratroopers.

In addition to his two parachute infantry battalions, von Heyking also commanded the I Battalion, 6th Parachute Artillery Regiment (with three four-gun batteries of 105mm light howitzers); 21st Heavy Rocket Launcher Battalion (with four batteries of 300mm rocket launchers); 6th Parachute Engineer Battalion (still in the process of forming); 6th Parachute Signal Battalion (with two companies forming); 1st Supply Company (which was motorised); and 1st Motor Transport Company (capable of moving 100 tons). According to historian Niklas Zetterling, the Parachute Demonstration Regiment, I Battalion of the artillery regiment, and the heavy rocket launcher battalion were all at 100 per cent of their authorised strength. The engineer and anti-tank battalions were at 66 and 65 per cent respectively, while a personnel replacement battalion was at 42 per cent. The strength of 6th Parachute Division was approximately 10,000 personnel at the beginning of June 1944.

Some 160,000 Luftwaffe and Army personnel were serving on the staffs and in the ranks of the First Parachute Army, II Parachute Corps, and the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th Parachute Divisions in Normandy and Brittany on the eve of the Allied invasion. Approximately 50,000 were Fallschirmjäger, young and old, novices and veterans, assigned to the combat parachute divisions and regiments that would bear the brunt of the fighting. This was almost twice the number of paratroopers that the Americans and British would commit to the battle in France. However, while the Allied paratroopers would be rotated out of Normandy within weeks, their Fallschirmjäger counterparts were condemned to the brutal fighting without respite for the duration of the campaign. Most would not escape death or captivity.

Eugen Meindl and Hitler’s paratroopers in France had done all they could to prepare for the monumental battle that they knew would decide the fate of the Third Reich. Because so much was expected of them, they had been provided with the manpower and weapons commensurate with their mission of high-intensity defensive fighting in a scenario where air, armour and even artillery support would be problematic. Each parachute infantry regiment, battalion, and even company was expected to be a self-contained defensive strong point with the mission of stopping the Allied landing on the beaches or delaying their breakout from the beachheads pending the arrival of heavier German panzer and panzergrenadier formations that would smash the American lodgement. For the most part, Meindl’s Fallschirmjäger would fully repay the investment made in them in France.

Some dreaded the waiting. ‘We felt in our bones instinctively that something terrible was to come,’ recalled Fallschirmjäger Karl Max Wietzorek. Others kept too busy to worry. ‘On 5 June a map exercise is carried out involving all the Battalion’s officers and platoon leaders, in which the possibilities of an airborne landing by the enemy are played through,’ remembered Oberleutnant Martin Pöppel. ‘We dispersed amid laughter and no one has any idea how near we are to the real situation. Only a few hours later all our preparations are put to the test.’ The Allies had landed in France.

The First Secret Missions over Great Britain

In the mid-1930s, the German high command was dominated by the view that the main threat to the formation and expansion of the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ was France. Furthermore, Hitler considered Britain a potential ally. However, the ubiquitous Abwehr stretched its secret tentacles in the direction of England. In 1936, the National Security Division of Military Intelligence (MI5) had exposed and arrested the Abwehr-I agent Lieutenant Gortz. He was sentenced to four years in prison. After that, the Führer ordered a halt to all espionage activity in England. But then he relented and in early 1937 this work was resumed. By September 1939, Abwehr-I had 253 agents in British territory.

But the possibilities of intelligence were limited, and for a long time Hitler refused to authorize reconnaissance flights over the UK. But both the Luftwaffe and Abwehr made illegal attempts to act in this area. He 111s of Fliegerstaffel z.b.V., under the guise of civilian Lufthansa airliners, photographed ports on the south and east coast of England, the London docks and other military facilities.

Of particular interest to the Germans was the British work on radio direction-finding, which later became known as radar. In Germany, very little was known about this project. The Abwehr received important information from an agent in England, who reported the construction of facilities along the entire south and east coast (from the Isle of Wight to the Orkneys), which the agent himself called ‘UKV-radio stations’. The same source said that similar stations were already operating in Suffolk, Essex and Kent, which could easily be identified by the characteristic steel or wooden towers with antennas. This was information of exceptional importance. The Germans knew that the British had been building radar stations since 1938.

Radar reconnaissance was entrusted to the Rowehl Group. Between May and August 1939, it made a series of secret flights across the North Sea to the east coast of England. As well as a few He 111s, the passenger airship LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II was used, ostensibly undertaking ‘test flights’.

It was the world’s largest rigid airship, which made its first flight on 14 September 1938. It had a length of 245m and a volume of 199,981m3. The airship was driven by four Mercedes-Benz diesel engines with a capacity of 1200l/s. On board the Graf Zeppelin II were experienced observers, including Siegfried Knemeyer of Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. The purpose of these missions was to determine the strength of the electromagnetic field created by the British radio direction-finders, and their location. But the tools used were extremely primitive. One of these ‘special means’ was the ‘tourist wagon’ – a small gondola that could accommodate one person. When the airship was hiding in the clouds or flying over them, the gondola was lowered on a cable down to be able to observe. The length of the cable reached 800m, but when released to its maximum length. The gondola carried away far to the side. A telephone wire was attached to the cable, through which the observer maintained constant communication with the crew of the airship.

During these reconnaissance flights, the LZ-130 managed to intercept and record many different radio signals, which, the Germans assumed, were emitted by the latest English radio direction-finders. Photographs were taken of all radio towers of unknown purpose. All the data was immediately sent to Generalmajor Wolfgang Martini, chief of Luftwaffe communications service. He forwarded them to his specialists who were engaged in work in the field of radar.

After processing and analysing all the recorded signals and photographs, the Germans concluded that British research in this area was lagging far behind the Germans. But in reality, this hasty conclusion was a mistake. The British from the very beginning were aware of the purpose of the airship’s ‘test flights’. They deceived the Germans, using old models of their radio direction-finder to track the Zeppelin.

In August 1939, international tensions in Europe increased rapidly. Anglo-Franco-Soviet negotiations on a military convention, held that summer in Moscow, did not yield results. In mid-August, the British press was already reporting that a new war would begin before the end of the summer. On 23 August it became known that the Soviet Union had signed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Germany. ‘The ten-year term of the Treaty, established by article VI, indicates that both parties are striving to consolidate peaceful relations between the countries for a long period of time,’ stated the Russian newspaper Pravda, the main organ of the Communist Party.

The conclusion of the Treaty between the USSR and Germany is an obvious fact of international importance, because the Treaty is an instrument of peace. It will not only strengthen good relations between the USSR and Germany, but will also serve to consolidate peace. Friendship of the peoples of the USSR and Germany, driven to a standstill by the enemies of Germany and the USSR will enter an era of prosperity.

Soviet propaganda claimed that the signing of the treaty (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) would prevent war. The German press also rejoiced. Hitler said that in the great war of 1914–18, Russia and Germany had fought and become ‘victims’. ‘There will be no repetition of this,’ the Führer asserted.

But for Western Europe, this news was a real diplomatic bombshell. It was clear to everyone that the treaty opened the way to Poland for the Third Reich. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain immediately informed Adolf Hitler that the United Kingdom would not hesitate to fulfil its obligations under the mutual assistance agreement with Poland.

In this situation, OKW asked Luftwaffe to begin reconnaissance flights over British territory, as well as to conduct a ‘preliminary exploration’ of the main base of the British fleet at Scapa Flow. For such missions the long-range four-engined Fw 200 aircraft was best suited. At the end of August 1939 Deutsche Lufthansa transferred three such aircraft to the VfH: Fw 200V10 W. Nr.0001 ‘D-ASHH’, Fw 200V2 W. Nr.2484 ‘D-AETA’ and Fw 200A-03 W. Nr.2895 ‘D-AMHC’. First, the aircraft arrived at the Luftwaffe Rechlin flight test centre, which was 44km south-west of Neubrandenburg. There they were re-equipped with two Reihebild Rb50/30 cameras. Later, the aircraft were additionally fitted with defensive armament consisting of five machine guns.

On 29 August, the aircraft from the Rowehl group conducted aerial photography of objectives in southern England. At 13.41 local time a spy plane was noticed at high altitude above the town of Yate, 12km northeast of Bristol. Then he passed over Cardiff, then over the town of Barry, located 11km south-west of it, then turned to the south-east and, passing over Portland, disappeared over the English Channel.

But events evolved rapidly. On the morning of 1 September, Nazi Germany attacked Poland and the activities of the Abwehr, Rowehl and the Luftwaffe began a new phase …

New Equipment for Secret Missions

On 5 September 1939, a plane from the 1st Staffel Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. flew over the British naval base at Scapa Flow. Then, on 21 and 22 September, scouts from the same group appeared over Northern France, conducting aerial photography of the airfields at Ruvre and Frescati, located near the city of Metz, and at Thionville. At the same time, Rowehl’s pilots began high-altitude flights over Belgium and the Netherlands, despite the fact that these countries had declared their neutrality. As a result, by the end of September, Luftwaffe command had complete information about the defensive precautions of these countries, including the location of air defence forces and military airfields.

Once war had been declared, the number of objectives for aerial photography grew rapidly. Soon the Luftwaffe recognized the urgent need to increase the Rowehl Group. On 24 September 1939 3.(F)/Aufkl. Gr.Ob.d.L was formed from 8.(F)/LG2 at the Jüterbog-Damm airfield (62km south-east of Berlin) and on 24 October 4.(F)/Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L was formed from 2(F)./Aufkl.Gr.121 at the Prenzlau airfield (44km south-west of Neubrandenburg) from the cr.

From autumn 1939, the Rowehl Group operated from three airfields. 2nd Staffel under Oberleutnant Karl-Edmund Gartenfeld remained in Oranienburg, which became the main base of the group. 1st and 3rd Staffel made reconnaissance flights over France from Fritzlar airfield, l25km south-west of Kassel. Flights over British territory were carried out from Ever airfield.

Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. was an elite aviation unit that carried out secret strategic missions. Therefore, it received new aircraft as a priority. In November the 3./Aufkl.Gr. Ob.d.L. received two prototypes of the recently appeared Junkers Ju 88 – V13 W. Nr. 880005 ‘GU+AH’ and V14 W. Nr. 880006 ‘D+APSF’ with the Jumo engines. Rowehl pilots had to conduct operational flights to test their suitability as scouts. After installing two RB 50/30 vertical cameras, which allowed photography from heights up to 8,500m (28,000ft), and two RB 20/30 inclined cameras, which took photos from heights below 2,000m (6,500ft), they were given the designation Ju 88A-1/E. Later, the Rowehl group received three more used Ju 88s: V23 WNr.880023 ‘NK+AO’, V24 W. Nr. 880024 ‘D-ASGQ’ (‘NK+AP’) and V28 W. Nr. 880028 ‘GB+ND’. Initially, they kept the factory designations, then in the process of operations the aircraft received the codes Aufkl. Gr.Ob.d.L. (‘T5’) on the fuselage.

In early 1940, the 1st and 3rd Staffels of Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. were equipped with Do 215B aircraft. This was a modification of the Do 17Z bomber, originally intended for export to Sweden, Hungary, Yugoslavia and even the Soviet Union. The new aircraft was almost identical to its predecessor. The new designation was invented specifically for export aircraft. One of the serial Do 17Z-0, which had a civil code ‘D-AIIB’, was renamed the Do 215V1 and was used for demonstration and advertising flights. Afterwards the aircraft was fitted with DB601A engines with a capacity of 1075 l/s. In this version, thirteen Do 215s were built for sale to Sweden, but in early 1940 the contract was terminated. All the machines were urgently altered to long-range scouts. In January–February, they came in a group to Rowehl. In March 1940, Dornier produced a modification of the Do 215B-4, specially designed for long-range intelligence-gathering and by May 1940 there were already twenty-four aircraft of this type in Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L.

Do 215s were equipped with three cameras: one was intended to shoot individual images, and the other two, mounted on the sides of the fuselage, for panoramic views. The viewing angles of the lenses of the last two cameras were set at 30° or 60°, depending on what had to be increased – the accuracy of photography (using overlapping frames) or its area.

At the beginning of 1940, Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L received two exotic four-engined aircraft, the Blohm und Voss BV 142. They were built at the aircraft factory in Hamburg on the basis of the large Ha 139 seaplane. The alteration was very simple – instead of floats a conventional wheeled undercarriage was fitted and the regular engines were replaced with more powerful BMW 132Hs. The first prototype – Ha-142Vl ‘D-AHFB’ – took to the skies in October 1938. Soon three more aircraft were put into operation. Initially, these machines were intended for postal flights over the North Atlantic. After the rejection of the designation ‘Ha’ all ‘Hamburgs’ were renamed BV 142s.

The war changed the use of these aircraft, like many others. Prototypes V3 and V4 were converted into transports and soon used in the Norwegian campaign to ferry troops. Prototypes V1 and V2 became long-range reconnaissance aircraft. They received a fully-glazed nose and a defensive armament of five 7.92mm MG 15 machine guns. After that, both machines were transferred to 2.(F)/Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L., where they performed reconnaissance flights over England. Sometimes BV 142s were used for the delivery of agents.

BV 142s V2 ‘T 5+B’ and V1 ‘T5+CB’ were used by the Rowehl Group during that year. These aircraft had a long range, but had significant drawbacks. Their maximum speed was only 375km/h. There was no communication between the front and separate rear fuselage, therefore the tail gunner was completely isolated from the rest of the crew. In addition, their use was badly affected by the lack of spare parts. In 1941 all four of the BV 142s were decommissioned.

Group Rowehl played a major role in the preparations for the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway. This operation was codenamed Weserübung (‘Weser Exercise’). When, in early 1940, Hitler decided to seize Norway, it suddenly became clear that OKW did not have up-to-date intelligence information that was necessary for the planning of the invasion. The time for planning the operation was extremely limited, so it was necessary to act quickly and decisively.

Oberstleutnant Theodor Rowehl was ordered to immediately conduct aerial photography of the entire southern coast of Norway from Oslo to Bergen, as well as Trondheim fjord and the port of Narvik in the north of the country. Of particular interest were the coastal fortifications and batteries in the Bay of Bohus and the airfields around Oslo. To fly the long distances involved Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L got a new Fw 200C-1, ‘BS+AH’. The pilot was Cornelius Noell, one of the best Luftwaffe reconnaissance pilots, and his navigator was Siegfried Knemeyer.

Cornelius Noell

It was decided to start the mission from the airfield at Königsberg in East Prussia. This was done because in the case of a take-off from Northern Germany, the ‘illegal’ scout risked being spotted by British warships patrolling the North Sea. After leaving Königsberg, the Condor flew the first part of its route over the neutral waters of the Baltic, gradually gaining altitude. To shorten their journey, Noel and Knemeyer flew over neutral Sweden. Civilian Fw 200s from Deutsche Lufthansa frequently flew over Sweden (route Berlin–Malmö–Stockholm–Oslo–Copenhagen–Berlin), therefore, the Condor’s appearance caused no alarm.

In addition to ‘BS+AH’, other Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L aircraft, including the BV 142s, carried out reconnaissance missions over Oslo, Kristiansand, Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim. As a result, by mid-March 1940, OKW had detailed aerial photographs of all strategically important areas of Norway. Rowehl Group had once again proved its importance. On 9 April 1940 Weserübung began.

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.

RÖSSELPRUNG

After 1941, the Balkans provided a much-required supply of natural resources for the Reich. One source, citing post-war reports from the Nuremberg trials, stated the Balkans provided “50% of petroleum, 100% of chrome, 60% of bauxite and 21% of Copper” for the German war machine. To protect both this vital source of resources and the lines of communication for its substantial occupation forces in Greece, Germany had some 18 Divisions in Yugoslavia, along with numerous other independent formations. This was an ulcer in the side of Germany as they sought to find troops to bolster their deteriorating position on the Eastern Front. These forces were still not sufficient to dominate the country and consequently they occupied the major urban areas and important communication nodes, while Partisan forces controlled the rugged countryside and were free to attack at will. The resulting situation for the Germans was dismal. In fact, in some areas morale was so low amongst German troops that many thought their prospects were better against the Russians and took the extraordinary move of volunteering for transfer to the Eastern Front rather than take their chances against the Partisans.

To Field Marshal Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs, who was not only the Commander of Army Group F responsible for Yugoslavia and Albania but also oversaw Luftwaffe General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E in Greece, it was very apparent that he lacked the manpower and equipment to gain total victory in the field over the Partisan masses. The terrain was extremely well suited for guerrilla operations and very much favored the Partisans. He believed that the elimination of Tito, the personification of the Partisan movement and its center of gravity, would eliminate their will to fight. Hitler, who had personally ordered the elimination of Tito, shared this belief.

The task to locate Tito was assumed by several German intelligence organizations, including SS special operations expert Major Otto Skorzeny, operating independently on Hitler’s direct orders, and elements of the Brandenburg Division, the Abwehr’s special operations arm. The Brandenburgers had been involved on the attack on Jajce and now had their agents looking for clues as to Tito’s new location. The detailed task went to the Brandenburg Lieutenant Kirchner and his troops, and in a series of events to be discussed later, Tito and his headquarters were discovered from several sources to be in Drvar.

Planning and Preparation

Planning for the operation began in earnest. Field Marshal von Weichs signed the order on 6 May, and balancing synchronization of the operation with operational security, General Lothar Rendulic issued the Second Panzer Army order for Operation RÖSSELPRUNG two weeks later, on the 21st of May, allowing only three full days for subordinates to conduct battle procedure. Given potential security leaks in the form of Partisan agents, this was a prudent move. Rendulic, whose Second Panzer Army paradoxically did not include any panzer divisions, directed that the XV Gebirgs (Mountain) Army Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Ernest von Leyser, was to execute the operation.

A heavy bombardment of Partisan positions in and around Drvar by Fliegerführer Kroatien (Air Command Croatia) aircraft was to precede a parachute and glider assault by 500 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion whose task it was to destroy Tito and his headquarters. Concurrently, XV Corps elements would converge on Drvar from all directions, in order to linkup with 500 SS on the same day, 25 May 1944. Speed, shock and surprise were key for the paratroopers of 500 SS to accomplish their mission.

500 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion was a relatively new unit. It was formed in the autumn of 1943 by direction of Hitler’s headquarters for the purpose of performing special missions. Sometimes referred to as a penal unit, it included many volunteers but for the most part initially, the enlisted ranks came from ‘probationary soldiers’. These were soldiers and officers who were serving sentences for minor infractions of a disciplinary instead of a criminal nature, imposed in the draconian environment of the Waffen SS. Dishonored men of all ranks of the SS could redeem themselves in this battalion and once joined had their rank restored. The unit conducted parachute school at the Luftwaffes’s Paratroop School Number Three near Sarajevo, Yugoslavia in November and finished in Papa, Hungary, early in 1944, as the school relocated there. After training was completed the unit participated in several minor Partisan drives before returning to its training grounds on the outskirts of Sarajevo in mid-April and remained there under strict security measures. While there, the 27-year-old SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Kurt Rybka took command of the battalion.

Rybka received an outline of the operation on 20 May and more detailed orders the following day. Realizing there were not enough gliders or transport aircraft to deploy 500 SS in one lift, he devised a plan where 654 troops would conduct the initial assault at 0700 hours, and a further 220 would reinforce as a second wave some five hours later. The intelligence picture that was portrayed to him was based on available sources, and recent air photos were used to aid in the planning. The suspected location of Tito’s headquarters, a cemetery on dominating ground, was given the codename ‘Citadel’ and the important crossroads in town was entitled the ‘Western Cross’.

The town was to be secured by 314 parachute troops. They were split into Red (led by Rybka), Green, and Blue Groups and were based on elements of the unit’s three rifle companies. Another 354 troops, based on remaining members of the rifle companies and the heavy weapons company, were split into six assault groups for specific missions. Panther Group of 110 soldiers, the largest, was to capture Citadel and destroy Tito’s headquarters. Greifer Group of 40 soldiers was to destroy the British military mission. Sturmer Group of 50 men was to destroy the Soviet military mission. Brecher Group of 50 men was to destroy the U.S. military mission. Draufgaenger Group was to capture the Western Cross and the suspected nearby Partisan communication facility. Of the 70 personnel in Draufgaegner Group, 40 belonged to the Brandenburg Benesch Group (some of whom were Chetniks and other local Bosnians) and six came from an Abwehr detachment commanded by Lieutenant Zavadil. These attachments were given specific intelligence collection, translation and communication tasks. Beisser Group of 20 soldiers was to seize an outpost radio station, then assist Greifer group. Finally, the second wave, base on the Field Reserve Company (basically the training company) and the remainder of the unit was to insert by parachute at 1200 hours.

For security reasons, the Battalion’s soldiers were not briefed on the operation until several hours before it was launched, but preliminary moves began on 22 May as the unit, dressed in non-descript Wehrmacht uniforms for security reasons, was transported by truck to three assembly areas, Nagy-Betskerek, Zagreb and Banja Luka. There they linked up with their Luftwaffe transport from Fliegerführer Kroatien, some of which had been brought in from France and Germany specifically for the operation. The 1st and 2nd Squadrons of Towing Group 1, and 2nd and 3rd Battalions of Air Landing Group 1, all with 10-passenger DFS 230 gliders and towed by either Hs 126 or Ju 87 (Stukas in a towing role) aircraft, would transport the glider-borne force. The 2nd Battalion of Transport Group 4, with about 40 Ju 52 transports, would deliver the parachute force. By 24 May, battle procedure was complete.

Partisan Disposition

German intelligence claimed about 12,000 Partisans were active in the area of operations, but Yugoslav sources place this number around 16,000, not including auxiliary support, schools, or members of the SKOJ (Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia). Immediately surrounding Drvar were the First (Nikola Tesla) and Six Proletarian Divisions of the First Proletarian Corps, with the Corps HQ based six kilometres to the east in Mokronoge. Of immediate concern was the Third Lika Brigade of the First Division stationed five kilometers south of Drvar in Kamenica, whose four battalions of were the most potent reaction force.

Within Drvar itself there was a mixed bag of military liaison missions, support and escort troops and both the Supreme Headquarters of the NOVJ and the Central Committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party. The Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia was located in town, and had just held a congress of over 800 youths in attendance, some of whom were still in the process of departing. As well, the AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist Council of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) had their headquarters on the outskirts of town and in the nearby village of Sipovljani there was the Partisan officers’ school with about 130 students. The Soviet Union, Britain and the United States all had military missions to Tito’s headquarters in some of the adjoining small villages. Finally, Tito’s Escort Battalion of three companies, two of which were with him, was present to provide personal protection to the Marshal and the various headquarters and missions.

Tito’s personal headquarters was initially located in a cave immediately north of Drvar and overlooked the town. When rumors surfaced that this location had become compromised, he moved his main headquarters to another cave in the town of Basasi, some seven kilometres to the west. His Drvar cave was used primarily during the day and he would return to Bastasi at night for security reasons. The location the Germans believed housed his headquarters, the cemetery at Slobica Glavica (Objective Citadel), was, in fact, sparsely manned.

Tito’s birthday was the 25th of May. On the evening of the 24th, a celebration was held in Drvar, and, due to the festivities finishing late, Tito decided to spend the night in his Drvar cave. Despite his initial concerns that caused him to relocate to Bastasi, he felt confident all would be quiet. It almost proved to be a fatal error.

The Battle

Tito, still somewhat sluggish from the previous evening’s celebration, awoke to the attack on Drvar. Operation RÖSSELPRUNG began according to plan on 25 May with a preparatory aerial bombardment of suspected Partisan location in Drvar, including the cemetery. This bombardment was to begin at 0635 hours and consisted of five squadrons of Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, older He 46 medium bombers, and Italian made Ca 314 and Cr 42 medium-bombers. It appears that the plan was closely followed. P-Hour began at 0700 hours. Although dense smoke from the bombardment reduced visibility, most pilots were able to orient themselves on the Western Cross and land gliders or drop their paratroops relatively close to designated objectives. Several gliders did land off course, including one in front of the main headquarters cave in Bastasi, where members of the Escort Battalion immediately killed the occupants before they could exit. Between two and four others landed in Vrtoce and the occupants had to fight their way into Drvar. German sources claim the parachute jump was made at 60 to 75 metres above ground level, but pictures taken from the ground of the jump indicate the it was somewhat higher.

Once on the ground, the Fallschirmjägers quickly seized control of Drvar. Panther Group, supported by Red Group, rapidly overcame token resistance at the cemetery and Rybka established battalion headquarters behind its walls. The only forces of consequence located there were the crews manning three anti-aircraft machine guns, of which two escaped. Needless to say, neither Tito nor his headquarters were found. Greiffer and Brecher Groups came up empty handed as the British and American missions were not present in their accommodations. Elements of Sturmer Group landed in a field immediately south of the cave and came under fire from Escort Battalion members positioned in the high ground surrounding Tito’s location. The most intense fighting was with Draufganger Group in the area of the Western Cross who assaulted what they believed to be the Partisan communications center, but was in fact the office building for the Communist Party’s Central Committee. After intense close quarter combat against fanatical resistance, the building was basically leveled with satchel charges.

Also subject to very fierce fighting were Blue and Green Groups, who were attempting to establish a cordon in the eastern part of town, where most of the population was located. Although not mentioned in German reports, Yugoslav accounts proudly cite a Partisan counter-attack by four captured Italian CV-34 tanks. Not inflicting any noteworthy damage, three tanks were quickly disabled and the remaining one escaped to Bastasi. Also creating a problem for the Germans, especially in the more populated areas, was resistance from the members of the Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia who remained in Drvar and whose enthusiasm in taking up arms (whatever were available) against the attackers could explain some accounts of spontaneous uprisings.

Immediately upon realizing the nature of the attack, the candidates from the officers’ school marched to the sound of gunfire. Armed with only pistols and the odd rifle, they split into two groups. The smaller group crossed to the north side of the Unac River and advanced west along the rail line with the aim of protecting Tito’s headquarters. The larger group, bolstered by the retrieval of several misdirected drops of German ammunition and arms, attacked Green and Blue Groups in their eastern flank beginning at approximately 0800 hours. Although the officer candidates suffered severe casualties, the pressure of their attack on this flank was maintained throughout the day.

By about 0900 hours, the Germans had secured the majority of Drvar, but they still had no trace of Tito. Before the operation, every Fallschirmjäger was issued with a picture of him[36] and they now went door to door, brutally questioning those civilians they could find. There are many Yugoslav based stories of German atrocities against the civilian population at this point in the battle, including herding people into houses to be burned alive, but it is difficult to determine where the Germans would find the time to do this based on the influence of other events.

By mid-morning it became apparent to Rybka that Partisan resistance was concentrated to the north in the area of the headquarters cave. He surmised that there must be something to protect in this area, and if Tito was in Drvar this would be his likely location. Launching a red flare as a pre-arranged signal, he rallied his soldiers for an attack on the new objective. Around 1030 hours he launched a frontal attack across the Unac River, supported by at least one MG-42 medium machine gun firing into the mouth of the cave. They made it as far as the base of the hill leading up to the cave, less than fifty metres from its mouth, before being repulsed. The Fallschirmjägers from 500 SS, already parched from a lack of water, had suffered severe casualties.

Concurrent with the mounting and execution of this attack, more Partisan forces were beginning to converge on Drvar. From the west and southwest came three of the battalions of the Third Brigade of the Sixth Lika Division. One battalion attacked directly towards the German position at the cemetery while the other two swung around to the west through Vrtoce to hit the Germans in the western flank with a view to relieve pressure on the cave area.

At approximately 1115 hours, during a lull in the fighting and after the attack had been repulsed, Tito managed to escape from the cave. This act has been inaccurately described in many accounts. After the first attack failed, Tito, escorted by several staff, climbed down a rope through a trap door in a platform at the mouth of the cave. He then followed a small creek leading to the Unac River, then diagonally climbed the heights to the east of the cave, a route which would provide cover for most of the way. From the Klekovaca ridge overlooking Drvar, he began his withdrawal east to Potoci.

1200 hours was P-Hour for the reinforcing second wave of 220 Fallschirmjägers who jumped in two groups just to the west of Objective Citadel. Their drop zone was situated within Partisan fields of fire and thus the wave suffered many casualties as they hit the ground. Newly armed with the remaining reinforcements, Rybka attempted another assault, but by now the pressure on his flanks was too great and the attack again floundered. Fighting continued throughout the afternoon with both sides taking heavy casualties. By late afternoon Rybka, realizing that the capture of Tito was improbable at this point and that the linkup with ground forces would not happen as planned, ordered a withdrawal. He initially planned to have a defensive perimeter encompassing both the cellulose factory and the cemetery, but after realizing the extent of his casualties and his consequent inability to hold the large perimeter, he reduced his defensive position to include just the cemetery. At about 1800 hours, while withdrawing under fire, he was injured by a grenade blast and was out of the battle.

The withdrawal to the cemetery was done under considerable pressure. At least one group of Fallschirmjägers was cut-off and wiped out. By about 2130 hours, the remnants of the Battalion had consolidated in the cemetery. Partisan forces had the remnants of 500 SS completely surrounded. Throughout the night attacks against the German position continued. The fourth battalion of the Third Lika Brigade, which had arrived later than the other three and been kept in reserve, was launched with the remnants of the other three battalions against the cemetery. Elements of the Ninth Dalmatian Division joined the attacks at some point during the night, increasing the pressure. The Fallschirmjägers continued to hold their ground, but casualties were mounting. At 0330 hours the final Partisan attack was launched, breaching the cemetery wall in several locations, but the German defence held.

Throughout the day, the progress of the converging elements of XV Mountain Corps was not as rapid as had been planned. Unexpected resistance from I, V, and VIII Partisan Corps along their axis of advance greatly hindered their movement. Most post-operation reports cite extremely poor radio communications amongst the different elements, causing a plague of coordination difficulties. It would also appear that Allied aircraft, based in Italy, attacked the linkup forces with several sorties throughout the day, however air support from the Luftwaffe was also present throughout. In fact, an unarmed Fiesler Stork reconnaissance plane, initially intended to whisk Tito away once taken, was able to land and extract casualties, including Rybka.

After the last attack failed to penetrate the German defences and knowing that relief in the form of XV Mountain Corps was on the way, Tito ordered the Partisan forces to withdraw, and then made good his escape. Escorted by elements of the Third Krajina Brigade, he first went to Potoci, where he met up with a battalion from the First Proletarian Brigade, and, after discovering German troops in force in the area, made his way to Kupres. In the Kupres Valley, a Soviet Dakota aircraft stationed at a Royal Air Force base in Italy and escorted by six American Aircraft picked him up on 3 June and took him to Bari, Italy. On 6 June, a Royal Navy destroyer delivered him to the Island of Vis, along the Dalmatian Coast, to re-establish his headquarters.

The remnants of 500 SS were to spend the rest of the night of 25/26 May in their hasty defensive positions. They received some support at 0500 hours as a German fighter-bomber formation attacked the withdrawing Partisans. At 0700 hours, the unit finally established radio contact with the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 373rd Division but physical linkup in Drvar with XV Mountain Corps did not occur until 1245 hours when the lead elements of the Second Battalion of the 92nd Motorized Grenadier Regiment arrived.

Despite not eliminating Tito, the Germans were unwilling to admit defeat and viewed this operation as a success with blind arrogance. According to a self-congratulatory report from Second Panzer Army:

“The operation against the partisans in Croatia [this area of Bosnia was included as part of Croatia at this time] enjoyed considerable success. It succeeded in 1) destroying the core region of the communist partisans by occupying their command and control centers and their supply installations, thereby considerably weakening their supply situation; 2) forcing the elite communist formations (1st Proletarian Division and the 3rd Lika Division [incorrect designation] to give battle and severely battering them, forcing them to withdraw due to shortages of ammunition and supplies, and avoid further combat (the 9th, 39th and 4th Tito Divisions also suffered great losses); 3) capturing landing fields used by Allied aircraft, administrative establishments, and headquarters of foreign military missions, forcing the partisans to reorganize and restructure; 4) giving the Allies a true picture of the combat capability of the partisans; 5) obtaining important communications equipment, code keys, radios, etc. for our side; 6) achieving these successes under difficult conditions that included numerous enemy air attacks.”

The future commander of 500 SS was even more sanguine: “Overall the operation with its jump and landing was a success. Unfortunately Tito and the Allied military delegations managed to escape.” With an understanding of the German mission, this becomes a rather contradictory statement.

The overarching intent of Operation RÖSSELPRUNG was the elimination of Tito, the man who personified the Partisan movement. To the German high command, Tito was the center of gravity for the Partisans and his elimination would greatly diminish the resolve of the movement to continue. “Tito is our most dangerous enemy,” Field Marshal von Weichs was to claim before the operation. Despite the words of praise, the costly operation only netted the Marshal’s uniform, in for tailoring, a Jeep, which was a gift from the American mission, and three British journalists, one of whom later escaped. Even the intelligence information gathered, contrary to the above report, was not of much use. When the operation failed to eliminate Tito, it failed to achieve its underlying intent for being launched, and thus by no stretch can be considered to have achieved its purpose.

Ironically, Tito’s dramatic escape further solidified his deity-like stature amongst the Yugoslav population, and became part of the mythology surrounding this cult of personality. Although NOVJ headquarters, along with several other Partisan organizations, had their operations temporarily disrupted and several higher level personnel killed, they were quick to recover and set up in different locations. Drvar reverted to Partisan control within weeks.

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.

It continued throughout the rest of the war as the sole SS parachute unit, with its designation later changed to 600 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion, but Operation RÖSSELPRUNG was to be its only combat jump of the war.

Kesselring and Rotterdam

The Führer’s pronounced intention to invade the West as soon as Poland had been taken might well have led to an offensive in November had not a combination of internal Wehrmacht politics and bad weather conspired to prevent it. Both the air force and tank force experts, upon whom all hope of attaining a quick and absolute result depended, were adamant in their insistence upon good weather to accompany their efforts. Kesselring, of course, had nothing to do with these deliberations, occupied as he was in the East where he might have remained had not chance taken a hand. However, the mistaken landing in Belgium of an aeroplane from Luftflotte II on 10 January had repercussions outreaching a mere breach of neutrality. Its passenger was carrying the invasion plans and nobody could be sure if they had been destroyed in time. From Hitler, enraged at this serious breach of security, there came a sharp rebuke for the humiliated Göring, who had little option except to sack the commander of Luftflotte II, the Old Eagle, Hellmuth Felmy. Into his place stepped Kesselring but not, it seems, as an automatic choice. When announcing the appointment Göring gave nothing away: Kesselring got the job ‘because I have nobody else’, yet he could have given it to Milch since Milch had asked for it and Göring was agreeable. But once more the General Staff displayed its dislike for Milch, its Chief, Jeschonnek, insisting upon putting in his friend Kesselring.

The compromising of the invasion plans acted as a blessing in disguise for the Germans in several different ways. The existing scheme had to be scrapped thus making way for a new, more imaginative strategy with incalculable consequences for the future. Kesselring would take up his new task (in collaboration with von Bock of Army Group B with whom he had worked so well in Poland) in the hope of imposing his own ideas on an existing plan he distrusted. He found that not only was Luftflotte II to cover the invasion of Holland by the Army and also act as the spearhead of attack on land as well; this part of the attack was to be a Luftwaffe benefit of which the aim was the rapid occupation of the Netherlands through the first large-scale airborne invasion ever undertaken. Felmy, with Student (Kesselring’s old comrade of Reichswehr days) had hatched the initial scheme, but Hitler, too (ever enthralled by dramatic and large-scale projects), had made a contribution and, as Kesselring soon discovered, was not prepared to allow revision. Kesselring could have argued openly against the Supreme Commander’s will, as was his right. Instead he employed what was to become, from then on, an ingrained technique, a process of gradually chipping away the rough edges until the main edifice of the plan had taken a manageable shape. Acting as a sort of Chairman of Governors, he resolved the many differences in technique that had to be settled in order to co-ordinate the air assault with supporting land operations under von Bock, whose troops would have to link up as quickly as possible with Student’s men after they had landed deep in enemy territory. In these discussions it was as much the soldier as the airman in Kesselring who participated.

The revolutionary campaign in the Netherlands is an important landmark in the development of Kesselring’s career, and probably a turning point. For the first of many occasions he was compelled to take a serious operational risk against his better judgement – launching an unproven airborne army and being ordered to do so before the requisite local air superiority had been won. It made him strain every sinew to cultivate surprise by trying to have the transport aircraft reach their drop points before the small Dutch and Belgian air forces could intervene – an almost impossible mission and one that depended as much on luck as anything else. It is therefore interesting to observe Kesselring’s main departure from the plan of his predecessor, Felmy, who was cheerfully prepared to rely on air power alone to achieve his objectives. Kesselring was to wrestle fiercely with von Bock for close collaboration of the land forces, as the record of their discussions and those with the other army leaders shows – but in the struggle it was as a soldier that he argued. While guarding Luftwaffe interests he took the Army’s part and rejected the Luftwaffe’s dreams of total independence. Göring and Jeschonnek were arrogantly promoting the invasion of Holland mainly as a way of seizing air bases to facilitate attacks on Britain. In their minds they relegated the Army to a subsidiary role in the forthcoming operations. Kesselring was thoroughly realistic. He protested that the relief force was too small, and therefore was bound to be too late in linking up with the airborne troops. This contention was brushed aside to begin with, but was eventually upheld after he remorselessly pressed his point. On the other hand he was as one with Göring in insisting that the Luftwaffe should take all the credit possible and with this in mind he demanded the full commitment of all its resources, including the ground anti-aircraft units.

Kesselring also had strong reservations about the methods employed by the Air Landing Group commander, Kurt Student, particularly to Student flying, in person, with the assault – though Student was only acting in the prescribed German tradition of the day by insisting upon leading from the front. Mainly, however, Kesselring was worried about despatching so many vulnerable aircraft to such a precise schedule in the face of potentially heavy opposition and petulantly he groused about Student’s habit of going straight to Hitler whenever his intentions looked like being thwarted – a short-circuiting habit which, to those who recall the Wingate and Churchill relationship, seems to have been endemic among inspired airborne forces commanders the world over. It was orthodoxy in command procedures that was at stake and this disturbed the precise nature of Kesselring’s dedication to a formal command system. Already Kesselring was grappling with the intractable problem of keeping Hitler’s more bizarre ideas in check. Now he began to understand that, although control of the dictator was impossible and there would be many occasions when to accede was the only course open (even by feeding the Führer with facts he liked), it was possible to exert a measure of restraint by providing this extraordinary man with digestible facts prior to stating a case. It became necessary to have the ear of the entourage of younger military liaison officers who were ever in close attendance on Hitler as well as on Göring. In the German corridors of power affairs were settled with quite as much dexterity of secret manoeuvre as in those of other countries – and Kesselring had long been a master of that technique as well.

The invasion of Holland on 10 May was destined to fulfil both the hopes and fears of Kesselring. Though surprise was far from being achieved (since British Intelligence as well as Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Secretary, were able to warn the Dutch of the exact day danger was threatened), the German parachute and glider troops speedily secured their objectives – the bridges over the River Maas and the Albert Canal, the long bridge at Moerdijk, the airfields at Rotterdam and the Hague. About fifty Dutch aircraft were destroyed on the ground but most of their fighters were airborne early and, as the day progressed (in collaboration with the British RAF) exacted a heavy toll. The slaughter of Ju 52 transports was appalling, each to go down carrying with it a good crew that was an essential part of the training organisation, the cadre upon which the incomplete Luftwaffe depended for its maximum expansion in the future. On the 10th on all fronts (including that in Norway), the Luftwaffe sustained the heaviest losses it was ever to suffer in a single day – 304 destroyed and 51 damaged – of which no less than 157 were Ju 52s. Some were hacked down in the air (39 in one interception at dawn), more were bombed on the ground. It was a massacre. Moreover the paratroop lodgement at the Hague was eliminated by a Dutch counter-attack long before it could be relieved, and so the only airfield remaining to Student for resupply and reinforcement was at Rotterdam. Kesselring, reinforcing success in the classical manner, instantly and ruthlessly abandoned the Hague project and sent everything he could to help Student at Rotterdam. At the same time he provided the maximum possible bomber and fighter support, though this was attenuated on the 12th when, according to plan, the dive-bombers were diverted to support the main Army offensive as it debouched from the Ardennes and crossed the River Meuse at Sedan.

Time was precious at Rotterdam. Though the land relief forces were nearing the airborne bridgehead on the 13th, and the Dutch were on the verge of collapse, the Germans feared a British seaborne landing and therefore wished quickly to occupy the city and complete the Dutch capitulation. The Germans on the spot threatened the Dutch plenipotentiaries with ‘all means necessary’ to break resistance if a surrender was not forthcoming on the 14th. The Dutch prevaricated. Meanwhile Kesselring was having a row with Göring over the C-in-C’s cavalier approach to bombing Rotterdam, and taking meticulous precautions in briefing the bomber crews who, prior to a final assault by the paratroops, were to carry out a heavy bombardment of the Dutch troops defending the northern perimeter of the city. Radio procedures for stopping the attack if the Dutch had previously given up were arranged as well as the firing of red signal flares by the ground troops if the Dutch surrendered in time and all other communication failed. At the last moment agreement on a cease-fire seemed imminent. But by then the aircraft, high-level bombers with none of the accuracy of dive-bombers, were on their way and, with dreadful portent due to technical reasons, had lost radio contact with control. Moreover haze and smoke in the target area obscured the red signal flares. So the attack went ahead and the centre of Rotterdam was crushed and set alight by fires that grew quite beyond the capacity of the antiquated fire service to prevent. Although there is fairly general acceptance today that Kesselring and many Luftwaffe officers really did try their best to prevent the disaster, their C-in-C, Göring, was less scrupulous than his underlings. It was he, against Kesselring’s protests, who insisted upon the attack. Of more significance (though it is still accorded far too little weight in assessing the main reasons for the subsequent failure of the Luftwaffe, and, indeed, of Germany) was over-reliance upon radio as a means of communication. This not only contributed strongly to the disaster at Rotterdam (which played into the hands of the enemy’s propagandists) but was to handicap the Germans thereafter in almost every operation they were to undertake.

Devastating though these air attacks on cities were and provocative of enemy counter-measures against Germany as they were to prove, there is nothing to suggest that Kesselring, the man who was to lead the attack on Coventry, looked upon missions of this kind other than dispassionately. The hatred this bombardment and that previously of Warsaw had helped generate was of far greater magnitude than he can have reckoned with that May. At that time he earnestly believed that a war which was prosecuted to victory by lightning methods would win a more economic and humane solution than one prolonged, as carried on in 1918. To him the air weapon, used with psychological discrimination, was the right, indeed the essential, instrument to help achieve a quick conclusion. For he apprehended that Germany was fighting a poor man’s war against opponents who were rich and only temporarily at a disadvantage. They had to be crushed at once; to delay and give them time to recover would be fatal for Germany. These things he told his son Rainer.