Operation Penguin II

The thunderous impact at Chiswick was heard all across London. Homes shook, followed by some rumbling vibrations. People were puzzled; there had been no sound of a V-1 sputtering across the sky or the hum of a German bomber overhead or any air-raid sirens. Those living near the strike reported hearing a double bang, which was later discovered to be the boom of the missile breaking the sound barrier. People near the area filtered into the streets, curious to know what had just happened. Eleven homes situated on Staveley Road were totally flattened, while two dozen more sustained substantial damage. Many people were surprised to find the blast radius was so broad; windows of houses almost two miles away had been blown out by the concussion. Rescue workers moved up the street giving aid to those who were bleeding from cuts caused by flying debris and glass. Military and Civil Defense officials soon arrived at the scene and began rummaging about, collecting scraps of metal found near the crater. A reporter who was fast on the scene asked one of the Civil Defense men if the explosion seemed to be a new type of German guided bomb and was told, “We can’t say what it was. It might have been a gas main explosion.” The deep crater fashioned by the missile actually did rupture water and gas mains; however, the military officials on hand knew exactly what had happened—Big Ben (the British code name for the German rocket) had arrived.

Immediately after firing the missiles, the soldiers of Battalion 485 had packed their equipment and driven away from the launching sites. Later that evening, the locals returned to their neighborhood. They found that both launching sites were in the middle of roadways passing through the wooded upper-class neighborhood. At each launching place, there was a circular patch from which the road had been melted or burned. The burned patch had a diameter of 20 to 25 feet, and in the center of each scorched area was an unburned area in a box form, suggesting that some sort of stand had been used. The beautiful large, mature trees near the edge of the roadway were very badly burned up to a height of about four feet and less badly burned near the treetops. There was also evidence of a violent low blast, because the grass and nearby gardens were flattened; all the leaves had strangely vanished from the ground below the trees. The thatched roof of a nearby small house had been lifted and blown off by the rocket exhaust. The following day, a report was sent to Kammler’s headquarters: “The rocket weapon was effective. Two rounds launched against London.”

On September 9, 1944, on a tip from the Dutch resistance, RAF fighter aircraft were able to locate the neighborhood from where the first two V-2s had been fired. The pilots knew they were close when a heavy barrage of antiaircraft fire met them over Wassenaar. The aircraft bombed and strafed the neighborhood streets, but the rocket troops were no longer there. The second battery of Battalion 485 had set up operations on the grounds of the Beukenhorst estate, a few miles to the southwest; firing only one missile that day, which fell into the sea. The air attacks prompted local government officials to order the evacuation of Wassenaar on September 10, with the exception of the area behind the Kerkdam. Within three days, the entire area between the viaduct on the Leidschenstraatweg and Kerkdam, including the Marlot Park, was evacuated. On September 10, the first battery of Battalion 485 was ready to join the second battery in firing operations from the area. The mobile batteries, each with three firing tables, were dispersed to new firing sites in the Wassenaar and The Hague. On September 12, the soldiers moved into the Marlot area adjacent to the Duindigt horse racing track. That day, between the hours of 6:00 AM and 9:40 PM, five more V-2s were launched. Londoners experienced more of the mysterious bangs, one of which landed on the Chrysler manufacturing plant at Kew Gardens, killing eight people and causing extensive damage.

The amount of damage inflicted by both the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket at the immediate impact area exhibited total destruction. However, the collateral damage was greater during a V-2 strike. The crater made by a V-2 was much deeper than that of the flying bomb. Instead of knocking down walls and ceilings, the V-2’s impact speed helped disintegrate the material into tiny pieces, throwing off some as lethal shards.

On September 14, two rockets launched from Wassenaar failed; each one crashed into the North Sea, just off the coastline north of Kijkduin. Another launched from the grounds of the Beukenhorst estate hit Walthamstow, England, digging a crater 25 feet deep and killing seven people.

Nevertheless, the start of the V-2 bombardment shook the confidence of the British citizens. They knew their government was covering up or least obscuring the facts about the loud explosions. There was no official news released at first, and officials in London refused to acknowledge the mysterious blasts. Government officials did not create the rumor of the “gasometers” or “exploding gas mains,” but did not deny them either. Yet, 16 gas main explosions in ten days was quite a lot; most people felt it had to be some sort of new nasty German surprise. Some people remembered earlier news columns reporting a second type of German robot bomb and quickly associated the new explosions with the previously mentioned V-2; mockingly referring to the new attacks as the “flying gas mains.” Even though the V-2 was not completely unknown to Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet, the opening of the rocket offensive had come as a shock to its members. It had been hoped that the raids on Peenemünde and the intensive bombardment of the Crossbow sites, along with the capture of the prepared firing sites in the Pas de Calais, would prevent the German missile attacks. But now, much to the dismay of the War Cabinet, the topic of conversation all over the city was focused on this new horror, with wild stories and rumors running rampant.

Just a few days earlier, the British populace, like the Dutch across the channel, had been expecting the war to be over soon. After all, hadn’t the Allied armies driven ten miles inside of Germany already? Over a million people had been evacuated from London during the flying bomb offensive, and many were already making their way back into the city following the exuberant news of recent Allied victories in France and Belgium. Newspapers had announced the end of the V-1 threat, proclaiming “The Battle of London is over.” What the public didn’t know was that the supply situation was about to slow the advance for a much longer period than even Allied generals expected. Moreover, the retreating German armies had completely destroyed the French and Belgian railway systems, which meant most of the supplies were still being transported by truck, and in much smaller quantities than were needed. The natural barriers of the terrain, along with man-made obstacles such as the Siegfried Line, were also inhibiting the advance. It would take weeks before enough food, ammunition, and other vital supplies could be accumulated on the front lines. But by that time, summer weather would be over; inclement weather could also cause many problems for the Allies.

Along the coast of England, British radar stations attempted to track the flight of incoming V-2s in order to find out just where the rockets were coming from. It was thought that radar might disclose the launching points. Just after liftoff, the rockets could be seen as a momentary blip on radar screens. Sound-ranging and flash-spotting equipment were also employed in Belgium, but in the end, these efforts produced too little information to discern the firing locations. But on many occasions, the Dutch resistance was able to get maps and messages to the British detailing the locations and operations of the German rocket troops. Rising with a tail of flame and a deafening roar, a V-2 could be seen and heard by Dutch civilians for miles around. With the help of these reports, some fighter-bomber attacks were mounted, but these met with little success during the early part of the rocket campaign. At first Allied commanders were unaware of the rocket’s mobility and continued to envision some type of fixed launching complex. It took British Intelligence quite a long time to discover just how extremely mobile the rocket was. Not only was the rocket impossible to stop after firing—it was also going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop on the ground.

Following disagreements with General Metz, Kammler assumed total control of the rocket batteries as divisional commander. On September 9, acting on orders from Himmler, General Kammler ordered Battery 444 to cease firing on Paris and transferred them to Group North. They were ordered to travel to the Dutch coast and set up operations on the Walcheren peninsula near the Scheldt estuary across from the Belgian border. German military commanders were keeping a close watch on the situation at the front lines. American, British, and Canadian troops had already moved into Belgium and were at the German frontier. Battery commanders were advised to be ready to pull out of their operational areas on short notice. General Kammler was fearful that the rocket troops might be overrun, and the last thing he wanted was for his new weapon to be neutralized before the rocket campaign could get rolling. In The Hague, Battalion 485 received orders to continue firing at London, but because of the Allied advance, they were on alert for a possible withdrawal to the east.

Kammler’s staff, which was thrown together at the last minute, was unable to cope with all questions arising after the start of the rocket offensive. Because of his military command inexperience, he made many elementary mistakes. For example, after the start of the offensive, Kammler could not get in touch with his troops. He knew nothing of their whereabouts, particularly Battalion 485 in Holland. Some of the most essential equipment and spare parts had been left behind. On September 5, the day designated for the offensive to begin, the troops discovered that no warheads had been shipped to the operational areas, which postponed the opening of the offensive for several days. The battalions went into action with specialized tankers, trailers, and trucks to carry the rocket fuels, but the motorized columns had no tankers along to carry regular gasoline for their vehicles. When told of the problem, Kammler suggested the troops should just fill up the emptied alcohol tankers with gasoline. Immediately, the coating inside of the tanks—specially made for the storage of alcohol—was completely ruined. The alcohol tankers, which were in short supply and needed at the front, had to be sent back to Germany for repairs.

Even though the rocket attacks had begun, the concerns of the launching crews were far from over. In the first ten days of the V-2 campaign, only two dozen rockets had been launched toward London. Fuel and supplies, especially the highly explosive liquid oxygen, were being brought in from Germany in frustratingly small amounts. The rockets were another problem. By the time they reached their launching sites, more than half were not fit for firing. Of those that were launched, only about 60 percent found their way to London. The familiar airburst problem, along with in-flight mechanical problems, caused many rockets to fall in the North Sea or in sparsely populated areas. Daily technical reports coming to headquarters reported a variety of problems such as oil in the liquid oxygen. This occurred when the liquid oxygen had been stored too long in the transport bowser. The oil residue caused explosions upon ignition of the combustion unit. A thorough cleaning of the bowsers cleared up this problem and stopped the explosions, but damage to materials and to the launch sites caused further delays. Long storage was also causing problems with the inner workings of many rockets. The delicate servo mechanisms were especially vulnerable to the effects of rain and humidity. At this time, the rockets were shipped by train from the Mittelwerk factory at Nordhausen to the area of Koblenz, where they were stockpiled in depots along the northwest German border. Once at the border, LXV Corps transported them to the main storage facility where the 511 Field Workshop Company unloaded and stored the rockets until they were required. There they remained for weeks at a time. When they were finally brought over to the launching crews, many of the V-2s were in poor condition, with vital components and electrical systems corroded. As a result of these conditions, the rate of fire was well below Hitler’s imagined onslaught.

After being transferred to Group North, Battery 444 began its move from Belgium to Walcheren on September 10, arriving late in the evening on September 15. Along the way, as the rockets passed through the town of Serooskerke, a young Dutch girl, peeking through the drawn window curtains of her home, secretly snapped three rolls of film showing the tarpaulin-covered missiles resting on their long Meillerwagen trailers. The film rolls were later passed on to London, giving British officials their first up-close look at the V-2. At Walcheren, the Battery 444 firing crews quickly set up operations on the scenic grounds of the Vrederust estate, known today as Welgelegen. On the days of September 16–18, 1944, they launched six rockets at England, but only three reached their target.

On September 9, 1944, the staff at British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s headquarters received an urgent message from the Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff: “Two rockets, so called V-2, landed in England yesterday. Please report most urgently by what approximate date you consider you can rope off the coastal area contained by Antwerp-Utrecht-Rotterdam. When this area is in our hands the threat from this weapon will probably have dispersed.”

On September 10, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower flew to Brussels for a meeting with Field Marshal Montgomery. It was a trip he was not looking forward to. He did not think highly of the egotistic British field marshal who had been openly critical of Eisenhower’s “broad front” strategy. Even while the Allied advance was grinding to a halt, Montgomery had been proposing what he called his “single thrust plan,” an idea for a powerful thrust into Holland that would trap German forces in the Ruhr and allow the Allies to drive straight to Berlin, ending the war before Christmas. Eisenhower had heard this proposal before; he had rejected it several times already. Eisenhower believed the best way to get the Allied advance underway again was to open the Belgian port of Antwerp. If the estuary could be cleared, and the remaining resistance eliminated, the deep-water harbor would allow the necessary supplies to quickly reach the front lines. Eisenhower believed enormous stockpiles would need to be built up prior to the commencement of a long drive across the German heartland.

Eisenhower’s meeting with Montgomery started off just as he had expected; the Field Marshal began lambasting the current Allied strategy and came up with all the same criticisms and optimistic proposals. Montgomery insisted if he received all the men and equipment he requested, he could capture a bridge over the Rhine and be in Berlin in less than three months. However, this time the British field marshal offered a different argument. Montgomery pointed out that the German rocket campaign had begun and that British Intelligence knew the rockets were being launched from somewhere on the Dutch coast. If the plan worked, not only would it be a catalyst into Germany but it would also counteract the V-2 threat. Holland had been under German occupation for four years, and the British commander believed that the German forces there were weak. If airborne units could land and hold key bridges, he could send a heavy armored force racing through Holland all the way to the IJsselmeer. This time Eisenhower agreed to the plan. Even though he was doubtful as to whether the operation would swiftly facilitate a passageway into Germany, the prospect of capturing a bridge over the Rhine, while at the same time reducing the rocket threat, must have appealed to him.

Code-named Operation Market Garden, it would be the largest airborne drop in military history. Three Allied divisions would be involved. In the “Market” portion of the plan, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division Airborne would drop near Eindhoven and secure the canal crossings at Veghel. The U.S. 82nd Airborne Division would capture the bridges over the Maas River at Grave and the Waal River at Nijmegen. Sixty miles behind German lines, the British First Airborne, then later the Polish First Airborne Brigade, would be dropped on the bridge over the Rhine River at Arnhem. In the “Garden” phase, British XXX Corps would dash up these Allied-held river crossings to relieve the First Airborne at Arnhem.

Montgomery’s original plan called for the capture of a bridge across the Rhine at Wesel, a move that might have cut off Division z.V. headquarters near Nijmegen and allowed for the capture of SS General Kammler himself. But following the communiqué from London concerning the first V-2 attacks, Montgomery altered his plan in an attempt to cut off the V-2 supply routes to the Dutch coast. Subsequent to their retreat from France and Belgium, German forces in the west were beginning to stabilize. German paratroopers and SS Panzer units had moved into Arnhem, and while British intelligence was aware of them, for some reason, their presence was deemed insignificant by British planners.

Just after noon on September 17, 1944, 12 Spitfires of No. 229 Squadron RAF took off from their base at Coltishall. Their mission was to scan a stretch of the Dutch coast looking for evidence of rocket activity. While patrolling at 12,000 feet over North Holland, they witnessed a V-2 rising in the distance at terrific speed. The rocket impacted several minutes later in greater London at Coulsdon. The Spitfires were too far away to discern the exact location from which the rocket had been fired. They could only report the general location, which was near the coast, possibly The Hague. Battery 444 launched a rocket from Walcheren that came down at Adelaide Road, Brockley, Lewisham, killing 14 people and injuring another 41. Later that evening, more fighter bombers, acting on a tip from the Dutch underground, attacked the surrounding area near Beukenhorst between Raaphorstlaan and Eikenhorstlaan. These heavily wooded areas southeast of Wassenaar were suspected as firing locations but in fact were not.

On the morning of September 17, 1944, the airborne landings began. The Dutch population, convinced they were about to be liberated, watched the armada of aircraft from their rooftops. Even the German troops were in awe of the force that was descending upon them. But as XXX Corps began to advance up a single road, the assault was stalled almost as soon as it began. German defenders immediately poured fire down on the tanks and vehicles. The airborne forces were able to accomplish their goals, except for the 82nd Airborne, which had to scramble to build a temporary bridge for XXX Corps. The British First Airborne had dropped five miles from their target and could only take the north side of the bridge at Arnhem. Worse, they had dropped in the middle of a Panzer division and were facing German attacks on their flank and continuing armored assaults from the south side of the bridge. They were cut off, and because of inadequate radio transmitters, the division commander was out of touch with his men for 36 critical hours.

First Airborne held on to their position with the hope that XXX Corps would eventually show up, but after nine days, no relief had arrived. Casualties were mounting, and it became clear that XXX Corps would never make it to Arnhem. On September 26, Montgomery ordered the First Airborne to break out of Arnhem and rejoin the Allied lines to the south. Out of 10,000 men dropped into Arnhem, only 2,300 came out; 1,400 were dead, and over 6,000 were prisoners of war. Operation Market Garden had failed. Montgomery’s planning had not take into account any of the lessons learned in Allied operations of the recent past. For such a large operation, very little time was given to actual planning. Bad weather, bad intelligence, and stiff German resistance all contributed to the failure.

Operation Penguin III

On September 19, 1944, at the beginning of the Allied airborne landings, SS General Kammler ordered the evacuation of all rocket troops from The Hague and Walcheren, for fear they might be cut off. The inhabitants of Wassenaar were able return to their homes after Battalion 485 withdrew from the area under the cover of darkness. The vehicles of the first battery traveled north and arrived at Overveen near Haarlem and then retreated all the way into Germany in Burgsteinfurt, where they were joined later by the second battery. The first battery of 485 set up operations west of the small town of Legden with two firing sites at Beikelort where they launched a total of 21 rockets from September 21 to October 8 against continental targets such as Louvain, Tournai, Maastricht, and Liège. At the beginning of Market Garden, American forces almost nabbed General Kammler at Berg en Dal, so he also moved his headquarters to the German town of Darfeld in Burgsteinfurt for a short time; but after moving again to Ludenscheid on September 21, he soon established a permanent headquarters in Germany, east of Dortmund at Suttrop bei Warstein on October 3.

It is often reported that Kammler’s headquarters was located for a time in the Dutch town of Haaksbergen. In fact, there was no German headquarters of any kind at Haaksbergen. It may have been confusion between the names Haaksbergen and Schaarsbergen. Schaarsbergen was about 20 kilometers from Apeldoorn, and many German barracks were concentrated in this area. Dornberger and Kammler reportedly met on several occasions at a location near Apeldoorn.

In early September of 1944, after their instruction at Köslin, SS Werfer Battery 500 moved into Poland for live firing exercises. The SS rocket troops were brought to the V-2 test range at Heidekraut, where they rapidly received their final training. Crew members were hastily rehearsed in their individual duties. Finally, the test missiles were moved to a remote launching site, fueled, tested, and fired. Beginning on September 13, each platoon launched several missiles, but lack of motorized transport and ground support equipment hampered portions of the training. All new equipment delivered had to be allotted to the operational units on the battlefront. When the exercises concluded on September 19, the V-2 campaign was already underway, and the whole battery, vehicles included, was loaded onto a freight train that departed toward the west. The train arrived in Münster, where everything was off-loaded. From there, the SS 500 drove further to Burgsteinfurt. They moved into a prepared launching site code-named Schandfleck among the tall oak trees just off the main road to Schöppingen near the German town of Heek. The battery fired its first operational V-2 on October 19, but the rocket crashed in a meadow only a few miles from the firing point. During the next two weeks, the SS 500 launched approximately 30 more V-2s, all successfully.

The first battery of Battalion 485 had already been operating in Burgsteinfurt since September 21 and was reported to have launched ten times against Liège over the period of October 4 to October 12. In total there were 27 reported impacts in the surroundings of Liège.

After the third battery of Battalion 485 completed their training at Heidekraut, they were sent into action in mid-October 1944. They joined SS 500 and the first battery of Battalion 485 in the Burgsteinfurt area, driving to a firing location west of the German town of Legden at Beikelort. The battery at that time consisted of only the first and second platoons; the third platoon had been sent to The Hague, which was very unusual, because normally individual platoons were not separated from their batteries. From Beikelort the two platoons fired 35 rockets at Antwerp over the period of October 21 to November 5. The railway siding outside the town of Legden was the main supply point in the area, and on October 9 Allied fighter bombers attacked a V-2 transport train, which was burned out and destroyed. At the beginning of November, the two platoons moved to a new position just outside of Legden near the castle Schloss Egelborg. In late November, the second platoon relieved the third platoon in The Hague; but a few weeks later, all three platoons were once again together near Legden in Burgsteinfurt.

On September 15, Group South began firing from positions in Germany near Euskirchen about 20 miles southwest of Cologne. Their targets included cities of varying importance: Arras, Amiens, Tourcoing, Brussels, Mons, Charleroi, Lille, Liège, Tournai, Diest, Hasselt, Maastricht, Cambrai, and Roubaix, all of which were soon to be in Allied hands. Battalion 836, under the command of Major Weber, continued in the Euskirchen area at sites Rheinbach and Kottenforst until the last week in September, when it moved across the Rhine River to the Westerwald area north of Montabaur.

From September 21 until October 3, there were four launching positions in the area of Westerwald (east of the Rhine River near Koblenz)—two near the town of Roßbach and two near the town of Helferskirchen. The command post of the third battery of Battalion 836 was situated in the Roßbacher Forest (District of Herrlichkeit), while the soldiers were billeted at Roßbach and Mündersbach. At Roßbach the launch sites were just off the main road with new paths created in half-circle tracks of 50 yards into the beech trees and then back onto the main road, which made it very easy for the long Meillerwagens delivering the rockets to maneuver in the wooded area. There were two firing pads there consisting of leveled ground covered in gravel. The second battery of Battalion 836, along with the headquarters battery, the technical battery, the flak train “Wojahn” (armed with antiaircraft guns), and the security platoon Sendezug/Funkhorchkompanie 725 (a unit for observation of trajectories and jamming signal) were established at Helferskirchen where the firing location was positioned about three-quarters of a mile south of the town. Under the standard of the battalion’s symbolic unit crest, which featured the figure of a witch riding naked on a broomstick, the third battery of 836 launched two rockets the next day toward Liège. These were the first V-2 rockets fired from the Westerwald. Only one was successful. The second rocket launched from Roßbach was a failure. The troops heard a huge thud at ignition; nonetheless, the rocket lifted normally into the sky only to explode after 40 seconds of thrust.

On September 27, 1944, enemy aircraft flew over the V-2 positions in the Westerwald area. Twelve Allied fighters bombed and strafed the railway stations at Hattert and Hachenburg and also the flak emplacements of the third firing battery, but no significant losses were reported. The battalion headquarters was soon established in Hachenburg, while the technical troops were stationed in the forest north of the road from Steinen to Dreifelden. From the railway station at Selters, the rockets were moved through Herschbach into the forest near Marienberg, where the Technical Troop checked and serviced them. After the warhead was mounted, each rocket was towed by the Meillerwagens over forested roads through the town of Roßbach and the Hachenburger Way to the firing sites.

The second battery of 836 fired seven V-2s in a 27-hour period, on September 27–28, but the site was abandoned the next day, and they were ordered to new emplacements across the Rhine to Saarland near Merzig (not far from the old training ground ground at Baumholder) to begin firing on Paris. General Kammler had ordered that all elements of Group South should concentrate their fire on the French capital. On October 3, the third battery, stationed at Roßbach, was ordered to join them; and by October 6, both batteries were in the Merzig area.

In the summer of 1944, as the Red Army was closing in on the Heidelager test range, R. V. Jones suggested to Winston Churchill that a technical team be sent to Poland to investigate the facility. Churchill agreed and immediately contacted Marshall Stalin to request access to the area at Blizna. Jones had assumed that the Air Ministry would be responsible for the mission; however, ultimately it was the Crossbow Committee that was charged with the Big Ben mission to the Soviet Union. A team of technical advisors led by Colonel T. R. B. Sanders, an engineer with a practical knowledge of ballistics known for his discretion and likeability, was to lead the Allied team. The relationship between Britain and Russia during the course of the war was marked by significant reservations. The appointment of a team leader having both substantial tact and diplomacy was important. Considerable negotiating skills, along with the ability to foster favorable relations, would be needed to secure the assistance of the Russians.

After permission was finally granted by the Russians, the party spent approximately two weeks in Teheran while waiting to get authorization from the Russians to fly to Moscow. Once in Moscow, another two weeks elapsed before the team actually reached Blizna on September 3. The party consisted of a mix of British and American personnel, who got on well together as well as with the Russians. Upon their arrival at the Heidelager camp, heavy fighting could be heard in the distance, as the front lines were only five miles away. The team quickly set about taking measurements, inspecting craters, collecting useful bits of rocket scraps, and interrogating Polish citizens. The firing platforms were the most remarkable discovery at Heidelager. Colonel Sanders was surprised to find out an area of only 20 square feet could be used to launch the V-2. The team managed to find a combustion chamber, a segment of the turbine casing, one of the fins, the framework of a radio compartment, and some smaller items, in all more than a ton of parts. Conversely, no evidence of railway wagons of any sort or storage tanks could be found. Looking for bits of rockets, some of the men also traveled to the target area to examine the impact sites. It was found that the Germans had been very thorough in collecting fragments, however. Of the many impact craters inspected, not a single large piece of scrap was found in the target areas. All of the collected material was crated up in Blizna and trucked to Moscow, where it would be shipped to Britain.

Colonel Sanders and his colleagues left Blizna on September 20, 1944, arrived in Moscow two days later, and flew back to London. As a result of the mission, it was found that there could be no countermeasures for the V-2. On the other hand, the rocket was found to be much smaller than anticipated, with a one-ton warhead, rather than the ten tons that some had predicted. Weeks later, a message from Moscow arrived in London with information that the rocket parts from Blizna had been “temporarily lost.” The crates were eventually sent on; however, when they were opened, authorities found not rocket parts but rusting scraps of motor cars. The Russians, after learning of the German long-range rocket program, had developed their own agenda.

After spending only two days at Walcheren, Battery 444 was ordered to travel north to Gaasterland in southwest Friesland, where it could continue operations against England. The battery traveled under the cover of darkness, as it was very risky to be on the roads during daylight hours because of Allied air superiority. After arriving in Friesland, Battery 444 set up operations in a small forested area called Rijs, south of the city of Balk. About 30 to 35 German officers of the battery were billeted in the nearby Hotel Jans. The Rijsterbos (Rijster Forest) was just off the waters of the IJsselmeer (Zuider Zee), a huge shallow lake in the center of Holland. Moving by train, the rockets left the Assen railway station bound for the station near Heerenveen at Sneek. At Heereveen they were placed on Vidalwagen road transport trailers of the supply troops and then towed by truck via the towns of Hommerts, Woudsend, and Harich, then into Balk. Dutch residents witnessed many vehicles and rockets parked beside City Hall in Balk. The rockets had to pass over a small bridge and make a difficult turn via the roads Van Swinderenstraat and Houtdijk. The Germans cleared trees away for maneuvering the trailers over the bridge that lead to Kippenburg. Even today, one can still see the scratches on the bridge where the V-2 trailers clipped the railing upon making the turn. At Kippenburg the rockets were prepared with their warheads and transferred to the Meillerwagen erector trailer. Behind the large estate house at Kippenburg, the propellant and warheads were stockpiled. The rockets were then moved via Rijsterdyk and Murnserleane a few kilometers southwest to the launching sites. Strung over the dark, unpaved, forested lanes of Murnserleane and Middenleane were large camouflage nets suspended high in the trees for further concealment from Allied aircraft.

With the V-2 having a maximum range of approximately 200 to 230 miles, it was not possible to target London from the location at Rijs. Instead, Battery 444 turned its attention to East Anglia and the territory surrounding Norwich in eastern England. Kammler was determined to continue the strikes on the British public from wherever possible, even it if meant targeting lesser cities.

On September 25, at 18:05 hours, after the trees and shrubs were sprayed with water to lower the fire danger, Battery 444 launched its first rocket toward northern England. Approximately five minutes later, the rocket hit a farm field at Hoxne in Suffolk, inflicting only minor damage to a few buildings nearby.

That same day, the rocket troops encountered their first misfire. A rocket had to be drained of its remaining fuel after the engine failed to generate full thrust. The ignition cable was burnt as the engine continued to fire while not leaving the launch table. Upon inspection, it was discovered that the rudders and tail section had been severely scorched, so the rocket was sent back for refurbishing. Closer investigation of other rockets from the Mittelwerk had revealed many additional problems. Bad welds, missing parts, short-circuited electrical connections from inferior soldering—these were just some of the mechanical errors discovered. Not only did the crews face difficulties from the quality of the rockets, there also existed an acute shortage of liquid oxygen. German production had only reached a level of about 200 cubic meters per day, which is only enough to launch 24 rockets. The logistical problems of firing batteries on the move and V-2 units spread out from northern Holland to western Germany did not help matters.

Late in the afternoon on September 26, a loud double boom was heard near the English village of Ranworth. The rocket plowed into a field about eight miles outside of town. The sound of the explosion was followed by another loud sonic boom and then the whine of rushing air. Windows of cottages were shattered within a half-mile radius of the blast. Officials in Britain quickly knew that the V-2 campaign had come to East Anglia. There had been a reduction in the frequency of V-2 attacks since the beginning of the Market Garden offensive, but still no word concerning the nature of this new German weapon had passed from British authorities to the populace. These mysterious bangs were new to the citizens of Norwich. Even some of the nearby military establishments were unfamiliar with the new threat and recorded these first impacts as aircraft crash sites.

At Rijs, the Dutch citizens were unsure of just what was going on near their homes. They only knew that it was a dangerous operation. The entry lanes to the forest were strangely blinded with canvas. They could hear on German radio the propagandists heralding the new Wunderwaffen (wonder weapons) but were unsure what this meant. Weeks later the BBC reported that it was the V-2 rocket falling on England. It was forbidden to come close to the launching sites, and very few people risked being caught near the area. Not only was there the danger of the German guards, there also was the peril of failed rockets crashing in the immediate area.

On the afternoon of September 30, a V-2 was launched from Rijs. It rose to a height of 600 feet before an explosion in the rocket’s tail brought it crashing to earth about 20 yards from the firing table. The alcohol and liquid oxygen tanks exploded upon impact, injuring some of the firing crew. The warhead sizzled in the burning fuel and exploded approximately 45 minutes later, digging a huge crater. This failed rocket had ironically destroyed a small shrine in the forest called Vredestempeltje (the little peace temple). Despite the mishap, a new launch site was quickly established a few hundred yards away.

Several weeks later, Wieger Jurjen Draayer, a local farmer, was riding his bicycle along the lanes just beyond the Rijs Forest near Bakhuizen. As there had been strange noises and unknown things seen in the sky for the past several weeks, Wieger was anxious to get home. In the distance he suddenly heard a thump followed by a tremendous roar. The bicycle he was riding came to a stop, and he let it fall to the ground. Racing to a nearby ditch, he peered out to witness a huge steeple-shaped object trailing a tail of fire rising from the forest ahead of him. The object was arcing above him when something went wrong. The noise from the projectile ceased, followed by a whistling as it fell from the sky. There was a tremendous explosion some 70 yards from where Wieger hugged the side of the ditch. Quickly, Wieger got on his bicycle again and started peddling as fast as he could. Tiny bits of material were floating down all around him, almost like snow. He noticed three dead cows in the field near the forest. The explosion left a crater some 20 feet deep and 30 feet wide. As he approached an intersection, a group of German soldiers called for him to stop. The soldiers were surprised to see the farmer riding so close to the V-2 launching area. They asked if he was injured and told him this was a restricted area and to stay away in the future. The dazed and confused Wieger hurried to his home.

For the Dutch residents of the surrounding countryside, it was a very nervous time. Every day they could hear the thunderous noise of the V-2 launches and lived in fear that something might go wrong. The farmers soon knew if the rocket did not rise vertically, anything could happen. Failed rockets would fall in the immediate area, sometimes near the residents’ homes. Other V-2s encountered problems at higher altitudes, and the farmers watched them plunge into the waters of the IJsselmeer just off shore.

For the soldiers of Battery 444, the stress of the launches was just as great. Many of them would rather have been occupied with some less hazardous job. However, there was plenty of Dutch gin to help them ease their tensions. British fighter planes searched the area several times; however, the ability of Battery 444 crews to launch and retreat quickly made it difficult to spot anything from the air. The Rijs Forest V-2 sites, with very tall trees, provided excellent camouflage; but there was always the possibility of an air attack, and the rocket troops were very wary of this.

On October 3, marking the second anniversary of the first successful A-4 launched from Peenemünde, the rocket troops at Rijs fired six missiles toward the Norfolk countryside. Throughout the day, thunderous detonations reverberated at regular intervals. From their homes, the people of Norwich could see huge columns of black smoke in the distance rising high into the air. The strikes were gradually coming closer to the populated sections of the county. Late that evening, an explosion rocked the Hellesdon area. An estimated 400 houses within a two-mile radius were damaged in some manner. The following day British authorities recovered the remains of a V-2, which broke up in the air before impact near Spixworth. The engine and various important parts were sent to Air Institute at Farnborough for analysis.

The last rocket to fly toward England from Rijs was launched on the morning of Thursday, October 12. It fell innocuously in the open near Ingworth without much commotion, demonstrating the folly of targeting anything less than a large urban city with the V-2. From September 25 to October 12, Battery 444 launched approximately 43 rockets toward East Anglia. Without heavily populated English targets within range, the results were not satisfactory. British casualties from V-2 attacks in East Anglia ended up relatively light. Only one person had been killed as a result of the attacks, and less than 50 people were wounded. The damage in Suffolk and Norfolk counties was limited to only a modest amount of houses, barns, farms, and schools. Many V-2s struck empty fields and even the North Sea.

The campaign against East Anglia ended on October 13 after new orders were received to begin targeting the port of Antwerp. Most Battery 444’s initial shots toward Antwerp missed their mark, falling short in and around the suburbs of the port city. However, on October 16, 1944, they scored a direct hit, when a V-2 slammed into dock number 201 in the harbork, completely demolishing it.

In October, RAF Fighter Command began a new operation designed to impede the German rocket crews in Holland. Big Ben patrols, or anti-V-2 missions, were mounted by several RAF squadrons, which used armed reconnaissance and dive-bombing sorties to attack the rocket areas on the Dutch coast. Flying out of Coltishall, No. 602 Squadron RAF was brought in to patrol for V-2s on October 10. They joined in with No. 229 Squadron RAF, which had already been in operation against the rocket sites since September. Both the RAF and the U.S. Army Air Force did their best to locate the missiles, and on many occasions sent hundreds of fighters over Holland to strafe anything that looked like a target. However, because of the rocket’s surreptitiousness and the heavily camouflaged firing positions, it proved almost impossible for pilots to locate the rocket batteries on the ground. Even so, the fighter-bomber sweeps shot up a lot of vehicles and railway cars and were partially responsible for shortages of liquid oxygen and other supplies at the V-2 launch sites.

After three weeks, Battery 444 disappeared from Gaasterland just as quickly as it had arrived. The last rocket fired from Rijs headed for the port of Antwerp on the morning of October 20. Suddenly the Germans packed and moved south that same day. SS General Kammler had ordered the unit back to The Hague following the failure of Market Garden.

Ever since the first rocket was fired from Rijs, British radar momentarily tracked the incoming missiles. In addition, Allied pilots reported sightings of contrails from ascending rockets near Gaasterland. However, these only gave an approximate location of the firing positions. After several weeks, an RAF reconnaissance aircraft brought back a photograph showing clear evidence of activity in the forest. On October 21, a flight of seven Tempest fighter bombers of the No. 274 Squadron RAF flew near the Rijs Forest and finally located the launching sites. They flew by heading east, just north of the forest, and after forming up in a line, the seven aircraft turned back to attack the area. Not only did the aircraft drop bombs in the forest, they also shot up the surrounding houses and buildings. Luckily, farm animals were the only victims of this attack, although some civilians narrowly escaped being hit. But the RAF found the launching sites only a few hours after the last Battery 444 vehicles exited the area. The British were unaware that the rocket units were gone, and the bombers returned each of the next few days to attack the forest. By this time, the firing platoons of Battery 444 were arriving in The Hague to join Battalion 485 for operations against London.

The people around Rijs were relieved to see the German V-2 menace departed. They returned to their everyday life, as it was in wartime, without the threat of exploding missiles on their homes. Actually, they were very lucky. There had been no Dutch civilian casualties. If not for the light population of the area and the fact that the missiles were traveling over the IJsselmeer after launching, the casualties may have been severe. Moreover, the relatively short three weeks of operations meant there was very limited damage. Later, on clear winter days, they could see the V-2s rising from the Eelerberg over 100 kilometers away to the south. They could easily imagine the terror felt by their neighbors there, who must be enduring the same nightmare they experienced only a few months before.

Now that Montgomery’s offensive had been defeated, the V-2 batteries which had retreated to Germany began returning to The Hague. They selected the large, adjoining, open areas of Bloemendaal and Ockenburgh, far removed from the built-up city center, for their firing sites. On October 3, the first Meillerwagen of the second battery of Battalion 485 drove into Ockenburgh at 9:00 in the morning. Later that evening, they launched a V-2 at 11:00 PM, followed by another 45 minutes later, which exploded shortly after liftoff, lighting up the whole city. The V-2 had returned. On October 7, V-2s began being launched from the Bloemendaal site. Because of the launch site locations, the RAF decided they could bomb them without risking too many civilian casualties. After several days of bad weather, six aircraft dropped their bombs on Ockenburgh and Bloemendaal in the early morning of October 18. At Bloemendaal the bombs damaged a rocket resting on a Meillerwagen that was unconcealed, out in the open.

In early October, German commanders first considered the possibility of firing V-weapons against Antwerp. The objective would be to smash the harbor installations so effectively that they would be useless to the Allies even after the approaches to the harbor had been cleared of German resistance. On October 12, 1944, the Führer ordered all V-2 fire be directed at London and Antwerp exclusively. Attacks on all other targets would stop.

Battle of Wołomin

Tiger I of SS-Division “Totenkopf”, stands ready in a forest assembly area to move up to the front to neutralize a Soviet armoured incursion near Warsaw.

After the Soviet reconnaissance units reached Warsaw in late July, on 1 August 1944 the Warsaw Uprising started. Starting from an area south of Mińsk Mazowiecki, Major General Nikolai Vedeneev’s 3rd Tank Corps (part of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army) thrust northwest through Okuniew and Wołomin to Radzymin, reaching an area only three miles (five kilometers) from the strategic bridge over the Narew River at Zegrze.

In response to Soviet General’s Vedeneev’s thrust, the Germans started a tactical counter-attack near Radzymin on 31 July. The offensive, carried out by 4 understrength Panzer divisions, was to secure the eastern approaches to Warsaw and Vistula crossings, and aimed to destroy the three tank corps of the Second Tank Army in detail. Under the leadership of German Field Marshal Model, the 4th, 19th, Hermann Göring, and 5th SS Panzer Divisions were concentrated from different areas with their arrival in the area of Wołomin occurring between 31 July and 1 August 1944. Although the 3rd Tank Corps gamely defended the initial assaults of the Hermann Göring and 19th Panzer Divisions, the arrival of the 4th Panzer and 5th SS Panzer Divisions spelled doom for the isolated and outnumbered unit.

Already on 1 August, the leading elements of the 19th and 5th SS Panzer Divisions, closing from the west and east respectively, met at Okuniew, cutting the 3rd Tank Corps off from the other units of the Second Tank Army. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, the 3rd Tank Corps was pocketed and destroyed on 3 August 1944. Attempts to reach the doomed tank corps by the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps failed, with the 8th Guards Tank Corps taking serious losses in the attempt. Although Model had planned to attack the 8th Guards Tank Corps next, the withdrawal of the 19th and Hermann Göring Panzer Divisions to shore up the German defenses around the Magnuszew bridgehead forced the remaining German forces around Okuniew to go on the defensive.

On 1 August, the freedom fighters of the Polish Home Army rose in rebellion. All over the city guerrilla fighters attacked German-held buildings and started to fortify “liberated” zones in the city and along the western bank of the Vistula, which cut Warsaw in two. In a matter of days most of the city centre had been cleared of German units. Isolated German positions were quickly seized by the Polish forces, using a mixture of captured and improvised weapons. The fighting was brutal, with little quarter being shown by either side, and soon one of the biggest street battles in military history was about to reach its tragic end. The Polish leaders depended on the swift arrival of Soviet tanks on the western side of the Vistula. However, the Home Army had failed to read the flow of the battle on the eastern bank of the Vistula between the Germans and the Soviet Second Tank Army.

As Soviet tanks cautiously entered Praga during the morning of 31 July, the eastern suburb of Warsaw, the prospects for an early liberation of Poland’s capital seemed high. Unknown to the Russians, they were about to encounter a whirlwind. The Totenkopf, Wiking and Hermann Goring Divisions were attacking, as well as two army panzer divisions. The German panzers moved southwards into the flanks of the Russian tank columns. All day the battle raged, with German Panthers knocking out scores of Russian T-34s. German troops worked their way around the flanks of the Soviet III Tank Corps. The latter’s troops, tired after almost six weeks of constant fighting, could put up little resistance. The corps only just managed to escape the German pincers, and by the end of the day the Soviets had been evicted from Praga. The attack was decisive and sealed the fate of the Warsaw Rising, even before it had begun. With the Germans now entrenched In Praga in strength, there was now no hope that the Russians would be easily able to link up with the Polish Home Army.

The Soviets now tried a wide encircling move to the north of Warsaw. By 4 August IV SS Panzer Corps, now with the Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions under its command, had already been ordered by Model to set up a blocking position north of the city, and was ready and waiting when the Soviet storm burst on 14 August. For a week the Waffen-SS formation held off 15 Russian infantry divisions and two tank corps. Human-wave attacks were repulsed on a daily basis, with thousands of Russian troops being killed in front of the German lines. The Soviets now poured in extra infantry divisions and hundreds more tanks. Heavy attacks, supported by hundreds of Stormovik fighter-bombers, added to the pounding, and by 26 August the Totenkopf had to fall back towards Praga under the deluge of firepower. A Waffen-SS counterattack on 11 September drove the Soviets back, and again defeated a link-up with the Polish Home Army.

The Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions were the linchpins of the German operation to crush the Warsaw rising, even though they did not actually take part in the fighting against the Polish Home Army. By preventing a link-up with the Red Army, they consigned the population of the city to two months of siege. Hitler was infuriated that the Poles, whom he classed “sub-humans”, had dared to challenge German rule

One of The Biggest Tank Battles You Have Probably Never Heard About

SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger

This unit was rivalled in brutal depravity only by Kaminski’s RONA. Its origins lay in a bizarre suggestion made to Hitler that a unit raised from convicted poachers would have the ideal fieldcraft skills for hunting partisans. He approved the idea, and a small penal company was formed on 15 June 1940 as the `Oranienberg Poacher Commando’, made up of criminal (non-political) prisoners enlisted from various prisons and concentration camps. In September, now about 300 strong, it received equipment from the SS-Totenkopfverbände, and was renamed after its commander: `SS Special Battalion Dirlewanger’. Obergruppenführer Oskar Paul Dirlewanger was a degenerate figure, who had been imprisoned for sex offences with a minor, yet nevertheless enjoyed high level protection as a former comrade of recruitment chief SS-Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger.

In October 1940 the unit was sent to occupied Poland for security duties; reports of atrocities began almost immediately, and continued throughout 1941. Rape and murder were accompanied by looting, which is probably what drew Dirlewanger’s gang to the disapproving attention of the SS legal staff and of SS-Obergruppenführer Krüger, the Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer of the Generalgouvernement. Despite his friends in high places, Dirlewanger’s unit – now an `SS Special Regiment’ – was transferred in January 1942 to Belorussia. Immediately upon arrival it began recruiting locally for anti-partisan operations, upon which it was exclusively employed until November 1943, cementing its reputation for barbarity.

Despite its notoriety the unit was expanded to two battalions in August 1942; and Dirlewanger himself was decorated for `bravery’ in May and October. In January 1943 the unit was permitted collar patches and badges of rank (normally forbidden to penal units). The original romantic concept of it being manned by poachers was long forgotten; it accepted riff-raff of all types – German and foreign, military and civilian – and in March 1943 service in the unit was offered as a means of `redeeming’ themselves to virtually all convicted felons. Disorderliness extended to repeated shooting incidents between Russian and Lithuanian enlistees, and discipline was enforced by physical brutality, even to officers. Large scale anti-partisan operations sometimes cost the unit significant casualties (some 300 in February-August 1943); a third battalion was then authorized. For a brief period in November-December 1943 the regiment found itself in frontline combat under Army Group Centre, and suffered greatly increased casualties, reducing it to about 260 men. Dirlewanger was then awarded the German Cross in Gold, a decoration second only to the Knight’s Cross. His penal regiment was rebuilt in early 1944 with convicts from German military prisons; by February it counted 1,200 men, and in April another 800 replacements were allocated. Anti-partisan battles in Belorussia during May and June were followed by rearguard fighting during the July retreat into Poland following the Red Army’s Operation Bagration.

In August 1944, like Kaminski’s renegade Russians, Dirlewanger’s uncontrollable convicts recorded new depths of depravity when they were assigned to help crush the Warsaw uprising. They drank, raped and murdered their way through the Old Town, slaughtering fighters and civilians alike without distinction of age or sex. It is reported that a staff officer sent to summon Dirlewanger before the overall operation commander, SS-Obergruppenführer von dem Bach-Zelewski, was driven off at gunpoint. Unlike Kaminski, Dirlewanger was not executed for his atrocities, but received the ultimate accolade – award of the Knight’s Cross.

In late August an uprising broke out in Slovakia; in September Berger was named Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer Slovakia, and in mid-October his protégé’s unit was transferred there. The Dirlewanger regiment (weakened by heavy air attack while en route) saw combat against the Slovak rebels around Biely Potok, Liptovska Osada and Treicy; although successful, the unit reportedly suffered a number of desertions. In November 1944 permission was given for some members to transfer to other Waffen-SS units, and strength was built up to brigade level with further drafts of criminals.

In February 1945, while stationed in Hungary, the unit was redesignated as 36. Waffen Grenadier Division der SS, though in reality it never reached anything like divisional strength. In that month, Dirlewanger returned to Germany for hospital treatment, and was replaced by Fritz Schmedes. The division rapidly crumbled under the impact of the Soviet spring offensive in April 1945, and many men deserted before it was encircled in the Halbe pocket. On about 29 April some elements were captured by the Red Army south-east of Berlin, and were summarily executed. A few may have succeeded in surrendering to US troops. There have been many rumours as to Dirlewanger’s personal fate; recent forensic research suggests that he was captured by Polish troops in June 1945 and that, when his identity was discovered, he was beaten to death. Even for those Waffen-SS soldiers without such an execrable reputation as Dirlewanger, the final months of the war were perilous times indeed.

Dirlewanger: An Organizational History by Jim Broshot

Wilddiebkommando Oranienburg

Sonderkommando Dr. Dirlewanger (Jul 1940)

SS-Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger (1 Sep 1940)

SS-Regiment Dirlewanger (Sep 1943)

SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger (19 Dec 1944)

36. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (14 Feb 1945

10 Apr 1940 Ordered formed at Sachsenhausen concentration camp pursuant to Hitler’s wish to form a unit of convicted poachers for service at the front as “Poacher Command Oranienburg”

Jun 1940 began formation at company strength

Sep 1940 transferred to Poland and attached to SSPF Lublin

29 Jan 1942 assigned to Kommandostab SS-Reichsführer for refitting for service in Russia

10 Feb 1942 transferred to Russia and attached to HSSPF C (later HSSPF Russland-Mitte, General-Kommissariat Weissruthenien) for anti-partisan duties

Apr 1942 antipartisan operations under Polizei-Regiment Mitte with Polizei-Bataillone 32, 307

Jul 1942 – Apr 1944 various anti-partisan operations

Jul 1942 assigned to Operation “Adler” under HSSPF Russland-Mitte (von dem Bach-Zelewski)

Oct 1942 assigned to Operation “Regatta:” combat strength of 352 men; under command of Sicherungs-Regiment 36 assigned to Operation “Karlsbad;” under SS-Infanterie-Brigade (mot.) 1

Nov 1942 assigned to Operation “Frieda;” under SS-Infanterie-Brigade (mot.) 1

TO&E: two “Russian” companies, one “German” company, one reconnaissance platoon

Jan 1943 combat strength: 320 men, 2 AT guns, 11 trucks, 22 mgs, 5 mortars

Apr 1943 strength: 569 men

May 1943 strength: 612 men

Jun 1943 strength: 760 men

TO&E: three “Russian” companies; one “German” company, one “German” reconnaissance platoon, one “Ukrainian” platoon, one artillery battery [Tessin: 1943: I. 1-4, II. 5-8, III. 9-12]

10 Jul 1943 reorganized with headquarters company and five rifle companies

11 Sep 1943 strength 411 men

13 Sep 1943 assigned FpU numbers for three battalions of four companies each

Jan 1944 strength 243 to 284 men

15 Apr 1944 strength 434 men

1 Jun 1944 strength 707 men

[Tessin: reduced from three battalions to one battalion of five companies, June 1944; later reinforced to brigade of two regiments]

Jul 1944 “Eastern Muslim SS-Regiment” (strength: 4,000?) attached to Dirlewanger transferred to Neuhammer and then to Lyck to reform

4 Aug 1944 ordered to operations against Warsaw Uprising strength: three battalions with 881 men plus attached Azerbajani troops received 2,500 replacements during operations, final strength at end of Uprising: 648 men

15 Oct 1944 transferred to Slovakia for operations against Slovak Uprising; strength: 4,000 men in two regiments with artillery

[Tessin: Dec 1944: Regiment 1: I. 1-4, II. 5-8, III. 9-12

Regiment 2: I. 1-4, II. 5-8, III. 9-12

mixed company; 1-2 Batterie OR artillery

battalion, fusilier company, engineer company]

[Tessin: Feb 1945: Waffen-Grenadier-Regiment der SS 72: I. 1-4, II. 5-8, III. 9-12

Waffen-Grenadier-Regiment der SS 73: I. 1-4, II. 5-8, III. 9-12, gem Kp. 2 Bttr.?

SS-Artillerie-Abteilung 36?

SS-Fusilier-Kompanie 36?

with Army troops attached:

Panzer-Abteilung Stahnsdorf 1 (formed 1 Feb 1945 with one MkV company (16 tanks) and two StuG companies (14 StuG); MkV company transferred to Panzer-Abteilung Kummersdorf, 15 Feb 1945; 31 StuG III received between 3 – 15 Feb 1944) (Jentz)

schw. Panzerjager-Abteilung 681 (2 8.8cm Kp.) (formed 15 Sep 1944 in WK XXI; rebuilt Feb 1945 at Spremberg; attached 14 Feb 1945; absorbed into division 1 Mar 1945)

Heeres-Pionier-Brigade 687 (formed Jan 1945 with two bicycle battalions in WK III; attached 16 Feb 1945; absorbed into division 1 Mar 1945)

Grenadier-Regiment 1244 (formed 13 Feb 1945 in Potsdam from various Heeres-Unteroffizierschulen plus army personnel and Landsturm; attached first to division; then disbanded Mar 1945 and used to reform 545. Volks-Grenadier-Division)

Assignments as Brigade and Division:

Dec 1944 Army Group South/Fourth Panzer Army/IV AK-Hungary

Mar 1945 Army Group South/Fourth Panzer Army/XXXX PzK-Silesia

Apr 1945 Army Group Center/Fourth Panzer Army/V AK (as KGr)-Lausitz

Commanders:

Ostubf. Oskar Dirlewanger, (to 15 Feb 1945)

Stubaf. Franz Magill, (28 Dec 1942-20 Feb 1943 (acting))

Brigf. Fritz Schmedes (15 Feb 1945-1 May 1945)

Dirlewanger

SS-Oberführer d. R. Oskar Dirlewanger (1895-1945), commander of SS Sonderregiment Dirlewanger. Dirlewanger entered the army in 1913 and was commissioned as an infantry officer in 1915. He had a distinguished war record, fighting on both the Western and Eastern fronts in World War I, being wounded six times and receiving the Iron Cross First Class. After the war he joined the Freikorps and fought communists, found time to obtain a PhD in political science from the University of Frankfurt in 1922 and then joined the Nazi Party. After participating in Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, Dirlewanger drifted for a few years before joining the SA in 1932 and the party rewarded him with a sinecure in the Labour Department. However, Dirlewanger was a self-destructive drunk who argued with his superiors and then went on a drinking binge after the Rohm putsch in July 1934 in which he sexually molested a 14-year-old female cadet in a party-owned automobile, then crashed the car and injured the girl. It was a Chappaquiddick-style gaffe that even the Nazi Party, tolerant to the antics of war veterans, could not ignore. Dirlewanger was sentenced to two years in prison and expelled from the Nazi Party. After being released in 1936, some of Dirlewanger’s old SA cronies encouraged him to volunteer for the German Condor Legion in Spain, where he served for 16 months and was wounded three times. Dirlewanger returned to Germany at the start of the war but was not allowed to join the Waffen-SS until June 1940. Thereafter, Dirlewanger was entrusted with forming a small anti-partisan unit composed of petty criminals and this battalion-sized unit initially operated in southern Poland during 1941. In Poland and White Russia, Dirlewanger demonstrated a taste for corrupt and sadistic behaviour, including numerous atrocities against civilians. Dirlewanger was in Berlin at the start of the Warsaw Uprising and, although ordered to proceed directly to the city by Himmler, he dawdled and earned himself another reprimand. Dirlewanger was an undisciplined, degenerate butcher, but he was also a fearless sociopath who loved to fight, which made him useful to the Waffen-SS. Dirlewanger gained the Knight’s Cross for his role in suppressing the uprising. However, Dirlewanger did not escape justice and after the war he was indicted for war crimes and then beaten to death in prison.

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.