The Origins of the Fallschirmjäger
Apart from how the soldier looked, tactics, strategy and doctrines saw significant change between the 1st and 2nd World Wars. In the latter, Militaries sought to gain control over land, sea and air with new technologies, adapting them to modern warfare. The paratrooper proved to be an integral part of this evolution.
The first time that belligerents deployed paratroopers was as a minor intelligence and sabotage mission by the Italians against the Austrians during the Great War in 1918. However, the Italians wouldn’t entertain the idea of the paratrooper again before 1938.
Other countries also experimented with the revolutionary idea of strapping a pilot-style parachute to a regular soldier, jumping off a plane into or behind enemy lines. Obviously, there was always an issue, as the Soviet army realised, that when trying to drop their ‘parachute-troops’ off a plane’s wing, this caused some obvious casualties and injuries. Among those witnessing the large-scale exercise in 1935 unveiling the Soviet first airborne unit to world military leaders, was Hermann Göring. but while the soviets’ doctrine was that of using airborne units to drop a large force behind enemy lines and hold out until the frontline units catch up, the German generals saw a slightly different use for them.
The First Units
Göring, the second man in the Nazi state and, after 1933 also the head of Prussian police, was tasked with creating a Paratrooper Unit for the German Military. Lieutenant General Walther Wever, the Chief of Staff of the German Air Force, submitted reports of Soviet paratroop development to his Commander-in-Chief Göring, potentially seeing the parachute weapon as a way to improve his standing in the Nazi state. While it is unclear if the idea to create a parachute force came from Hitler or Goering, Hitler likely approved it, and the Air Force commander received permission to proceed in the autumn of 1935.
He went on to create a regiment made up of members of the Prussian State Police and transferred it to the Luftwaffe in October of 1935, marking them the first candidates to be trained as paratroopers. The first parachutists’ course took place in Stendal-Borstel airfield in April 1936. Over 600 volunteers formed the first Luftwaffe parachute battalion and a parachute engineer company.
The Heer (the Army branch of the Wehrmacht) constituted their own airborne unit in 1937 – Fallschirm-Infanterie-Kompanie, drawing volunteers from the army to set up, initially, one company, extending to 3 to form a battalion in 1938. The instructors of the Luftwaffe conducted these courses as the Heer lacked its own school. In 1938, all airborne and transport units from both branches were consolidated under the Luftwaffe and thus the 7.Flieger-Division was formed under the command of Generalmajor Kurt Student.
The Wehrmacht was the first to make extensive and professional use of this new idea; going so far as to create a doctrine which had these new ‘sky troops’ included, creating what would be known as the Fallschirmjäger.
The first fallschirmjäger unit was created in 1936, composed of the recently organised Luftwaffe, thus officially marking the creation of the German airborne arm. Further additions in 1939 from loaned units of the SA, to form the bulk of the 2nd Regiment reinforced the connection between the Parachute branch as a Nazi idea.
The Major German Airborne Operations
Throughout the war, the Fallschirmjager would appear in several well-known theatres. In the earlier days, they were deployed to secure enemy airfields and key, defended areas so that infantry and Panzer assaults could have a smoother advance. An instance of this would be the capture of Eban Emael, a heavily defended fortress near the border of Belgium and Holland, which boasted an intense defence of machine guns, light artillery and mortars.
An air landing of the paratroopers by glider enabled them to make landing on top of the fort itself. Combined with flamethrowers and explosives, this fast attack led to the fall of the fortress, demonstrating the true threat of these new troops.
The strategy employed by the German paratroops involved seizing numerous small areas at the same time, and then advancing from each of these until they could consolidate their gains into a single large one. This approach can be likened to scattering drops of ink on a piece of paper and watching them spread and merge together.
The only occasion where the Fallschirmjager were deployed in a large-scale airborne operation was for the battle for Crete in May 1941. Whereas the Fallschirmjager excelled at occupying strategic areas, bridges and airfields, in Crete they had to undertake the highly ambitious task usually divulged to large-scale infantry. Due to the ever-present Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, readily disposed to engage a seaborne invasion, and the lack of amphibious German infantry and tanks that had been transferred to the east in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the final decision to launch the paratroopers alone was to make the invasion against a fore-warned enemy.
It was, unfortunately, in this operation that many defects and tactical blunders were exposed, leading to the loss of many precious experienced and veteran parachutists on the island. Soon after the battle for Crete, in August 1941, the Fallschirmjäger-Lehr-Batallion under the command of Major Walter Burckhardt was formed to evaluate and recommend amendments to the way airborne assaults were to be conducted in the future.
However, the Fuhrer would prohibit any future extensive use of airborne operations, save for a few exceptions. Although the Fallschirmjager were grounded, they still proved to be a daring opponent to any Allied troops facing them. Their training, squad tactics and high morale made them particularly dangerous, which exhibited the extensive use of light machine guns, mortars and pioneers in battles.
Their training as light infantry, which focused on the ability to survive behind enemy lines with as few resources as possible whilst also being able to wreak havoc amongst enemy troops with effective and swift squad tactics, was surely admired, further earning them the nickname: “The Green Devils”.
However, the idea of the durable Fallschirmjager was not perfect; Early in the war, some things were not improved upon or replaced, such as the fact that these men landed from the skies with a parachute that could not be steered, which also launched at a dangerously low height and could not be slowed down.
Furthermore, there was also the issue that even if they landing without injury, they still had to fight their way through with a pistol and two magazines, as their rifles and heavy weaponry could only be retrieved from the large canisters dropped alongside the troops.
Being grounded removed some of these issues, and so the Fallschirmjager were still deployed as an ‘Elite Infantry’ when compared to regular infantry.
Equipment and Tactics of the Fallschirmjager
Apart from deployment and formation, the distinctive look of the Fallschirmjager made them recognisable in any theatre or front in the war, giving them a unique look.
The German Paratrooper wore a uniform and used equipment suited to his needs when jumping as well as fighting. The first main difference is the helmet; a crucial component that was immediately adopted when the first batches of trained Fallschirmjager performed their jumps with the regular ‘Stahlhelm’.
It was quickly noticed that the large rim at the rear of the helmet, although offering good protection against shrapnel, was itself causing casualties due to the wind resistance it created whilst dropping, and also by increasing the risk of neck injuries.
Another significant piece of the Fallschirmjager’s equipment is the smock; a large step-in camouflaged overall which was used to cover the paratroopers’ equipment underneath whilst parachuting to lessen the chance of losing anything. Later variants improved the smock by having it open at the knees, as well as introducing more camouflage modifications to suit depending on the climate. Although, as already mentioned, the Fallschirmjager did not conduct any more mass drops throughout the war, the smock was still kept as a signature piece of the uniform, aswell as an extremely useful due to its camouflage and pockets.
Modifications were also made to ammunition pouches and gas mask satchels, making them easier to carry and using softer material, as compared to the hard leather used for the army pouches and the steel for the gas mask canister. A bandolier was introduced to be secured around the neck, which could hold up to 100 rounds of rifle ammo, in contrast to the regular belt pouches which could only hold 60. This was necessary when being dropped behind the enemy or unknown lines, as an ammunition supply would be scarce.
One of the largest deviations from regular equipment, however, was the boots; Since the famous German ‘Jackboot’ was too tall around the leg and offered no real protection to the ankle, especially when landing, a new style of combat boots was needed. This resulted in the creation of 2 types of ‘Fallschirmjager Stiefel’, Both types were specifically made to ensure a safe and comfortable parachute landing.
When on the ground the German paratrooper was just as well-armed as any other Infantry soldier, with the difference in additional ammunition due to the change in ammo pouches. A regular Fallschirmjager rifleman would be armed with the standard Karabiner 98k rifle and a pistol, varying between a P38 and a P08 Luger. Jumps conducted later allowed the paratroopers to parachute into the field with MP-40s.
Apart from regular Infantry weapons, the German paratrooper was also extensively trained in the use of other weaponry to accommodate the tactics which the Fallschirmjager were expected to execute on the field. For example, a light machine was used as part of a squad-based support unit, providing cover fire and marking targets with tracer rounds. Each man had a specific role, be it rifleman, NCO, or even the Machine-Gun team’s 3rd man; As stated in “Ground Tactics of German Paratroops” from ‘Intelligence Bulletin’, a directive issued from a Company Commander, which gives us a good idea on what was expected after landing;
For parachute and air-landing operations, I have given orders for section leaders and their seconds-in-command to carry rifles, and for the No. 3 men on the light machine guns to carry machine carbines. There are tactical reasons for this decision. The section commander must be able to point out targets to his section by means of single tracer rounds. The No. 3 man on the light machine gun must be able to give this gun covering fire from his machine carbine [MP-40] in the event that close combat takes place immediately after landing. This should be regarded as a distinct possibility. He must provide this covering fire until the light machine gun is in position and ready to fire. Before the assault, the No. 3 man on the light machine gun must also be able to beat off local counterattacks with his machine carbine until the machine gun is ready to go into action.
Apart from this, individuals who were good marksmen at medium distances could be selected to carry telescopic rifles. These would be proven good shots during training, while also being able to observe impacts as well as efficiently adjust as necessary.
As shown by the same directive listed above, German Paratroopers were trained in anything necessary to ensure their survival behind enemy lines. Unlike a regular Army Infantry soldier, which would only be posted as a rifleman or as another specific duty, several Fallschirmjager were prepared for anything; including the use of demolitions, handling of Mortars, Anti-tank rifles and guns, and even driving tanks and other vehicles.
Each German paratroop company commander, it is reported, must designate five to seven of his best men as a tank-hunting detachment. These men perform their regular duties but are prepared to act as a team in their tank-hunting capacity whenever they may be called upon. The infantry training of German paratroopers is usually very thorough, covering all normal training and, in some instances, the use of the light machine gun, heavy machine gun, mortar, and anti-tank rifle, as well. Cunning and initiative are stressed. Many men are taught to drive tanks and other vehicles. The use of simple demolitions and the handling of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines are often included in the training.
With all the above finally being experimented with, created and then combined, the Germans created the modern picture and interpretation of the Paratrooper, which would eventually be adopted by the Allies, even making their largest use; D-Day.
Veltze, K. (2015). German Paratroopers.
(1944). GROUND TACTICS OF GERMAN PARATROOPS. Intelligence Bulletin, Vol 2(10).