Uniforms and equipment of the Fallschirmjäger
Fallschirmjäger uniforms represent a critical piece of military history that offers a fascinating and valuable window into the ongoing evolution of the German paratroopers during World War II. The fallschirmjäger were a highly trained and skilled unit of soldiers who carried out daring airborne assaults and other specialized operations throughout the war. As such, the design of their uniforms was critical to their success and survival on the battlefield.
The Fallschirmjager were a new unit with no traditions and in the design of their equipment, the need for functional gear that offers maximum mobility, protection, and durability in various field conditions, prevailed. One such example was the use of zippers on combat uniforms as early as 1936, which was an innovative concept at the time. Snap buttons, for easy access to pockets, was also featured prominently in many uniform and gear of the German paratroopers.
In summary, the study of Fallschirmjager uniforms provides valuable insights into the tactics, culture, and history of one of the most respected and feared units of the German military during World War II.
The historical context of the uniforms
The design of the specialised paratrooper uniforms evolved as experience in field trials and on new missions was gained. Various experiments were carried out in the early years (1936-1938), but in 1938 the summary of improvements and standardisation across the board presented by the Air Ministry laid the basis for much of the equipment which was retained, in one form or another, throughout the war. The official specifications were formulated in a document called Besondere Luftwaffen-Bestimmungen. Nowadays, amongst collectors, many items of uniform and equipment bear the designation M1938, such as the early-war jump smock, helmet and jump trousers.
As the war progressed and the Fallschirmjager unit became more experienced, the design of their uniforms became better suited. One of the most significant modifications was the introduction of the famous “Splinter-B” camouflage pattern, which was first used on jump smocks produced in mid-1940. This camouflage pattern, a derivative of the Heeres-Splittermuster 31 used on the Wehrmacht tent quarter (Zeltbahn), featured irregular shapes (splinters) of brown and green, with rain print to break the outline. This camouflage was designed to blend in with the shrubbery and vegetation of continental Europe and was used for smocks, ammo bandoliers and grenade pouches.
Beneath the specialised, jump-specific gear, the uniform was, for the most part, the standard issue Luftwaffe dress, with Fliegerbluse, side caps and leather equipment used as in the flying branch of the Luftwaffe. When Germany unexpectedly had to join the Mediterranean theatre of war in January 1941, no tropical uniforms had been produced at the time. The first Luftwaffe support in North Africa used German Army or Italian tropical uniforms in the interim until the Official Luftwaffe tropical uniform became more available later in 1941.
However, the specialised gear standardised in the 1938 orders, with subsequent modifications used in all theatres of war, with no official modifications or variation for tropical or summer use, other than what was modified at a unit level on the field.
The Paratrooper Helmet
The German paratrooper helmet is one of the immediate giveaways in period photos of paratrooper troops and remains to this day an iconic symbol. This specifically-designed helmet was developed to meet the distinct needs of the paratroopers, who required a helmet that could withstand the jump and a hard landing while under enemy fire.
The prototype for the German paratrooper helmet was based on the standard m35 German helmet. However, the m35 helmet did not meet the needs of the airborne troops, as it caught too much airflow from under the brim while descending, which caused the helmet to be pushed upwards and interfered with the parachute rigging. The peak and neck skirt were a cause for serious injury during landing and rolling over, and to address these issues, the m35 helmet was cut down.
The German paratrooper helmet also had shock-absorbing rubber fitted between the helmet and the liner to further protect the paratroopers from head injuries during landings. Another unique feature of the German paratrooper helmet was the use of two y-shaped chin strips, one on each side, which came together with a friction buckle for adjustments. This design allowed for a more secure fit during jumps.
The decals on the Fallschirmjager helmets followed the same transition as those of the Wehrmacht, transitioning from double decals to a single decal and no decals at all at the end of the war.
The early versions of the jump smock, introduced in 1936 were overalls that end at mid-knee, whose sole intention was to keep equipment secure inside and prevent the entanglement inside the plane or of the parachute lines when jumping. The original idea of the smock was to be disrobed immediately upon landing, revealing all equipment pre-worn by the soldier, and making him ready for combat. However, it was soon realised that the smock, when fitted with additional pockets, could hold a lot of supplies and ammunition to augment the carrying capacity of vital supplies behind enemy lines. Some units, such as the Sturmgruppe Granit which executed the assault on Fort Eben Emael, were already experimenting by adding pockets to the smock early on. It was around 1940 that this custom was adopted officially and smocks were produced at the factory with two chest pockets and two waist pockets. By this time the basic equipment was also being worn outside the smock as it was no longer a garment to be discarded.
In 1942, the final and most major change to the smock included additional straps to house flare pistols and shovels, albeit no photos of these being used exist. The smock pattern was also changed to open like a jacket and no longer featured the short legs of the step-in model. For jump operations, the bottom of the jackets could be buttoned up to form the legs and restrict the intake of wind. However, this model was now more adaptable to the ground fighting role of the paratroopers. This model remained in use until the end of the war.
Fallschirmjäger jump boots were specially designed for German paratroopers’ requirements. These boots had been developed to meet the unique needs of paratroopers who required ankle support during high-impact landings. Paratroopers often landed with a heavy impact that could cause serious injuries, making it necessary to design a boot that would provide adequate support to their ankles and feet.
Initially, the Fallschirmjäger boots were side laced with rubber soles, which made them less slippery on the metal flooring of aeroplanes during jumps. However, it was soon realized that these boots did not provide enough ankle support, which led to the adoption of a front-laced boot. This more practical boot provided a better fit and more support to the ankle, which reduced the likelihood for the paratroopers to land safely. Another major change that was made to the Fallschirmjäger boots was the replacement of the domestically-produced synthetic rubber sole (as natural rubber was not available in Germany) with a leather-only sole. This rubber sole used was very prone to wear and tear on rough terrain and was also very expensive to produce, which made it unsuitable for the demands of paratrooper operations. Boots with leather-only soles were eventually preferred for their serviceability and durability and could be re-soled easily. Goloshes made from thin or scrap rubber were used as a temporary measure aboard planes to make the footwear less slippery and were easily discarded after jumps.
The equipment utilised by air-landed troops, including glider-borne units, closely resembles that of conventional ground troops. However, for paratroopers, certain essential items of equipment required redesigning to mitigate the risk of injury during a hard landing. Ammunition bandoliers, which were easily worn around the neck, were employed to carry rifle ammunition, eliminating the need to wear them on the belt as part of the loadout. Additionally, they provided a convenient means of accessing ammunition from supply containers and offered the capability for more substantial load-outs, as they could accomodate 100 rounds a belt.
A specific was also devised for use with the FG42, a specialized assault rifle exclusively developed for paratroopers and utilized beginning in 1943. This bandolier was only produced in Splinter-B fabric at the time of its introduction, and later in Tan & water camouflage.
During World War II, German soldiers were outfitted with a variety of equipment designed to enhance their combat effectiveness and protect them from harm. Among these pieces of equipment were knee pads, which were intended to protect soldiers’ knees from injury during extended periods of kneeling or crawling.
Two distinct patterns of German knee pads were issued during the war. The first pattern was worn directly on the knee, underneath the trousers. This design provided a more streamlined and comfortable fit, but it also meant that soldiers had to remove their trousers to put on or take off the knee pads.
The second pattern of German knee pads featured an elastic band that was worn over the trousers. This design was more convenient for soldiers, as it allowed them to quickly and easily put on or remove the knee pads without having to remove their trousers. However, the elastic band could sometimes be uncomfortable or restrict movement during certain activities.
German knee pads were typically made of canvas or leather, and they featured padding on the inside to provide additional cushioning and protection for the knees. They were issued to a wide range of German soldiers, from infantry to paratroopers, and were considered an essential piece of equipment for any soldier who might be required to kneel or crawl during combat operations. Today, original German knee pads are highly sought after by military collectors and historians, as they offer a fascinating glimpse into the equipment and tactics of World War II-era soldiers.