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The Fallschirmjager, the German paratroopers of World War 2, made the first airborne infantry assaults in history. When Germany invaded Western Europe in 1940, the German paratroopers parachuted and landed with gliders and captured strategic positions. A year later, in May 1941, in their greatest operation, they invaded and conquered the big island Crete in the Mediterranean solely by airborne troops. Their losses were such that Hitler decided never to do another large airborne operation, so the German paratroopers served the rest of the war as elite infantry.
The military use of paratroopers as airborne infantry is originally a Russian innovation. Since the 1920s the Russian military exercised and demonstrated the use of paratroopers in increasingly larger scale. Some foreign officers were allowed to observe these exercises. One of them was a German Colonel, Kurt Student, who was a fighter pilot and squadron leader in World War 1.
Student was excited by the military potential of paratroopers, but the establishment of the German paratroopers force was delayed until the German military buildup began in 1935. In the meantime Student became an expert with gliders, the other element of his future airborne force (after World War 2 the helicopter replaced the glider as the vehicle of airborne landings).
The German paratroopers force, the Fallschirmjager, was established in January 1936, with the enthusiast Student as its commander. It began as a single battalion of paratroopers and kept growing rapidly, becoming a division in 1938 and later a Corps, including paratroopers, glider troops, and elite infantry. It was a large and independent elite force of selected and very highly trained volunteers. They developed new tactics and techniques which improved their performance, such as the parachute-opening cord tied to the aircraft, which made parachuting safer and enabled them to jump from lower altitude and reduce exposure to enemy fire. The Fallschirmjager force belonged to the German Air Force. The concept was that they will be used to achieve what air bombardment can not, mainly capturing strategic positions behind enemy lines instead of destroying them.
Their transport aircraft were the common Junkers 52, which carried 17 paratroopers, and the DFS 230 glider, which carried over a ton of heavier weapons and equipment, or troops, and could be towed by an empty Junkers 52 and released over the landing zone.
Since 1938 the Fallschirmjager prepared for planned operations in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland, but these were cancelled. Their first assault was in April 1940 in Norway and Denmark, when airborne forces landed in key Norwegian and Danish airfields and captured them to allow safe landing of additional forces. The Junkers 52 was used as a passenger aircraft before the war and many of the German pilots landed in those Norwegian airfields before the war, so the surprise and deception were perfect, and once they landed the Germans quickly overwhelmed the defenders.
Their second operation, which this time included parachuting and glider landings, was a month later in the invasion of Western Europe. They did what paratroopers do best, and captured vital river bridges behind enemy lines which the advancing German armor needed to cross, and a formidable Belgian fortress, Eben Emael, which guarded other key bridges.
Eben Emael was manned by about a thousand Belgian soldiers and was strongly fortified. It was a set of seven large fortified artillery positions, with 18 artillery guns, surrounded by many machine gun positions, mine fields, barbed wire, a moat, and connected via underground bunkers and tunnels.
On May 10, 1940, at dawn, this fortress was attacked by just 78 Fallschirmjager troops which landed on top of it with 10 gliders. They were equipped with light weapons and with several 100 pound armor piercing explosive charges. Before the raid these 78 paratroopers trained on a full size model of the Eben Emael fortress. They landed precisely on the roof of the large fortress in total surprise, and with their far superior fighting skill over the shocked Belgians they were able to quickly take over the roof area and confine the defenders to their fortified bunkers which they cracked one after the other with their special explosive charges. The German losses were just six dead and twenty wounded. A day later, when the paratroopers were joined by German ground forces, the hundreds of remaining Belgian defenders inside the fortress surrendered.
The small elite force of just 78 German paratroopers defeated a greatly larger force in a mighty fortress. It was a great success which remains one of the most daring and successful raids in history, a model of what elite soldiers can achieve in properly planned raids.
Kurt Student himself suffered a severe head injury in the fighting in Holland, but survived. A year later he was back on duty and he and Erwin Rommel proposed a large scale airborne operation.
They proposed that an entire Fallschirmjager division will parachute and land with gliders in the large island Crete in the eastern Mediterranean, overcome its allied defenders and occupy it, with the support of reinforcements which would follow by air and by sea. Impressed with the former successes of the Fallschirmjager, Hitler agreed, in condition that the operation in Crete will end before the beginning of the invasion to Russia a month later, but this was much more time than Student needed.
The strategic German goal in taking Crete was to make it a forward German base, mainly for the Luftwaffe, allowing it to more easily locate and attack British warships and convoys in the eastern Mediterranean and by that help Rommel in his North African campaign against the British forces in Egypt.
Crete was held by about 35,000 lightly armed allied and Greek infantry, most of them recently evacuated to Crete from mainland Greece. Thanks to intelligence the attack itself was not a surprise. It was also clear that the attack will be at the long North coast of Crete. The allied forces prepeared for the attack with what they had, and the Royal Navy patrolled in the sea North of Crete.
The Germans gathered near Athens forces and equipment for the operation from all over Europe. Student had:
The only flaw in the German preparations was that their intelligence underestimated the British force in Crete at a third of its actual size. This cost them in very heavy casualties during the attack.
In the morning of May 20, 1941, Crete was again heavily bombarded by the Germans, but this time the bombers were followed by large and dense formations of Junkers 52s carrying paratroopers or towing gliders. They attacked in several places but the main attack was in Canea and in nearby Maleme in the West side of Crete's North coast. There was an airport and a harbor there and both were defended.
The 6000 German paratroopers which landed in Canea and nearby Maleme , and also those which landed in the East side of Crete, fought all day, with heavy casualties, but allied defenders held their positions and it seemed that the Germans were going to lose the battle. Furthermore, at night the Germans tried to ship reinforcements by sea but they were intercepted and sunk by the British Navy. The German paratroopers also lost direct radio contact with the operation's command post in Athens which had to rely on pilots' reports to evaluate the situation.
It was clear to Student that he must urgently reinforce his paratroopers on the ground or lose them, but he didn't know if it was possible to land more troops in the airport at Maleme. He ordered Colonel Ramcke which commanded the paratroopers in West Crete and later became one of the most highly decorated German war heroes, to take Maleme at all cost, and then sent a single Junkers 52 to try to land in Maleme and return to report.
The German pilot landed in Maleme at dawn, under fire, stopped the Junkers 52 near some surprised German officers, received an updated situation report from them, and took off again. Once safely airborne again, the pilot immediately reported to Student that landing is possible, and Student immediately ordered the reinforcement force, which were already waiting inside their airplanes, to take off and fly to Maleme.
In the fierce battle of Maleme, the allied side made one critical mistake which greatly helped the Germans at the most critical time. The commander of the allied force which held the hill that covered the Maleme airport with fire, was under continuous pressure by Ramcke's paratroopers. The allied commander and his superiors failed to understand the key importance of preventing the Germans from using the airfield to bring in their reinforcements, so instead of receiving available reinforcements and hold this hill, the allied commander was permitted to abandon it, and it was just before the German Junkers planes began landing in Maleme with reinforcements.
It was a classic example of the importance of holding the higher ground position, which in modern fighting often translates to achieving air superiority, and there, in Maleme, abandoning the higher ground cost The Allies the battle, the island of Crete, and heavy losses which they suffered in the rest of the battle.
With the arrival of more and more reinforcements landing in Maleme airport, the Germans could finally secure their beachhead in West Crete, receive some reinforcements by sea (their total force in Crete reached 17,500), and start pushing the allied defenders. After several more days, the allied commander in Crete realized he was fighting a lost battle and ordered to evacuate his forces from the island, an evacuation which suffered heavy losses in men and ships to German air attacks.
The German paratroopers conquered Crete, but at a heavy cost of thousands dead and thousands wounded, mostly of Germany's finest soldiers, and the loss of 170 transport aircraft and dozens of fighters and bombers. These losses were dwarfed just months later by the tremendous German losses in the fighting in Russia which began a month later, but in mid 1941, at the peak of his triumph, Adolf Hitler was shocked by the heavy losses of the paratroopers' invasion of Crete and he decided that there will be no more large scale German airborne operations. In the rest of World War 2, other than a few insignificant small operations, the Fallschirmjager fought on the ground, as elite infantry. They proved themselves again and again as formidable opponents, especially in Monte Cassino (early 1944), in Normandy, and in Holland, where they defeated the British paratroopers in Arnhem. The lessons of large scale operation of paratroopers by the Germans were learned by The Allies, which later during the war made several such operations.