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.