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.