|German 1st Parachute Division|
|Engagements||World War II|
The 1st Parachute Division (German language: 1. Fallschirmjägerdivision) was an elite German military parachute-landing division that fought during World War II. A division of paratroopers was termed a Fallschirmjäger Division. For reasons of secrecy, it was originally raised as the 7th Flieger-Division, or Air Division, before being renamed and reorganized as the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division in 1943.
In October 1938, the decision was made to raise the 7th Flieger (Air) Division. This was to be a well-trained paratroop formation intended for vertical envelopment operations against enemy defenses. The commander chosen to lead the 7th Flieger Division was the then Major-General Kurt Student.
Organizationally, a Fallschirmjäger Division was intended to be organized along the lines of a German infantry division, with three parachute rifle regiments, an artillery regiment, and divisional support units. However, due to various reasons the Division was not brought up to full strength before 1941. Nevertheless, elements of the division played significant roles during the Wehrmacht operations in 1940 in the West. At the start of World War II, the Division consisted of the 1st and 2nd Parachute Regiments and some support units.
Invasion of Poland (Operation Fall Weiß)
The 7th Flieger Division did not conduct any parachute drops over Poland, however, towards the end of the campaign, 1st battalion 2nd Regiment was air-landed to capture Deblin airfield and 2nd Battalion was landed at other airfields near the Dukla Pass. The goal of these missions was to prevent senior officers of the Polish army from escaping the country before they could be captured. 2nd battalion 1st Regiment was involved in combat operations at Wola-Gulowska, against a Polish artillery Regiment, it was here that the first Fallschirmjaeger combat death was recorded.
Invasions of Denmark and Norway (Operation Weserübung)
In April 1940, the 1st battalion of the 1st Regiment was used to capture key airfields in Denmark and Norway. These missions were partially successful, and the airfields proved key staging bases for the Luftwaffe to transport troops to Norway as well as fighter aircraft operating out of Denmark. A later, company-sized airdrop operation at Dombås proved a failure, however, as the unit quickly ran out of supplies and was taken prisoner by the Norwegian Army.
By 14 May, the rebuilt 1st Company (of the otherwise in the Netherlands occupied) 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment was parachute dropped at Narvik, Norway to reinforce the German mountain troops in the battle for that key port. The Norwegian Campaign came to an end on 10 June, active fighting ceasing on 9 June.
Battle of France (Operation Fall Gelb)
The German plan for the invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940 called for the use of the 7th Flieger division to aid in the advance through the capture of key bridges and the fortress of Eben Emael. For the Belgian operations, an assault battalion was formed. The four companies of this battalion were assigned the following objectives:
- Capture the bridge at Kanne.
- Capture the bridge at Veldwezelt.
- Capture the bridge at Vroenhoeven.
- Take or at least silence the fortress at Eben Emael.
Of these, three of the missions were entirely successful; the exception being the bridge at Kanne, which was blown up by the Belgian defenders.
The attack upon the Netherlands included the majority of the 7th Flieger Division in cooperation with 22nd Luftlande-Infanterie Division. This force was jointly addressed as the 7th Fliegerkorps, and commanded by Kurt Student. Technically it also incorporated the transport formations of the Luftwaffe Gruppe Putzier, part of the 2nd Luftflotte. One of two major goals of the air landings was to capture the Dutch seat of residence, The Hague. That operation was born by the bulk of the 22nd Air Landing Division supported by a reinforced battalion of airbornes of FJR.2. The operation was called "Nord" [North]; the other goal was to secure a series of critical bridges in order to allow a German mechanized advance through the fortified outer positions of the Dutch defenses. These bridges were those at Moerdijk, Dordrecht and the Nieuwe Maas in the heart of Rotterdam. The 3rd Battalion of FJR.1 had to capture the Waalhoven airfield near Rotterdam, where additional forces would be air-landed. The rest of FJR.1, the divisional troops and staff as well as IR.16 and 1/3 of the divisional troops of 22nd Air Landing Division were involved in the operation referred to as "Süd" [South].
Initially the attacks in the southern theatre were successful, but hard fought and some units took heavy casualties. The attack on The Hague was a failure: the high loss of transport planes grew to quite dramatic proportions. Many paratroopers and airlanding troops were captured, hundreds were killed or wounded and over 1,200 prisoners of both divisions were transported to England and as such a permanent loss too. All bridges in the south were successfully held against Dutch counterattacks however. As such the gate was held open for the 9th Armoured Division and SS Leibstandarte to drive up to Rotterdam, right at the gates of the Dutch last stand. The air landings occupied Dutch troops at a time when they were needed to slow the German land advance. The Rotterdam Blitz on 14 May 1940 sealed the fate of the Dutch defences there. Shortly after the surrender of Rotterdam, General Student was wounded by friendly fire, being accidentally shot in the head by soldiers of Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. While he recovered, the command of the division was temporarily assumed by General Putzier. The Dutch army surrendered on May 15.
The invasion of France proceeded without further operations by the Division. With the signature of the armistice on 22 June, the German victory over the French army was complete.
Planned Invasion of Britain (Operation Seelöwe)
The summer months would be used in preparation for the planned invasion of England. Airborne troops were to play a significant role during the initial landings, as they were assigned the task of capturing Lympne airfield on Romney Marsh. However, the 7th Flieger Division and the German 22nd Air Landing Division had taken losses during the preceding campaign, and were now understrength. The invasion plans were shelved on 12 October, and the division had time to train new recruits.
At the start of 1941, the OKW decided to create the German XI Air Corps, which would include the 7th Flieger Division. This Corps would be under the command of General Student, and General Süssmann would become the new commander of the 7th Flieger Division.
Battle of Greece (Operation Marita)
On 6 April 1941, the German army invaded Greece advancing rapidly, reaching Thebes, Greece by 26 April. That same night, the Division's 2nd Regiment was dropped at Corinth with the objective of capturing the bridge across the canal that cuts the Isthmus of Corinth. Initially the attack by the lead elements succeeded, but the British counter-attacked and in the process the bridge was destroyed. Nevertheless, the force held a bridgehead across the Isthmus, and the Germans proceeded to capture the Peloponnesos.
Battle of Crete (Operation Merkur)
With the surviving Allied forces withdrawn to Crete, the Germans decided upon an air-landing operation to capture the island. Operation Merkur (Mercury) would use the 7th Flieger Division to capture airfields on Crete, then German mountain troops from 5. Gebirgs-Division would be flown in as reinforcements. The 7th Flieger Division began parachuting onto the island on 20 May, landing as follows:
- Maleme - Luftlande-Sturmregiment (Generalmajor Eugen Meindl); 3. Kompanie (Oberleutnant Wolf von Plessen), 4. Kompanie (Hauptmann Kurt Sarrazin)/ I. Battalion HQ (Major Walter Koch), and a regimental HQ force of the Luftlande-Sturmregiment under Major Franz Braun. All of these forces landed by glider, with Von Plessen and Braun's detachments successfully landing in the river bed, securing the Tavronitis Bridge, destroying nearby anti-aircraft batteries and gaining a foothold in the RAF camp at Maleme airfield, although both commanders were killed. Koch and Sarrazin's detachments came down on the southern slope of Hill 107, directly onto the positions of A & B companies, 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion. They suffered heavy casualties with Sarrazin killed and Koch wounded in the head, whilst the survivors were scattered across the hillside.
The rest of the forces dropped at Maleme were all part of the Luftlande-Sturmregiment and jumped from Ju-52 transport aircraft. These forces consisted of:
- II. Battalion/ LLSR (Major Edgar Stentzler); This battalion landed unscathed around Rapaniana, with one platoon under Leutnant Peter Mürbe being dropped further west to secure an unfinished airfield near Kastelli.
Meindl later sent 5. (Oberleutnant Herterich)& 7. Kompanie (Hauptmann Barmetler) to attack Hill 107 in a flanking manoeuvre from the south.
- III. Battalion/ LLSR (Major Otto Scherber); The 3rd battalion dropped in the area east of Maleme airfield, right on top of the New Zealand defensive positions south of the coastal road.
The battalion suffered high casualties with many Fallschirmjäger being killed as they came down and struggled out of their harnesses, or whilst searching for weapons containers. Nevertheless, small groups of survivors went into action and carried out hit-and-run attacks on enemy positions or held their ground against local counterattacks.
- IV. Battalion/ LLSR (Hauptmann Walter Gericke); 4th battalion landed in good order west of the Tavronitis river together with II. Battalion. Only the 16. Kompanie (Oberleutnant Höfeld) landed elsewhere, namely south of the main force near Polemarhi, to act as a flank guard.
- Canea and Suda Bay - 3rd Regiment
- Retymnom - 1st and 3rd battalions of 2nd Regiment
- Herakleion - 1st Regiment; 2nd battalion of 2nd Regiment
During the approach, General Süssmann was killed and General Sturm assumed command. The Allied forces on the island put up a stubborn defense and the troops of the 7th Flieger Division took heavy losses, with over 6,700 killed and wounded out of 22,000 men. With the aid of the follow-on reinforcements, however, the Allies were forced to evacuate the island by 29 May.
Invasion of Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa)
In August 1941, the 7th Flieger returned to Germany. The invasion of the Soviet Union was now underway, but the Division would play no role during the first summer. The losses suffered in the Crete landings were made good with newly trained recruits, and by September 1941 the Division was back up to strength. On 24 September, the Division received orders to move to the Leningrad front in Russia.
As in past campaigns, the élite 7th Flieger Division was again frequently to be used in Company and Battalion-strength units, patching up battle lines whenever the German defenders started to waver against Soviet attacks. This experience led the Paratroopers to name themselves "The Führer's Firemen".
Beginning 29 September, the 1st and 3rd Regiments of the 7th Flieger Division joined the defense of the salient along the Neva River. The battle continued into the winter, with units taking heavy losses during the conflict. Finally in mid-December the Division was relieved and returned to Germany.
Meanwhile, in November, the 2nd Regiment was deployed to the southern sector to participate in the defense against the Russian winter offensive. They remained on the front throughout the winter, suffering more from the difficult climatic conditions than from enemy actions. By March 1942, the 2nd Regiment was posted to the Volkhov front, to the southeast of Leningrad, defending against the fierce and continuing Russian attacks.
When the 2nd Regiment was returned to Germany in June 1942, it was detached from the 7th Flieger Division and would form the nucleus of the German 2nd Parachute Division.
The 7th Flieger Division was now recovering in Normandy, France. To replace the 2nd Regiment, the 4th Parachute Regiment was raised. Later in the year, plans were made to use the division in the German summer offensive in Russia. However the operation was canceled, and the division was deployed in the Rzhev sector near Smolensk in October.
Much of the winter months were spent patrolling and performing limited attacks along the front. The Battle of Stalingrad was underway, and Soviet attentions were focused on the southern part of the front. This situation changed in March 1943 when the Soviet army assaulted the divisional front. This attack was beaten back with heavy Russian losses.
By May, the Division had returned to Germany, after being used to form the 1st Fallschirmjäger, or Parachute Division. The formation was then moved to Avignon, France for rest and refitting. Their brief respite came to an end in July, however, when the Allied forces landed in Sicily on 10 July.
Allied Invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky)
Most of the division was moved to Catania airfield starting 12 July 1943 to participate in the defense of the island. Leading elements of the division saw action at Primosole Bridge, where the 3rd Parachute Regiment deployed by parachute just hours before an attempted British coup de main. The remainder of the division deployed to the island shortly afterwards and was used in fire-brigade fashion from then on, stiffening defenses on the island wherever they started to waver. As the decision was made to withdraw, the 1st Parachute Division was employed as the rearguard defenses as the evacuation proceeded. They were the last German unit to leave the island on 17 August.
For the remainder of the war, the division fought in the Italian Campaign. They were employed piecemeal to ward against the possibility of sea-landings from Salerno to Taranto, and fought another withdrawing action up the Adriatic coast of Italy against the advancing Allies. From 14–19 December 1943, the 1st Parachute Division, under General-Lieutenant Richard Heidrich, saw action against the Canadian 1st Infantry Division around the gully Torrente Saraceni, later known as "Dead Man's Gulch", to the south of Ortona (Battle of Ortona). Field Marshal Alexander regarded them as "the best German troops in Italy". Later the division was concentrated in the defense of the Gustav Line south of Rome, defending against the advance of the British Eighth Army under Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese.
In January 1944, the US IV Corps made an amphibious landing at Anzio, about 50 kilometers south of Rome. Unfortunately for the Allies, the landing quickly bogged down and failed to advance. To support the landing, the Allied armies in the south needed to break through the German defenses of the Gustav Line.
In February 1944, the 1st Parachute Division was pulled out of the line and shifted to the defense of Monte Cassino. This dominant position laid astride the road to Rome, and must be taken by the Allies if they were to advance. The division put up a ferocious defense of the site. On 15 February, the carpet bombing and artillery shelling of the Monte Cassino Abbey resulted in its destruction on the false presumption that it was used by the Germans as an observation post. As it would turn out, the only occupants of the Abbey were monks and refugees escaping the fighting. The battle was finally broken off on 22 March.
- "No other troops in the world but German paratroops could have stood up to such an ordeal and then gone on fighting with such ferocity" — Field Marshal Alexander.
During the fight the division took many losses, including the 3rd battalion of 1st Regiment. However the Allies would not resume their attack until 11 May as part of Operation Diadem, and the Division had time to recover its losses.
When the attack resumed with the fourth battle of Cassino, the German defenses held out until 17 May before the line became flanked. This made the fighting for Cassino irrelevant, so the 1st Parachute Division joined a general German withdrawal to the north of Rome. On 18 May, the 12th Podolski Lancers, a Polish Unit from 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division, took the monastery, which it found deserted, save for some remaining wounded soldiers. The paratroops performed delaying actions against the Allies until they reached defensive positions in the Apennine Mountains to the south of Bologna. They now formed part of the German I Parachute Corps, along with the German 4th Parachute Division. The Italian front remained static throughout the winter months, with only sporadic patrols and raiding actions.
By January 1945, the German I Parachute Corps was deployed to the Adriatic coast behind the Senio Rivier. The Allied advance resumed on 8 April, and the 1st Parachute Division was forced into a steady withdrawal toward the Po River by the British Eighth Army. By 25 April, the division had completed the river crossing. They immediately set off on a final march toward the Alpine Mountains.
Finally the German surrender in Italy came on 2 May 1945, and included the men of the 1st Parachute Division. The unconditional surrender of Germany followed a week later.
The composition of the division during different stages of the war included:
- Division Staff & Headquarters
- 1st Parachute Regiment
- 2nd Parachute Regiment
- 3rd Parachute Regiment
- Parachute Machine-Gun Battalion
- Parachute Artillery Detachment
- Parachute Anti-Tank Detachment
- Parachute Flank (Anti-Aircraft) Detachment
- Parachute Pioneer Battalion
- Division Support Troops
- Division Staff & Headquarters
- Signals Detachment
- 1st Parachute Reconnaissance Company
- 1st Parachute Regiment
- 3rd Parachute Regiment
- 4th Parachute Regiment
- 1st Parachute Field Replacement Battalion and Combat School
- 1st Parachute Artillery Regiment
- 1st Parachute Anti-Tank Detachment
- 1st Parachute Flak Detachment
- 1st Parachute Pioneer Battalion
- 1st Parachute Division Supply Troops
- 1st Parachute Sanitation Detachment
- 646th Field Military Police Troop
- Division Headquarters & Staff
- 1st Parachute Signals Battalion
- 1st Parachute Regiment
- 3rd Parachute Regiment
- 4th Parachute Regiment
- 1st Battalion, 1st Parachute Artillery Regiment
- 1st Parachute Anti-Tank Battalion
- 1st Parachute Flak Battalion
- 1st Parachute Engineer Battalion
- 1st Parachute Medical Battalion
- 1st Parachute Division Supply Troops
|September 9, 1938||Generalleutnant Kurt Student|
|May 16, 1940||Generalleutnant Richard Putzier|
|October 1, 1940||Generalleutnant Wilhelm Süßmann|
|May 20, 1941||Generalmajor Alfred Sturm|
|October 1, 1941||Generalleutnant Erich Petersen|
|August 1, 1942||General der Fallschirmtruppe Richard Heidrich|
|January 4, 1944||Generalmajor Hans Korte|
|February 21, 1944||General der Fallschirmtruppe Richard Heidrich|
|November 18, 1944||Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz|
- Bjørn Jervaas. "The Fallschirmjäger Battle at Dombaas". Norway during world war 2. Archived from the original on 1 February 2009. http://web.archive.org/web/20090201081816/http://nuav.net/fallschirm.html. Retrieved 22 January 2009.
- "Lexikon der Wehrmacht - Fallschirm-Jäger-Division". http://www.lexikon-der-wehrmacht.de/Gliederungen/Fallschirmjagerdivisionen/Gliederung.htm.
- George Nafziger, Organization German 1st Fallschirmjäger Division 1 February 1944, United States Army Combined Arms Center.
- Lucas, James. Storming Eagles: German Airborne Forces in World War Two. Arms and Armour Press, 1988
- Bohmler, Rudolf. Monte Cassino: a German View. Cassell, 1964. ASIN: B000MMKAYM
- "1. Fallschirmjäger-Division". German language article at www.lexikon-der-wehrmacht.de, with photos. Retrieved October 18, 2009.
- Fallschirmjäger - a site dedicated to this unit.
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