German paratroopers

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German paratroopers of the Luftwaffe conquering the airfield of Rotterdam-Waalhaven on 10 May 1940

Fallschirmjäger (English: Paratroopers) are the airborne forces (Luftlandetruppen) of Germany. The word comes from the German Fallschirm ("parachute") and Jäger, "hunter; huntsman" a term for light infantry). The term is often historically equated with the German paratroopers in World War II who were the first to be committed in large-scale airborne operations. They came to be known as the Green Devils by the mainly Western Allied forces they fought against.[1] During the entirety of World War II, predominantly subordinated to the Luftwaffe, the Fallschirmjäger commander was Kurt Student. Paratroopers of the Brandenburgers, in contrast, were subordinated to the Abwehr and the SS Parachute Battalion 500/600 to the Waffen-SS.


Fallschirmschützenabzeichen (Luftwaffe model), badge only worn by German paratroopers
Stahlhelm M38 for Fallschirmjäger with the eagle of the Luftwaffe which differed from the eagle of the army.
A Brandenburger in civilian clothes with paratroopers of the Luftwaffe after the daring and successful Operation "Dawn", May 1940
German paratroopers of the Sturm-Abteilung „Koch“ after their victory of the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael 1940 (Sturm auf die Festung Eben-Emael (in German))
Paratroopers landing on Crete, 20 May 1941
German Paratroopers after the succesful Operation Oak, 12 September 1943
The FG 42 was developed especially for German airborn units

At the end of the 19th century, the German female aviation pioneer Käthe Paulus (1868–1935) invented the collapsible parachute, which is still used today, and the airship architect Otto Heinecke later patented the principle of the double envelope with a rigging line attached to the aircraft. Military aviation began using captive balloons to scout enemy positions. In this context, Charles Leroux performed a jump from a height of around 1,000 m on 14 April 1889. However, the history of skydiving itself goes back much further. With the first major use of aircraft during World War I (1914–1918), armies also began to see greater uses for military parachuting.

In 1935, Hermann Göring was promoted to command of the Luftwaffe. Unwilling to leave his favourite unit, the Landespolizeigruppe General Göring, behind, he ordered it transferred to the Luftwaffe, renaming the unit Regiment General Göring in September 1935. The unit was now sent for re-training and re-equipping as a Luftwaffe unit. During this period, the I. Jäger-Bataillon and 15. Pionier-Kompanie were sent to Döberitz for parachute training. These units were separated from the regiment in March 1938 and redesignated I. Bataillon/Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 1, the first of the Fallschirmjäger (airborne) units.


In the tradition of the Jäger, paratroopers have, in addition to the regular infantry training, special additional military training that enables them to land in the air, in particular by parachute jump. Due to the special requirements of this branch of service, the training program includes extensive weapons and gunnery training as well as special courses under different climatic and operational conditions. Paratroopers can fight on their own for some time. For this reason, deep combat, i.e. behind enemy lines, and fighter combat (Jagdkampf) are the main focus of training.

A large proportion of paratroopers undergo lone fighter (Einzelkampf) and urban combat courses in order to be able to cope with the widest possible range of operations. There is close cooperation within the NATO member countries, including personnel exchanges with foreign paratrooper units. German paratroopers of the Bundeswehr often go through the jump training of other armies and are trained on the respective weapons of the alliance partners.


The German soldiers Vice Sergeant Rudolf Windisch (code name: Emil; officer of the Fliegertruppe) and 1st Lieutenant Maximilian von Cossel (code name: Franz; German observation pilot) led the first known airborne operation (airborne command company) on 2nd to 3rd October 1916 on the Eastern Front.


During World War II, the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) raised a variety of airborne light infantry (Paratroopers) units. Unlike the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth, and the USA, the German paratroopers were part of the German Air Force rather than the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer). Starting from a small collection of paratrooper battalions at the beginning of the war, the Luftwaffe built up a division-sized unit of three paratrooper regiments plus supporting arms and air assets, known as the 7th Flieger Division (7th Air Division).

Paratrooper units made the first airborne invasion when invading Denmark on the 9 April 1940. In the early morning hours of Operation Weserübung, they attacked and took control of Aalborg Air Base which played a key role acting as a refuel station for the Luftwaffe in the subsequent invasion of Norway. In the same assault the bridges around Aalborg were taken. Other airborne attacks during the Battle of Denmark were also carried out, including one on a fort on the island Masnedø.

The first opposed airborne attacks occurred during the Norwegian Campaign, first during the initial invasion when paratroopers captured the defended air base of Sola, near Stavanger. Paratroopers also had their first defeat in Norway, when a company was dropped on the village and railroad junction of Dombås on 14 April 1940 and was destroyed by the Norwegian Army in a five day battle.[2]

Later in the war, the 7th Air Division's paratrooper assets were re-organised and used as the core of a new series of elite Luftwaffe Infantry divisions, numbered in a series beginning with the 1st Paratrooper Division. These formations were organized and equipped as motorized infantry divisions, and often played a "fire brigade" role on the western front. Their constituents were often encountered on the battlefield as ad hoc battle groups (Kampfgruppen) detached from a division or organized from miscellaneous available assets. In accord with standard German practice, these were called by their commander's name, such as Group Erdmann in France and the Ramcke Parachute Brigade in North Africa.

After mid-1944, paratroopers were no longer trained as specifically paratroops due to the realities of the strategic situation, but retained the Fallschirmjäger honorific. Near the end of the war, the series of new paratrooper divisions extended to over a dozen, with a concomitant reduction in quality in the higher-numbered units of the series. Among these divisions was the 9th Paratrooper Division, which was the final parachute division to be raised by Germany during World War II. The division was destroyed during the Battle of Berlin in April 1945. (These divisions should not be confused with the Luftwaffe Field Divisions, a poorly organised and managed series of light infantry divisions raised from excess Luftwaffe personnel early in the war.)

Over 54,449 paratroops were killed in action and over 8,000 are still listed as missing in action.

Paratroopers were awarded a total of 134 Knight's Cross of the Iron Crosses between the years 1940–1945. Twenty-four KC were awarded in the west and 27 were awarded after Crete. Out of the 134 KC, 15 were with oak leaves, five with oak leaves and swords, and one with oak leaves, swords and diamonds.


Paratroopers participated in many of the famous battles of World War II, including the skilful airborne seizure of Fort Eben-Emael allowing for the early capture of Belgium and major airdrops in Norway and Denmark in 1940. The bloody Battle of Monte Cassino in 1943 and in the defence of Carentan during the Battle of Normandy in 1944.

Their most famous airdrop was in the Battle of Crete in 1941, where the entire 7th Air Division was deployed, with the German 5th Mountain Division as the follow-up. Crete was captured, but the high casualties among paratroopers convinced Hitler that such mass airdrops were no longer feasible — though surprise was lost even before the drops started, and the battle might have caused fewer German casualties otherwise. The Allies would come to a similar conclusion near the end of the war, as each successive large-scale airdrop resulted in higher and higher casualties.

The 3rd battalion, 3rd Regt, 1st Paratrooper Division fought against elements of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade during the Battle of Ortona, Italy, from December 20, 1943 to December 28, 1943. The battle was dubbed "Little Stalingrad"[3] for the deadliness of its close-quarters combat.

Prior to the Battle of Monte Cassino the 1st Paratrooper Division held the ground near the Monastery of Monte Cassino but did not occupy the building itself. The historical significance of the Benedictine monastery caused the German commander-in-chief in Italy, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, to order German units not to include the monastery in German defensive positions and informed the Allies accordingly.[4][5] The Allied high command refused to believe that the German forces would not use such a enviable position in their defences and orders were duly given for the 1500 year old building to be bombed to rubble. After the bombing, the Germans moved into positions amongst the bricks, remnants of walls and still intact cellars which provided excellent protection for the troops.

This enabled the paratroopers to hold out for months against repeated assaults and heavy bombardment. Here they gained the nickname of the "Green Devils" from the Allied forces for their distinctive 3/4-length splinter pattern camouflage jackets and the tenacious defence of the ruined town and monastery on the mountain above against far superior numbers. They only finally retreated from their positions to stave off being outflanked, and Polish and Gurkha units (under the British flag), and French Senegalese and Moroccan troops finally occupied the ruins of the monastery.

Uniforms and Equipment

The Paratroopers would be awarded the Fallschirmschützenabzeichen, a Paratrooper insignia featuring a diving gold eagle gripping a swastika.

Paratrooper units were usually very well equipped; they had access to the best weapons of the German military. They were among the first combat units to use assault rifles and recoilless rifles in warfare.

A special version of the German armed forces' (Wehrmacht's ) modernized steel helmet (Stahlhelm), the M1935, called the Fallschirmhelm, was designed and issued to paratrooper units. It did away with the projecting visor and deep, flared rim of the standard-issue helmet, and added further improvements. The modified shell incorporated a completely different and more substantial leather liner and chinstrap design that provided far more protection for German airborne troops; this model was known as the M1938.

The style of parachute harness used by the paratroopers, however, is generally considered inferior to those used by the war's British and American paratroopers. Unlike the British and American models, which connected the chute at each shoulder, the German design connected the parachute to the trooper's body via a single strap in the center of the back, an Irving-type harness. Paratroopers had to throw themselves bodily forwards out of the aeroplane, and in the resulting face-down position when the chute opened, control was nearly impossible.

The necessity of landing on knees and elbows reduced the amount of equipment the trooper could carry and, even with pads, significantly increased the chance of injury. As such they jumped armed only with a holstered pistol and a small "gravity knife". Rifles and other weapons were dropped in separate containers and, until these were recovered, the troopers would be poorly armed (By comparison, Allied paratroopers were dropped armed with rifles or sub-machine guns). The Japanese copied the German system.

A universal weapon was developed for the paratroopers that could replace rifles, sub-machine guns and light machine-guns but was also light enough to be carried during a jump. This resulted in the FG42 automatic rifle. This was built and deployed in small numbers from 1943 until the end of the war. Though an extremely advanced weapon[6][7], the design had flaws. The lightweight frame was subject to considerable muzzle rise when in automatic fire and had to be fired prone to guarantee accuracy. This meant that the FG42 was not entirely compatible with the more universal role it was supposed to play, as both a light machine gun (LMG) and assault rifle, and was frequently used more as a support weapon.

The true and preferred weapons of the paratroopers were the MP 38 and MP 40 (MP designates Maschinenpistole, literally "Machine Pistol"), often wrongly called Schmeisser. They were submachine guns developed in Germany and used extensively by paratroopers, Panzer crews, platoon and squad leaders, and other troops, like the elite commandos of the Brandenburgers.

The Parachutist's "Ten Commandments"

A revealing document captured from a German =paratrooper who was taken prisoner in Greece reveals much of the paratroopers' elite attitudes. Titled the Ten Commandments[8] it listed the following instructions:

  • 1. You are the elite of the German Army. For you, combat shall be fulfillment. You shall seek it out and train yourself to stand any test.
  • 2. Cultivate true comradeship, for together with your comrades you will triumph or die.
  • 3. Be shy of speech and incorruptible. Men act, women chatter; chatter will bring you to the grave.
  • 4. Calm and caution, vigor and determination, valor and a fanatical offensive spirit will make you superior in attack.
  • 5. In facing the foe, ammunition is the most precious thing. He who shoots uselessly, merely to reassure himself, is a man without guts. He is a weakling and does not deserve the title of parachutist.
  • 6. Never surrender. Your honor lies in Victory or Death.
  • 7. Only with good weapons can you have success. So look after them on the principle—First my weapons, then myself.
  • 8. You must grasp the full meaning of an operation so that, should your leader fall by the way, you can carry it out with coolness and caution.
  • 9. Fight chivalrously against an honest foe; armed irregulars deserve no quarter.
  • 10. With your eyes open, keyed up to top pitch, agile as a greyhound, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel, you will be the embodiment of a German warrior.

Fallschirmjägertruppe (Bundeswehr)

Espalier of honor in the field camp of Kundus (Afghanistan) as German paratroopers honor their fallen comrades in October 2008.[9]

The Paratroopers of the modern-day Bundeswehr are no longer part of the Luftwaffe or the SS, but belong to the airborne forces (Luftlandebrigaden) of the army (Bundesheer) and are military units, together with the Jäger (special infantry) and Gebirgsjäger (special mountain warfare), of light infantry. The four Fallschirmjägerbataillone (261, 263, 313, 373) are part of the Special Operations Division of the German Army.

See also

Further reading

  • Skorzeny, Otto, Skorzeny's Special Missions, Robert Hale Ltd., London, 1957.
  • Higgins, Jack, The Eagle Has Landed (a novel), Bantam-Doubleday-Dell pubs., 1975, ISBN: 978-0553025002 (adapted into a British film of the same name, released in 1976).
  • Ailsby, Christopher, Hitler's Sky Warriors: German Paratroopers in Action, 1939-1945. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount Limited, 2000, ISBN: 1-86227-109-7.

External links



  1. Green Devils: German Paratroopers 1939-1945 By Jean-Yves Nasse, W. Muhlberger, G. Schubert, Jean-Pierre Villaume.
  2. Bjørn Jervaas: The Fallschirmjäger Battle at Dombaas (English)
  3. Ortona By Mark Zuehlke # Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre (May 2004)Language EnglishISBN-10: 1550545574 ISBN-13: 978-1550545579
  4. Time, The Bombing of Monte Cassino
  5. Monte Cassino by David Hapgood (Author), David Richardson
  6. Senich, Peter: The German Assault Rifle: 1935–1945, page 239. Paladin Press, 1987.
  7. Miller, David: Fighting Men of World War II: Axis Forces : Uniforms, Equipment and Weapons, page 104. Stackpole Books, 2007.
  8. U.S. World War II intelligence report on Fallschirmjäger
  9. About five kilometers south of the German field camp, a suicide attack on a German reinforcement patrol was carried out on 20 October 2008. Two German army paratroopers were killed in the attack. Five Afghan children and the assassin are also killed. Source: Die Bundeswehr in Afghanistan