The growth of the Fallschirmjäger was a rather haphazard affair throughout the 1930s, but the ambitions of the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, was to have a beneficial effect on the airborne arm, which meant that by the outbreak of World War II Germany possessed a fully fledged airborne division.
The development of Germany's airborne forces prior to World War II was haphazard, though by the outbreak of war in September 1939 the Luftwaffe possessed a highly motivated and trained airborne division, albeit understrength.
Less than one month after Hitler's ascension to power in January 1933, Hermann Göring, at the time Prussian Minister of the Interior, ordered the creation of a special police unit which "in complete devotion to the Führer, would be capable and willing to stamp out any spark of resistance before it could become a threat to the young National Socialist movement". On 23 February 1933, the formation of this unit was entrusted to Polizeimajor Wecke of the Prussian Police Force (during the early 1930s, police battalions were organised to protect and support Nazi leaders on political tours and during engagements). Two days later, Major Wecke reported that his police detachment for special purposes, with a strength of 14 officers and 400 men, had been established. On 17 July the detachment was officially retitled Landespolizeigruppe (Land Police Group) Wecke z.b.V., becoming the first landespolizeigruppe in Germany. It was awarded a special land police standard by Göring on 13 September 1933, who stated: "It is my objective to transform the Prussian Police Force into a sharp-edged weapon, equal to the Reichswehr, which I can deliver to the Führer when the day comes for us to fight our external enemies." On 22 December 1933, the unit was again retitled, becoming the Landespolizei General Göring. Oberstleutnant Friedrich Jakoby, Göring's ministerial adjutant, assumed command of the unit on 6 June 1933.
The Fallschirmjäger are born
The personnel of the Landespolizei General Göring initially served in a police capacity, but in March-April 1935 Göring reconstituted his Landespolizei General Göring to become the first fledgling airborne regiment. It was incorporated into the new German Luftwaffe on 1 October of the same year, and training commenced at Altengrabow. The landespolizeigruppe banner was retained as the official regimental banner, and a new General Göring sleeveband was established to wear on the lower right sleeve.
Hitler introduced general conscription on 16 March 1935, and on 1 April the Landespolizei General Göring adopted the more military designation of Regiment General Göring. In September, regimental commander Oberstleutnant Jakoby received the following order from Göring dated 23 September: "The Regiment General Göring [RGG] will be transferred into the Luftwaffe on 1 October 1935. From volunteers of the regiment, a Fallschirmschützen Bataillon [Parachute Soldiers Battalion] is to be established as a cadre for the future German Fallschirmtruppe [Parachute Troops]."
The General Göring Regiment was considered an élite unit and was paraded throughout Germany as an example for other military organisations to follow. After a demonstration parachute jump, during which the jumper injured himself and had to be carried off on a stretcher, sufficient officers and men - 600 - volunteered for parachute training. The amalgamation, in November 1935, of these 600 volunteers into the élite General Göring Regiment constituted the nucleus of the first German airborne battalion, and in January 1936 the Ist Jäger (Rifle) Battalion/RGG, commanded by Major Bruno Bräuer, and the 15th Engineer Company/RGG were transferred to training area Döberitz for parachute training, while the remainder of the regiment was sent to training area Altengrabow.
The official inauguration of the German paratroop arm dates from an Order of the Day signed by Inspector General of the Luftwaffe Erhard Milch on Göring's behalf on 29 January 1936. This called for the recruitment of volunteers for parachute training at the Stendal Parachute Training School, 96km (60 miles) west of Berlin. The school had opened a few months after the institution of the Luftwaffe parachute units in January 1936. Both active and reserve personnel of the Luftwaffe were qualified to attend the Stendal Parachute Training School. On 5 November 1936 the Luftwaffe Parachutists' Badge was instituted. It was awarded to all officers, noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and other ranks of the Luftwaffe who had successfully completed six parachute jumps and other required tests. It was worn on the lower left breast to denote qualification as a military parachutist of the Luftwaffe. In order to retain the badge, it was necessary to requalify each year. In an order dated 2 May 1944, award of the badge was extended to medical, administrative and legal personnel who made a single combat jump. When the army parachute units were transferred to the Luftwaffe, qualified parachutists who had earned the Army Parachutists' Badge were required to retain the army badge. Members of the Waffen-SS assigned to the 500th, 501st or 502nd SS Parachute Battalions received the Luftwaffe Parachutists' Badge upon qualification.
In the mid-1930s, Göring and the Luftwaffe were not the only parties interested in the potential of airborne forces. The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) - Army High Command - quickly recognised the importance of parachute units to the success of the Blitzkrieg strategy (see Chapter 1), and had formed its own Schwere-Fallschirm-Infantrie-Kompanie (Heavy Parachute Infantry Company) in 1936 under the command of Major Richard Heidrich, a former tactics instructor at the Potsdam War School. The company took part with distinction in the autumn 1937 Wehrmacht military manoeuvres at Mecklenburg, becoming the star of the show and providing impetus for the consolidation of the German parachute arm. It was expanded and reorganised in the spring of 1938 into the second Fallschirmjäger battalion, and was organised like a support battalion with heavy machine guns and mortars. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Generaloberst Freiherr Werner von Fritsch, introduced the Army Parachutists' Badge on 1 September 1937. It was awarded to all members of the army's Parachute Infantry Battalion who had satisfactorily completed a parachute training course, which required the successful completion of six parachute jumps. Once qualified, individuals had to maintain their parachute skills by making a minimum of six jumps per year. However, the army's attempt to retain its own paratroop force was quashed by Göring, who brought all the Wehrmacht paratroopers under the control of the Luftwaffe (the army unit becoming the 2nd Battalion, 1st Parachute Regiment). When the battalion was transferred to the Luftwaffe on 1 January 1939 awards of this badge ceased. However, former recipients were authorised to continue wearing the badge in place of the Luftwaffe-pattern badge. Award of the army badge was resurrected again on 1 June 1943, with the only personnel on jump status being the 15th Light Company (Parachute Company), Brandenburg Division. This company sized unit was later enlarged to battalion size.
Roles on the ground
Quite apart from the continuing haggling between the army and the air force over jurisdiction, opinion was divided over Fallschirmjäger function. The Luftwaffe at this time believed in a policy of using paratroopers in small units as saboteurs behind enemy lines to disrupt enemy communications and morale, while the army felt they should be used in strength, almost like conventional infantry. In the end, exponents of both viewpoints were to see their ideas tested, and it is to the credit of the Fallschirmjäger and their instructors that they were able to fulfil both roles.
The next stage in the development of the Luftwaffe's paratroop arm, in July 1938, was the detachment of Bräuer's battalion from the General Göring Regiment. The Fallschirmjäger Batallion of the General Göring Regiment was split from its original unit and became the Luftwaffe's new 1st Battalion, 1st Parachute Regiment. It was to be the nucleus of the new 7th Flieger Division under Major-General Kurt Student, who was ably assisted by Majors Gerhard Bassenge and Heinrich Trettner. The general was admirably suited for such an appointment, having served both as an infantryman and later as a fighter pilot and squadron leader during World War I. After the war he had been one of the staff officers closely involved with building up Germany's clandestine air force prior to Hitler's accession to power. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Student was both trusted by the Nazi hierarchy and liked by the men under his command. Although a Luftwaffe appointment, he was acceptable to the army because he disagreed with the air force's doctrine of using paratroops in "penny packets" as saboteurs. He was a tireless officer with great organisational ability whose ideas on the employment of airborne troops in a strategic capacity were revolutionary at the time.
The next few years saw the remainder of the General Göring Regiment, which now consisted of an infantry battalion, motorcycle company, engineer company and a light flak unit, evolve into the mighty Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring. As stated above, the army battalion became the 2nd Battalion, 1st Parachute Regiment, as part of Student's 7th Flieger Division.
Although the German occupation of the Sudetenland (the mountainous area between Bohemia and Silesia) in the autumn of 1938 did not require the use of military force, Student's new "division" took part as an exercise. Göring was so impressed by the outcome that army objections were overridden, and Heidrich's 2nd Battalion was amalgamated into the Luftwaffe. At the same time, in January 1939, instructions were issued for the raising of a second regiment, and Heidrich's pride was salved by promoting him to command this unit. Both regiments were to be operational by the time of the Norwegian campaign in the spring of the following year. They were organised along standard infantry lines, with each regiment comprising three battalions (though in 1940 the 2nd Parachute Regiment only had two) and each battalion having four companies.
Though Germany's airborne forces were now under the control of the Luftwaffe, the differences of opinion between the army and air force as to their employment continued. The army saw their role as being akin to what General Mitchell had proposed in World War I: the landing of a large body of men behind enemy lines to carry out conventional infantry attacks in the enemy's rear. To this end the 22nd Infantry Division was selected and trained for airlanding operations. For its part the Luftwaffe continued to advocate commando-type units which would attack and destroy important targets. Basing its training around that premise, it laid stress on military engineering skills, particularly demolitions.
The debate continues
When the two parachute arms of service amalgamated, each submitted its own evaluation of airborne techniques and employment to the Armed Forces High Command (OKW). The latter, having weighed up the evidence, then issued a directive in 1938 which did nothing to resolve the divergence of opinion. The directive stressed two types of airborne mission. First, there were strategic airlanding missions carried out in conjunction with the army: "The scope and execution of an airlanding operation depends upon both the military situation and the intention behind the operation. In addition to the airlanded troops, other Luftwaffe units, fighters and fighter-bombers are to be employed. This type of mission must be closely linked to army operations. The Luftwaffe will be responsible for the preparation and execution of the battle plan as well as for air supply drops. The army will only assume command of airlanded formations once contact has been established between those men and our own ground forces." Second, airlanding operations within the framework of a Luftwaffe mission: "In this connection what is implied are sabotage or demolition units landed onto objectives which have been nominated by the Luftwaffe because it had not been possible to totally destroy or severely damage them by aerial bombardment."
While the conceptual differences were being discussed, there was a continuing expansion of the airborne force and amalgamations of its units until a point was reached at which the disparate groups needed to be formed into a single major formation. On 1 July 1938, the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) - Luftwaffe High Command - ordered that the parachute, glider and air transport units under its command be combined into the 7th Flieger Division. Tempelhof in Berlin became the headquarters for the new formation and Student was designated its commander.
Despite Student's drive and the fact that the building of German airborne forces was pushed forward as quickly as possible, by the outbreak of World War II neither the 7th Flieger Division nor the 22nd Division were at full strength.The roles and purposes of the two formations were as follows: the 22nd Division was a conventional army infantry formation whose regiments would be transported to the target in Junkers Ju 52 aircraft. There was sufficient aircraft on the strength of 7th Flieger Division's Special Operations Air Transport Group to move 5000 men in a single lift. The operational method was for the aircraft to land units of the 22nd on airfields behind enemy lines which had been captured by paratroops and/or glider units. Once the soldiers of the 22nd Division had deplaned, they would operate as conventional infantry.The parachute-trained units of the 7th Flieger Division would be landed by parachute or brought in by glider.
Fallschirmjäger training was vigorous and tough, emphasised by Hitler's own "10 commandments to the Fallschirmjäger", the first of which stated: "You are the chosen fighting men of the Wehrmacht. You will seek combat and train yourselves to endure all hardships. Battle shall be your fulfilment." One commandment was typically Hitlerite: "Against an open foe, fight with chivalry, but extend no quarter to a guerrilla." All recruits to the Fallschirmjäger were volunteers, both before and during the war, which meant they responded well to arduous training and maintained a high level of morale throughout the course. All volunteers had to be relatively lightweight - 85kg (187lb) - and not suffer from dizziness or air sickness. Recruits had to have no fear of heights, which was tested by making individuals jump from a height of 15.2m (50ft) into water. Next, they were taken aboard aircraft for flight testing, during which they were given a "feel of the air" and to determine whether they suffered from air sickness or not. Throughout the induction process instructors looked for courage, initiative and intelligence in recruits.
The training course itself lasted eight weeks, divided between four weeks of ground training and four weeks of airborne training. During the latter period each recruit would be required to make six jumps, after which he would qualify for the Parachutist Qualification Badge (it was usual, in those early days, for the paratrooper to be armed only with a pistol and hand grenades; other weapons were carried in containers which were dropped at the same time as the soldiers). During the war years, training for parachute qualification was relegated to regimental training schools where personnel were instructed in parachute techniques and eventual qualification. However, fuel and aircraft became more scarce as the war progressed and qualification became more difficult (there was also little time for training as manpower demands increased). For example, Generalmajor Heinrich Trettner, commander of the 4th Parachute Division, did not attend parachute school, and was thus not awarded the Parachutists' Badge.