The use of air power in combat proliferated during the Great War of 1914 to 1918. In fact, Italian Army Lieutenant Alessandro Tandura made the first planned parachute jump to conduct sabotage behind enemy lines in August 1918. About same time, American General Billy Mitchell envisioned large assemblies of ground troops being deployed onto the battlefield by the use of parachutes. But due to the lack of proper equipment and tactics during this early period of flight, no such corps was formed nor did any paratroop operations occur before the November 1918 armistice.
In the 1920s, several countries showed interest in the idea of paratrooper assaults. To meet the needs of coordinating large numbers of soldiers jumping at the same time, Italy developed the static line system. This device pulled open a jumper’s chute after exiting the aircraft without his using an individual “ripcord.”Troops could be more efficiently dropped at lower altitudes to more precise targets while remaining out of harm’s way.
When Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazi Party) came to power in 1933, the new government accelerated the clandestine rebuilding of the German armed forces that had been devastated in the First War and later dismantled by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler gave the leadership of the fledgling Luftwaffe (air force) to WWI air ace and charismatic leader in the Nazi Party, Hermann Göring. Under his direction, the Luftwaffe became a well-equipped and disciplined force essential to Hitler’s plans of conquest and expansion of his new German empire.
About the same time, beginning in the mid-1930s, the Soviet Union military initiated rudimentary paratrooper exercises. Red Army soldiers exited an aircraft through a top hatch in the fuselage, crawled out along the wing edges and jumped at the same time after being given a signal. Göring and other prominent German military spectators at these Soviet tests became early converts to the idea of air-dropped assault troops.
By 1935, the German Army had begun developing groups of soldiers trained as paratroopers to be used in military operations. Shortly thereafter in 1936, the Luftwaffe formed its own group of paratrooper trainees. The German Fallschirmjäger units came under the direct command of Luftwaffe General Kurt Student, and would remain so until the end of the coming war.
Göring always wanted his Air Force to become the most powerful and potent military element of the Third Reich. By January 1939, he pressed to have all things related “to the air” under his command, so the Army relinquished control of their paratroopers, allowing Göring to incorporate them into his Luftwaffe.
In the German Air Force, the Fallschirmjäger units were not an independent group, put part of the Luftwaffe air branch. Göring and Student would build these special troops into one of the most feared fighting forces of the Axis powers, nicknamed the “Green Devils” by their Allied opponents.
Luftwaffe paratrooper training began at schools especially developed to teach skills needed for the difficult and dangerous operations. The first school was located at Stendahl, which was later moved to Wittstock, then finally, Braunschweig. Midway through the war, additional schools were opened in Dreux, Salzwedel, and Kraljevo (Serbia).
Officers and enlisted men alike went through three months of infantry weapons, field and tactical training, followed by sixteen additional days of parachute jumping instruction. As part of this training, soldiers were taught to pack their own chutes, decreasing their fear of potential mishaps. Because of the physical and mental demands of the courses, paratrooper candidates had a dropout rate of over sixty-five percent.
When on leave or when walking out, paratroopers wore the same uniforms as other members of the Luftwaffe air troops, piped with golden yellow cords to signify their branch of service. However, in the field, paratroopers wore the Flieger-style uniform consisting of a short blue hued flight tunic and pants over which was worn a distinctive smock.
The smock was originally flat gray in color, but later produced using green camouflage printed material. On the left breast of the smock was sewn a cloth Luftwaffe eagle, with rank “gull wings” and chevrons displayed on the right arm. The purpose of the smock was to prevent the underlying tunic and equipment from becoming entangled with the parachute lines while descending to a target.
Early Fallschirmjäger helmets were developed by removing the rims from standard Wehrmacht helmets, padding the interiors along the liners, and modifying the chinstraps. Later models were specifically made, using the same basic design with modifications. Special high-topped lace-up boots were used by the troopers until later in the war when they were replaced by standard Wehrmacht pullover boots.
Though the paratroopers’ Rucksfallschirm parachutes (rear opening rucksack) had heavy, efficient harnesses, they were overall poorly designed. The rear opening, single strap feature required the wearers to jump and descend in a “spread eagle, belly down” fashion with little or no control. Prop wash from the jump plane engines sometimes caused the troopers to spin and tangle their chute lines, giving them even less control as they floated to the earth below.
To prevent injury, they were instructed to do a shoulder roll upon landing. Many jumpers were unable to do as such, so thick knee and elbow pads were added to their standard gear to lessen the impact.
The paratroopers’ equipment had to remain light due to the awkward landings and their needed mobility once in action. Small side arms such as P38s and P08s were holstered on leather belts suspended on the outside of the smocks. MP38 or MP40 machine pistols, and K98 bolt action rifles were carried along with the later FG42 paratrooper assault rifles.
Gray or camouflaged bandoleers containing stripper clips or magazines of ammunition for these weapons were slung across the soldiers’ chests.
Every paratrooper carried a unique Flieger-Kappmesser — a gravity-activated utility knife that could be operated with one hand. This large, wood-handled knife contained a sharp-edged blade that dropped down through the end cap once a thumb lever was depressed. A swing-out, tapered spike used to untangle cords was mounted on the opposite end of the handle over which was riveted a lanyard loop. These were secured with cord lanyards and stored in the troopers’ more accessible pockets.
In addition to these weapons and various grenades, each trooper carried field dressings, high energy rations, and Benzedrine (amphetamine) tablets. Other supplies and heavier weaponry were placed in metal cannisters that were equipped with their own parachutes. The canisters could hold disassembled MG34 or MG42 machine guns, recoilless rifles, anti-tank guns, mortars, and ammunition supplies that the paratroopers needed in their silent, rapid, and hard-hitting attacks. In addition, the contents often included radio equipment, first aid and food supplies that might be required depending on the duration of the engagement. These well-equipped soldiers and their equipment were dropped at low altitudes from slow-flying aircraft such as the Junkers JU-52 cargo plane.
After completing a series of tests and six parachute jumps, officers and enlisted men would be awarded the coveted Fallschirmschutzenabzeichen (parachutist’s badge). Paratroopers were required to re-qualify for the award each year. In 1944, medical, legal, and administrative Luftwaffe personnel who had made at least one jump in combat became eligible for the badge.
This unique badge consisted of an oval-shaped silver oak leaf wreath overlaid by a diving gold eagle with swept back wings and clutching a canted swastika. A single long pin and catch were mounted on the reverse.
The first issues were made of finished bronze, then later aluminum, and finally a metal alloy due to limited materials during the war. The device was worn proudly on the lower left panel of the recipient’s tunic. A cloth version using the same design was also produced to be worn on the flight jacket.
Germany used Fallschirmjäger units throughout the war on both the Eastern and Western fronts. They began the war at the head of the Polish campaign of 1939 as conquering air warriors and ended in 1945 as grounded infantry troops who were slaughtered by the Allies during the last defense of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Fighting for what they were told was the good of their homeland, the brave men of the Fallschirmjäger were awarded one hundred and thirty-four Knight’s Crosses; fifteen with oak leaves; five with oak leaves and swords; and one with oak leaves, swords, and diamonds.
Many other members were not as fortunate. Out of the approximately 190,000 “Green Devil” Fallschirmjäger who served in the war, 22,041 were killed, 57,594 wounded, and 44,785 were listed as missing in action.