AvStop Magazine Online
Section III. PARACHUTE TROOPS
The necessity of having airborne units for the initial commitment during air landings has been recognized. In both Holland and Crete elements of Army units, in part by design and in part because of ignorance of the enemy or situated within situation, were landed from transport planes in territory still occupied by the sight of enemy artillery observers. This was recognized as a mistake resulting in serious losses. The only thing that saved the planes landing on the Maleme airfield in Crete from being completely destroyed by direct enemy fire was the fact that the ground was covered with dust as a result of drought and that the planes actually landed in clouds of dust.
During the following war years, the parachute troops in Germany were steadily increased and improved. In accordance with the situation and the nature of their intended mission, the troops had to be trained for commitment either by parachute jumps or by transport gliders. The designation of "parachute troops" (Fallschirmtruppe) and "parachutists" (Fllschirmjaeger) given these units in Germany is accordingly not quite accurate. Fundamentally a major part of the German airborne force was suited for transport-glider commitment only, since the plans of training them as parachutists could not be carried out. In practice, the percentage of trained parachutists steadily decreased with the result that, as the war continued, these troops were almost exclusively used in ground combat. The Wehrmacht, because of the scarcity of manpower, found it impossible to keep these units in reserve for their special duties. It is evident that only the "rich man" can afford such forces, and that efforts must be made to withdraw these troops as soon as possible after each airborne commitment. Otherwise their value as special units will rapidly decrease, something very hard to remedy.
One fundamental lesson derived from the first air landing was that even the very first elements reaching the ground must be fully equipped for battle. The parachutists landing on Crete had nothing but their pistols and hand grenades, the remaining weapons and ammunitions being dropped separately in special containers. After the Crete operation this was changed. It was realized that both parachute and transport glider troops must reach the ground as combat units ready for action. They must have heavy weapons, and especially, tank-destroying weapons adapted to this type of transportation, as well as a suitable type of organization for even the smallest units, making it possible for each to fight independently. (Detailed information regarding the equipment of German parachute troops is contained in the appendix.) In order to capture a usable airhead for the air-transported units, the parachute troops, over and above the initial landing, must be able to capture airfields, or at least terrain suitable for landing air transports, and to push back the enemy far enough from these areas to avoid the necessity of landing within range of direct enemy gunfire. In other words, the parachute troops must be capable of attacks with a limited objective, and of holding the captured terrain. Consequently, the parachute divisions were equipped with all heavy weapons and artillery; and an airborne panzer corps was organized with one panzer and one motorized infantry division.
However, organization of these units never got beyond the initial activation as conventional ground troops, and all plans to use them for airborne landings remained in the theoretical stage. After the Crete operation no German parachute division was committed in airborne operations as a whole unit. The airborne panzer corps never even received adequate training. Only parts of the remaining parachute divisions, of which there were six in 1944 and ten or eleven at the end of the war in 194, were trained for airborne operations. General Student gives a total figure of 30,000 trained parachutists in the summer of 1944. Most of them were in the 1st and 2d Parachute Divisions, of whose personnel 50 and 30 percent respectively were trained parachutists. Commitment of the divisions in ground combat continually decreased these figures so that parachutists from all units had to be recruited for the airborne attack in the Ardennes offensive.
In the main, the training of these troops was inadequate. For instance, only about 20 percent of the parachutists committed in this action were capable of jumping fully equipped with weapons. This was a serious disadvantage because very few of the weapons containers dropped were recovered.
Accordingly, the Germans had no practical experience in large-scale commitment of parachutists with really modern equipment, nor was it possible to test the organization and equipment of such formations in actual combat.
Earlier German experience points to two important considerations. In the first place, the parachute troops will be in need of a supply service immediately after landing. On the basis of the Crete experience, it would seem advisable to incorporate service units in the first waves of parachutists. The greater the scale of the airborne operation, the more thought will have to be given to the matter of motorized supply vehicles. Today their transportation in transport gliders presents no technical difficulties. In the second place, in cases where the intention is to follow up initial jumps with the landing of great numbers of air-transported troops, engineer units will have to be assigned to the parachute troops at an early stage for the purpose of preparing and maintaining landing strips for transport planes.
Even though the German parachute troops lost their actual purpose in the last years of the war, they preserved their specific character in the organization of their personnel replacements. The operations actually carried out proved that the special missions assigned to parachute troops call for soldiers who are especially aggressive, physically fit, and mentally alert. In jumping, the paratrooper must not only conquer his own involuntary weakness but upon reaching the ground must be ready to act according to circumstances; he must not be afraid of close combat; he must be trained in the use of his own and the enemy's weapons; and, finally, his will to fight must not be impaired by the privations occasioned by such difficulties in supply as hunger, thirst, and shortage of weapons. For this reason, it is advisable for the parachute troops to take their replacements primarily from among men who have volunteered for such service. The excellent quality of the replacements which the German parachute troops were able to obtain until the very end explains why, even in ground combat, they were able to give an especially good account of themselves.
Good replacements, however, require careful training in many fields. Every paratrooper must be given thorough training in infantry methods, especially in close combat and commando tactics. This was shown to be necessary in all the operations undertaken. Only when the paratrooper proves from the outset to be superior to the attacking enemy can he be successful. Specialist training in the use of various arms and special techniques is essential. A mistake was made by the Germans in separating the initial jump training from the rest of the training program. Instead of becoming the daily bread of the paratrooper, jump practice accordingly evolved into a sort of "special art." All artificiality must be avoided in this branch of training.
Special emphasis must be placed on training officers for the parachute troops. One of the experiences derived from actual operation is that the officers must be past masters in the art of ground combat. The fact that the German parachute troops originated in the Luftwaffe caused a great many inadequacies in this respect. On the other hand, the parachute officer must have some knowledge of aviation, at least enough to be able to assess the possibilities of airborne operations.
There is no doubt that a sound and systematic training program
for the parachute troops demands a great deal of time and that
in the last years of the war the German parachute formations no
longer had this time at their disposal. However, the time required
for training, combined with the high standards set for the selection
of replacements, acts as a deterrent to their commitment. The
higher command will decide to make use of the troops only when
all preconditions for a great success are at hand or when necessity
forces it to do so. To commit these troops in regular ground combat
is a waste. Commitment of parachute divisions in ground combat
is justified only by the existence of an emergency. Once the divisions
are committed as ground troops they lose their characteristic
qualities as specialists.