The German 1st Parachute Division was a German elite military parachute-landing Division that fought during World War II. A division of paratroopers was termed a Fallschirmjäger Division. It was originally raised as the 7th Flieger, 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 an élite paratroop formation intended for vertical envelopment operations against enemy defenses. The commander chosen to lead the 7th Flieger Division was 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 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. At the start of the World War II, the Division consisted of the 1st and 2nd Parachute Regiments.
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 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 May 14, the 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment was concentrated and 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 June 10, active fighting ceasing on June 9.
Battle of France (Operation Fall Gelb)
The German plan for the invasion of Belgium, France, 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 Schachter. Capture the bridge at Veldwezelt. Capture the bridge at Vroenhoeven. Take the fortress at Eben Emael. Of these, three of the missions were entirely successful; the exception being the bridge at Schachter, 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. The primary goal of the air landings was to capture the Dutch seat of residence, The Hague; a secondary goal was to secure critical bridges in order to allow a German mechanized advance through the fortified positions of the Dutch defenses. These bridges were those at Dordrecht, Moerdijk, and the Nieuwe Maas. The parachute drops were also used to capture the Waalhoven airfield near Rotterdam, where additional forces would be air-landed.
Initially the attacks were successful, but hard fought and some units took heavy casualties. The attack on The Hague was a failure: many paratroopers were captured and 1,200 prisoners of both divisions were transported to England. All bridges were successfully held against Dutch counterattacks however. The air landings occupied Dutch troops at a time when they were needed to slow the German land advance. Shortly after the surrender of Rotterdam, General Student became 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 surrendered on May 14 after Rotterdam was heavily bombed.
The invasion of France proceeded without further operations by the Division. With the signature of the armistice on June 22, 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 October 12, 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 April 6, 1941, the German army invaded Greece advancing rapidly, reaching Thebes, Greece by April 26. 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)
This image is a candidate for speedy deletion. It may be deleted after Wednesday, 4 March 2009.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 May 20, 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 May 29.
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 September 24 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 September 29, 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 July 10.
Allied Invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky)
Most of the division was moved to Catania airfield starting July 12 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 attmepted 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 waiver. 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 August 17.
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. By Winter the division was concentrated in the defense of the Gustav Line south of Rome, defending against the advance of the British Eighth Army under General Montgomery.
On 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, which even carpet bombing of the Monte Cassino Abbey on March 15 failed to dislodge. The battle was finally broken off on March 22.
"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 May 11, and the Division had time to make good its losses.
When the attack resumed with the fourth battle of Cassino, the German defenses held out until May 17 before the line became flanked along the coast by superior Moroccan mountain commandos. This made the fighting for Cassino irrelevant, so the 1st Parachute Division joined a general German withdrawal to the north of Rome. On May 18, 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 April 8, and the 1st Parachute Division was forced into a steady withdrawal toward the Po River by the British Eighth Army. By April 25 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 May 2, 1945, and included the men of the 1st Parachute Division. The unconditional surrender of Germany followed a week later.
September 9, 1938 General-Lieutenant Kurt Student
May 16, 1940 General-Lieutenant Richard Putzier
January 21, 1941 General-Lieutenant Wilhelm Süssmann
May 20, 1941 General-Major Alfred Sturm
June 1, 1941 General-Lieutenant Erich Petersen
August 1, 1942 General-Lieutenant Richard Heidrich
November 18, 1944 General-Major Karl-Lothar Schulz
7th Air Division 1st Parachute Rifle Regiment 3 Battalions 2nd Parachute Rifle Regiment 2 battalions May 1941
7th Air Division 1st Parachute Rifle Regiment 2nd Parachute Rifle Regiment 3rd Parachute Rifle Regiment 7th Artillery Battalion 7th Anti-tank Battalion 7th Flak Battalion Machine-gun Battalion Pioneer Battalion Other divisional units April 1943
1st Parachute Division 1st Parachute Rifle Regiment 3rd Parachute Rifle Regiment 4th Parachute Rifle Regiment 1st Parachute Artillery Regiment 2 battalions 1st Parachute Anti-Tank Battalion 1st Parachute Engineer Battalion 1st Parachute Machine-gun Battalion Other divisional units