This study was written for the Historical Division, EUCOM, by a committee of former German officers. It follows an outline prepared by the Office of the Chief of Military History, Special Staff, United States Army, as follows : (1-A) A review of German airborne experience in WW2; (1-B) An appraisal of German successes and failures; (1-C) Reasons for the apparent abandonment of large-scale German airborne operations after the Crete operation; (2-A) German experience in opposing Allied and Russian airborne operations; (2-B) An appraisal of the effectiveness of these operations and (3-A) The probable future of airborne operations.
It is believed that the contributors to this study represent a valid cross-section of expert German opinion on airborne operations. Since the contributors include Luftwaffe and Army officers at various levels of command, some divergences of opinion are inevitable; these have been listed and, wherever possible, evaluated by the principal German author. However, the opinions of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring are given separately and without comment wherever they occur in the course of the presentation. The reader is reminded that publications of the German Report Series were written by Germans and from the German point of view. Organization, equipment, and procedures of the German Army and Luftwaffe differ considerably from those of the United States armed forces. This study is concerned only with the landing of airborne fighting forces in an area occupied or controlled by an enemy and with the subsequent tactical commitment of those forces in conventional ground combat. The employment of airborne units in commando operations, or in the supply and reinforcement of partisans and insurgents, is not included in this study, nor is the shifting of forces by troop-carrier aircraft in the rear of the combat zone. Such movements, which attained large size and great strategic importance during World War II, should not be confused with tactical airborne operations.
Contributor : Generalmajor Hellmuth Reinhardt, committee chairman and principal author, was Deputy Chief, General Army Office, 1941-43, and later Chief of Staff, Eighth Army, on the southern front in the Ukraine and Romania.
Contributors on German Airborne Operations : Generalleutant Werner Ehrig, operations officer of the 22nd (Army Air Landing) division during the attack on Holland; Oberst Freiherr August Friedrich von der Heydte, an outstanding field commander of German parachute troops, author of the App; Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, commander of the German Second Air Force during the Netherlands campaign, later Commander in Chief, Southwest; General der Fallschirmtruppen Eugen Meindl, regimental commander during the attack on Crete, later airborne division and corps commander; Generalleutant Max Pemsel, Chief of Staff, XVIII Corps, which included the ground forces committed in the attack on Crete; Gneraloberst Kurt Student, the chief of German parachute troops during the entire war.
Contributors on Allied Airborne Operations, and on German defense measures against them : General der Infanterie Guenther Blumentritt, Chief of Staff, OB West; Oberst Albert Emmerich, G-3, German First Army; General der Flakartillerie August Schmidt, in 1944 commander of Luftgau VI, which provided the mobile troops to combat Allied airborne landings at Nijmegen and Arnhem; General der Kavallerie Siegfried Westphal, the chief of staff of OB Southwest in Sicily and Italy, and later of OB West; Oberst Fritz Ziegelmann, G-3, 352d Infantry Division.
General Franz Halder, COS of the German Army, 1938-42
I concur completely with the ideas of the principal author of this study, which are presented on the basis of his collaboration with the most experienced German specialists. In view of the present state of technical development, I place a considerably higher estimate on the opportunities for airborne operations in a war between military powers than does the principal author. The latter considers that the essential conditions for the successful use of airborne operations – even on a large scale – exist only in close cooperation with the operations of ground troops. Assuming that there are sufficiently strong air forces and air transport facilities, I believe that in the future airborne landings by large bodies of troops – several divisions under unified command – can also be used for independent missions, that is, for such military operations as are not closely related in place and time with other ground actions, but are only bound to the latter by the general connections existing between all military operations in the theater of war. It is precisely along these lines that I envisage the future development of airborne warfare. I am convinced that with the proper preparation and present-day technical facilities it is possible to form new military bases by means of large-scale airborne landings far in the enemy’s hinterland, in areas where he expects no threat from ground troops and from which independent military operations of large scope can be undertaken. To supply by air such large-scale airheads for the necessary time is essentially a technical problem which can be solved.
The independent commitment of large airborne forces seems to offer a present-day high command an effective means for suddenly and decisively confusing the enemy’s system of warfare. Future wars will not be confined to the customary military fronts and combat areas. The battle fronts of opposing ideologies (resistance movements, revolutionary partisan organizations), which today in an age of dying nationalism cut through all great powers and civilized nations, will be able to create favorable conditions for large-scale airborne landings deep in the enemy’s country and for maintaining such bases of operation as have been won by airborne operations in the interior of the enemy’s sovereign territory. To prepare the people in these territories in time and to make them useful in war will be the task of these forces, under a unified command, to which the language of our time has given the name of the Fifth Column.
Franz Halder was born in Würzburg to General Max Halder. In 1902 he joined the 3.Royal-Bavarian-Field-Artillery-Regiment in Munich. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1904 upon graduation from War School in Munich, then he attended Artillery School (1906–07) and the Bavarian Staff College (War Academy) (1911–1914), both in Munich. In 1914, Halder became an Ordnance Officer, serving in the HQs of the Bavarian 3.Armee-Korps. In August 1915, he was promoted to Hauptmann on the General Staff of the Crown Prince of Bavaria’s 6.Infantry-Division. In 1917, he served as a General Staff officer in the Headquarters of the 2.Army, before being transferred to the 4.Army.
Between 1919 and 1920 Halder served with the Reichswehr War Ministry Training Branch. Between 1921 and 1923 he was a Tactics Instructor with the Wehrkreis VII in Munich. In March 1924 Halder was promoted to Major and by 1926 he served as the Director of Operations (Oberquartiermeister of Operations : O.Qu.I.) on the General Staff of the Wehrkreis VII in Munich. In February 1929 he was promoted to Oberstleutnant, and from October 1929 through late 1931 he served on the Training staff in the Reichswehr Ministry. After being promoted to Oberst in December 1931, Halder served as the Chief of Staff, Wehrkreis Kdo VI, in Münster (Westphalia) through early 1934. During the 1930s the German military staff thought that Poland might attack the detached German province of East Prussia. As such, they reviewed plans as to how to defend East Prussia. After being promoted to Generalmajor in October 1934, Halder served as the Commander of the 7.Infantry-Division in Munich. Recognized as a fine staff officer and planner, in August 1936 Halder was promoted to Generalleutnant. He then became the director of the Manoeuvres Staff. Shortly thereafter, he became director of the Training Branch (Oberquartiermeister of Training, O.Qu.II), on the General Staff of the Army, in Berlin between October 1937 and February 1938. During this period he directed important training maneuvers, the largest held since the reintroduction of conscription in 1935. On February 1, 1938 Halder was promoted to General der Artillerie. Around this date General Wilhelm Keitel was attempting to reorganize the entire upper leadership of the German Army. Keitel had asked Halder to become Chief of the General Staff (Oberquartiermeister of operations, training & supply; O.Qu.I ) and report to General Walther von Reichenau.
However, Halder declined as he felt he could not work with Reichenau very well, due to a personality dispute. As Keitel recognized Halder’s superior military planning skills, Keitel met with Hitler and enticed him to appoint General Walther von Brauchitsch as commander-in-chief of the German Army. Halder then accepted becoming Chief of the General Staff of the Army (Oberkommando des Heeres) on September 1, 1938, and succeeded General Ludwig Beck. A week later, Halder presented plans to Hitler on how to invade Czechoslovakia with a pincer movement by General Gerd von Rundstedt and General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb. Instead, Hitler directed that Reichenau should make the main thrust into Prague. Neither plan was necessary once British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brokered the Munich Agreement, by surrendering the Czech region of Sudetenland to Germany. Just before Chamberlain capitulated to Hitler, Halder — in an attempt to avoid war — discussed with several other generals the idea of removing Hitler from power. However, on September 29 Chamberlain gave in to Hitler’s demands, and Halder’s plot to remove Hitler died as peace had been preserved. Two days later, on October 1, German troops entered the Sudetenland.
During the spring of 1939, Halder began participating in drafting the invasion plans of Poland. Halder stated that he thought Polish soldiers were stupid, and thought the war could be over within 2–3 weeks. On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and thereby started World War II. On September 10 Halder noted in his diary that he had received information from the SS Commander Reinhard Heydrich that the SS was beginning its campaign to clean house in Poland of Jews and all intelligentsia. This led to future criticism by historians that Halder knew about the killings of Jews much earlier than he later acknowledged during post-World War II interviews, and that he failed to object to such killings. Halder noted in his diary his doubts about the measures intended by Himmler. During November 1939, Halder conspired with General Brauchitsch that he would support Brauchitsch if he were to try to curtail Hitler’s plans for further expansion of the war, but Brauchitsch declined (the so-called Zossen Conspiracy). While Halder opposed Hitler’s expanded war plans, like all officers he had taken a personal loyalty oath to Hitler. Thus, he felt unable to take direct action against der Führer. At one point, Halder thought the situation to be so desperate that he considered shooting Hitler himself.
A Colonel close to Halder noted in his diary that ‘Amid tears, Halder had said for weeks that he had a pistol in his pocket every time he went to Emil [cover name for Hitler] in order to possibly gun him down’. At the end of 1939, Halder oversaw development of the invasion plans of France, the Low Countries, and the Balkans. Halder initially doubted that Germany could successfully invade France. General Erich von Manstein’s bold plan for invading France through the Ardennes Forest proved successful, and ultimately led to the capture of France. On July 19, 1940 Halder was promoted to Generaloberst. In August, he began working on Operation Barbarossa, the invasion plan for the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter, to curtail Halder’s military-command power, Hitler limited the General’s involvement in the war by restricting him to developing battle plans for only the Eastern Front. During summer of 1942 Halder told Hitler that he was underestimating the number of Russian military units; Hitler argued that the Russians were nearly broken.
Furthermore, Hitler did not like Halder’s objections to sending General Manstein’s 11.Army to assist in the attack against Leningrad. Halder also had thought that the German attack into the Caucasus was ill advised. Finally, because of Halder’s disagreement with Hitler’s conduct of the war, Hitler decided that the General no longer possessed an aggressive war mentality, and therefore retired Halder into the ‘Fuhrer Reserve’ on September 24 1942. On July 20 1944 a group of German army officers attempted to assassinate Hitler. The following day Halder was arrested by the Gestapo, although he was not involved in the assassination attempt. As Hitler considered Halder a possible leader who could overthrow him, Halder was imprisoned at both the Flossenbürg and the Dachau concentration camps. On January 31, 1945 Halder was officially dismissed from the army. Together with some members of the July 20 plot and other notable prisoners he was transferred to Tyrol, where he was liberated by US troops on May 4 1945 after the SS guards fled. Halder spent the next two years in a prisoner of war camp.
German Airborne Operations in World War Two
The Germans carried out airborne operations on a large scale only twice in World War II; once during the month of May 1940 in Belgium and one in Holland, then again in May 1941 in connection with the occupation of Crete. Accordingly, German experiences are based in the main upon these two operations which took place during the first years of the war and which constituted the first large-scale airborne operations in the history of warfare. Although there were no other major airborne operations launched by the Germans, the German command, and in particular the parachute units which continued to be further improved during the course of the war, seriously concerned themselves with this problem. Two other cases are known in which plans and preparations for large scale airborne operations progressed very far, namely, the intended commitment of parachute troops as part of the landing in England (Operation Seeloewe) in 1940, and the preparations for the capture of the island of Malta in 1942. Neither of these plans was carried out. Airborne operations on a smaller scale were carried out against the Greek island of Leros in 1943 and during the Ardennes Offensive in 1944. The experience of minor operations such as these, as well as the trials, tests, and research done by the airborne troops during the war, are also discussed in this study.
The problems encountered in German airborne operations have been divided into three categories : 1. Planning airborne operations from the point of view of the higher command, designation of objectives for air lands, and cooperation with ground troops, the Luftwaffe, and the naval forces; 2. Actual execution of an airborne operation; the technique and tactics of landing troops from the air; 3. Organization, equipment, and training. In addition, a number of specific points and recommendations have been attached in the form of a appendix contributed by Oberst Freiherr von der Heydte, who may be regarded as the most experienced field commander of German airborne troops. In every air landing there are two separate phases : (A) the strip of terrain must be captured from the air; that is, an airhead must be established. This airhead may, or may not, include the objective. (B) the objective of the air landing must either be captured or held in ground battle. The second phase, is similar in nature to conventional ground combat if we disregard the method used to transport the troops and the factors of strength and supply which are influenced by the circumstances that all communication is by air.
The first phase, however, has new and unique characteristics. Troops committed during the first phase require special equipment and special training. In limited engagements such troops can also carry out the missions connected with the second phase. For large-scale operations regular ground troops will have to be used in addition to special units. These ground troops need equipment modified to fit the conditions of air transport. In recognition of these factors the Wehrmacht had taken two steps even before the war. In the 7.Fallschirmjäger-Division of the Luftwaffe, a unit had been created whose mission was to capture terrain by parachute jumps and landing troop-carrying gliders. An Army unit, the 22.Infanterie-Division, had been outfitted for transport by air and given the designation of Air Landing Division. Both of these units were committed during the first great air-landing attack in Belgium and Holland in 1940, at which time the 22.Infanterie-Division had to be reinforced by elements of the 7.Fallschirmjäger-Division to capture the initial airhead. On the other hand, smaller missions, such as that to capture the Fort in Eben Emael, one of the Fortress Belt to defend Liège in Belgium, were accomplished by troops of the 7.Fallschirmjäger-Division without assistance from other units.
During the attack on Crete a year later, it was impossible for the airborne troops to achieve a victory alone. It was only when Army units transported by air had arrived that progress was made toward capturing the island. Since it had not been possible to transport the 22.Luftland-Division to Greece in time, the 5.Gebirgsjäger-Division, already in Greece, had to be employed, a measure which proved to very successful. Preparations lasting approximately one month were sufficient to prepare the division for the new assignment. The special equipment of the mountain troops was suited both for transport by air and for commitment in the mountainous terrain of the island.
Principles of Employment
The airborne operations undertaken by the Germans during World War II may be classified in two groups, according to their purpose. In the first group, the attack took the form of sending an advance force by air to take important terrain features, pass obstacles, and hold the captured points until the attacking ground forces arrived. This operation was aimed at a rigidly limited objective within the framework of a ground operation which was itself essentially limited. This was the case in the airborne operation in Belgium and Holland in May 1940 and, on a smaller scale, at Corinth in 1941 and during the Ardennes offensive in 1944. The common characteristic of all these operations is that they were limited to capturing the objectives and holding them until the ground forces arrived. Beyond that, there was no further action by the troops landed from the air, either in the form of large-scale attacks from the airhead or of independent airborne operations. At the time, such missions would have been far beyond the power of the troops committed. In the second group are the operations having as their objective the capture of islands. On a large scale these included the capture of Crete in 1941; on a more limited scale these included the capture of Leros in 1943. Crete came closer to the concept of an independent operation, although the objective was strictly limited in space. The planned attack on Malta also belongs in this category. The experience of World War II shows that such missions are well within the means of airborne operations.
Two considerations influence the selection of the objective in airborne operations. The first is that in respect to their numbers, and also as far as their type, equipment, and training is concerned, the forces available must be fit for the task facing them. This is of course true of all tactical and strategic planning, but at the beginning of the war, because of a lack of practical experience, the manpower needs were greatly underestimated. The second consideration – and this is especially important for airborne operations – is that at least temporary and local air superiority is an absolute necessity. This factor has a decisive influence upon the selection of the objective, at least as far as distance is concerned. The latter condition prevailed during the large-scale German airborne operations against Holland and Crete; but the first condition did not exist in equal measure, a fact which led to many crises. both were absent during the unsuccessful Ardennes offensive.
In preparing for an airborne operation the element of surprise must be maintained. In the operations against Belgium and Holland surprise was easily achieved since it was the very first time that an airborne operation had ever been undertaken. Once the existence of special units for airborne operations and the methods of committing them had become known, surprise was possible only through careful selection of time and place for the attack, and of the way in which it was started. This requires strict secrecy regarding preparations. In the Crete operation such secrecy was lacking, and the grouping of parachute troops and transport squadrons became known to the enemy who had little doubt as to their objective. The result was that the German troops landing from the air on Crete came face to face with an enemy ready to defend himself; consequently, heavy losses were sustained.
Albert Kesselring’s comments on the element of surprise : Airborne operations must always aim at surprise, which has become increasingly difficult but not impossible to achieve. Detection devices, for example radar equipment, can pick up air formations at a great distance and assure prompt countermeasures. Flights at very low altitude, such as were planned for the attack against Malta, are difficult to detect by means of such equipment. The effectiveness of these devises is neutralized by natural barriers in the terrain. Attention can be diverted by deception flights, and confusion is often caused by suddenly changing the course of the aircraft during approach runs, as well as by dropping dummies at various places behind the enemy front. Night operations increase the possibility of surprise,; in many cases this is also true fro the ensuing ground combat. It is impossible to overestimate the value of soundless glider approaches during twilight hours for the successful execution of air landings. It is easier to preserve secrecy in the assembly of airborne units than in concentrations prior to ground operations of the same size, since with proper organization the airborne troops can be assembled and attacks prepared deep in friendly territory within very short periods of time. Crete is the classic example of how this should not be done.