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Fallschirmjäger: Special Actions

Fallschirmjäger salute the heavily laden Fieseler Storch aircraft about to take off from the Gran Sasso plateau with the rescued Il Duce on board.

Fallschirmjäger salute the heavily laden Fieseler Storch aircraft about to take off from the Gran Sasso plateau with the rescued Il Duce on board.

Otto Skorzeny.

Otto Skorzeny, the SS officer who led the rescue of Mussolini from Gran Sasso in September 1943. Though the paratroopers used were Luftwaffe men, the SS and Skorzeny took the credit for the mission, with Skorzeny winning himself a Knight's Cross.

A DFS 230 glider on the rocky slopes of Gran Sasso

A DFS 230 glider on the rocky slopes of Gran Sasso. The DFS 230 was a lightweight glider constructed of tubing and fabric which handled well in the air. Later models were fitted with a braking 'chute and even retro rockets in the nose. For take-off each glider had wheels which could be dropped during flight, which meant that landing was made on a ventral central skid. Occupants usually comprised a pilot and nine men. There was only one door, in the port rear, but "kick out" panels on either side of the fuselage could be removed for a quick escape. Over 2000 DFS 230s were manufactured in total.

To the right of Mussolini is General Spoleti

To the right of Mussolini is General Spoleti, who had been asked to take part in the Gran Sasso operation to prevent unnecessary bloodshed. It was a ploy that worked, for when the gliders landed Spoleti raced towards the hotel shouting: "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!' And the Carabinieri guards didn't shoot.

Oberleutnant von Berlepsch (right)

Oberleutnant von Berlepsch (right), commander of the 1st Company, 7th Parachute Regiment, shakes the hand of Major Mors, commander of the regiment's 1st Battalion. It was von Berlepsch's company that spearheaded the Gran Sasso operation. Note the DFS 230 glider in the top right-hand corner of the photograph.

To the right of Mussolini strides Otto Skorzeny

To the right of Mussolini strides Otto Skorzeny, dressed in the tropical uniform of a Luftwaffe captain. All the 26 members of Skorzeny's Waffen-SS detachment wore Luftwaffe uniforms. Skorzeny had been responsible for locating Mussolini, but later assumed all credit for his rescue.

These scruffy Fallschirmjäger were part of a detachment sent to secure the cable car station at the foot of Monte Corno

These scruffy Fallschirmjäger were part of a detachment sent to secure the cable car station at the foot of Monte Corno during the Gran Sasso operation. Actually the cable car was inoperative, leading to the rescued Italian dictator being flown off the plateau in a Fieseler Storch flown by General Student's own pilot, Captain Gerlach. After take-off the aircraft dived down into the valley before Gerlach could pull it into level flight. Mussolini was flown to the Practica de Mare airfield, transferred to a Heinkel and then taken on to Vienna. From there he was taken to Munich and then on to Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia.

Paratroopers pose with the new uniform of Marshal Tito after the Drvar operation in May 1944

Paratroopers pose with the new uniform of Marshal Tito after the Drvar operation in May 1944. As well as the Waffen-SS, the Brandenburgers were also involved in airborne operations. On 5 October 1943, for example, the Parachute Regiment of the Brandenburg Division seized the island of Kos in a gliderborne assault backed up by the 22nd Airlanding Division. Elements of the same units, reinforced by the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, also attacked the island of Leros on 12 November 1943 (the German High Command feared both islands would be used as a forward base for an invasion of the Balkans). Leros was heavily defended, and it took five days of fighting before the island was secure.

Otto Skorzeny photographed in Budapest

Otto Skorzeny photographed in Budapest. The entrance to the building is guarded by two Waffen-SS paratroopers. The 600th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion was used as a "fire brigade" on the Eastern Front in the latter stages of the war, fighting up until April 1945 on the Oder Front. Its survivors managed to surrender to US forces and therefore avoided falling into Soviet hands and almost certain execution.

As well as large-scale missions, airborne forces could also be used for small, precision insertions that could be stunning successes. However, such missions carried a high risk, and the margin between success and failure was slim. As the Germans discovered to their cost, the price for audacity could be disaster and high casualties.

During the war there were a number of small-scale Fallschirmjäger actions that characterise the spirit of Germany's airborne forces. The first, and most spectacular, was the rescue of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from Gran Sasso in Italy.

Successive Axis reverses in North Africa and Sicily had weakened the credibility of Mussolini's fascist regime, which he himself recognised. He met Adolf Hitler at Feltre in the Veneto on 17 July 1943 with the intention of announcing to the German Führer that Italy was withdrawing from the war. However, he was overawed by his fellow dictator and stayed silent. Events were now taken out of his hands: on 24 July the Italian Fascist Grand Council met and voted military powers to the king. The next day, after an interview with the king, Mussolini was arrested and Marshal Pietro Badoglio formed a government.

Upon hearing of Mussolini's fall, Hitler decided that Italy would not be allowed to withdraw from the war. His troops were in control of Rome and north Italy, and they would be staying (see Chapter 7). As for Il Duce, the Führer decided that he should be rescued. He therefore summoned SS Captain Otto Skorzeny to his headquarters in East Prussia, declaring he would not "fail Italy's greatest son in his hour of need".

Though Skorzeny was in the Waffen-SS, for the purposes of the mission he was subordinated to the Luftwaffe. His immediate problem was to find Mussolini, which was solved when German radio intercepts pinpointed his whereabouts to the Gran Sasso plateau in the Apennines, 128km (80 miles) northeast of Rome. Il Duce was being held in a hotel on top of the plateau, which made his rescue a tricky problem. Skorzeny had three options: a ground assault, a parachute landing or a glider attack. A ground assault was ruled out because of the large number of troops required, and a parachute landing was impractical due to the very real possibility of the troops missing the plateau altogether. This left the glider option.

The operation is launched

On the afternoon of 12 September 1943, 12 fully manned DFS 230 gliders took off from the Practica de Mare airfield near Rome. On board were men drawn from the Waffen-SS and 7th Parachute Regiment (other paratroopers were despatched to capture the nearby airfield at Aquila), plus a pro-German Italian officer named General Spoleti who was taken to prevent unnecessary bloodshed. Four of the gliders were lost to Skorzeny during take-off and the flight, and as the remaining gliders approached their landing area behind the hotel he discovered it was totally unsuitable. In fact, it was a very steep hillside, and so the gliders had to land in front of the building. The aircraft made a crash landing in quick succession. Skorzeny sprinted towards the hotel, burst in and kicked the chair from beneath a wireless operator on the ground floor to prevent any communications with the outside world. The shocked Italian guards didn't fire a shot as the Waffen-SS and Fallschirmjäger troops secured the plateau and freed Mussolini. The only casualties were those troops in a glider that suffered a heavy crash landing.

Having rescued Il Duce, Skorzeny evacuated him and himself in a Fieseler Storch aircraft. The party travelled to Rome, then Vienna and on to East Prussia. For his part in the operation Skorzeny was awarded the Knight's Cross, while Mussolini exchanged one form of imprisonment for another.

Waffen-SS airborne units

As well as the Luftwaffe, the SS (Schutz Staffel) - Protection Squad - became involved in developing a parachute arm, and maintained a tiny organisation right up to the end of the war. The 500th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion was officially formulated on 6 September 1943, and was composed of personnel of the SS-Bewährungs Abteilung (SS Punishment Battalion). A penal unit, it was officered by volunteers from various Waffen-SS divisions, with half the "other ranks" being genuine volunteers. The other half were paroled prisoners from SS penal companies. These men were offered the chance to redeem their honour and clear their records by volunteering for service in the battalion and undertaking particularly dangerous missions. This newly formed unit was not held in high esteem, however, because of its high rate of personnel with questionable records. At this juncture, it is important to examine the implications of being "on penal detention".

SS-Oberführer Horst-Bender was a professional lawyer who spent his later career in legal posts with the Waffen-SS, SS Central Office and SS Legal Department. He ended the war as head of the legal detachment assigned to Himmler's personal staff and head of the Waffen-SS judge advocate's department, and was instrumental in the formulation of the policy that provided the powers to inaugurate the unit.

On 20 August 1942, Hitler gave Otto Thierack, who had been appointed Minister of Justice, a brief empowering him to deviate from any existing law to establish a National Socialist Administration of Justice. Josef Göbbels, Minister of Propaganda, suggested that in addition to Jews and gypsies, many more could be "exterminated by work". Martin Bormann, Nazi Party Minister, gave his approval for Thierack to see Himmler at Zhitomir. Here, in the presence of Bender and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Polizei und Waffen-SS Bruno Streckenbach, they reached an agreement on a principal entitled "the delivery of asocial elements to the Reichsführer-SS to be worked to death". The initial proposal was to be applied to all Jews and gypsies, to Poles imprisoned for three or more years, and to Czechs and Germans serving life sentences.

Himmler's meeting refined this to all Germans serving sentences of eight years and over and all persons already in "protective custody". Bender then made other recommendations on penal detention. Himmler regarded the Dirlewanger penal unit, another Waffen-SS formation, as an essential component of Waffen-SS discipline, linking it with the 500th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion as a way to redeem lost honour. Bender objected when, in March 1944, SS-Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger wanted to transfer all the SS men in detention at Marienwerder to the Dirlewanger unit. Bender advised Himmler to send only those convicted of criminal offences who would not be accepted by the parachute unit.

By early 1941, the planning for the German attack on the Soviet Union made it essential for Yugoslavia to be brought under Axis control and, as had happened so often before, the breakdown of diplomacy heralded a German onslaught (see Chapter 4). The whole operation was not so much a victory for German arms as for German staff planning and organisation. "Operation Punishment", as it was called, began on Palm Sunday: 6 April 1941. "Belgrade must be destroyed by continuous day and night air attacks", Hitler had decreed. He was to have his swift victory as the Wehrmacht achieved another easy triumph over an inferior enemy.

However, during the subsequent German occupation the Yugoslav partisan forces, the Jugoslav National Army of Liberation (JANL), grew in strength and numbers to such an extent that it seriously undermined the German military presence. Whole regions of the country had been recaptured, threatening the other German-occupied areas. German offensives using ground troops had had little military success. The tactics of the partisan forces were to avoid direct confrontation: when faced with a superior enemy force they simply dispersed and took refuge in the mountains. In the early months of the occupation these tactics had worked well. When the organisation of corps and divisions had been achieved and a National Headquarters established, however, such evasion was no longer a plausible strategy. The efforts to disperse, then reconstitute, National Headquarters not only consumed time and effort, but led to disruption of partisan operations.

The German offensive operations in 1942 and 1943 had given rise to several such moves by JANL Headquarters. A fifth offensive opened in the autumn of 1943, codenamed Operation "Fireball", and the inconvenience was again repeated. In this operation, the German 1st Mountain Division was deployed along with the Croatian 369th Division, elements of the 187th Division, and the 7th SS Freiwilligen-Gebirgs Division Prinz Eugen, part of V SS Mountain Corps. The Bulgarians contributed one division. Also included in the order of battle were detachments of a Brandenburg battalion who were specialists in intelligence and counterintelligence operations. The offensive was called off on 18 December, due to bad planning and after the Bulgarians had refused to carry out their orders (they were now desperate to extricate themselves from their disastrous alliance with Germany).

Tito - elusive foe

In 1944, in an attempt to keep up the pressure, the offensive was resumed under the codename "Snow Flurry", though without the Bulgarians or the 7th SS Freiwilligen-Gebirgs Division Prinz Eugen. These had been withdrawn for further training and regrouping in the Dubrovnik region. Himmler felt assured that he could count on his Moslem SS men to deal mercilessly with the Serbs, and so ordered in the 13th SS Waffen-Gebirgs Division Handschar to replace them. His trust was not misplaced. The division distinguished itself by the scale of the atrocities it committed in this, its first major action. Atrocities included SS men cutting out their victims' hearts to ensure that they were indeed dead. This offensive ground to a halt, as did all previous ones, without achieving much more than moving the enemy from one region to another. Josip Tito, leader of the partisans, divided his army into four, sending one corps to each quarter of the country. Thus no single offensive could hope to eliminate his movement.

"Snow Flurry" forced Tito to yet again relocate his headquarters, this time from Jajce to the small town of Drvar in the Bosnian highlands. Here, it was established in a cave situated in a narrow crack in the mountains that surrounded the town. The cave was not only concealed from the air, making it an almost impossible target to detect and hit, it also had an exit through which the partisan leader could make good his escape if enemy forces were about to trap him. By the spring of 1944, the German High Command decided that the only way to deal the partisans a mortal blow was to kill or capture their commander. To accomplish this they devised an audacious plan using an airborne assault. Since their costly victory at Crete in May 1941, the German parachute formations had been mainly employed as élite infantry rather than airborne troops. It was the SS, newcomers in this aspect of warfare, which was to provide the strike force for this projected operation, codenamed "Knight's Move". A particularly hazardous venture, the choice of date for the operation, which may have been deliberate, was 25 May 1944 - Tito's birthday.

The skies over Yugoslavia at this time were still owned by the Luftwaffe, thus suspected or known partisan strongholds could be strafed and bombed almost at will. To offset this undoubted tactical advantage, German airborne troops would go into battle with no heavy weapons and limited quantities of ammunition. The SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion also had the handicaps of being outnumbered and fighting an enemy who was well equipped and armed. The SS airborne troops could also only rely on supplies dropped from the air, and the aircraft would have to fly through a corridor of flak to deliver the supplies.

All ranks of the 500th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion had been trained or given refresher training at the Kralyevo Parachute School in Serbia, and their first mission would be bloody and have a slim chance of success. It was just the sort of operation in which desperate men could redeem their lost honour, those who survived, that is. Under SS-Hauptsturmführer Rybka's leadership, the unit was to be landed by parachute and glider onto a hillside plateau that afforded sufficient flat ground to allow for a glider landing. The location was the Bosnian industrial area of Drvar, the site of Marshal Tito's mountain headquarters. The aim of the operation was to capture the guerrilla leader and destroy his partisan movement. The 500th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion, numbering over 600 men, was to be landed in the centre of an area held by at least 12,000 partisans. Unfortunately, the paratroopers could not be transported in a single lift due to lack of aircraft. The initial drop would be made at 07:00 hours and the second, a reinforcement wave, would arrive at approximately midday. The paratroopers' initial task would be to seize and hold the ground. That accomplished, the gliderborne element, of which there were insufficient DFS 230 gliders available to make more than one assault, would land and capture the partisan commander. The battalion would then hold the area until relieved by a battle group of army and Waffen-SS units. The battle group was under orders to carry out the relief operation during the first day of the airborne drop.

The attack goes in

According to plan, just after 07:00 hours on 25 May, a flight of Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft began to disgorge their cargo of paratroopers of SS-Hauptsturmführer Rybka's battalion over Drvar. The first wave had been divided into three detachments; Rybka dropped with the first group. These were followed by waves of glider-towing aircraft, numbering about 40 in all. Having flung themselves from their transport aircraft, the paratroopers landed and within minutes had captured the deserted town and its surrounding areas. With the landing area secured, the circling gliders descended and disembarked the 320-man assault detachment. This was subdivided into six groups, each being assigned a special objective. The task of attacking the "Citadel", Tito's cave headquarters, fell to Panther, the largest glider group, which consisted of 110 men. It was to this unit that Rybka and his group of paratroopers were to attach themselves. They marched from the town towards the area on the hillside where Panther Group's six gliders had come to a halt. The attack undoubtedly took the defenders by surprise, but the Germans still ran into problems. Several gliders had crashed on landing, killing all their occupants. Fortunately, the pilots of the six gliders of Panther Group had each landed within yards of the objective: the mouth of the cave. Rybka's initial observation was that, seeing how close the gliders had landed to the target, he would be able to organise the men to mount a speedy assault that would result in the capture of Tito. The omens for success looked good.

The reaction of the guerrilla leader's escort battalion and other Yugoslav troops positioned around the cave entrance was prompt, though, and even as the flimsy wooden gliders skated across the rocky terrain they were riddled with gunfire. When Rybka arrived he found that the site had been turned into a slaughterhouse. He summoned the SS paratroopers in the town, firing a red flare that brought most of them to him at the double. Possessing heavy weapons and superior in numbers, the partisans had the advantage of holding ground extensively strengthened with field defences. To combat those fearful odds, the SS paratroopers were armed with nothing more than their personal courage, training and their unshakeable believe in the SS ethos. They rallied and mounted a concentrated effort to take the "Citadel", but it was to be an unequal battle. Due to the defenders' superior firepower, the first assault collapsed. The SS group reformed, though, and throughout the morning attacked continuously, throwing wave upon wave against the enemy. Some attacks gained ground, while in others ground was lost. During the morning's furious encounters the SS never managed to enter Tito's cave. As midday approached it was obvious to all that "Knight's Move" had no chance of obtaining its objective.

Now heavily reinforced, the partisan units began to take the initiative and counterattacked. At midday, a second air drop of SS paratroopers took place, but by this time Allied air units at Bari in Italy had been alerted to what was going on and were now flying sorties over the battle zone. The arrival of the SS paratroopers' second wave brought little change to the now grave situation. The landing zone itself was swept by machine-gun and mortar fire, which meant the paratroopers suffered heavy losses. Yet another assault was made on the cave after the survivors had linked up with the main body of the battalion. This also failed. Fresh units were arriving on the Yugoslav side all the time, and were put into the line to relieve those who had borne the brunt of the first German attack.

The collapse of "Knight's Move"

The decision to withdraw from the cave area was taken reluctantly by Rybka late in the afternoon. The remnants of the battalion were to be concentrated inside the walls of the town cemetery until relieved. This, however, was not achieved until long after dark, by which time the SS paratroopers were exhausted. The 1st Mountain Division and the 7th SS Freiwilligen-Gebirgs Division Prinz Eugen, scheduled to link up with their airborne comrades within the first 24 hours, had failed to do so. Distances which appeared short on the battle maps at German Headquarters became much longer when every yard of the way was contested by partisan obstacles and ambushes.
Encircled by an enemy who was now supremely confident of being able to engage and annihilate them, at Drvar the men of the SS battalion held their breath. However, the Allies believed Tito's position to be so desperate that a decision was taken to airlift him out. On 3 June, therefore, an RAF Dakota flew him to Italy, and a week later he set up new headquarters on the British/partisan-held island of Vis.

At Drvar, the SS battalion had been weakened by the losses it had sustained in killed and wounded, but its morale was still high. During the ensuing cold, dark night, each partisan attack was fought off valiantly. As dawn approached, in the distance could be heard a noise drawing closer: the ripping-sheet sound of MG 42s at work. Then, the throaty cough of engines was audible near the cemetery, heralding the approach of a group of Schwimmwagen vehicles. They carried a battle group from the 13th Regiment of the 7th SS Freiwilligen-Gebirgs Division Prinz Eugen, which had penetrated partisan lines. The short but disastrous battle was over. The outcome of operation "Knight's Moves" was that the partisans had suffered approximately 6000 casualties. On the other hand, when the battalion roll call was held after the fighting was over only 200 men responded to their names. The rest were dead or wounded. The Germans had failed in their main objective of capturing Tito. However, as a consolation prize, they had relived him of his new debonair Marshal of Yugoslavia uniform!

Due to the excellent fighting ability displayed in the Drvar operation, Himmler, delighted by its courage and steadfastness, especially when surrounded in the cemetery, restored the ranks and insignia of the men with questionable records. The unit was retitled to become the 600th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion. Not only did this new title sever any connection with Battalion 500, but it also eliminated confusion with the SS-Jäger Battalion (SS Rifle Battalion) 500. On 10 November 1944, the 600th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion became part of the SS-Jagdverbande (SS Hunting Units - used for anti-partisan operations and the like). It did retain its identity, however, and continued to operate as a separate unit. Within the SS-Jagdverbande, sub-units existed such as SS-Sturmbataillon (SS Assault Battalion) 500, which had two parachute-trained companies attached to it: Dora I and Dora II. The 600th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion continued to serve as a combat unit on the Eastern Front until the end of the war. Needless to say, it suffered heavy casualties as the German armed forces tried to stem the advance of the Red Army.

Captions

Fallschirmjäger salute the heavily laden Fieseler Storch aircraft about to take off from the Gran Sasso plateau with the rescued Il Duce on board.

Otto Skorzeny, the SS officer who led the rescue of Mussolini from Gran Sasso in September 1943. Though the paratroopers used were Luftwaffe men, the SS and Skorzeny took the credit for the mission, with Skorzeny winning himself a Knight's Cross.

A DFS 230 glider on the rocky slopes of Gran Sasso. The DFS 230 was a lightweight glider constructed of tubing and fabric which handled well in the air. Later models were fitted with a braking 'chute and even retro rockets in the nose. For take-off each glider had wheels which could be dropped during flight, which meant that landing was made on a ventral central skid. Occupants usually comprised a pilot and nine men. There was only one door, in the port rear, but "kick out" panels on either side of the fuselage could be removed for a quick escape. Over 2000 DFS 230s were manufactured in total.

To the right of Mussolini is General Spoleti, who had been asked to take part in the Gran Sasso operation to prevent unnecessary bloodshed. It was a ploy that worked, for when the gliders landed Spoleti raced towards the hotel shouting: "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!' And the Carabinieri guards didn't shoot.

: Oberleutnant von Berlepsch (right), commander of the 1st Company, 7th Parachute Regiment, shakes the hand of Major Mors, commander of the regiment's 1st Battalion. It was von Berlepsch's company that spearheaded the Gran Sasso operation. Note the DFS 230 glider in the top right-hand corner of the photograph.

To the right of Mussolini strides Otto Skorzeny, dressed in the tropical uniform of a Luftwaffe captain. All the 26 members of Skorzeny's Waffen-SS detachment wore Luftwaffe uniforms. Skorzeny had been responsible for locating Mussolini, but later assumed all credit for his rescue.

These scruffy Fallschirmjäger were part of a detachment sent to secure the cable car station at the foot of Monte Corno during the Gran Sasso operation. Actually the cable car was inoperative, leading to the rescued Italian dictator being flown off the plateau in a Fieseler Storch flown by General Student's own pilot, Captain Gerlach. After take-off the aircraft dived down into the valley before Gerlach could pull it into level flight. Mussolini was flown to the Practica de Mare airfield, transferred to a Heinkel and then taken on to Vienna. From there he was taken to Munich and then on to Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia.

Paratroopers pose with the new uniform of Marshal Tito after the Drvar operation in May 1944. As well as the Waffen-SS, the Brandenburgers were also involved in airborne operations. On 5 October 1943, for example, the Parachute Regiment of the Brandenburg Division seized the island of Kos in a gliderborne assault backed up by the 22nd Airlanding Division. Elements of the same units, reinforced by the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, also attacked the island of Leros on 12 November 1943 (the German High Command feared both islands would be used as a forward base for an invasion of the Balkans). Leros was heavily defended, and it took five days of fighting before the island was secure.

Otto Skorzeny photographed in Budapest. The entrance to the building is guarded by two Waffen-SS paratroopers. The 600th SS-Fallschirmjäger Battalion was used as a "fire brigade" on the Eastern Front in the latter stages of the war, fighting up until April 1945 on the Oder Front. Its survivors managed to surrender to US forces and therefore avoided falling into Soviet hands and almost certain execution.