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Fallschirmjäger: The West 1944-45

General Kurt Student reviews some of his men in France in 1944

General Kurt Student reviews some of his men in France in 1944. Throughout 1943 and 1944 the German airborne arm was reorganised and expanded, and by the summer of 1944 he had 30,000 trained parachutists. Units were also rebuilt as a result of losses suffered in Italy and on the Eastern Front. The 2nd Parachute Division was formed in February 1943 in France, being established around the 2nd Parachute Regiment and a battalion from the 1st Parachute Artillery Regiment. Its first commander was General Bernhard Ramcke. The 3rd Parachute Division was formed in Reims in late 1943. Commanded by Generalmajor Richard Schimpf, its young volunteers were built around a cadre of battle-hardened veterans. The 5th Parachute Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke, was also formed in Reims, while the 6th Parachute Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Rüdiger von Heyking, was formed in Amiens.

Mortars of the 3rd Parachute Division in Normandy, mid-July 1944

Mortars of the 3rd Parachute Division in Normandy, mid-July 1944. At this time the division comprised three regiments of three battalions each, with a mortar, antitank and engineer company within each regiment. Some regiments had heavy 120mm mortars whereas others had 100mm models and even Nebelwerfer (multi-barrelled mortars). The division had only one battalion of light artillery, but its antiaircraft battalion boasted 12 88mm guns. On 22 May 1944 the division had mustered 17,420 men.

A machine-gun team takes up position, mid-1944

A machine-gun team takes up position, mid-1944. The marshy lands south and southwest of Carentan had been partly flooded by the Germans to aid their defences, and the rains that fell in the area in June and July further impeded the Allied advance. The wet conditions also aided the defence at St. Lô, around which was a network of poor roads, sunken lanes and farm tracks, all of which became very muddy very quickly.

A paratrooper in the Bocage awaits the US attack in his foxhole, stick grenade at the ready

A paratrooper in the Bocage awaits the US attack in his foxhole, stick grenade at the ready. The attack of the US XIX Corps began on 3 July in heavy rain. As soon as it started Seventh Army was asking Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, the new overall commander in the West, for reinforcements to be sent to it from Brittany.

The crew of a US jeep takes cover as it comes under enemy mortar fire near St. Lô

The crew of a US jeep takes cover as it comes under enemy mortar fire near St. Lô. During the battle for the town the Fallschirmjäger held the tactically important Hill 192 nearby, which gave them excellent observation over the whole countryside from the River Vire to Caumont, including all the approaches to St. Lô. The hill's slopes were covered by intricate patterns of hedgerowed fields and orchards. Attacks were costly: two assaults by the US 2nd Division in mid-July resulted in 1253 casualties and no ground won.

General Bernhard Ramcke surrenders Brest to the Americans, 19 September 1944

General Bernhard Ramcke surrenders Brest to the Americans, 19 September 1944. Patton's US Third Army broke through the Avranches Gap in early August, and over 50,000 Germans were captured in the Falaise Pocket, with another 10,000 being killed. Ramcke's 2nd Parachute Division saw little combat in Normandy, and in August and September participated in the defence of Brest. The majority of the division and its commander entered captivity when the port fell.

German dead near Bastogne, which elements of the 5th Parachute Division assaulted on Christmas Eve 1944

German dead near Bastogne, which elements of the 5th Parachute Division assaulted on Christmas Eve 1944. Despite the courage and resilience of its personnel, the division suffered from a chronic lack of artillery and vehicles, and many of its men were low on ammunition and weapons.

German prisoners taken in the Ruhr Pocket in April 1945, among them the remnants of the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Parachute Divisions.

German prisoners taken in the Ruhr Pocket in April 1945, among them the remnants of the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Parachute Divisions.

In the face of massive Allied firepower and aerial superiority, the parachute divisions in the West fought valiantly to try to contain the Normandy bridgehead, and then hold the borders of the Third Reich itself. But, along with other German divisions, the Fallschirmjäger were exhausted by relentless combat and a deluge of enemy manpower and resources.

On 3 November 1943, Hitler issued his Directive No 51 for the defence of occupied France. It began: "For the last two and one-half years the bitter and costly struggle against Bolshevism has made the utmost demands upon the bulk of our military resources and energies. This commitment was in keeping with the seriousness of the danger, and the overall situation. The situation has since changed. The threat from the East remains, but an even greater danger looms in the West: the Anglo-American landing! In the East, the vastness of the space will, as a last resort, permit a loss of territory even on a major scale, without suffering a mortal blow to Germany's chance for survival. Not so in the West! If the enemy here succeeds in penetrating our defences on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time." The directive went on to detail the proposed buildup of forces in the West to meet the invasion. Though fanciful in parts, it contained a statement that was to come all too true for many German formations: "other available personnel are to be organised into battalions of replacements and equipped with the available weapons, so that the anticipated heavy losses can quickly be replaced."

The German order of battle

Despite the Führer's orders, the German Army in the West on the eve of Operation "Overlord", the Allied invasion of Normandy, was considerably weaker than planned in terms of equipment, quality and numbers. In June 1944 the commander of the Western Theatre, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had 58 combat divisions divided between four armies. These armies were the First (commanded by General Joachim Lemelsen) holding the Atlantic coast of France, the Seventh (commanded by General Friedrich Dollmann) occupying Brittany and most of Normandy, the Fifteenth (commanded by General Hans von Salmuth) between Le Havre and Flushing, and the Nineteenth (commanded by General Georg von Sodenstern) deployed along the French Mediterranean coast. The Fifteenth and Seventh Armies were grouped under Army Group B, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The First and Nineteenth Armies were grouped under Army Group G, commanded by Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz.

Because of units being stripped of troops and hardware for service on the Eastern Front, plus the policy of allocating the best weapons and equipment to the same theatre first, many German infantry, panzer and panzergrenadier divisions in the West immediately prior to the D-Day landings were understrength and equipped with second-rate captured tanks. This meant that the Fallschirmjäger divisions in the West were among Rundstedt's best units when the Allies landed. In fact, the Luftwaffe had been carrying out a restructuring of its parachute divisions since November 1943 (administratively under the Luftwaffe, in the field by this stage of the war parachute units were always tactically controlled by the army) as a result of the severe losses suffered in Italy and on the Eastern Front. The result was the formation of I Parachute Corps in Italy and II Parachute Corps, which on 26 April 1944 was transferred to Brittany to reinforce local defence forces in the area. In May the corps was made up of the following units: the 3rd Parachute Division (headquarters at Huelgoal, Brittany), 5th Parachute Division (headquarters at Rennes, Brittany), and 2nd Parachute Division (this much-weakened unit was at Köln-Wahn in Germany undergoing rest and refitting). In addition, the 6th Parachute Regiment under Major Freiherr von der Heydte was in Normandy in the Lessay-Mont Castre-Carentan area. Briefly attached to the 2nd Parachute Division, this unit was the only Fallschirmjäger formation in Normandy in May 1944.

The formation of the two parachute corps was only one part of a grand scheme devised by Göring for the formation of two parachute armies with a total strength of 100,000 men. The plan was approved by Hitler. Despite the fact that the days of large airborne operations were over, the various parachute units could still be classed as élites. Composed entirely of young volunteers from the draft (the average age of enlisted men in the 6th Parachute Regiment, for example, was 17 and a half), they were well armed and highly motivated. By May 1944, for example, the strength of the 3rd Parachute Division stood at 17,420 men, having been only formed in Reims in October 1943. Another factor that made the para units so potent, especially in defence, was that they usually had a higher percentage of support weapons than infantry divisions. The rifle companies of the 6th Parachute Regiment, for example, had twice as many light machine guns as infantry rifle division companies.

II Parachute Corps, commanded by General Eugen Meindl, was part of the Seventh Army, and in April Hitler had begun to show an interest in Normandy as a potential invasion site. In response to this, the Seventh Army had moved the 6th Parachute Regiment to the Lessay-Periers area, where it was subordinated to the 91st Division. Its immediate mission was defence against airborne landings.
On 6 June 1944, the Western Allies launched the greatest amphibious operation in history. The statistics for the invasion force were staggering: 50,000 men for the initial assault; over two million men to be shipped to France in all, comprising a total of 39 divisions; 139 major warships used in the assault, with a further 221 smaller combat vessels; over 1000 minesweepers and auxiliary vessels; 4000 landing craft; 805 merchant ships; 59 blockships; 300 miscellaneous small craft; and 11,000 aircraft, including fighters, bombers, transports and gliders. In addition, the invasion force had the support of over 100,000 members of the French Resistance.

D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, codenamed Operation "Overlord", began with the assault of three airborne divisions - the US 82nd and 101st on the right flank of the American forces, and the British 6th Airborne on the left flank of the British - while seaborne forces landed on five beaches. The main components of the invasion force, grouped under the umbrella of General Bernard Montgomery's Twenty-First Army Group, were the British Second Army under General Miles Dempsey and the US First Army under General Omar Bradley. Utah Beach was the target of the US 4th Infantry Division (part of the US VII Corps); Omaha Beach was the target of the US 1st Infantry Division (part of the US V Corps); Gold Beach was the landing site of the British 50th Infantry Division (part of the British XXX Corps); Juno was the target for the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division (part of the British I Corps); and the British 3rd Infantry Division was tasked with seizing Sword Beach (also part of the British I Corps).

The initial parachute and seaborne landings had mixed results: on Utah resistance was light and the troops were off the beach by 12:00 hours; on Omaha the lack of specialised armour meant the Germans could pin down the troops on the beach, with great slaughter; on Gold and Juno the specialised armour of the British and Canadians allowed the troops to get off the beaches quickly, and by the afternoon they were probing inland towards Bayeux and Caen; and on Sword the troops were able to link up with airborne units farther inland. The general Allied strategy was to capture Cherbourg for use as a port, prior to advancing south into Brittany and east across the River Seine. By the end of the day 155,000 Allied troops had been landed, backed up by massive aerial superiority and naval gunfire support.

The initial German response

The Germans were in a dilemma with regard to the landings, as they were unsure whether they were secondary to the main effort in the Pas de Calais. Hitler for one believed so, and he refused to release the mobile reserves from Panzer Group West until late in the afternoon of 6 June. In addition, von Rundstedt refused to allow two panzer divisions located north of the Seine to be switched to Normandy. In a sense this was largely irrelevant, for even when the mobile reserves were deployed Allied air power meant movement took longer than anticipated and units were committed to the battle piecemeal. This meant that effective counterattacks against the beachhead could not be mounted, and the panzer units consequently found themselves in an infantry support role.

On 6 June itself II Parachute Corps was ordered to Normandy immediately to repel a reported Allied airborne drop near Coutances. When this proved untrue, the corps was ordered to mount a counterattack in the area of St. Lô, together with the 352nd Infantry Division and the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, which was at the time some distance away. At this time II Parachute Corps was at Les Cheris, 10km (six miles) southeast of Avranches, and under the tactical command of LXXXIV Corps. The condition of the various corps units was as follows: the 3rd Parachute Division was positioned midway between Quimper and Brest; the 5th Parachute Division was not ready for combat, and so only its 15th Parachute Regiment was transferred to the front.

In response to the invasion, Fallschirmjäger units were ordered to seize strategic locations that had not yet been taken by US forces. Von der Heydte ordered his 2nd Battalion to take St. Marie-Eglise, the 1st Battalion to take St. Marie du Mont and the 3rd Battalion to take Carentan. In fact, the 6th Parachute Regiment was one of the first German units to engage Allied forces in Normandy, when it was involved in heavy fighting against the US 1st Infantry Division around Carentan. The 1st Battalion was all but wiped out and the other two battalions had to fight desperately to hold on to the town. With the Americans controlling all the surrounding roads and the air, the paras received just one airdrop of ammunition to enable them to break out of the town. On 12 June, following heavy losses and the refusal of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division to provide reinforcements, the 6th Parachute Regiment was withdrawn and redeployed to the Vire sector to fight under the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich.

Meanwhile, the 2nd Parachute Division under General Bernhard Ramcke had been ordered to hold Brittany and had travelled from Germany by rail. The journey was long and hazardous, being frequently interrupted by Allied air strikes and partisan attacks. The first elements of the division reach Brittany on 19 June, but the rest did not join them until July. This area was relatively calm, which gave the division time to work up those units manned by inexperienced replacements. It was the lull before the storm, for by 12 June alone the Allies had 326,547 men ashore in Normandy. Montgomery was determined to make his breakout attempt with the US First Army on the right flank, pivoting around the British Second Army at Caen. The Americans launched their offensive to cut off the port of Cherbourg, which fell to the US VII Corps under Lieutenant-General J. Lawton Collins on 29 June. For the Americans and Germans, and especially the Fallschirmjäger, the Normandy campaign was about to enter its bloodiest phase.

Following the fall of Cherbourg, the US First Army sought to win the line Coutances-Marigny-St. Lô, which would allow it to launch an offensive south and east to break out of Normandy. Opposed to the Americans were the paras of II Parachute Corps. Though outgunned and outnumbered, the Germans were greatly aided by the terrain of the so-called Bocage. A US Army report describes it thus: "But the Germans' greatest advantage lay in the hedgerows which crisscrossed the country everywhere, hampering offensive action and limiting the use of tanks. An aerial photograph of a typical section of Normandy shows more than 3900 hedged enclosures in an area of less than eight square miles. Growing out of massive embankments that formed dikes up to 10 feet high, often flanked by drainage ditches or sunken roads, the hedges lent themselves easily to skillful organization of dug-in emplacements and concealed strongpoints." St. Lô was the hub of a road network that spread in every direction, and thus had to be taken.

The US attack began on 3 July, and a combination of the terrain and fanatical German resistance made the going slow and costly in terms of lives. The close-quarter nature of the fighting largely negated Allied air power, so that the "Battle of the Hedgerows" became a multitude of small-scale actions. German troops did not try to form a continuous line, but rather relied on a number of strongpoints that could support each other by interlocking fields of fire. In addition to defending, the paras also launched effective counterattacks. On 11 July, for example, the commander of the US 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, reported a "beautifully executed and planned" attack by the 1st Battalion, 9th Parachute Regiment (part of the 3rd Parachute Division). The paras laid down a barrage of mortar and artillery fire and then followed at a distance of 46m (150ft). Achieving almost complete surprise, the 115th's outposts were immediately overrun. However, the attack was held and the paras retreated. The US battalion had lost 100 men, but so had the paras, and these were losses the Germans could ill afford. Indeed, the Americans actually welcome these attacks, as a US soldier who fought in the Bocage states: "German counterattacks in the hedgerows failed largely for the same reasons our own advance was slowed. Any attack quickly loses its momentum, and then because of our artillery and fighter bombers the Germans would suffer disastrous loss. In fact, we found that generally the best way to beat the Germans was to get them to counterattack - provided we had prepared to meet them."

The fall of Hill 192

Gradually the Americans fought their way forward, suffering heavy losses in the process, until they were on the outskirts of St. Lô itself. The key to the town was Hill 192, a commanding height 4.8km (three miles) to the east. The defence of this feature was initially in the hands of the 3rd Battalion, 9th Parachute Regiment, and the 1st Battalion, 5th Parachute Regiment. Following a heavy artillery barrage, the US attack began at 06:00 hours on 11 July. Resistance was its usual fanatical self, and soon the Germans were feeding in new units to hold their positions: the 12th Parachute Gun Brigade, 3rd Parachute Reconnaissance Company and 3rd Parachute Engineer Battalion. However, all the Fallschirmjäger units were badly mauled in the fighting, and by the next day the 3rd Parachute Division was desperately scraping together its last reserves to form a new defence line south of the St. Lô-Bayeux highway. The nature of the fighting for the hill is described by a para who fought there, and shows that even élite troops have their mental and physical limits: "Carried my machine gun through the enemy lines into a slightly more protected defile and crept back again with another fellow to get the wounded. On our way back we were covered again with terrific artillery fire. We were just lying in an open area. Every moment I expected deadly shrapnel. At that moment I lost my nerve. The others acted just like me. When one hears for hours the whining, whistling and bursting of shells and the moaning and groaning of the wounded, one does not feel too well. Our company had only 30 men left (out of 170)." In three days of fighting the 3rd Parachute Division had lost 4064 men. By 14 July II Parachute Corps had no reserves left, and Meindl informed Rommel that, as he had received no replacements, he could not hold his present positions. But hold the paras did, at least until 27 July when US forces finally broke through at St. Lô. The "Battle of the Hedgerows" cost the US First Army 11,000 dead, wounded and missing between 7-22 July.

The Normandy Front collapse

On 25 July US forces began their breakout from Normandy. The newly arrived Third Army under General George S. Patton advanced west into Brittany, while Montgomery's Twenty-First Army Group also broke out from Normandy. The German Seventh Army was reeling, and much of it was destroyed around Falaise, in the so-called "Falaise Pocket". Ramcke's 2nd Parachute Division was involved in the defence of Brest, fighting the US VIII Corps as it advanced to invest the port. The Americans lost 4000 men, but the Fallschirmjäger also suffered heavy casualties. Ramcke was ordered to send a battle group to support the weakened 5th Parachute Division, but on the way it was badly mauled by an American armoured column before reaching St. Malo. Brest and the majority of the 2nd Parachute Division fell into US hands on 20 September 1944.

What was left of II Parachute Corps was sent to Cologne after Falaise for rest and refitting, while von der Heydte's 6th Parachute Regiment (which had lost a staggering 3000 men killed or missing since 6 June) was moved to Guestrow-Mecklenburg to form the cadre of a new regiment. German forces in France had in the meantime lost cohesion and were retreating east in disorder. The Allies secured their first crossing over the River Seine on 19 August, and six days later they entered Paris. Allied forces had also landed in southern France on 15 August, and the US Seventh and French First Armies were advancing rapidly north. The shattered German armies were unable to halt the Allies, as Brussels and Lyons fell on 3 September. General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, ordered that Montgomery was to pursue the German armies into the Ruhr while Bradley was to move into the Saarland. As Allied patrols crossed the German border near Luxembourg on 11 September, it appeared that the Allies would be in Berlin by the end of the year. However, fuel shortages resulted in the advance grinding to a halt all along the front. The Germans had a breathing space.

The First Parachute Army was initially used as a training command attached to Army Group D in France (the army grew out of XI Flieger Corps, being reorganised as the First Parachute Army in January 1944). After the Allied breakthrough in France it took control of the defensive lines in Belgium and eastern Holland between Antwerp and Maastricht. Though called an army and commanded by General Student, it included Luftwaffe signallers, navigators, observers and other men who had no proper parachute training and no combat experience.

The 3rd and 5th Parachute Divisions were in a weakened state after their retreat from Normandy, and had left most of their heavy weapons behind in the general rout. The 5th was commanded by Generalmajor Heilmann and the 3rd by Generalmajor Walter Wadehn. In addition, von der Heydte's 6th Parachute Regiment was being reformed - just in time to meet Operation "Market Garden".
Montgomery had proposed to Eisenhower that the First Allied Airborne Army be used to turn the German flank by thrusting across the Lower Rhine in Holland. Three airborne drops would be made to secure bridges over canals in the Eindhoven area, the River Maas at Grave and River Waal at Nijmegen, and over the Rhine at Arnhem. On the ground, the British XXX Corps would advance into Holland and link up with the airborne forces.

"Market Garden" was launched on 17 September. It went well at first, with the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions taking the Grave, Eindhoven and Nijmegen bridges. However, the Germans were quick to respond.There were two SS divisions refitting in the area - the 9th and 10th - plus army and Fallschirmjäger units, and these quickly moved to isolate the Allied paratroopers. Fallschirmjäger formations were involved against the US 101st Airborne at Eindhoven and Grave, and von der Heydte's 6th Parachute Regiment also moved against their airborne opponents, though it was halted west of Eerde after heavy fighting on 23 September. Meindl's II Parachute Corps launched an attack southeast of Nijmegen, but it was beaten back by units of the US 82nd Airborne Division.

Preparations for the last offensive in the West

During this period of the war parachute units were forced to make long marches on foot, having inadequate transport. The 6th Parachute Regiment, for example, had to make a 60km (37.5-mile) march to reach its attack line near Boxtel. Allied air superiority made such marches hazardous, while the distances covered meant the troops attacked in an exhausted condition. Nevertheless, the paras did contribute to blunting "Market Garden", and de facto wrecked the last chance the Allies had of ending the war in 1944. In October 1944, the depleted II Parachute Corps was rebuilt once more to prepare for Germany's last great offensive in the West.

Hitler's counteroffensive in the West was designed to split British and US forces by thrusting towards Antwerp. Hitler launched Operation "Watch on the Rhine", his attempt to break though the US VIII Corps on the Ardennes Front, reach the Meuse River and capture Antwerp, on 16 December 1944. The German units - 200,000 men in total - formed Army Group B under the overall command of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. This force comprised the Sixth SS Panzer Army, Fifth Panzer Army and Seventh Army. US forces amounted to 80,000 men. Surprise was total and the dense cloud and fog negated Allied air superiority. However, the Germans failed to immediately take the towns of St. Vith and Bastogne, which narrowed their attack front. By the 22nd, the Americans, having lost 8000 of 22,000 men at St. Vith, pulled back from the town, but the men of the 28th Infantry, 10th and 101st Airborne Divisions continued to hold out in Bastogne against one infantry and two panzer divisions. On the same day the Germans launched their last attempt to reach the Meuse.

Fallschirmjäger units saw extensive action in the Ardennes Offensive, especially the 3rd Parachute Division, part of the Fifteenth Army deployed to the north, and the 5th Parachute Division, part of the Seventh Army. Though the paras of these units fought in the infantry role, there was to be one last airborne operation. Student devised the operation, codename "Stosser", to support the offensive. He placed the mission under the command of Oberst von der Heydte, who was instructed to form a group of 1200 men drawn from the First Parachute Army and formed into four infantry companies, plus a heavy weapons company, and a signals and engineer platoon. Unfortunately, the various battalion commanders within the army had no wish to part with their best men, and so von der Heydte was sent mediocre troops at best. This would not augur well for the mission.

His unit was under the command of the Sixth SS Panzer Army, and was ordered to drop on the main road junction 11km (6.87 miles) north of Malmédy - the main route for US reinforcements being sent to the area. The drop would be made at night, with no photographs of the area or prior reconnaissance provided. The drop was scheduled to be made at 04:30 hours on 16 December, but transport problems resulted in the paras getting to the airfields at Lippespringe and Padeborn late. Kampfgruppe (Battle Group) Heydte eventually boarded the aircraft and took off in appalling weather. Allied flak dispersed the formation and pilot error ensured that the Fallschirmjäger were dispersed over a wide area. In fact, on the ground von der Heydte could only assemble 125 men, and all the heavy weapons were lost.

By the 17th a further 150 men came in to him. It was pitiful, but the widely dispersed drops convinced the Allies that whole enemy airborne divisions had been dropped. They therefore diverted units to search for them instead of sending them to the front. Von der Heydte, cut off, unable to make contact with the Sixth SS Panzer Army and receiving no supplies from the Luftwaffe, decided to form an assault group and break through Allied lines to reach safety. The attack failed, and so on 21 December he formed his command into two- and three-man groups to increase the likelihood of getting through enemy lines. However, many of his men were captured, and von der Heydte himself also fell into enemy hands. The last German airborne operation of World War II had ended in disaster.

On the ground, the 9th Parachute Regiment, part of the 3rd Parachute Division, fought its way to Lanzerath. Some paras were attached to Kampfgruppe Peiper (which was to achieve infamy in the Ardennes by massacring American prisoners of war at Malmédy), while the rest of the regiment joined other SS units and had reached Schoppen by 19 December. Other elements of the 3rd Parachute Division had reached Ligneuville by 20 December, but increasing US pressure then halted their progress.

The 5th Parachute Division, protecting the southern flank of the Fifth Panzer Army as it advanced to the River Maas, ran into heavy US resistance almost immediately and had to rely on the assault guns of the 11th Self-Propelled Parachute Brigade to aid the advance. The paras took Wiltz on 20 December, along with 1000 prisoners, 25 Sherman tanks and a number of trucks. However, it was their last success. By the 23rd the division was being attacked by Allied aircraft, suffering from fuel shortages and assaulted by elements of the US Third Army and the US 4th Armored Division. It was pushed back to Bastogne, where the US 101st Airborne Division was still besieged by surrounding German units. The 5th took part in an abortive attack on the town on Christmas Eve, but afterwards, together with other units, was pushed back to the offensive's start line. "Watch on the Rhine" was over.

Collapse in the West

The last vestiges of the German "bulge" in the Ardennes was wiped out on 28 January 1945. The total cost to the Germans in manpower for their offensive was 100,000 killed, wounded and captured. The Americans lost 81,000 killed, wounded or captured, the British 1400. Both sides lost heavily in hardware: up to 800 tanks each. The Germans also lost up to 1000 aircraft. The Fallschirmjäger divisions were now shadows of their former selves, being depleted in both manpower and hardware. Nevertheless, their morale was still high and they continued fighting.

The 2nd Parachute Division was reformed in Holland in late 1944 and went into action in January 1945. It ended the war in the Ruhr Pocket in April 1945. The 3rd Parachute Division, having been mauled in the Battle of the Bulge, was decimated in the defensive battles in Germany in 1945. It too surrendered in the Ruhr Pocket, together with the 5th Parachute Division. The 1st Parachute Army continued its defence of Holland and the approaches to the Rhine into 1945, before being deployed to defend the east bank of the river. It surrendered in the Oldenburg area in April 1945.

In the last few weeks of the war parachute divisions in name only were raised, along with numerous battalions recruited from Luftwaffe training or ground units. They were thrown into action to shore up tattered defence lines or launch hopeless counterattacks. Invariably young, the members of such units fought with determination and courage against hopeless odds, and maintained the Fallschirmjäger spirit to the end. The 11th Parachute Division was formed in March 1945 in the Linz area, though this unit was a division in name only. By 20 April only 4450 men had been collected. These personnel were committed to the battle in the West piecemeal, fighting on to the surrender of Germany in early May. The division was commanded by Oberst Walter Gericke. The 20th Parachute Division was apparently formed in northern Holland in March 1945, though its actions and fate are unknown. Even less is known about the 21st Parachute Division, which was formed in April 1945. By the end of April there was little fuel, ammunition or weapons left to equip these units, much less transport to get them to the battle areas. By 8 May all fighting in the West came to an end.