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May 10, 2023

Fallschirmjäger: The German WW2 Paratrooper Elite

By Sean McCarthy

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For the majority of human history, wars were fought only on the ground. The outbreak of WW1 led to martial innovation on a scale never before seen. Technological advancements of the early 1900’s saw troops fighting in a previously unheard of field of combat: the skies. Pilots of the Aeronautique Militaire, United States Army Air Service, and the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte among others took to the air to fight on behalf of their respective nations in WW1.

These WW1 artifacts are cut-away segments of aircraft canvas. At the center is a cross insignia used by the German Luftstreitkraefte in WW1 and appears to be from a downed Albatross D. III biplane.

At war’s end, it was apparent that aerial combat would not be a fleeting trend but would be a major part of warfare. The interwar years saw great progress in technologies both military and civilian, and aeronautic advancement was drastic. As the start of WW2 drew nearer, planes could now fly farther, carry more personnel and equipment, and utilize a greater variety of weaponry.

The FG42 assault rifle was developed in WW2 at the direction of Herman Goering and specifically issued to the Fallschirmjäger, the Third Reich's elite WW2 paratrooper division.

One byproduct of these improved technologies was the ability to mix infantry troops with air troops. Unseen before WW2 was the paratrooper: a highly trained and capable soldier, with deployment capability far beyond the reach of standard ground troops. Many of the famous battles of the war such as D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and Operation Mercury utilized airborne infantry to accomplish their goals.

The FG42 rifle was specifically designed for the Fallschirmjäger, Germany's WW2 paratrooper branch. The FG42 could be many things, a squad machine gun, a submachine gun, sniper rifle, and infantry rifle.

American Paratroopers are famed for their actions on D-Day and many times elsewhere during the war, yet the German Fallschirmjäger served as the German counterpart to these elite men. Donning smocks printed in Splinter camouflage, a different helmet than the wehrmacht, and often better weaponry such as the FG-42 and MP40. The Fallschirmjäger proved to be an intimidating opponent to any troops that faced them on the battlefield, and they remain a heavily studied part of airborne history. A three digit serial number Krieghoff FG42 Type I, the legendary gun of Germany's Fallschirmjäger will be on offer in Rock Island Auction Company's May 19-21 Premier Auction.

Birth of the Fallschirmjӓger

The origins of the Fallschirmjäger can be traced to the Polizeiabteilung Wecke, a police unit which would eventually become known as Landespolizeigruupe Wecke. Hermann Göring, then Minister of the Interior and a fighter ace during WW1, soon took control of the unit and began emphasizing a more military-style training as opposed to the police duties they were previously responsible for. In March of 1935 the German Wehrmacht began expanding, and the unit soon fell under the personal command of now Minister-President Göring. In September of 1935, the unit became part of the Luftwaffe and was designated as a guard unit trained to repel air raids on the homefront.

The Fallschirmjäger, Germany's elite WW2 paratrooper branch.

In response to learning that the USSR had been experimenting with parachute infantry, Germany ordered the training of its own parachute troops in 1936. Finally, on May 11th, 1936, Major Bruno Bräuer became the first German parachute troop to successfully jump from an aircraft. At this point, the groundwork was prepared for further development of a corps of paratroopers. In 1938 the first official airborne division was established.

The Fallschirmjäger helped pioneer early WW2 paratrooper tactics.

There were 7 divisions in total. Much like their US and British counterparts, Fallschirmjäger troops deployed from planes using the “static line” method. Upon exiting the aircraft, the line that would deploy the parachute was automatically pulled as the troops descended. This method cuts down on accidental opening, or failure to open due to human error removed from the equation. Training also included the use of gliders containing Fallschirmjäger troops. These gliders were useful for insertions that needed to be laser precise. Troops descending in parachutes have a high likelihood of scattering due to wind and other factors. The time was closely approaching for the Fallschirmjäger to prove their mettle on the battlefield.

The Fallschirmjäger and Fort Eben Emael

The first large and successful operation undertaken by Fallschirmjäger troops occurred on May 10th, 1940 with the taking of Fort Eben Emael in Belgium. Eben Emael was viewed by the German High Command as a crucial point to be captured on the way to taking France. The operation was to be fought by the 7th airborne Fallschirmjäger paratrooper division commanded by Kurt Student. Kurt Student was the commander of the 7th Air Division, and was briefed personally by Adolf Hitler on the importance of the mission.

The FG42 of the Fallschirmjäger was specially designed for Germany's WW2 airborne troops.

The Eben Emael Fortress was wildly fortified, and multiple levels deep into the ground with seven miles of tunnels. On the surface were several large guns which served primarily as an artillery base defending several important positions in the defense of Belgium. While troops were prepared to jump as they were trained to do, a different plan came to fruition. Instead of jumping, gliders carrying up to 12 troops would land on top of the fort. This was viewed as having a higher level of expected success for two reasons. The first being an aerial jump would need to be exceptionally precise.

Light machine guns like the MG34 had to be dropped down in separate containers and retrieved by the Fallschirmjäger.

Such a small landing site with quite a bit of AA fire would require the planes carrying the troops to fly dangerously low. Secondly, aerial jumps required Fallschirmjäger paratroopers to often jump with only pistols and other light weapons while the rest of their heavier equipment would be dropped separately in canisters due to the jump technology they had at the time. Over 36 hours, 85 Fallschirmjäger troops landed in gliders and took the fortress from over 500 Belgian soldiers. The large guns protecting the area surrounding the fort were disabled, the takeover was a total victory. All the Fallschirmjäger who participated in the attack received an Iron Cross, demonstrating the impressive nature of the assault. Not every Fallschirmjäger operation saw the same level of success as the attack on Fort Eben Emael, as the next large-scale operation would show.

Before the FG42 was developed during WW2, German Fallschirmjäger troops jumped without their heavy weapons, which were dropped separately in large canisters.

The Fallschirmjӓger and the Battle of Crete

After the success seen in Belgium, the Fallschirmjäger were now on the radar for future use in German operations. Operation Mercury, the codename used for the German invasion of Crete, was launched in preparation for the anticipated invasion of Russia. Once again spearheading the operation was Kurt Student and his 7th Air Division. Facing a combined British and Greek force, the goal was to utilize the Luftwaffe and Fallschirmjäger to surprise the enemy before they were able to mount a defense.

The Fallschirmjäger during the Battle of Crete.

As fate would have it though, German communications had been deciphered ahead of time, and the defenders were ready. As the gliders and paratroopers began descending upon Crete the allied guns opened up. Mass casualties were seen in the early stages of the attack. In addition to the Germans losing their element of surprise, they also lost men when attempting to secure their heavy weapons from the containers they were dropped in.

The MP40 submachine gun, one of the Fallschirmjäger weapons used during the bloody invasion of Crete.

Poor communication amongst the allies mixed with additional reserve Fallschirmjäger troops successfully inserting made for the latter part of the battle much more advantageous for the Germans. Crete was seen as a pyrrhic victory for the Germans. They took the island, but at great cost. The Fallschirmjäger suffered heavy losses, and Adolf Hitler was none too pleased, as a higher level of success was expected. He lost so much faith in the Fallschirmjäger that another massive airborne operation was never launched again.

Arming the Fallschirmjäger

Seeing as how the Fallschirmjäger were not a typical infantry unit, they were not equipped as such. While sharing many weapons with the Wehrmacht (in particular the K98 and MP40) they would eventually receive a tailor-made rifle. The FG42 was developed exclusively by the Luftwaffe without Hitler’s approval. Airborne troops needed a weapon different from the infantry. The FG42 was designed to be compact and light enough to jump with on a soldier's person, while also firing the potent 7.92x57mm cartridge in both semi and fully-automatic. The FG42 was intended to serve as a rifle, offer enough suppressive power to serve as a machine gun, yet agile enough to also serve in a submachine gun role. It could also serve as a sniper rifle with the addition of a scope. It would be the godfather of the battle rifles at the rise of the Cold War.

This German WW2 FG42 paratrooper rifle is a rarity in firearms collecting and this example, available in the May 19-21 Premier Auction, has a three-digit serial number.

Due to the exclusive nature of its development, only a small number were produced and they remain a highly sought-after collector piece. In addition to the FG42, the Fallschirmjäger were issued a unique smock known as the fallschirmschützen. Production on the garment began in 1936, with four different patterns developing. Containing multiple pockets and adjustment points this smock was incredibly useful in the field and made the Fallschirmjäger stand out in comparison to other German troops.

What appears to be a member of the Fallschirmjäger holding a Panzerfaust warhead.

Their helmets were another unique addition to their loadout. The Fallschirmjäger didn’t wear the standard Wehrmacht Stahlhelm, but a smaller, more compact shell with a more secure chinstrap. Much of their equipment was camouflaged unlike the rest of the Wehrmacht troops clad in their distinct gray uniforms. Their smocks were printed in the Splittertarnmuster camouflage which again, was reserved for use by the Fallschirmjäger alone. All of this specific equipment helped the Fallschirmjäger to secure victory in many of their battles, or at the very least put up a good fight.

A Fallschirmjäger camouflage helmet cover.

The Fallschirmjӓger and the Normandy Invasion

Prior to the infamous assault on the German defenses in Normandy on June 6th 1944, the German military had been massing units in that area knowing an invasion was coming. The American military led German high command to believe the invasion would likely occur at a city called Calais due to its port. The entire French coast was littered with pillboxes, mines, and machine gun nests.

A Type 1 FG42 previously sold at Rock Island Auction Company for $316,250.

The Fallschirmjäger were considered an important part of this defensive line, as it was known that both the British and Americans had airborne units and Fallschirmjäger troops were best equipped to handle paratroopers. Based out of Carentan, the Fallschirmjäger were the first to spot American paratroopers landing north of the town early in the morning on June 6th. This northern area had previously been flooded to hinder movement through what was now basically a swamp. The 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division soon found themselves fighting men from the American 101st Airborne Division. Americans suffered many casualties during the initial drop, and Germany learned from POWs that a more significant force was coming.

The Fallschirmjäger faced off against American paratroopers fielding semi-automatic rifles like the M1 Carbine.

Following the amphibious invasion, the Fallschirmjäger fought fiercely in the defense of Carentan until it was finally lost on June 14th. Despite not fighting in an airborne capacity, the Fallschirmjäger played a critical role in Germany’s attempt to fight against the Allied invasion of France.

Oil on canvas artwork of a WW2 American amphibious invasion force.

Impact of the Fallschirmjäger

The Fallschirmjäger were crucial in demonstrating to the world that airborne insertion of troops was a feasible tactic. Not every operation went according to plan, but the technology was new, as it was for all factions that utilized airborne troops. The battles described above were not the only operations undertaken by the Fallschirmjäger. They saw noteworthy service in the Africa campaign, as well as on the Eastern Front. Their foes recognized their discipline and training, making their exploits famed even today. Their specialized gun, the FG42 would serve as the template for battle rifles after WW2 on both sides of the cold war. It would also serve as one of the influences on the U.S. military’s M60 machine gun that was a stalwart of the Vietnam War.

The author discusses the M60 machine gun, which took inspiration from the FG42 paratrooper rifle.

Artifacts of the Fallschirmjäger at RIAC

As mentioned above, Fallschirmjäger items tend to demand a high amount in the collectors market. Rock Island Auction Company has had the distinct privilege of selling several FG42 paratrooper rilfes, a notable feat considering most people might only see a single one in their lifetime. As well, RIAC has achieved high prices for Fallschirmjäger helmets and smocks. Airborne items are always a source of excitement for collectors. The accomplishments of these units, regardless of which flag they fought under, make for interesting history and items with a good history are always popular.

This FG42, a rare and influential German WW2 paratrooper weapon, will be available in Rock Island Auction Company's May 19-21 Premier Auction.

A historic and rare FG42 will be on offer in Rock Island Auction Company's May 19-21 Premier Auction, providing collectors of WW2 or German military arms an opportunity to obtain such an impactful and influential weapon. Subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter for new gun blogs and gun videos on German military firearms like the Mauser C96, the Walther PP pistol, the Luger, and more.

Birthed during World War 2 by Huge Schmeisser, the select-fire Sturmgewehr utilized an intermediate 7.92x33 Kurz cartridge which allowed for a smaller overall profile, was more appropriate for the common distances of engagement, and provided more controllable recoil.

Sources:

'The Fall of Fort Eben Emael: The Effects of Emerging Technologies on the Successful Completion of Military Objectives' by Major Thomas B. Gukeisen

'Afrikakorps: Tropical Uniforms, Insignia & Equipment of the German Solider in World War II' by Robert Kurtz

'The History of Fallschirm-Panzerkorps "Hermann Goering", Soldiers of the Reichsmarshall' by Franz Kurowski

https://www.history.com/news/d-day-hitler-germany-defenses-miscalculations

https://history.army.mil/books/wwii/104-13/104-13.HTM

https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/101st-airborne-carentan-mitch-yockelson

https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/crete/

https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/the-lions-of-carentan-part-i-paratrooper-vs-paratrooper-on-d-day/

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