Fallschirmjager – Eastern Front, Ukraine 1943
After the disastrous loss of lives incurred during the airborne invasion of Crete, the men of 7. Fliegerdivision were rested, outfitted and soon found themselves redeployed to Russia. Hitler now designated them as elite infantry and the paratroopers were to be utilised for limited operations where their independence, skills and fighting spirit could be put to the best advantage.
In Russia, these elite airborne warriors took on an infantry role and were used to probe enemy defensive lines destroying bunkers and trench systems in an attempt hinder the Russians from breaking through the German ring surrounding the city of Leningrad.
In other sectors they were used to ‘add iron to the spine’ of a weaken sector of the frontline; The Russians were always probing for weak links in the long, extended Eastern Front; in such areas, masses of armour and troops would form-up for attacks.
Fallschirmjager units were always in the thick of such attacks, replusing waves of Red Army troops while destroying tanks with mines, grenades and other weapons. Many units fought on to the verge of being decimated.
The following account gives a sordid idea of the battle situation facing the paratroopers:
During April 1944, the battle weary remnants of the 2nd Parachute Division were pulled out of the line for a short spell of rest and refitting. This was short lived, they were back in action on the 10th May when they were to contain a Russian bridgehead on the River Dniester.
They suffered heavy casualties during this action and their ranks had been severely depleted. At the end of May the Division was transferred back to Germany for some serious rest and refitting. It was the last time that the 2nd Parachute Division would see action on the Eastern Front. Several weeks later they were thrown into Normandy.
The only other Fallschirmjäger unit to see action in Russia after the 2nd Division left, would be a Fallschirm-Pioneer unit under the command of Major Rudolf Witzig and a Kampfgruppe from the newly raised 16th Regiment under the command of Oberstleutnant Gerhart Schirmer. The 16th was supposed to be part of the 6th Para Division but was detached to the Eastern Front to help deal with the Russian onslaught.
During the summer of 1944, Army Group Centre had been decimated in Russia’s Operation Bagration, their major successful operation in 1944 to coincide with the Normandy landings in the west.
By the middle of July, the Soviets were approaching the Baltic Sea. It was in this area of operations that Kampfgruppe Schirmer were sent, closely followed by the 1st Battalion, 21st Fallschirm-Pioneer Regiment. On the 25th July 1944, Witzig’s engineers took up positions on the road between Dunaburg and Kovno in Lithuania.
This road was defended by the 1st Kompanie, the 2nd & 4th Kompanie’s defended a position south of the Dunaburg-Kovno road. Kampfgruppe Schirmer had found themselves trapped around the Lithuanian capital and the Pioneers were to open an escape route for the 16th Regimant back to the German lines.
They were armed with small numbers of panzerfaust’s, panzerschreck’s, mines and satchel charges. They were supposed to have artillery support but they never received it.
Throughout the night of 25th/26th July, the Fallschirm-Pioneers were subjected to the sounds of Russian armour being brought up to the front. By the morning of the 26th there appeared a long line of Russian tanks, their decks awash with Russian Infantry. Behind the tanks sat row upon row of artillery, howitzers and rocket launchers (Stalin’s organs).
This formidable line of armour waited patiently for the opening artillery barrage to signal the start of the attack. Inevitably it came and lasted for just over an hour, pounding the Paras positions. When the barrage lifted, the tanks rolled forward.
The engineers held their nerve until the tanks were within 50 ft, then they opened up with their anti-tank weapons. Russian troops were shot down as they disembarked their rides. The pioneers carried out tank busting raids attaching mines and satchel charges on to the advancing T-34’s.
The first wave of the attack started to falter, the surviving Russian armour turned back toward their start line leaving the fields in front of the German positions littered with burned out tanks and dead Russian infantry.
The 1st Kompanie had suffered heavy casualties during the attack. The 2nd & 4th Kompanie’s defending south of the road were not so lucky in holding back the Russian armour. Several T-34’s managed to break through their line. The engineers were now partially encircled, the forward units were pulled back to the town of Dziewaltowe.
When the remnants of the Kompanie’s had regrouped, there numbers had been severely depleted. Major Witzig led the survivors of his Battalion through woods outside the town until they reached the relative safety of the main German lines. Small groups of survivors came in several days after Witzig, men who had been separated and were determined to get back.
Major Witzig’s Battalion stayed in Russia until October 1944, taking part in several small scale operations. It was then disbanded, with the survivors being sent to other Fallschirm formations.
The remainder of 1944 saw the shrinking of German occupied Russia. German forces were on the retreat back towards the Fatherland. The Red Army was unstoppable, surely the end would come soon…….
The parka, with several variants of diamond and rectangular cross-stitching, was cut in double-breasted fashion for maximum wind protection and secured by metal pebbled buttons painted in both white and feldgrau. This modified DML parka has a repainted white/field-grey draw strap sewn into the waist, white painted metal studs replacing the plastic buttons and has been extensively ‘weathered’ with acrylic washes and paintwork.
The M42 “Hitler’s zipper”
This Fallschirmjager is armed with the MG42 – Maschinengewehr 42, or “machine gun 42”, a 7.92mm machine gun which entered service in 1942 with the Wehrmacht. The MG 42 has a proven record of reliability, durability, simplicity, and ease of operation, but is most notable for being able to produce a stunning volume of suppressive fire. The machinegun has one of the highest average rates of fire between 1200 and 1500 rpm; in fact, so distinct and terrifying was the M42 that the United States Army created training films to aid its soldiers in dealing with the psychological trauma of encountering the weapon in battle.
At such a high rate of fire, the human ear cannot easily discern the sound of individual bullets being fired, and in use the gun had a distinctive “ripping cloth” muzzle report; described as like “ripping cloth”. This gave rise to the nickname “Hitler’s buzzsaw”, or, more coarsely, “Hitler’s zipper” (Soviet soldiers called it the “linoleum ripper”). German soldiers called it Hitlersäge (“Hitler’s saw”) or “Bonesaw”.
The M42’s comparatively high rate of fire of about 1,200 rounds per minute, was twice the rate of the British Vickers machine gun and American Browning at 600 round/min.
By the time MG42 entered service, German infantry squads were built around the squad machinegun and its crew. Some squads had one MG 42 while some, like Panzergrenadiers and late-war Fallschimjagers, had two.
The optimum operating crew of an MG-42 for sustained fire operation was six men: the gun commander, the No.1 who fired the gun, the No.2 who carried the tripod, and Nos.3, 4, and 5 who carried ammunition, spare barrels, entrenching tools, and other items. For additional protection the commander, No.1 and No.2 were armed with pistols, while the remaining three carried rifles. This large team was often reduced to just three: the gunner, the loader (also barrel carrier), and the spotter. The gunner of the MG42 was preferably a junior non-commissioned officer (or Unteroffizier).
The squad’s offensive movement and defensive posture revolved around the MG42s. Most of the squad members carried additional ammunition to the machine gun(s) that were indeed terrible ammunition hogs for their high rate of fire. Although criticized for its high rate of fire and resulting inaccuracy, the MG42s’ suppressive value more than made up for it. On the Eastern Front, MG42s delivered withering amount of fire to break massed ‘human wave’ frontal assaults by Russian infantry, a tactic particularly favoured by the Red Army in which they attempted to close in for close quarters fighting and overrun the German positions with local superiority in men and automatic weapons.
Extract from the memoirs of the Eastern Front by Wolfram von Beck
“On 9th November 1943, General Student came to see us and on a sports field near Rome he issued orders for us to move to Russia. The next day we boarded a train from Rome to Zitomir.
When we finally arrived in Russia, we received orders to relieve a Waffen SS unit, which had almost been destroyed during the fighting. I was the staff runner for Leutnant Bickel’s 1.Kompanie. He told me to go and obtain a situation report from the Waffen SS commander. In order to reach the SS command post quickly I decided not to use the road but to follow the sound of guns through a wooded area. When I finally reached the commander he reprimanded me about the absence of my unit. He then showed me which part of the frontline we were supposed to occupy.
In front of his command post sat a Kubelwagen. It was full of men just about ready to leave. I asked the driver if I too could jump on to his vehicle and hitch a ride. He replied that it would not be a problem but asked if I could lift the Unterscharfuehrer so he would not fall off the rear of the vehicle. I was under the impression that these men were wounded. They were not, they were all dead. The Waffen SS never left their dead on the battlefield. Even their wounded men had to march.
I was glad to finally leave this hearse behind me and after reporting back to Leutnant Bickel the Kompanie moved forward into the line. Our position was near a so-called runway, a clearing in the middle of a large forest. On the other side of the runway, Ivan was waiting.
After a day or so we made a dawn attack and drove the Russians from in front of our positions. Suddenly, we received well aimed fire from a thicket of trees. I quickly noticed the source of fire: the Russians had removed the lowest branches from the trees so they not only had a good field of fire but also a good view of any attacker.
Myself and a comrade, turned their flank and finished them off from behind. My comrade, a machine gunner was hit. While he was dying he passed me his wallet. All he could say was “Mama, Mama”.
I took the wallet and handed it in to Battalion. I do not know if it ever reached “Mama”.
We were rolling up the whole Russian trench line but we stopped in front of a soil covered bunker which had not been inspected yet. For good measure we threw in two grenades and after the detonation, three smiling unbruised Russians came out.
We were surprised that anyone could survive such an attack but we naturally took them prisoner.
Our unit continued the offensive toward the direction of Kirovgrad. Before Novgorodka we found ourselves alone, without friendly units on our flanks. Leutnant Bickel ordered us to build a defensive perimeter on a nearby hilltop for the night. I was now a number 2 machine gunner and the number 1 was my friend Gefreiter Fritz. We dug an emplacement for our machine gun at the front of the hill.
The Russians suddenly fired several shells from an anti-tank gun, (called a Ratschbumm by the Landser, because the sound of the shot and the hit were almost one). We joked that the Russians certainly needed some target practice when after one detonation I found an arm and half of my comrades chest in my lap. I lifted Gefreiter Fritz to see if I could help him but he was already dead. I now dug faster and deeper in order to get my machine gun in place.
During this same night, myself and Obergefreiter Zischka, who spoke fluent Russian, crept up on the enemy positions so he could overhear the russians talking. We noted the position of the enemy MG nests and the next morning we attacked, driving the Russians out of Novgorodka.
I was made machine gunner one and found myself having to hump the MG around during the assault. When Leutnant Bickel needed me again to be staff runner, I was only glad to give the Adolf-Hitler-saw to someone else.
Whilst storming Kirovgrad I was wounded by a round from a Russian AT gun. I was sent to the field dressing station and on 25th December 1943 I was sent to the Reserve-Lazarett at Meinigen and away from the horrors of Russia only to return again in 1944.”