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"The Infantry of the Air" by Francesco Riva

The life of German General Kurt Student and his work for the constitution and the war use of a paratroopers' Corp.

At the dawns of the aviation

Trying to track down what the most innovative weapon of the Second World War has been, the thought certainly races to the nuclear bomb used by the Americans against the Japanese. However, doing a more accurate analysis of the evolution of the conflict, it is possible to realize that already at the beginnings of the hostilities an innovation had been introduced that would have had notable consequences on the carrying out of the fights: the parachutists' use.

They had been employed for the first time on wide scale from Nazi Germany and this is owed in maximum part to the efforts of a man only: Kurt Student. He was, for his epoch, one of the few innovators of the art of the war and because of his/ tenacious character, he had the opportunity to show his own revolutionary ideas to the Führer. Student was the classical soldier of career of the German army, but he had the fortune not to attract on himself the visceral repulsion of Hitler for his category.

He was, for his epoch, one of the few innovators of the art of the war and because of his tenacious temper, he had the opportunity to show his own revolutionary ideas to the Führer. Student was the classical soldier of career of the German army, but he had the fortune not to attract on himself the visceral repulsion of Hitler for his category. This fact was possible because Student didn't belong to the high Prussian nobility that was so much hated by the statesman and of which were member the most important general of the first phase of the Nazi dominion as Erich von Manstein, Gerd von Rundstedt and Hasso von Manteufel, quoting some of them. Even if he has been born in the region of Brandeburg, he descended from a family of little land owners that could not use any noble prefix «von»in front of its own last name. Straight, the father of Kurt had difficulties to furnish an education suitable to the four children.

The older brother of Student had already undertaken a military school that didn't foresee the payment of any fee and it allowed therefore the acquisition of a nearly free education. Being the third child born in 1890, Kurt had to accept what the family could offer him and so, although in youth he had shown some attitude toward the medicine, he willingly consented to the military career. At the age of 11, he entered the military school of Potsdam and thanks to his abilities, four years later he had been transferred to the central academy of Lichterfelde from which he graduated with the rank of aspirant second lieutenant in the March 1910. The promotion to the superior rank happened the following year with the transfer in the East Prussia, near home. Perhaps his life would have exhausted in the treatment of assignments of ordinary administration (that in every case Student didn't disdain at all) if World War 1 had not intervened and with it the creation of the German Military Aviation.

In fact, also not possessing specific quality and rather suffering of dizziness, in 1916 Student frequented the course of pilotage and in the same year he commanded the Jagdstaffe (fighter squadron or jasta) number 9. His personal courage put him more times in front of the death until he was seriously wounded in 1917 and forced to reenter home for a convalescence that lasted for the rest of the war. The heavy conditions imposed on Germany from the Allies did not allow the maintenance of an army that had more than 100.000 men and therefore an accurate choice was necessary among the soldiers of career. Student had shown an ample range of qualities that consent him to reenter in the number of those people that could preserve the place in the army. He would have surely entered the Staff if such institution had been preserved in the peace agreements, but contrarily, it was expressly abolished and so Kurt had to join the aviation again.

Really, it didn't exist anymore. Even the reconstitution had been forbidden, but in that first years after the Great War, where the confusion reigned in Germany, Student could show all his ingeniousness and originality. Not being able to use motor airplanes, he, as commander of the Fligerzentrale that could be considered a kind of government flight school, ordered that the training had to happen on gliders. He started so to constitute a whole of pilots with specific qualifications for the guide of those so particular aircrafts. Besides not being enough only the gliders for war aviation, the German government was also worried to experiment new aircrafts abroad. An unexpected allied was found in USSR that consented to proceed to the testing of the German airplanes on its own territory, undersigning a secret clause in the peace agreements of Rapallo stipulated with Germany in 1922. After a five-year period passed at the direction of the school of flight, Student was forced to abandon the office for the normal alternation in the power positions imposed by the accords on the maintenance of the Wehrmacht. He returned so to the infantry as officer of battalion. It had to spend in the most absolute anonymity his career between 1927 and the end of 1932. On January 30 1933, Hitler got the nomination to Reich's chancellor and the life of Student could come back to the previous job.

The ascent of Hitler changes the destiny of the Luftwaffe

Despite he had not enrolled in the Nazi party and he had never shown any liking toward this political movement, Student had been soon recalled to the new Ministry of the aviation under the command of Göring. The political circumstances that had brought to the institution of the office in full violation of the agreement of Versailles are very complex and they don't specifically concern the matter of this writing, but it is useful to reassume them to understand what the reality has been in which owe to act Student. Immediately after the Hitler's conquest of the power, it was clear that the German army would have suffered an enlargement in numerical terms even if officially the Nazi government was faithful to the limitations of the armaments and participated to the Disarmament Conference in Geneva.

However, the quantitative growth of the armed forces had to be followed by a qualitative amelioration to prevent that the Wehrmacht was a giant by the clay feet. The turn point was also immediately evident to the participants to the Geneva Conference on the disarmament that had been tiredly dragged for the last months of 1932. Already three weeks after having gotten the position, Hitler incorporated the SA (squads of assault) in the auxiliary police, increasing its number by 2.500.000 units. The English and French delegates present at the Conference, pushed by the pressures of the respective electorates still desirous of a lasting peace, pretended that nothing had happened. Above all, Great Britain was bearer of these desires of Peace, proposing to the Nazi leader several projects that stopped being of actuality in the same instant in which they were pronounced. Every time, Hitler pretended something more: firstly the heavy artillery, then the tanks, finally the aviation. The occupation of some stations in the demilitarized zone of Rheinland in March 1933 marked officially the end of the hope for a pacific solution of the German affaire.

A last attempt had done, however. Great Britain proposed the signature of a convention of quinquennial duration, renewable, that granted to Germany the possibility of a limited rearmament limited only from the expenses for the defense effected from France and from the Great Britain. On May 17 during a discourse to the Reichstag, Hitler categorically refused it. In his speech, he also mentioned the possibility to violate openly the agreement of Versailles with a total rearmament of the Wehrmacht. Before being able to concretize this threat, it was necessary to systematize the relationships between the SA and the units of the regular army. Seen increasing the power of Ernst Röhm and his men too much, the Führer adopted a radical solution. In the June 1934, Röhm and an undetermined number of high exponents of the SA were murdered, together with some representatives of the military hierarchies more refractory to accept the new Nazi course. The reorganization of the German military force was so entrusted to military experts of career, like Fritsch and Blomberg that would have been set aside just to the eve of World War 2. In March 1935, there was the official denunciation of the agreement of Versailles and the consequent increase of the expenses for the military organization. In only four years, Germany would have created a war machine that would have let tremble the world.

Student starts his reform work

When Göring had to propose a name for the direction of the Erprobungsstelle für Fluggerät (experimental center for flight material) he would have desired a more malleable man than Student, but every consultation done among the experts of the field, ended up inevitably pointing out his name as the proper man for that job. In that experimental center would have been converted to the war use all the projects that had been hidden as civil transport airplanes in the period of being in force of the Versailles agreement (between them above all the bombers Junkers of the classes 86, 87 and 88 besides the new and soon famous fighters Messerschnitt 109 and 110). However, the activity of updating of the flight material of the Luftwaffe didn't exhaust the innovative ideas of Student.

One of his great qualities just consisted in pursuing the realization of his own projects with meticulousness that in some cases it flowed in the stubbornness. Thanks to his perseverance, in 1938 he was named commander of the 7th air division that existed only on the paper. Soon after having gotten the office, Student acted so that it was started the training of soldiers for mass air drops that, as he remembered, were already in preparation in Soviet Union since 1937. The greatest problems were mainly two: Improving the reliability of the parachute as war tool and furnishing a suitable logistic support after the landing in the hostile zone. The first situation had resolved with the adoption of the silk as privileged material in the construction of the parachutes, guaranteeing lightness and resistance contemporarily during the drops.

The second dilemma had brightly revolved converting the bombardiers Junkers Ju 52 in transport airplanes. These three-engined aircrafts with a maximum speed of around 275 km/h and an operational tangency of nearly 5900 ms were too slow and awkward to represent a serious adversary for the new English Spitfires and Hurricane. Instead opportunely relieved and gifted with hook of drawing, they were transformed in perfect tools to conduct the parachutists over the place of the operations. The Ju 52 could directly transport 9 men in fight asset and at the same time hauling some transport gliders (the experimental DFS 230) that could attack exploiting their own noiselessness.

Even Hitler, always open to the tactical and strategic novelties, seeing the enormous progress of Student started to become enthusiastic in front of that «infantry of the air»that you/he/she could land in every place in the most complete silence. From so much enthusiasm a new aerial division born (22nd) that was also entrusted to the command of Student. It served only a testing on the field that confirmed the goodness of the intuitions of the general. In a first moment it was thought that the occupation of the region of the Sudeti in Czechoslovakia could serve as fight test, but the lack of opposition from the government of Praha made superfluous the optimal preparation with which the troops of Student prepared themselves to complete the operation. The following campaign in Poland did not offer any ideal grounds for the employment of the paratroops and, in fact, it was the apotheosis of the armored divisions. Although some units of the 7th division had employed as commandos during the invasion of Denmark and Norway, the true moment of triumph it had to come only with the general offensive on the Western Front.

The terror comes from the sky

The defensive plan of the allies made pivot on the Line Maginot, covering the rest of the French territory toward the Channel with the 1st, 7th and 9th French Army besides the British Expedition Corp. However, for political reasons these forces had rigorously to stay out of the Belgian borders. In fact, either the Belgian government either the Dutch one, also entertaining relationships next to the alliance with France and Great Britain, tried to stay extraneous to the war showing their own neutrality and relied therefore for the protection of the territory, entirely on the national armies. Since the beginning, the defensive plans were too much clear even for the Germans. The Low Countries, having only 14 divisions entirely, knew perfectly that their only hope of survival in case of German attack was to entrench themselves and to attend the arrival of the Allies. To get the necessary time for the Anglo-French advance (4 days) it had been prepared a plan that foresaw the blowing up of some of the most important dams of the country, flooding so insider territories in the attempt to create a national redoubt among Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Haag that pompously had been denominated «Vestring Holland», Fortress Holland.

The Belgians contrarily possessed a numerically remarkable army but composed for the largest part from infantry with old and technologically backward armored divisions and aviation. However, the military Head Quarters confided in the special conformation that the nature had given to the zone that presumably would have been object of the attack. They had created a defensive line that from Dinant, passing through Namur, conducted to Liege following the course of the Mouse and from there, using the Channel Albert turned toward the sea, reaching Antwerp. The Belgian certainties to be able to defend themselves alone were founded on the Channel Albert that was considered the most reliable antitank ditch of Europe. Built as artificial way of communication between the Mouse and the river Dyle, the channel was an excavation wide sixty meters with perfectly perpendicular walls, practically insuperable if not through the bridges that would have been let explode to the approach of the enemy. As if this had not been enough, the road that conducted toward the channel Albert from Holland was garrisoned by the Fort of Eben-Emael that with its 120 mms cannons protected one of the few weak points of the structure of channels and rivers defended by the Belgians. Nobody would have survived in open field to the fire of that fortress.

To unhinge these defensive bastions, Student had to take possession with his airborne troops of the key points beyond the lines of defense and to maintain them until the arrival of the reinforcement infantry of the Wehrmacht. The general personally organized all the plans for the operation, leaving the assignment to his subordinates to resolve the formalities at the inferior hierarchical levels. Although this behavior can seem centralizing and selfish, it is necessary to remember that Student knew how to motivate the collaborators, dividing with them every success without gaining any worth also in the eventuality that nobody had contributed to the planning of the attacks commanded by him. The assault operation against Holland and Belgium had been minutely prepared and according to him, it would never have been able to fail.

In the interlacements of the human destinies that World War 2 was, it happened however an incomprehensible incident that for a little not only risked to prevent the success of Student's plan, but even of the whole offensive on the Western Front. On January 10 1940, when everything was already ready, Major Reinberger of the 7th air division, after having dispatched a mission in the training center of Münster, decided to make return that same evening to the command in Koln. To do it, contravening to every safety norm, he used a little two-sites monoplane Fieseler that for lack of land assistance lost itself in the thick fog that habitually covers those zones. Wandering for hours in a blind flight, the airplane finished the fuel and was forced to land there where it was: Mechelen-sur-Meuse, behind the hostile lines! He in his irresponsibility had transported with himself a suitcase containing the whole documentation of the invasion of Holland and the offensive in the Belgian Ardennes. For his unexpected fortune, although the allied officers had realized the importance of that material in the same moment in which he, risking his life, had tried immediately to burn them in a heater during the examination just after having been captured, the Belgian Head Quarter, to which the papers were forwarded, was less aware. The only effect of this extraordinary hit of fortune was a note sent by the general Van Overstraeten of the Belgian Royal Army to the commander of the French troops Gamelin who quietly ignored it. Nobody believed that the Germans could attack from the air for then launching their panzers through the narrow roads of the Ardennes!

The decisive time comes

Five months were necessary, between delays and suspensions, before the order of attack was definitely confirmed. On May 10 1940, the time had also come for Holland, Belgium and France to taste the German power. In the first hours of that day, 4.000 paratroopers of the 7th division dropped exactly upon the national redoubt that the Dutch believed being able to defend waiting the arrival of French. Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the island of Dordrecht saw arriving from the sky that armed men hung to precarious and swinging sacks of silk. The surprise was complete. Several times during the forenoon the Dutch command reported to the allies to have succeeded in taking back the control of the key points of the defensive line, but it was only an impression. The airplanes of General Kesselring furnished that logistic support for which Student had worked very hard, guaranteeing a continuous supply to the troops that consolidated the bridgeheads, while the Army group B of Von Bock was advancing unmolested in the rest of the country, abandoned to follow this hazardous defensive strategy hazardous. On that evening, what had to last four days, it had been virtually conquered, without any of the explosive charges that had been set on the dams had been primes. Four days after (14 May) the Dutch army capitulated.

Still greater it was the dismay of the French when they knew that the Germans were transiting unmolested on the bridges of Veldwezelt and Vroehhoven, just in front of Eben-Emael. What had it happened to the garrison of the fortress? Why didn't it prevent the enemy the crossing of the channel Albert? The answer was simple: the fort had been neutralized by the Germans. However, this solution had been gotten with an action to the limit of the unbelievable. Contemporarily to the paratroopers that had landed in Holland, a squad of the sturmgruppe (group of assault) Koch had departed in direction of the Belgian Fort. The strong fire of interdiction of the anti-aircraft batteries had not allowed all the gliders to reach the objective, so only three of them, for a total of 84 men had succeeded in landing exactly upon the fortress' roof, destroying the bunkers of the cannons and threatening the several thousand of men that composed the garrison. At 17 o'clock in the afternoon, the arrival of the 4th division of the General Stever put an end to every resistance of the Belgian army. Here, as on the Dutch dams, the courage shown by the German parachutists was enormous, even more increased from a serious drawback happened to the commander of the assault group lieutenant Witzing.

Also his Ju 52 would have had to land upon the roof, but for a ruinous error of calculation, his airplane fell on the German shore of the Rhine, leaving without command his unit until midday, when the lieutenant, also wounded, climbed in another aircraft that brought him to destination. Deprived of the officer in command, the few experts that completed the mission showed all their training, losing 6 men only.

The echo of the successes of the Student's parachutists of was enormous and it was not put in shade from the victories of Guderian's armored troops. After the conquest of Paris and the signature of the armistice with France, new employments were outlined for 7th and the 22nd air. Firstly, it was hypothesized the conquest by the air of the region of Southampton, in Great Britain, then postponed by an order of the Führer that pretended the dominion of the air before starting the operation «Sea Lion», that is the invasion of the British islands. As known, such dominion was never gotten and every attempt to conquest Britain had been subsequently abandoned. The last six months of 1940 were very difficult for Student, because, although the number the soldiers destined to the parachutist training had been increased, the missed operational employment started to let emerge some unbalances at managerial level. In fact, either the high officers of the Wehrmacht either those of the Luftwaffe (to which however Student had been officially submitted) didn't like those hybrid units of which it was difficult to decide the position between the military aviation and the army.

Opposed in every way from his superiors, Student succeeded in continuing in his projects only for the direct support of Hitler that was enraptured from the potentialities of the new weapon. Another action, in code denominated «Hercules», would have had to conquest the island of Malta in the first months of 1941, but it was postponed with the frantic progress of the events. Germany had been forced to undertake operations in the Balkans to succor Italy that had attacked Greece believing to defeat it easily. Instead, the Greek army had shown leathery and straight it had passed to the offensive, advancing inside Albania that was an Italian colony. In help of the government of Athens, it had come from Africa a British contingent that however had not had fortune. Both the armed forces had been attacked by the superior forces of the Axis and while the Greek had been forced to the surrender, the British evacuated the peninsula withdrawing to Crete, an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Crete conquered

In the imminence of the operation Redbeard, that is the attack to the Soviet Union, Hitler could not leave in the hands of the Allies a strategic base so close to the oil wells of Ploiesti in Romania that would have had to furnish the fuel for the summer country on the oriental front. Unfortunately, after the hard defeat suffered by the Italian fleet at Matapan, the Royal Navy virtually possessed the dominion of the sea. Therefore, the conquest of the island was programmed as an entirely aerial action. Student got full powers and drew a plan that foresaw the invasion from the air. The 5th Mountain Division that was employed for the conformation of Crete ground was also entrusted to his orders. He made a grandiose logistic job preparing some airports of fortune in the southern region of Greece and in the islands of the Aegean Sea to approach to the hostile bases the 8th air Corp of Von Richtofen that with its 650 airplanes (bombers, fighter and fighter-bombers) had to furnish the tactical support to the expedition.

The British were numerically superior to the forces of the Axis that would have been employed. They had, in fact, more than 92.000 men adding the Australian, New Zealand and English troops. However, they were unprovided of artillery and the few fighters at disposition had been sent in Egypt not to uselessly sacrifice them. Besides, the strengths had been divided in the following way to defend the whole perimeter of the island that lengthened in the Mediterranean sea for more than 300 kms: 27.000 men between Melee and Suda in the western part, the nearest to the continent and the first one to have been attacked; 62.000 at Retimo in the center and 8.000 at Heraklion, in the Oriental zone. It would have been a clash between who possessed the dominion of the air (Germany) and who possessed that of the sea (Great Britain). To transport the 5th division of mountain, whose commander didn't have any intention to drop from an airplane, it was ready a flotilla composed by hundred of Greek fishing-boats that in middle of the night risking a navigation without light, would have reached the objectives of the landing with limited losses seen the hazard that was tried.

The attack started on May 20 1941 at 7 AM, when the sky above Meleme and Suda had darkened from 493 Jus 52 that launched the 7th and 22nd Division. The Meteorological conditions could not be good, but an insidious wind provoked a dispersion of the invasion forces. According to the original plan, the airport of Meleme had a vital importance for continuing the offensive. It must be conquered within the first 24 hours; otherwise, the airborne troops would not have been able to receive the restocking and the necessary reinforcements for the conquest of the island. On May 20 evening, everything was still in discussion. The British troops heroically defended the city. The New Zealand riflemen showed their value demolishing more airplanes than the small anti-aircraft batteries that defended the zone. In Heraklion, the situation was also worse for the Germans. The schedule of march thought by Student became useless in front of practical drawbacks that had not even been imagined. Among them, the slowness of refuel of the Jus 52 and the difficulty to take off from the Greek airports made by beaten sand, where every airplane in departure lifted clouds of dust that annulled visibility for the other aircrafts.

The following day was taken the decision to conquer the airport of Meleme to whatever cost. The Jus 52 landed even if the airport was still under the fire of the enemy. A unit of the 100th Mountain Regiment that had not come by sea because of the lack of boats arrived miraculously on the ground among the carcasses of the supply airplanes that had preceded it. From his Head Quarter situated in the hotel "Great Britain" in Athens, Student knew to have won. When the British troops started to retire in direction of Retimo, a huge German air bridge unloaded men and materials in Meleme. It was by now matter of few days before the definitive defeat of the British Corp. In the same time, another battle was developing in the sea. The Royal Navy had prevented the passage of good part of the German ships, but at dear price. The cruisers Naiad and Carlisle were harshly stricken as the Warspite. The mighty battleships Barnham and Valiant had to abandon the struggle because of the suffered damages. Others 5 war ships among destroyers and cruisers were knocked down from the Luftwaffe.

The British prolonged the defense for another week that was full of actions of extraordinary heroism. The men of the «Argyll and Sutherland»and «Sussex» battalion distinguished themselves. These latter, for irony of the fate, would have become themselves paratroopers and they would have participated in the operation «Market Garden»meeting once more the special troops of Student. On May 27, General Wavell as head commander assumed the responsibility to order the retreat from the island. A new Dunquerke was outlined, only more dangerous. The men that defended Retimo have to follow a narrow mountain road that would have been denominated «Via Crucis»to reach the point of embarkation at Chora Sfakion. The summer heat was unbearable and many of them exhausted and without water surrendered to the pursuers. The retreat could be prevented with the dropping of few men of the 7th aerial Division, but Student refused to sacrifice other human lives. The apotheosis of the parachutists saw the death of 3674 men of these special units plus others 2.500 of the German Navy and of the 5th mountain division. English had 3.500 casualties only, but 12.000 prisoners and the loss of 9 battle ships.

The hard sacrifice paid by 7th and 22nd division let understand that the assaults from the air could entirely have success if supported by the surprise and conducted by thousand of men. Hitler said about the conquest of Crete: «Crete has shown that the great days of the paratroopers are ended. Their employment demands a surprise that is not more realizable.»The Allies will continue in the exploitation of the new weapon developing its technique.

The German paratroopers in the 1942-1945 period

The fact that the Führer had decided not to use the air assaults for the most important operations, it did not mean an abandonment of the Student's program that rather it was notably strengthened. The two aboriginal divisions grew up reaching the figure of160.000 men, but they didn't anymore fly except that for circumscribed actions of little importance. They were transformed in troops of select infantry slowly inheriting the role of the famous Prussian Grenadiers of Frederick the Great. With these office they fought on the Russian front, in Italy and in the last months of the Reich firstly in Holland and then in the central Rheinland. General Sir John Hackett that during World War 2 fought either on the Italian front either during the operation Market Garden as commander of a English brigade of parachutists, he remembers that at Cassino and Arnhem they had met for the first time two armies that used both airborne special troops in the same action. According to his testimony, he never found any German soldiers more determined and at the same time more loyal than the members of the forces of Student.
The German general spent the rest of the war continuing his own job as tactical programmer from the excellent qualities, hypothesizing new plains of conquest that some critical writer define unattainable as the mission in the Peninsula of Kola to stop the Murmansk way of supply or the occupation of Baku departing from the German positions in the East Crimea. Both the programs remained only on the paper, but not for this, it had to diminish their validity on the practical level. Probably they would have required an employment of trained men that Germany did not have at that time. Nevertheless, if the Reich had possessed them, it can be sure that Student would have accomplished these actions. Also the liberation of Mussolini from the Gran Sasso jail, often attributed to Skorzeny, it can be seen as one creation of his.

Unfortunately, with the lack of operational employments, the general lost the support and the prestige that he had ending up commanding a defensive sector in the Meklemburg during the agony of Nazi Germany. At the beginning of May 1945, he was imprisoned by English and there his adversities of the postwar period started. He was imputed for crimes against the humanity at the process of Nuremberg. The accusation was serious and it could bring to the death. The facts on which the accusation was founded had happened in Crete in the period of German occupation under the command of Student. The Greek government in exile had proclaimed an all-out partisan war against the German occupant. The Cretan civilians had receipted the message and they had started a guerrilla that in some cases it became atrocious and barbaric. They were signaled some episodes of mutilations and straight crucifixions towards sentinels of the Luftwaffe. Göring ordered that all the men of Crete older than 14 were deported. Student in his mentality of soldier of career didn't object nothing to that absurd order, but in the moment in which it had to proceed to the deportation, he succeeded with skilled escamotages (shortage of fuel for the airplanes, difficulty in establishing the exact age of the persons to deport and even lack of the military personnel due to licenses) in postponing that cruel action. His extraneousness to the principal accusation was shown thanks also to the testimony of the New Zealand General Inglis that swore in front of the judges that Student had opposed the activity of the SS in the island. The charge was so convert in «missed attempt to prevent crimes of war.»The sentence had been reduced to five years only and it was not confirmed during the process of appeal. Student had been freed in 1948 and he lived the rest of his long life in Western Germany where he died in 1978 at the age of 88.

I thank Lucas Turks for the help that he has given me for the bibliographical sources.
Sources: «Hitler's Generals»edited by Correlli Barnett, «World War 2»by Raymond Cartier, «Mein Kommandunternehmen» by Otto Skorzeny, «Around the Table of the Illusions» by Mario Fanoli

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