The first attempt to form an SS airborne unit was in 1937 when a small group of volunteers from the Germania Regt. of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (later Waffen-SS) gathered at the Fallschirmschule at Stendal between 23 May and 17 July for jump training. However, the idea suffered crib-death in its infancy, and the troops were returned to their regular units. When the order came down from FHQu. to SS-FHA in late 1943 (post-Skorzeny at Gran-Sasso)to form an SS-Fallshirmjäger-Bataillon, it was decided that there would be an equal percentage of volunteers from both existing Waffen-SS units, and more specifically, for opportunities for officially disgraced officers and enlisted men wishing to redeem themselves from minor disciplinary sentences todo so under fire. Most such cases were at the time imprisoned at the Strafvollzugslager der Waffen-SS und Polizei in places like SS-Straflager Dachau, and at Danzig-Matzkau. The former military prisoners were restored to their rank and standing. They were integrated throughout the new unit while being overseen by a special probationary staff attached to the Battalion HQ, known as Section III (Abt. III), which included an SS Lawyer, and a number of clerks to keep track of the records concerning the disciplinary cases in the unit.
Although SS-Fj.Btl.-500 is commonly referred to as a penal unit, there is apejorative nuance to the term in English (ie. punishment) which the Germansdisdained to use outright for this type of unit. SS-Fj.Btl.500 was a 500 seriesBewährungs or probationary unit in which (as mentioned above) an enlistedsoldier, NCO, or Officer who had dishonored himself by minor infractions of themilitary code could be given the chance to, in the words of a 2.4.1942 Hitler-decree: “…an der Front bewähren, und eine Amnestie verdienenKönnten.” (ie. “…prove oneself by service at the Front, and thereby earnan amnesty.”). In other words, it was a unit where officers and men convicted bycourts-martial of minor infractions and currently in disciplinary straits couldredeem their soldierly honor by participation in hazardous duties andoperations.
The 500 series numbering system was also shared by the Heer, but should not be confused with the post-1940 500 series designated divisional units, which were also to be found resurrected in the July-August 1944 Heer 28th, 29th and31st mobilization waves of Grenadier and Volksgrenadier formations. Some battalion-sized unit numbers of the 5xx series had also been formerBewärungs units (z.b.V.- zur besondern Verwendung – for special employment) of the Heer (also, Waffen-SS and Polizei) employed on theEastern Front and integrated into new Grenadier formations in the course of, in this case, the July-August 1944 reorganization of the Feldheer.
In the case of the Waffen-SS men being recruited for the SS-Fj.Btl.500, it would have probably been at one of the harsh SS-Strafanstalten, such as that of the notoriously brutal SS-military prison at Danzig-Matzkau, or the punishment-section for SS personnel at Dachau. Prisons for Wehrmacht personnel directed bythe OKW also existed at the Alte-Festung Gemmersheim, and after 1940 atIngolstadt, and at Fort Alvensleben in Metz, among other places. The Luftwaffe also had a disciplinary section at Prüfungslager (testing center) Leipzig-Schünau, and later at Dedelsdorf in Kreis Gifhorn. The Kriegsmarine established a special section for their disciplinary cases at Hela on the Baltics. The Kriegsmarine also had specific battalion-sized units for its disciplinary cases, the first being the Sonderabteilung der Kriegsmarine (NavalDisciplinary Unit) which after WWII began was renamed the Kriegsonderabteilung(Wartime Naval Disciplinary Unit). Another such unit was formed later in WWIInamed Kriegsonderabteilung Ost. Also during the War, the 30.Schiffstammabteilung and 31.Schiffstammabteilung (30th and 31st Ship Cadre Battalions) were formed; the 30th for use in the North Sea area, and the 31st in the Baltic Sea area. Interestingly enough, if “further education” was not likely, problem men were transferred into a naval company of the Heer Field Disciplinary Battalion.
Besides the 500 series units for probation, the Heer also exclusively employedboth 300 series .z.b.V. units, and 999 series designations forBewährungstruppen; though the latter units were considered soldaten Zweite-Klasse (second-class soldiers), composed of more hardened disciplinary casesthat the 500 series would normally not consider for rehabilitation. Theseprisoners were, by their criminal nature, generally more treated toStrafvollzug, or harsher disciplinary conditioning, than of redemptiveprobation, that is, activities leading to restoration of rank and placementwithin their former units. They were, by sentence, those soldiers who hadrefused direct orders, had assaulted superiors, or were generally serving longterms in military goal for presumably non-military criminal or politicaloffenses, such as rape or black-marketeering, or active resistance to the NSregime.
The 999 series units are most popularly known to history by way of the 999.Leichte Afrika Division. This unit was formed in Wehrkreis V in October 1942as Afrika Brigade 999. It consisted of the 961.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment,962.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment, and 963.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment, allmade up of the “verlorener haufe” (lost souls) dredged from the bottom of theMilitär-Strafgefängnisse (military prisons) throughout the Reich – menstripped of rank, decorations and dignity. The 999.Leichte.Afrika Division fought well and honorably in Tunisia and surrendered with the remnants of the DAK in May 1943. It’s 963.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment was transferred toGreece from Sicily before ever reaching North Afrika. This unit went on to become the nucleus of Sturm-Division Rhodos (aka 440.Sturm-Div.Rhodos) in May 1943, with the accompanying 999 unit designations intact. After the surrenderof the 999.Leichte-Afrika-Division, the Divisional replacement Ersatzu.Ausbildungs organization located at its home station of Heuberg continued to process potentially redeemable criminal and political prisoners from the variousWehrmachtstrafslager for replacement positions within other Heer units.
The breakdown of the various types of Bewährungs troops can be more clearly established in the following order:
- 1.Verbände zur besonderen Verwendung (z.b.V.) – Units for specialemployment:
- A: 500er u.a. Bataillone z.b.V. der Heerestruppe – series 500 and otherbattalions for special employment under command of OKW.
- B: Sonderstab Fund 361er Afrikaschützen – Special Staff F and 361-numbered rifle, orbasic infantry units deployed in North Africa.
- C: Feldbataillone z.b.V.der Luftwaffe – Luftwaffe special employment battalions made up of minordisciplinary cases.
- D: SS-Sonder und Stürmtruppen – SS Special andAssault troops created from punishment companies
- 2. Formationen für Soldaten Zweiter Klasse: – Formations composedof 2nd class soldiers:
- A: 999er Afrika und Festungstruppe -999 numbered units deployed toAfrica, and Fortress units.
- B: Bewährungseinrichtung der Org.Todt- Probationary hard labor cases assigned to Organization Todt constructiondetails at the front
The 2nd class soldiers were stripped of rank, decorations and honor, andconsidered “un-Wehrwurding”, or “unworthy of bearing arms” in the defenseof Germany (An important distinction to consider between the types ofStraf- or punishment units which only gradually shifted, and was onlysomewhat relaxed, as the tide of war turned against the Reich).
Perhaps the most luckless of all German military prisoners of this type relegated to Wehrmachtstrafgefangenlager (Armed Forces Punishment camps) were to be found in the Emsland camps of NW Germany at Esterwegen and Börgermoornear Papenburg. These were only two of fifteen notoriously bleak camps situated in the dank peat-bog marshes surrounding the Ems river, near the Dutch border. From their inception in 1933 as SA-manned detention centers for enemies of the new regime, these camps later went on to hold KPDand Socialist Political prisoners, habitual criminals, Jews, religious objectors, military-offenders, and after 1939, Allied prisoners of war. This was perhaps the lowest rung on the military-prison hierarchy to be found in the Wehrmacht prison system, where soldiers convicted of military, political, and civil crimes were purposely sent to be ultimately broken. In fact, once a soldier-prisoner was relegated to Esterwegen camp by the military authority, the imagined benefits of a harsh-but-fair rule of military justice evaporated, as Esterwegen and its ancillary camps were administered by the Reichsjustizministerium, which made it a virtual “Zuchthaus” (civil penitentiary) type establishment subject to all the grim brutalities and deficiencies inherent in an institution ultimately under command of RFss-Heinrich Himmler as Reichsminister des Innen.
In the harsh disciplinary milieu (Eiserne Disziplin der Truppe) of the Waffen-SS specifically, and the German Wehrmacht in general, there was a quite profound difference between the punishments according to the general classification of “delinquenten”, and that of “verbrecher”; (i.e. delinquents and criminals.) Delinquenten were minor disciplinary cases scared into being discipline by the harshness of their sentence and surroundings, while verbrecher were hard-core cases (recall 2nd class soldiers) upon whom presumably the harshest of sentences had little effect.
In a number of cases, front line commands disregarded official formalities in sending soldiers to the far-rear for proper military-judicial discipline, and simply put disciplinary cases in pre-designated Feldstrafgefangenabteilungen(FstrGAbt.) and Bewährungsabteilungen (Field-punishment and probationary detachments) which performed dangerous engineer and assault functions at the blunt edge of attacks, and anti-partisan operations – i.e. the dirty work of clearing mines, fighting partisans, and other so-called himmelsfahrtkommando type duties. (Literally translated, Himmelfahrts Kommando means “Journey-to-heaven-mission” and describes any operation with extremely high risk, although not necessarily suicidal. This colloquialism is sometimes used in civil connotation also, like for mine or bomb clearing. The term is in reference to a specific type of mission, and not a unit type, such as a penal battalion, although members of penal units were often sent on these types of missions. Generally, in the ranks of the Wehrmacht, this black-humor term was understood to mean a mission where the chances of survival were practically nil. Examples were rearguard actions of small groups to cover the retreat of a larger unit by holding a position and delaying the enemy as long as possible until it usually was too late for their own withdrawal, or reconnaissance and commando raids far behind enemy lines.) That is not to say that these local punishments were officially any better or worse than soldiers in a rear-area punishment camp, digging trenches or peat-bogs, cutting wood, or doing the dog construction work of the Organization Todt labor details. It can be conceivably stated that life in the dangerous environment of the front only exacerbated the punishment. Depending on the severity of the individual cases, and at the discretion of the Commanding officer, these hapless men would be stripped of rank and decorations, be refused mail and packages from home, and also the ability to write home and to take leave. Another aspect of the duty in these Army, Corps, and divisional Strafabteilungen or penal-detachments is that depending on the gravity of the offense, the individual soldier’s paybook(Soldbuch) was usually stamped “no decorations, awards, or promotion allowed.” A good example of frontline punishment for disciplinary infractions from early on in the Russian campaign is that of the20.Gebirgsarmee (fighting in the far north of Finland, the Kola, and Karelia) setting up three notorious camps known as Feldstraflager I-III, whose harsh wintertime conditions can only be imagined to have somewhat increased the severity of the sentence in one of the luckless punishment details.
Getting back specifically to SS-Fall.Btl.500, the first gathering ofrecruits was at Chlum in Czechoslovakia in Octoberof 1943. The first commander of the mixed Battalion was SS-SturmbannführerHerbert Gilhofer, of SS-Pz.Gren.Rgt 21 (Frundsberg Div.) In November 1943 theBatallion began intensive parachute jump-training at Madanrushka-Banja,nearSarajevo,at the newly relocated Luftwaffe Fallschirm-Schule nr.3. The fledglingSS-Fallschirmjäger later relocated to Papa, Hungary for their final jump-training in early 1944. After training as a unit, the SS-Fj-Btl.500 moved intoYugoslavia in April 1944 for its baptism of fire near Tuzla in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
At this time the composition of the 1000 man SS-Parachute battalion was:
Btl.Stab.Komp (267 men):
1x -Aufklärungs mannschaft
1x -Kradmelder abteilung
3 Züge & Nachrichten mannschaft
each of 3x Schützen mannschaften, and
1x Mörser mannschaft
3 Züge & Nachrichten mannschaft
each of 3x Schützen mannschaften, and
1x Mörser mannschaft
3 Züge & Nachrichten mannschaft
each of 3x Schützen mannschaften, and
1x Mörser mannschaft
1x MG (h.) zug (MG.42)
1x Flammenwerfer-zug (3 x flamethrowers)
1x Mörserzug (12cm.)
1x Panzerjägerzug (anti-tank) = 4 x LG 40/75 (recoiless para/mtn.gun)
Mobility included 100 Kraftwagen & 30 Kradfahr
Operations in W. Bosnia & Unternehmen Rösselsprung (Knight’s Move)
After spending close to three months moving through the rough terrain of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia in anti-partisan (Bandenkampf) sweeps, SS-Fj.Btl.500 was returned to barracks at Madarushka-Banja in mid-April 1944 to prepare for a new mission. At this time SS-Sturmbannführer Gilhofer returned to theFrundsberg Division, and SS-Hauptsturmführer Kurt Rybka took overcommand. In what would be the first and only combat parachute drop (andglider-assault) made by the SS-Fj.Batallion during the war, the unit was prepared to drop on communist Partisan leader Josef Brosz Tito’sheadquarters in a heavily armed mountain stronghold above the town of Drvarin western Bosnia. In a concerted effort, along with combined Luftwaffe, Heer, and Croatian troops attacking from the ground; elements of the SS-Fallsch.Batallion 500 would boldly land near the top of the citadel and storm Tito’s headquarters, situated in a well-defended cave, in an attempt to kill or capture him. This was to be undertaken in an operation known as Rösselsprung, or Knights Move and would be the highlight of a major ground sweep by 2.Panzer-Armee of Armeegruppe F, of partisan held territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The order of battle for the May 25, 1944airborne operation included:
- III/LLG1 (3rd Btl.Air Landing Group 1) from Nancy, France with 17 towingdetachments
- 4.II/LLG1 (4th Squad.,2nd Btl.) from Strasbourg-Polygon-Mannheim,with 8towing detachments
- II/Transportgschw.4 with Ju52’s & SM79 Sparviero with RSI crew. (notconfirmed)
SS-Hauptsturmführer Rybka planned for a total of 654 fallschirmjägerto drop in the first assault wave. Three hundred and fourteen (314) ofthese men would drop by parachute, while the remainder, organized into sixassault groups, would land by DFS230 & Go-242 glider. At the heart ofthe mission, each glider group was assigned a specific task:
- Panther group – 110 men to neutralize Tito’s bodyguard (ca.350strong), and capture him in his headquarters.
- Greifer group – 40 men to destroy the UK military mission.
- Sturmer group – 50 men to destroy the USSR military mission.
- Brecher group – 50 men to destroy the US military mission.
- Daufnanger group – 50 fallschirmjäger, and 20 men of “AbteilungSvadil” – a special composite detail of (Abwehr) Brandenburgers, LW signalsexperts,and interpreters from 7.SS-Frw.Gebirgsdivision Prinz Eugen, taskedwith destroying partisan signals unit and collection of radio code booksand signal intelligence references.
- Beisser group – 20 men to seize a specific outpost radio station, and then assist group Greifer.
The O/B of the operation’s ground units included:
- 7.SS-Freiwillige-Gebirgsdivision “Prinz Eugen” (elements)
- 1.Gebirgsdivision. [Heer] (elements)
- 92.Infanterie-Regiment (mot.)
- 373.Inf.Div.(Kroat.),incl.383. & 384.Inf.Rgtr./Aufkl.Abt.373/Pz.Jag.abt.373.
- II/1.Brandenburg Rgt. & III/1.Brandenburg Rgt.
- Ustasha – ca.300 men of Croatian Republic’s Guard unit.
- Chetnik – ca.500 Serbian partisans who, while having no love forCroatian’s, hated the communist Tito as well.
The air-drop/air-landing mission, which commenced at 0700 on May 25, 1944, was a near debacle. While reaching the citadel in near-perfect execution of their plan, and initially stunning the partisan defenders, the SS-Fj. assault group quickly came under heavy defensive fire from Tito’s bodyguard detachment, which delayed their entrance into the inner-sanctum of Tito’smountain lair. In the meantime, the ever-elusive Tito, along with Slovenianpartisan leader Edvard Kardelj, had escaped through a natural fissure at the top of the cave, heavily escorted by partisan echelons to a nearby mountain-railway, which steamed him west to the coast of the Adriatic, well beyond the immediate grasp of the troops detailed to capture him. The prize had escaped, but the ordeal of the attacking glider-troops of SS-Fallschirmjäger did not end there. Numerous Partisan brigades encamped and ranging throughout the hilly fastness around the Drvar citadel quickly responded to the alarm and began to converge upon their beleaguered comrade’s positions. While the assault gliders brought SS-Fj.Btl. troops directly on top of the heavily guarded mountainside, other elements of the Batallion were at the same time, parachuting directly into and around the perimeter of the smoldering town of Drvar; which, much to the chagrin of both attacker and defender, was still being area-bombed by the Luftwaffe in a less than elegant synchronization of the operational timetable. The fighting in Drvar was bitter, and both sides suffered heavy casualties throughout the morning and afternoon of May 25. On the hillside, Rybka and his men had finally subdued the defenders of Tito’scave, only to capture a few scattered maps and documents, and a newly tailored General’s uniform, which Tito had not yet worn. The furious fight for the cave had cost Rybka both many good men, and the use of his left arm, which had been shattered by a partisan grenade. Despite an early afternoon glider landing of ammunition and medical supplies, Rybka found his position on the hillside untenable and so ordered his remaining assault force to pull back in an orderly fashion into the valley, and still contested town of Drvar. By nightfall, they ended up in the town cemetery, along with the remnants of the Battalion which had parachuted into the village earlier that morning; surrounded on all sides, and taking heavy mortar fire from well equipped and determined partisan fighters.
Meanwhile, the ground forces of the 373.(Kroat.) Infanterie Division and the 7.SS-Frw.Gebirgs-Div. Prinz Eugen were relentlessly driving theirway fromthe southwest through heavy partisan defensive fire and rough valleyterrain toward Drvar and the SS-Fallschirmjäger’s beleaguered positions.At daybreak on 26 May, the Aufklärungs-Abteilung of the Prinz EugenDivision linked up with Rybka and his decimated command, and relieved them oftheir defensive burden. While SS-Hauptsturmführer Kurt Rybka went on to thehospital, the remaining fit members of his Battalion were sent on to Petrovacfor a subsequent anti-partisan operation. In early June 1944, the fitelements of SS-Fj.Btl.500 were sent to barracks at Ljubljana for rest and a muchneeded reorganization.
On 26 June, 1944, SS-Hauptsturmführer Siegfried Milius took command of SS-Fj.Btl.500. The Battalion’s Feldersatzkompanie had only been able, by thistime, to return lightly wounded men and briefly trained replacements to theready-roster of the Battalion. As a result of losses incurred during Unternehmen Rösselsprung, the Battalion had been greatly reduced in size andeffectiveness. Of the 1000 battle-ready men on May 25, 1944, by 30 June only 15Officers, 81 NCO’s,and 196 enlisted men remained.
Operations in the Baltic states – Summer 1944
With the opening of the Russian summer offensive of late June 1944 and theimpending withdrawal of Finland from active hostilities against the SovietUnion, the 292 men of SS-Fj.Btl.500 were ordered to report directly toMarine-Oberkommando-Ostsee (Naval High Command Baltic) at Gotenhafen on theBaltic Coast in East Prussia for a special mission. On June 29, 1944 theBattalion entrained from the Balkans for the Eastern Front. A plan had beenformulated for their participation in a pre-emptive assault-landing andoccupation of the Aaland Islands in the Baltic Sea, to deny them to theRussians; but by the time of their arrival at MO-Ostsee at Gotenhafen,the plan had been cancelled.
The Battalion was then entrained for Narwa, Estonia to join theIII.(Germanisch) SS-Panzerkorps. The unit’s stay there was briefhowever, and they were further moved by airlift from Rakvere, Estonia toKaunas, Lithuania, on the northern flank of the crumbling Heeresgruppe Mitte. Upon it’s arrival in the area of 3.Panzerarmee (CO Hasso v.Manteuffel) on July10, the Batallion was immediately dispatched to 39.Panzerkorps, and into an ad-hoc Kampfgruppe with the I./Panzer-regiment Grossdeutschland for the relief ofthe 11.Armeekorps, outflanked in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
The SS-Fallschirmjäger, mounted on the tanks of the Grossdeutschland, attacked along the Kaunas-Vilnius highway the very day of their arrival at thefront, helping to stem the tide of the Soviet armored thrust on Vilnius to thesoutheast; allowing another battlegroup (KG-Schmidt), to move in and evacuatethe wounded, resupply the units fighting there, and bolster the defense of11.Armeekorps. Despite the hard-fought actions of the 39.Panzer-korps,and3.Panzerarmee, of which the SS-Fj.Btl.500 was a part, a two-week long furioussee-saw battle eventually pushed the Germans out of the Lithuanian capital forgood between the last week of July and the first week of August 1944 – the SS-Fj-500 helped to evacuate the last of Vilnius’ defenders near the city’sAirport – with the Soviet 51st Army battering it’s way west toward the Baltic Sea, and the eventual creation of the Kurland Pocket. On August19, 1944, fighting alongside Panzer-Brigade von Werthen, elements of7.Panzer Div., 212., and 252.Inf.Divisons, the much dwindled and hard-fought SS-Fj.Batallion helped secure the front around Raseiniai, well northwest ofKaunus. Ordered to stand down for rest and re-fit that very day, an emergency on August 20th among the units of 26.Armeekorps (6.Panzer &561.Inf.Div’s) around Sintauti, ordered the last 90 combat-fit men of SS-Fallschirmjäger Btl.500 to join up with s.Pz.Jäger-Abteilung731 to help stem the advance of the Soviet 33rd and 11th Guards Armies. Given a few days’ rest after this engagement, in September 1944, the unit was again linked with the Grossdeutschland and 39.Panzerkorps.
The final battle of the SS-Fj.Btl.500 in the east was in early October1944, north of Memel. There, along with elements of the 7.Panzer-Division,Grossdeutschland, and 58.Inf.Division, they attempted to halt theadvance of the Soviet’s to the sea; an unsuccessful spoiling operationwhich led to the eventual siege of Memel and the entrapment of the formerlynamed units. At this point the remnants of the Battalion were plucked fromdisaster, and sent to Zichenau in East Prussia. They were recalled toDeutsch-Wagram in Ostmark (Austria) to join their Ersatz u.AusbildungsKompanie currently involved in the formation of a completely new SS-Fallschirmjäger-Batallion, to be numbered 600. The bewährungs, orprobationary status of the unit was dissolved, and the new Batallion would becomposed of totally of volunteers.