|The first attempt to form an SS airborne unit was in 1937 when a smallgroup of volunteers from the Germania Regt. of the SS-Verfügungstruppe(later Waffen-SS) gathered at the Fallschirmschule at Stendal between23.May and 17 July for jump training. However, the idea suffered crib-deathin its infancy, and the troops were returned to their regular units. Whenthe order came down from FHQu. to SS-FHA in late 1943 (postSkorzeny at Gran-Sasso)to form an SS-Fallshirmjäger-Bataillon, it was decided that there wouldbe an equal percentage of volunteers from both existing Waffen-SS units, andmore specifically, for opportunities for officially disgraced officers andenlisted men wishing to redeem themselves from minor disciplinary sentences todo so under fire. Most such cases were at the time imprisoned at theStrafvollzugslager der Waffen-SS und Polizei in places like SS-StraflagerDachau, and at Danzig-Matzkau. The former military prisoners were restored theirrank and standing, and integrated throughout the new unit, while being overseenby a special probationary staff attached to the Battalion HQ, known as SectionIII (Abt.III), which included an SS Lawyer, and a number of clerks to keep trackof 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 tobe confused with the post-1940 500 series designated divisional units, whichwere also to be found resurrected in the July-August 1944 Heer 28th, 29th and31st mobilization waves of Grenadier and Volksgrenadier formations. Somebattalion sized unit numbers of the 5xx series had also been formerBewärungs units (z.b.V.- zur besondern Verwendung – for specialemployment) of the Heer (also, Waffen-SS and Polizei) employed on theEastern Front and integrated into new Grenadier formations in the course of, inthis 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 wouldhave probably been at one of the harsh SS-Strafanstalten, such as that of thenotoriously 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 theBaltic. The Kriegsmarine also had specific battalion sized units for itsdisciplinary 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.Schiffstammabteilungand 31.Schiffstammabteilung (30th and 31st Ship Cadre Battalions) were formed,the 30. 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 weretransferred 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 Divisionfought well and honorably in Tunisa, and surrendered with the remnants of theDAK in May 1943. It’s 963.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment was transferred toGreece from Sicily before ever reaching North Afrika. This unit went on tobecome the nucleus of Sturm-Division Rhodos (aka 440.Sturm-Div.Rhodos) in May1943, 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 toprocess 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 clearlyestablished in the following order:
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 typerelegated to Wehrmachtstrafgefangenlager (Armed Forces Punishment camps) were tobe found in the Emsland camps of NW Germany at Esterwegen and Börgermoornear Papenburg. These were only two of fifteen notoriously bleak campssituated in the dank peat-bog marshes surrounding the Ems river, near theDutch border. From their inception in 1933 as SA-manned detention centers forenemies of the new regime, these camps later went on to hold KPDand Socialist Political prisoners, habitual criminals, Jews, religiousobjectors, military-offenders, and after 1939, Allied prisoners of war.This was perhaps the lowest rung on the military-prison hierarchy to be found inthe Wehrmacht prison system, where soldiers convicted of military, political,and civil crimes were purposely sent to be ultimately broken. In fact, once asoldier-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 it’s ancillary camps were administered by theReichsjustizministerium, which made it a virtual “Zuchthaus” (civilpenitentiaray) type establishment subject to all the grim brutalities anddeficiencies 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 theWaffen-SS specifically, and the German Wehrmacht in general, there was aquite profound difference between the punishments accorded to the generalclassifications of “delinquenten”, and that of “verbrecher”; (i.e. delinquentsand criminals.) Delinquenten were minor disciplinary cases scared intodiscipline by the harshness of their sentence and surroundings, while verbrecherwere hard-core cases (recall 2nd class soldiers) upon whom presumably theharshest of sentences had little affect.
In a number of cases, front line commands disregarded official formalities insending soldiers to the far-rear for proper military-judicial discipline, andsimply put disciplinary cases in pre-designated Feldstrafgefangenabteilungen(FstrGAbt.) and Bewährungsabteilungen (Field-punishment and probationarydetachments) which performed dangerous engineer and assault functions at theblunt edge of attacks, and anti-partisan operations – i.e. the dirty work ofclearing mines, fighting partisans, and other so-called himmelsfahrtkommandotype duties. (Literally translated, Himmelfahrts Kommando means “Journey-to-heaven-mission” and descibes any operation with extremely high risk, althoughnot necessarily suicidal. This colloquialism is sometimes used in civilconnotation also, like for mine or bomb clearing. The term is in reference to aspecific type of mission, and not a unit type, such as penal battalion, althoughmembers of penal units were often sent on these types of missions. Generally, inthe ranks of the Wehrmacht, this black-humor term was understood to mean amission where the chances of survival were practically nil. Examples wererearguard actions of small groups to cover the retreat of a larger unit byholding a position and delaying the enemy as long as possible until it usuallywas too late for their own withdrawal, or reconnaissance and commando raids farbehind enemy lines.) That is not to say that these local punishments wereofficially any better or worse than soldiers in a rear-area punishment camp,digging trenches or peat-bogs, cutting wood, or doing the dog construction workof the Organization Todt labor details. It can be conceivably stated that lifein the dangerous environment of the front only exacerbated the punishment.Depending on the severity of the individual cases, and at the discretion ofthe Commanding officer, these hapless men would be stripped of rank anddecorations, be refused mail and packages from home, and also the ability towrite home and to take leave. Another aspect of the duty in theseArmy, Corps, and divisional Strafabteilungen or penal-detachments is thatdepending on the gravity of the offense, the individual soldier’s paybook(Soldbuch) was usually stamped “no decorations, awards, or promotionallowed.” A good example of frontline punishment for disciplinaryinfractions 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 harshwintertime conditions can only be imagined to have somewhat increased theseverity of 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):
Mobility included 100 Kraftwagen & 30 Kradfahr
Operations in W. Bosnia & Unternehmen Rösselsprung (Knight’s Move)
After spending close to three months moving through the roughterrain of Bosnia-Herzogovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia inanti-partisan (Bandenkampf) sweeps, SS-Fj.Btl.500 was returned tobarracks at Madarushka-Banja in mid-April 1944 to prepare for a newmission. 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 wasprepared 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 citadeland storm Tito’s headquarters, situated in a well defended cave, in anattempt to kill or capture him. This was to be undertaken in an operationknown as Rösselsprung, or Knights Move, and would be the highlight ofa major ground sweep by 2.Panzer-Armee of Armeegruppe F, of partisan heldterritory in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The order of battle for the May 25, 1944airborne operation included:
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:
The O/B of the operation’s ground units included:
The air-drop/air-landing mission, which commenced at 0700 on May 25, 1944, wasa near debacle. While reaching the citadel in near perfect execution oftheir plan, and initially stunning the partisan defenders, the SS-Fj. assaultgroup quickly came under heavy defensive fire from Tito’s bodyguarddetachment, 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 thetop of the cave, heavily escorted by partisan echelons to a nearbymountain-railway, which steamed him west to the coast of the Adriatic, wellbeyond the immediate grasp of the troops detailed to capture him. The prizehad escaped; but the ordeal of the attacking glider-troops ofSS-Fallschirmjäger did not end there. Numerous Partisan brigades encampedand ranging throughout the hilly fastness around the Drvar citadel quicklyresponded to the alarm and began to converge upon their beleaguered comrade’spositions. While the assault gliders brought SS-Fj.Btl. troops directly on topof the heavily guarded mountainside, other elements of the Batallion were at thesame time, parachuting directly into and around the perimeter of the smolderingtown of Drvar; which, much to the chagrin of both attacker and defender, wasstill being area-bombed by the Luftwaffe in a less than elegant synchronizationof the operational timetable. The fighting in Drvar was bitter, and both sidessuffered heavy casualties throughout the morning and afternoon of May 25. On thehillside, Rybka and his men had finally subdued the defenders of Tito’scave, only to capture a few scattered maps and documents, and a newlytailored General’s uniform, which Tito had not yet worn. The furious fightfor the cave had cost Rybka both many good men, and the use of his leftarm, which had been shattered by a partisan grenade. Despite an earlyafternoon glider landing of ammunition and medical supplies, Rybka found hisposition on the hillside untenable and so ordered his remaining assaultforce to pull back in an orderly fashion into the valley, and stillcontested town of Drvar. By nightfall, they ended up in the towncemetery, along with the remnants of the Battalion which had parachuted intothe village earlier that morning; surrounded on all sides, and taking heavymortar 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 ofSS-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 UnternehmenRösselsprung, 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 – theSS-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 theBaltic 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-foughtSS-Fj.Batallion helped secure the front around Raseiniai, well northwest ofKaunus. Ordered to stand down for rest and re-fit that very day, anemergency on August 20th among the units of 26.Armeekorps (6.Panzer &561.Inf.Div’s) around Sintauti, ordered the last 90 combat-fit men ofSS-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 wasagain 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.