Weapons and Equipment of the Fallschirmjäger
Gliders and Aircraft
The DFS 230 was Germany’s first assault glider and saw the most active service. It was narrow and much resembled its sporting glider antecedents. It was a lightweight glider made of tubing and fabric and had an excellent glide ration. Later models incorporated a braking chute and some models even had retro rockets in the nose. The wheels could be dropped in flight and landing made on a ventral central skid. The glider normally held a pilot and nine men. The passengers sat in a line down the center, straddling a bench. The last four men faced the rear of the glider. The only door was in the port rear but “kick out” panels on either side of the fuselage could be removed for a quick escape. The final models had a machine-gun mount on the top, fired by the first passenger. Over 2000 DFS 230s were built. While the most common towing plane was the JU 52, the Heinkel he 111 was also used.
The Go 242 (GOTHAER WAGGONFABRIK AG) was designed to be a better load carrier than the DFS 230. It was first placed in service in summer 1941, by which time the great days of German Airborne assaults were over. rather like the later American Fairchild C-119, the Go 242 had a central nacelle and twin booms. Freight was loaded via an upward hinging door at the rear of the fuselage. There were two doors, one on each side, at the front of the cabin. Construction was tube steel, fabric, and wood and it carried up to four tons. Over twenty troops or a light field gun and a towing vehicle could be carried. Unlike the DFS 230, the Go 242 was not much of a glider and had to be landed rather quickly after being cast off from the tow. The total output was about 1,500 and most were used for resupply on the Russian front. Either the JU 52 or the He 111 was used for towing.
The Messerschmitt 321, the Gigant, was the largest glider ever used on operations. It had a 55-meter wingspan, was 28.15 meters long and nearly 6 meters deep. It weighed 12 tons and could carry about 20 tons. Two-hundred troops could be accommodated in place of cargo. Loading was via a pair of huge clamshell doors in the nose. The 321 was originally towed by three BF 110’s fighters in concert, the “troika” tow. This was as inherently unstable and as dangerous as it sounded. Later the ZWILLING Heinkel was used, two He 111’s joined by a center wingspan and equipped with five engines. Over 200 321’s were built. The majority were converted into Messerschmitt 323 transport planes by the addition of six French Gnone-Rhone radials. A crew for the transport version was five, compared to two for the glider, and payload was much reduced. Both the glider and transport were stable but heavy and sluggish. A flight of 323’s was slaughtered by Allied fighters while trying to resupply Tunisia and another group was shot down over Bucharest during German attempts to gain control of the city. either undertow as a glider or in the self-powered version, they needed an excessive length of the runway. Later models employed rockets to assist takeoff.
The venerable Tri-Motor Junkers JU 52 was one of the true greats. Designed in the late 1920s, a few were still in service in the 1980s. Known as “Auntie JU” the JU 52 was strongly built. It could carry 10,000 pounds of cargo, 13 paratroopers, or 18 regular troops. Its wide use belied the fact that it was outdated and too slow, top speed was only 180 miles per hour. The fuselage and the side doors were too narrow to allow carriage and airdropping of heavy loads. Still, it was a good airplane and always popular with its crews.
The worst parachutes used by a major power were those of the Germans which were based on the Italian “Salvatore” design. The German RZ (RUCKENPACKUNG ZWANGAUSLOSUNG or, rucksack packed to open) series of chutes (primarily the RZ-16 and the RZ-20)had a single strap between the back of the body harness and the chute. This resulted in a face-down position that required knee and elbow pads and a forward roll upon landing. (Employment of this type of parachute is curious since German aircrew used a chute that had lift webs attached to the shoulders like the British and American models.)This landing position led to many landing injuries. To allow for proper deployment, the paratrooper had to leap forward in a straight body dive when jumping. Control during the descent was almost impossible except for a superbly trained and agile trooper and even then little control was possible. The forward roll landing also kept the parachutist from carrying much equipment on his body. Except for pistols, grenades, and the occasional submachine-gun, German paratroopers had to rely on containers for their main combat equipment. The chute was attached to the harness with four clips which, like the American chute, were difficult to undo when under fire or when the trooper was being wind dragged. The Germans issued each Fallschirmjaeger with a gravity knife to cut the rigging in an emergency. The opening shock of this canopy first parachute was also very harsh but the chute would fully deploy in under 40 meters which meant a lower drop altitude and less time dangling helplessly in the air. By the Crete invasion, the Germans deployed various colored parachute canopies for camouflage and to aid in the identification of commanders and/or containers.
The Germans produced the widest range of special and modified items for their Airborne troops. The most famous item was the FG-42, a gas-operated semi-automatic rifle made only for the Airborne. Only about 10,000 were made. It was an advanced design that fired full automatic from an open bolt – for cooling – and semi-automatic from a closed bolt – for accuracy. The weapon had a small bipod and fed from a 20 round magazine on the left side. It weighed nearly ten pounds fully loaded. It fired the full size 7.92 MM military round which was really too powerful for the weapon. Even with a bipod, it was difficult to control when fired on full automatic.
The standard MP 38 and MP 40 submachine-guns and bolt action Mausers were used by most paratroopers. Some German paratroopers used a shortened and folding version of the standard Mauser. This was not a success and had both a strong recoil and a huge muzzle flash. Late in the war, many Fallschirmjaeger were issued with the MP-44 assault weapon as evidenced by photographs of the 3rd and 5th Fallschirmjaeger Division in the Ardennes and the 1st and 4th Fallschirmjaeger Division in Italy. The MP-44 fired a shortened and less powerful version of the 7.92 standard round. The weapon itself was made of stamped metal and fired either full or semi-automatic. The MP-44 was the forerunner of all modern assault rifles. This weapon only went into mass production in 1944 and supply never came close to equaling demand. Despite their high priority, most Fallschirmjaeger ended with the war with the standard bolt action Mauser.
The German paratroopers were equipped with what was undoubtedly the best light machine-guns of World War II – the MG 34 and the later MG 42. The MG 42 replaced the MG 34 because it was much easier and cheaper to produce, being made extensively from stamped steel Parts. Weighing only a little over 11.5 kilograms it fired at a phenomenal 1300 to 1400 rounds per minute. The barrel was quick and easy to change and the weapon was very tolerant of dust and dirt. When equipped with a tripod it made a very useful medium machine-gun. Each German infantry squad(10 to 12 men at full strength) was equipped with one MG-42 light machine-gun and this went a long way toward overcoming the relatively slow firing rate of the bolt action Mausers. The fast-firing MG 42 was a major factor in German defensive abilities throughout the war. The MG 42 was the prototype of all modern General purpose machine-guns and in slightly modified form is still in service as a standard weapon with the German, Italian and Yugoslavian armies.
The Germans were the first to employ recoilless artillery, using a 75 MM version as early as Crete. The 75 MM gun(321 pounds) was broken down into Parts and parachute dropped. Later a 105 MM version weighing 855 pounds was introduced. German mountain and Jaeger troops also used recoilless artillery.
Two types of “squeeze-bore” anti-tank guns, in 28 MM and 42MM were used by the Airborne forces. These gave a strong punch for their caliber but the shortage of tungsten needed for the special shot put these guns out of service by early 1943. The Airborne pattern of the 28 MM gun only weighed 260 pounds.
One of the more successful modifications of standard equipment was a shortened (KURZ or “K”) version of the 81 MM mortar. This saved considerable weight and range was not severely penalized. Some engineer units used the Eintossflammenwerfer, a single shot flame thrower originally developed for the SS.
Weapons and Equipment Containers
Because of the rather athletic forward landing roll necessitated by their parachute harness, the German paratrooper could carry little more than a pistol and some grenades on his person. Therefore, many weapons containers, called Waffenhalter, had to be carried and dropped. A single 40 man plus a platoon of Fallschirmjaeger needed no less than fourteen containers just for weapons and basic ammunition supply. The containers were carried either under the Wings or in a bomb-bay. Each container could hold over 200 pounds of equipment and the maximum loaded weight was 260 pounds. It was five long and about 16 inches square. The container had a crash pad at one end and the parachute was connected at the other end. Some containers were equipped with a pair of small wheels and a tow bar that could be clipped to the container after the drop. This allowed the container to be towed from the drop zone. The number one priority of the troops upon landing was to find their containers. colored bands or other markings were used to aid retrieval by the correct units and to indicate which items the container carried.
The Germans never came up with a lightweight air-dropped or transportable vehicle to equal the Allies’ jeep. They did use motorcycles, usually 750 CC engine BMW’s, equipped with sidecars for reconnaissance. The motorcycles were also equipped with a towing hook so they could tow light anti-tank or artillery weapons. However, towing strength for such a combination was low and cross-country performance was poor. The German Fallschirmjaeger also made limited use of the Kettenrad, a semi-tracked vehicle based on a motorcycle. The Kettenrad had a motorcycle wheel in front and a track on each side of the rear. With a 1500 CC engine and a weight of 1200 kilograms it had better cross-country performance and power reserves than a motorcycle but was still of limited value and difficult to load and unload from a JU 52.
Clothing and Equipment
The Fallschirmjäger had a wide variety of special clothing. As they were Luftwaffe personnel, the basic uniform was that of the flying units and in blue rather than the field grey of the Army. The flying blouse was a short-waisted, open-necked jacket with buttons hidden under a fly front. The trousers were similar to the flying pattern but had a pocket on the right thigh for the gravity knife mentioned above. This was a single-bladed knife carried to cut away parachute rigging in an emergency. To operate, the knife was held pointing downward and a button push released the blade. Once the blade was extended, the button was released and this locked the blade in place. The trousers also had an opening on the outside of each leg at the knee level. This was to allow knee pads to be donned or removed. Knee pads were necessary because of the face down landing position necessitated by the RZ series of parachutes. Elbow pads were sometimes worn but these fit over the jacket and smock.
The Fallschirmjäger were originally issued with a high, side-lacing boot. There was no advantage to this type of boot and it was soon replaced by a front lacing boot. In the latter part of the war, the troops wore normal German combat boots.
The paratroopers also used a variety of combat smocks. The smock became as much a badge of the Fallschirmjaeger as the rimless helmet. For the jump, the smock was worn over the uniform and combat gear and under the parachute harness. The purpose was to keep the parachute rigging from being caught up in the personal gear. The first smocks had short, tailored step-in legs, and removing the smock to put it under the gear was aggravation in training and a dangerous delay in combat. Later smocks had snaps at the lower edge, which could be used to make “legs”.The early smocks were also plain grey or grey-green. Later smocks were camouflaged in various patterns but plain smocks were still in evidence at the end of the war.
There was also a special Fallschirmjaeger helmet. In appearance, it was like a normal German helmet with the rim cut off and the first helmets were actually made in this fashion. Later helmets were produced to Fallschirmjaeger specification. The helmet harness was more extensive than that of the normal helmet and the interior was padded. A helmet cover was commonly worn, usually in the same pattern of camouflage as the smock.
The Fallschirmjaeger bandolier was made of cloth and worn around the neck. It hung down on both sides of the chest and had loops on the rear through which the waist belt passed. The bandolier’s twelve compartments held 120 rounds. there was a similar bandolier for the 20 round FG-42 magazines but it only had eight compartments. The MP38/40 submachine-gun ammunition carriers consisted of two pouches each with space for three clips. there was also a special pouch to carry the 32 round clips for the MP-44 but this was in very short supply. Most Fallschirmjaeger carried spare MP-44 clips in their smock pockets.
For assault rations, the Fallschirmjaeger was provided with a rather uninspired combination of processed meats and cheeses, “ersatz” instant coffee and dry “rusk” type biscuits/crackers. In combat, German paras often received issues of rum or brandy. They were also issued with dextrose thirst-quenching tablets. Fallschirmjaegers used the standard German Army “Esbit” stove. This was a folding, solid fuel cooker little larger than a packet of cigarettes. opened up to one of two positions, the cooker could support anything from a pot to a cup. When closed, the stove held the solid fuel supply.
When necessary, Benzedrine type drugs were issued to keep the troops alert for extended periods of time. There are two drawbacks to all chemical stimulants of this type. One is that the user depletes all energy reserves and tends to fall asleep when the drug wears off -even while actually engaged in combat. These types of stimulants also give the user a raging thirst and water is notoriously short in combat situations.