Monday, December 13, 2010

Fallschirmjager in North Africa and the last Airborne operations in Tunisia

Ramcke Fallschirm Brigade' symbol

Fallschirmjager's Symbol
Ramcke Brigade Fallschirmjager's looking for action (Colorized Picture by me)

On October 23rd 1942 the second battle of El Alamein was launched, German and Italian forces started their retreat from the area on 3rd November.

The British 8th army began to push the Axis forces westward through Egypt and Libya into Tunisia. The Allied high command decided on a plan to trap the Axis forces by landing a force into French North Africa and pushing Eastwards, while Montgomery’s 8th army pushed westwards and then northwards into Tunisia.

German paratroops had been in North Africa since July 1942 when Major General Bernhard Ramcke’s Fallschirm Brigade arrived to take part in the battles at El Alamein. His brigade consisted of 4 battalions, the 1st battalion commanded by Major Kroh, 2nd Battalion commanded by Major Baron von der Heydte, 3rd Battalion commanded by Major Heubner and the 4th Fallschirm-Lehr Battalion comanded by Maj Burkhardt.

Herman Bernhard Ramcke Commander of the Ramcke Fallschirm Brigade
(Colorized Picture by me)
It gave a good account of itself in action but was almost destroyed in the fighting around El-Alamein and the retreat afterwards and many of his men were lost in the general surrender of May 1943. The remnant of his unit were reformed into part of the new 2nd Parachute division in 1943.

In November 1942 the 5th Parachute Regiment under the command of Oberstleutnant Koch was flown into Tunis to guard and protect the airfields around the city.

The 5th Regiment was closely followed by a Battalion of Fallschirm Pioneers under the command of Major Witzig, who were given the task of strengthening an area to the west of Tunis in direct line of Allied advance.

On the 17th November the German troops made contact with the advance guard of the allied spearhead and the first of many battles ensued.

Over the next few days, the flimsy line being held by Witzigs men was slowly reinforced which allowed his Battalion to be pulled back out of the front line and used as a reserve unit.

Parts of his Battalion were then given special training and given the job of slipping behind enemy lines to carry out reconnaissance and gather intelligence on enemy forces, which led to the last airdrop to be carried out by the Luftwaffe Fallschirmjager in North Africa.

Fallschirmjäger officer wearing the Luftwaffe tropical uniform and baggy trousers. Notice the distinctive large map pocket situated on the upper left leg. Thanks to Jose Solorzano

The men of the 3rd Company, Pioneer Battalion was chosen for the airdrop, and training began immediately.

The objectives would be airfields and bridges in the Souk el Arba and Souk el Ahras areas, behind the allied lines. These objectives were being used by the Allies to resupply and reinforce their troops and the German high command needed to disrupt any future offensive on their flimsy defence perimeter around Tunis.

The JU-52 transport aircraft took off from airfields outside of the capital in early December, not the best month for airborne operations, the weather was cold, windy and there was no moon.

The Luftwaffe had suffered from a distinct lack of experienced and well-trained pilots and this showed as the paratroops jumped.

Although the pilots had crossed the enemy lines without being detected there inexperience led them to drop the men miles from their objectives, not one stick landed on their assigned drop zone. It would be a long walk to the targets.

Fallschirmjäger Felgendarm wearing the tropical issue shirt and shorts. Notice the blue woollen socks which were also standard issue to Fallschirmjäger troops in the desert. Thanks to Jose Solorzano

Unfortunately for the Para’s, the British troops who patrolled the areas where they dropped, soon started to round up the Engineers. Within a few days they had all been rounded up, many suffering from the effects of the sun.

This last ditch effort to disrupt the Allied advance on Tunis had been very unsuccessful.
The Pioneers operation was followed a few days later by another airborne assault. On 26th December 1942, a glider assault by men of the Fallschirm Company of the Brandenburg Regiment was carried out to destroy bridges being used as supply routes by the British.

This assault ended in disaster; some of the gliders were shot down as they passed over enemy lines and some on approach to their objectives. They suffered many casualties and most were killed or captured.

Supplies to Allied forces continued to get through and the perimeter around Tunis began to shrink. Who knows whether the airborne operations would have had any effect on the allied advance?

The Fallschirmtruppe forces in North Africa had been seriously depleted and those who did not manage to escape from Tunisia in May 1943 were lost in the surrender of the Axis forces.

Ramcke Brigade's Men in Tunis
Pic by courtesy of Greg Way from DIVING EAGLE

On November 4th of 1942, Rommel initiated his retreat that was quite successful as he managed to save from destruction good quantities of material and many of his mobile troops. And this was a little victory in the general defeat: all this was permitted mainly because of the sacrifice of Italian static units, abandoned into the desert (Bologna, Brescia, Pavia and, first of all, Folgore) that delayed the British/Allies advance. The only static Axis unit who escaped that trap in good conditions was the Ramcke Paratroopers Brigade, which, after having force-marched across the desert to the coast road intercepted a British truck-convoy and using the captured trucks rejoined the Panzerarmee after an adventurous run.

  • Battalion Kroh - formed from the 1st Battalion of Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 2, just returned from Russia
  • Battalion Huebner - formed from the 2nd Battalion of the newly formed Fallschirmjaeger
  • Regiment 5
  • Battalion Burkhardt - formed from a demonstration/training (Lehr) Battalion
  • Battalion von der Heydte - a newly raised unit
  • Artillery Battalion - formed from the 2nd Battalion of 7th Flieger Division's parachute
  • Artillery Regiment, commander was Fenski
  • Anti-tank Company, commander was Hasender
  • Signal Company
  • Pioneer Company, commander was Captain Cord Tietjen
Major-General Hermann Bernhard Ramcke

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