The black and white photo shows three paratroopers taking up position. One is standing in a waist-deep hole, aiming a machine gun. The other two are lying on the ground next to it on their left sides, looking around.
Central Italy, autumn 1943: a group of paratroopers with a machine gun takes up position in the Sangro section at the front. © BArch Bild 101I-576-1850-37A / Wahner

1. Fallschirm-Jäger-Division

The German Fallschirmjäger (parachute) formations were considered an elite force: their members were selected and indoctrinated. The Nazi regime vaunted their military successes – a myth of battle-ready men thus emerging and living on after the war. The war crimes of these men were, by contrast, kept in the dark. 

The 1st Fallschirmjäger Division arrived in Italy in July 1943 to support the ‘Hermann Göring’ Panzer Division in its fighting in Sicily. While withdrawing northward through Italy, on a number of occasions the parachutists inflicted extreme violence on civilians. The most brutal such episode was in November 1943, in Pietransieri, Abruzzi.

Army branch
Luftwaffe
Armed force
Wehrmacht
Commanders
Until Oct. 1944, parachute-troop general Richard Heidrich
Oct. 1944-May 1945, Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz
Years of service
1943-1945
Offensive
Occupation of Italy (summer 1943-45)
Confirmed Massacres

Barletta; additional atrocities in Apulia and Basilikata, including in Matera and Rionero in Vulture

Pietransieri 

San Pietro Mussolino 

A black and white photograph showing several paratroopers in the snow. In the foreground, two of them can be seen from the side. They are lying on their stomachs and pointing a rifle. In the background, another can also be seen from the side, lying prone on the ground. Behind them, on the right of the picture, another paratrooper is crouching on the ground next to a tree.
One of the rare images taken for propaganda purposes in Italy in the last months of the war and not destroyed. Machine gunners of a paratrooper platoon preparing for a mission near Bologna. © BArch Bild 183-J28691 / Zscheile

Origins and operations in war 

On the front in Italy

The pictures

These pictures were taken during the fighting in Cassino. Captain Rudolf Rennecke, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger regiment and responsible for the defence of the town, had set up his headquarters in the basement of a half-destroyed building in the town centre. The Fallschirmjäger arrived at the Cassino front in February 1944, while the first of three battles was underway.

  • The black and white photo shows five paratroopers in the room of a partially destroyed building, surrounded by rubble. Three are standing with their backs to the wall, two are sitting on the floor in front of them.
    © BArch Bild 101I-578-1928-22A / Wahner
  • The black and white photo shows three paratroopers in a brick basement. One of them is sitting slightly elevated in the background, using a telephone or a radio. The other two sit in the foreground: one of them is writing in a notebook, the other is watching him.
    © BArch Bild 183-J16902 / Engel
  • In the black and white picture, six paratroopers stand side by side in a vaulted cellar. All are wearing helmets except for one, who is standing at the front right of the picture and holding a sheet of paper in his hand.
    © BArch Bild 101I-577-1922-33A
  • In the black and white photo, some paratroopers are standing in a partially destroyed courtyard. They are inspecting their weapons. One of them is walking close to the camera frontally in the middle of the picture and can be seen from behind.
    © BArch Bild 101I-577-1923-34 / Zscheile
  • In the black and white photo, some soldiers are walking among destroyed houses and rubble. Some of them are close to the camera in the middle of the picture. The one at the back is holding a white flag with a dark cross on it. He half-turns back and looks at the camera.
    © BArch Bild 183-J26141 / Zscheile
The fanatic will to combat of the Fallschirmjäger was the result of careful selection and political indoctrination.  The special mentality at work here was marked by a sense of superiority and disdain for death. This frequently took the form of extreme violence and cruelty toward the civilian populace in occupied countries.
The nearly complete absence of extant German military documents for this period renders precise knowledge of the criminally responsible units almost impossible.

Before being sent to Cassino, the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division held the front line in the Alto Sangro for several months between 1943 and 1944. The Fallschirmjäger were among the military formations of the Wehrmacht most frequently photographed by the reporters of the propaganda companies during the war. These pictures by photographers Wilhelm Beuschel, Theo Slickers and Heinrich Wahnen show some poses that were intended to give German newspaper readers an impression of the conditions under which the Fallschirmjäger fought, even in the high mountains.

  • The black and white photo shows three paratroopers taking up position. One is standing in a waist-deep hole, aiming a machine gun. The other two are lying on the ground next to it on their left sides, looking around.
    Central Italy, autumn 1943: a group of paratroopers with a machine gun takes up position in the Sangro section at the front. © BArch Bild 101I-576-1850-37A / Wahner
  • In the black and white photo, the outlines of two paratroopers in the foreground stand out darkly against the bright landscape in the background, which the two are looking at. On the left of the picture is a broad tree trunk. The valley in the background is wide and a river meanders through it.
    Two paratroopers observe the Sangro Valley from a position probably not far from Pietransieri. © BArch Bild 183-J16268 / Slickers
  • Alto Sangro in the winter of 1943/44, an outlying observation post of the 1st Parachute Division.
    Alto Sangro in the winter of 1943/44, an outlying observation post of the 1st Parachute Division. © BArch Bild 183-J16378 / Slickers
  • The black and white photo shows a German paratrooper  from behind. He is lying on his stomach in the snow and has pointed his weapon forward, kicking up snow.
    A paratrooper poses for a propaganda photographer behind a snowdrift, Sangro area, winter 1943/44. © BArch Bild 101I-571-1707-08A / Benschel (Beuschel)
  •  The black and white photo shows a paratrooper in camouflage with a rifle on his back. He is crouching behind a bush in the snow.
    The same soldier takes cover behind bushes. © BArch Bild 101I-571-1707-25A / Benschel (Beuschel)

The postwar period

In 2021 and 2022, the Bundeswehr’s Museum of Military History in Dresden housed an exhibit titled ‘Hitler’s Elite Troops? The Myth of the Fallschirmjäger’. As the title indicates, the exhibit’s goal was, for the first time, to call the myth of the Fallschirmjäger into question. Already before its opening, the exhibit was sharply criticized by members of Germany’s leading veteran’s association.

Sources

The fragmentary state of extant documentation makes historical reconstruction of the Fallschirmjäger divisions’ operations in Italy difficult. There are many inaccurate publications and memoirs, most of them appearing after the war. 

Documents of the Bund Deutscher Fallschirmjäger are kept in the German Federal Archives in Freiburg (Fonds B 57). Alongside the association’s postwar correspondence, the collection includes many original documents, ego documents, and photos. Among the interesting ego documents is a long text by Gerhard Jacob, available as a typescript (BW 57/112). Jacob published this privately as ‘Der letzte Befehl ist heilig!’. Erlebnisse und Erkenntnisse eines kriegsfreiwilligen Fallschirmjägers (‘“The Last Command is Sacred”: Experiences and Insights of a Fallschirmjäger Volunteer’), without specification of place or year, presumably 1980.

Literature

Magnus Pahl, Monte Cassino 1944. Der Kampf um Rom und seine Inszenierung, Paderborn, Schöningh, 2020. 

Magnus Pahl/Armin Wagner (eds.), Hitlers Elitetruppe? Mythos Fallschirmjäger, Berlin, be.bra. Verlag, 2021. 

Günter Roth/Hans M. Stimpel, Führung in der deutschen Fallschirmtruppe und der Korpsgeist der Fallschirmjäger, Hamburg/Berlin/Bonn, Mittler, 2006.

Hans Martin Stimpel, 1942/45: Einsätze auf den Kriegsschauplätzen im Süden, Hamburg/Berlin/Bonn, Mittler, 2006. 

Hans Martin Stimpel, Die deutsche Fallschirmtruppe 1936-1945. Innenansichten von Führung und Truppe. Mentalitätsgeschichtliche Studie, Hamburg/Berlin/Bonn, Mittler, 2009.

Authorship and translation

Author: Carlo Gentile

Translated from German by: Joel Golb

© Project ‘The Massacres in Occupied Italy (1943-1945): Integrating the Perpetrators’ Memories’

2023

Text: CC BY NC SA 4.0

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