A key element in the success of the German blitzkrieg that stunned France and the Low Countries in May 1940 were Kurt Student's paratroopers. This is the story of their exploits. -- ed.
The idea of deploying troops behind enemy lines was Hitler's. He loved special operations that relied on speed and deception and criticized his generals for a lack of imagination. They are "too correct," he complained. "No tricks ever occur to them."
The airborne assaults were masterminded by Major-general Kurt Student, who had commanded a fighter squadron in the First World War and trained German pilots secretly in the Soviet Union. Though he had never parachuted himself, he was a brilliantly effective leader of the 7th Air Division, the Fallschirmjager or "para-hunters". Their main objective was to capture Dutch airfields and prevent the British Royal Air Force from using them. Since the invasion of Holland was essentially a feint, the northern wing of Army Group B, tasked with this operation, was actually outnumbered by the Dutch defenders, which meant that German air superiority was all-important.
Another key assignment for the Fallschirmjager was to seize vital bridges south of Rotterdam and hold them in readiness for the 9th Panzer Division, which led the Eighteenth Army.
Student himself took command of the Rotterdam force. Before dawn, his paratroopers boarded Junkers 52 transports, the sturdy old corrugated-aluminum trimotors. Over the drop zone, each transport slowed almost to the point of stalling in order to discharge its human cargo at the lowest safe altitude -- about 450 feet. Even then, the paratroopers had to endure what seemed an eternity, though actually only 15 to 20 seconds, floating free of the plane and exposed to enemy gunfire before hitting the ground.
The southernmost drop zone was at Moerdijk. Here, two bridges -- road and rail -- spanned the Holland Deep .... More than a mile long, these twin bridges protected the approaches to Fortress Holland and the city of Rotterdam, 15 miles to the north-west. Student's paratroopers dropped on both sides of the waterway and quickly captured the bridges at Moerdijk. Five miles further north, another unit landed at Dordrecht and overwhelmed the defenders before they could blow up two spans over the Old Maas River.
The major drop zone at Rotterdam was Waalhaven airport, on the south-western outskirts of the city. A battalion of paratroopers jumped there, using what Student called the "short method" -- dropping directly onto the objective -- to clear the way for a much larger force of airborne infantry.
....In addition to [a] hail of gunfire, the paratroopers suffered their worst casualties as the result of an error. One Ju 52 discharged its dozen occupants directly over a blazing complex of hangars. The men sank slowly into the inferno, hanging helplessly in the air before their parachutes burst into flame.
By noon on 10 May some 100 transports had landed at Waalhaven, carrying three battalions of about 1,200 airborne infantry. One battalion began fighting its way north through the streets of suburban Rotterdam. Its mission was to reinforce comrades who had captured the Willems Bridge, which crossed the New Maas River in the middle of the city. These Germans -- 120 infantrymen and engineers -- had arrived by an unlikely means: seaplanes. At 7:00 a.m., 12 antiquated Heinkel 59 floatplanes flew downriver and landed near the bridge. The men on board quickly inflated rubber rafts and paddled ashore, where they established positions on both banks to guard the Willems Bridge and a smaller bridge that linked the south bank with an island in the river.
....Soon ... the nearby Dutch garrison counter-attacked, and the Germans took cover behind bridge piers and in nearby houses. Outnumbered and vulnerable to attack from both sides of the river, the infantrymen wondered how long they could possibly hold out.
Suddenly, a tram with bells clanging furiously sped to the southern end of the bridge. The tram and a half-dozen cars behind it carried 50 heavily armed Germans. They were a company of Fallschirmjager under First Lieutenant Horst Kerfin. After landing in a soccer stadium south of the river, Kerfin's paratroopers had commandeered the tram and cars, pushed out the stunned occupants, and hurried to the bridge. Some took positions on the south end while others sprinted across in order to reinforce their comrades on the north bank. There, fire from the Dutch defenders remained so intense that when the battalion of infantry from the airfield eventually arrived, its men were unable to reach the paratroopers fighting on the north bank.
For much of the day the Rotterdam defenders were beset by confusion. The German airborne seemed to be everywhere. Rumours spread of paratroopers disguised as police, priests, and even nuns. A ruse by General Student compounded the problem. He had transport planes drop Fallschirmpuppen -- paratroop dummies -- over the countryside. These straw decoys, outfitted in paratroop uniforms and rigged with self-igniting explosive charges to imitate the sound of firing, deceived the Dutch into overestimating the size of the attacking forces.
In fact, the 1,200 Germans had succeeded in pinning down 50,000 Dutch troops, who were sorely needed elsewhere. Student's small force held out in Rotterdam for 48 hours until 12 May, when a column of the 9th Panzers crossed the bridge.
....To the south, meanwhile, Student's Fallschirmjager also played a pivotal role in the invasion of Belgium. Here, as in Holland, German paratroopers opened the way for the ground forces. The invasion route of the Sixth Army, which was the southern wing of Army Group B, carried it into Belgium just north of the city of Liege. To get there, the Germans had to cross a 15-mile sliver of Dutch territory known as the Maastricht Appendix, which juts south between Germany and Belgium. At the Dutch city of Maastricht, they would encounter the Maas river. Inside the Belgian border lay a second major water barrier, the Albert Canal.
This was the same gateway through which the German army had penetrated Belgium in 1914. In order to prevent intrusions in the future, the Belgians in the early 1930s had undertaken a massive construction project, ironically employing a German firm to carry out the work. Three miles south of Maastricht, at the village of Eben Emael on the Albert Canal, they had built the strongest fortress in western Europe. Fort Eben Emael was the northern anchor of a line of strong points, leading south to Liege, that commanded the approaches to Belgium. It was the mission of 11 officers and 427 enlisted men of Student's 7th Air Division to secure these routes for the Sixth Army.
Fort Eben Emael was garrisoned by 750 men. It bristled with fortified gun emplacements linked by a network of tunnels. It was protected on one side by a canyon-like canal and on the remaining four sides by anti-tank trenches and a 20-foot high wall. However, it was designed to resist ground attack. It had few anti-aircraft guns and its broad, flat upper surface was vulnerable. Student decided to achieve surprise by landing gliders -- with no noise to announce their approach -- right on top of the fort.
In the early hours of 10 May, 42 gliders, each carrying a dozen heavily armed paratroopers, cut loose from their towing aircraft over Aachen and descended like ghosts onto their targets, 20 miles away. The gliders were in four detachments, three targeted on canal bridges and the fourth, codenamed Granite, heading for the fort. Nine gliders landed on its flat grass surface and the troops tumbled out, machine guns blazing. Sappers used armour-piercing explosives to destroy over half the installations. The Belgian defenders took refuge in the tunnels, but not before calling up artillery fire from nearby batteries. The Germans were also forced to take cover. That night a German relief force crossed the Albert Canal in rubber boats and stormed the fort. The following morning, with Stukas dive-bombing them and more German troops on the way, the Belgian garrison surrendered. They had lost 23 dead and 59 wounded, compared to only six dead and 20 wounded on the German side.
This legendary feat of arms opened up the Belgian plain to the invaders who forged ahead under the Stuka umbrella.