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Re-enactment - German Paratroopers

Re-enactment - German Paratroopers

John Norris discusses Fallschirmjäger Regiment 2, a most authentic group

On 10 May 1940, several months after the outbreak of WWII, following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Hitler directed his forces to attack westwards against Holland, Belgium, and France, together with elements of the British Expeditionary Force deployed in France since the war began. The intervening period had been known as the ‘Phoney War’ because nothing in particular had happened. That was all about to change as ‘Fall Gelb’ (Case Yellow) was launched and quickly overwhelmed the Allies with its speed, tactics and, most of all, the new method of deploying troops by parachute.

A new line of attack

The tactics used have come to be called ‘Blitzkrieg’ or Lightning War, and it was fast, with all branches of the German armed forces working together. The troops of one of the leading units used in the attack against Holland, however, were not part of the army, but rather the Luftwaffe. These were the Fallschirmjäger, parachute troops and nothing like them had ever been seen before. Previously, soldiers had attacked on the ground, but these troops landing by parachute were highly motivated and trained and moved as a coordinated unit.

The first German parachute units were raised in 1935, trained and equipped, before becoming part of the Luftwaffe in 1938. All this happened in great secrecy and was only made public when they paraded for the first time in 1938. Only two years later the 7th Air Division, comprising Fallschirmjäger Regiments 1 and 2 (FJR 1 and 2), attacked targets in Fortress Holland in a daring coup de main. Over the next five years, the reputation and experience of FJR2 would grow as it fought in operational areas including Russia, France, Crete, Greece, and Italy. After the war, US General Troy Middleton said of Generalmajor Hermann Ramcke, who had commanded FJR2, being known as ‘Papa Ramcke’ by his men: “I think he conducted the war in the tradition of a good soldier.”

See it like it was

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Today, those traditions of being good soldiers are being demonstrated at re-enactment events by several like-minded friends who have come together to create a group to depict FJR2 at public shows. Some have experience of re-enacting going back 15 years and some have even completed the parachute training course at Texel in Holland, but all are fascinated by the history of FJR2 and collecting items either connected with the regiment or things similar to what they would have used. The result is a unique exhibition of equipment, which is displayed and demonstrated at shows.

FJR2 are invited to attend several prestigious events each year, including the Victory Show in Leicestershire, Yorkshire Wartime Experience, and Wartime in the Vale at Evesham in Worcestershire. They also conduct training weekends and private battles for the benefit of members to improve their skills in tactics and handling weapons such as the K98 rifle, MP40 SMG, MG34, and MG42. Members within the group also have P38 and P08 pistols, MP44s/StG44s, FG42s (unique to the Fallschirmjäger) and the 8cm Granatewerfer 34 mortar, which are used for further weapon training.

Machinery and equipment

The wartime regiment had an anti-tank role and to demonstrate this, the group is learning how to handle the 7.5cm calibre PaK40 anti-tank gun. It also holds an example of the 7.5cm Leichtgeschutz 40 recoilless anti-tank weapon, believed to be the only known example in private hands in the country. This type of weapon was used by FJR2 during the airborne assault to capture the island of Crete during Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury), in May 1941. The group has motorcycles, which have been adapted to look like authentic machines, such as the BMW R12, which add to their display and show how they were used.

All of this equipment has been painstakingly collected by members of the group and this is in addition to personal kit, uniform, parachutes, and other specialist items unique to the Fallschirmjäger. Each man, for example, wears the Fallschirmjägerhelm, a distinctive pattern helmet, which lacked the flaring of the better-known WWII German Stahlhelm and was unique to the Fallschirmjäger branch of the armed forces. All members also wear high-quality replica versions of the distinctive ‘side-lacing’ jump boots. The remainder of the uniform conforms exactly to wartime regulations, right down to the jump smock, known to the troops as the ‘Knochensack’, which translates as ‘bone sack’.

A high level of commitment

This is a democratic group holding very high standards, which it is not prepared to let slip under any circumstances. For example, it has a comprehensive constitution covering behaviour, appearance, and attitude. All potential new members are made aware of this document and must read it and agree to comply with the regulations before going any further. Many of the current members have been introduced by serving members or invited to join through their interest in the unit’s history. Each new member must serve a period of probation lasting one year, which demonstrates a level of commitment to prevent any time wasting.

After that phase has been covered, each member can then progress in the group with advancement being based on the number of attendances at shows, training weekends, and other events, which is designed to show dedication. Being a relatively small group, all members are considered equal, however, there is a chain of command. Each member is responsible for making sure that they have all the right kit for a show and have their own insurance. This has produced a level of friendship and camaraderie that is a credit to the group as a whole.

FJR2 is a stand-alone group and at this year’s Wartime in the Vale in Evesham, they put on a demonstration of handling parachutes in the arena, which was the only space with sufficient room to accommodate them. Before they went into the arena, they had received a full talk on how the parachute operated, how to handle it and, most importantly, how to fold it to prevent it from becoming entangled. As they deployed the parachutes, a good breeze picked up, which inflated the canopies to look as though they had just landed. A couple of members pulling an original example of an equipment canister mounted on wheels, joined in the display to complete the impression.

The amount of original equipment and other kit held within the group is extraordinarily high and makes many collectors envious. As it was explained, this has been achieved through doggedness in tracking down items and following leads. In addition, there are specialists within the group to depict machine gunners, radio operators, glider pilots, drivers, equipment repair specialists, and a medic. The result of this hard work is an amazing display by an exceptionally dedicated group, complemented by the ability of the members to answer questions in an engaging manner, making them a credit to the hobby of historical re-enactment.