Operation Fall Weiss
German Paratroopers in the Poland Campaign, 1939
Stephan Janzyk, translated by Susan Haynes-Huber
Pen and Sword, Barnsley, United Kingdom, 2017, 184 pages
Book Review published on: December 29, 2017
In the traditional narrative, the first employment of German paratroopers during World War II occurred during the surprise assault at Fort Eben-Emael in 1940. While that battle marked their first airborne deployment, it obscured the paratroopers’ service during the invasion of Poland the previous year. Stephan Janzyk’s translated Operation Fall Weiss: German Paratroopers in the Poland Campaign, 1939 (originally published as Deckname Fall Weiss: Deutsche Fallschirmjäger im Polenfeldzug 1939) corrects this oversight. Operation Fall Weiss focuses on the creation and employment of German paratroopers from 1936 to 1939. Overall, this book is a well-illustrated presentation of the overlooked role the German airborne forces played in World War II’s opening act.
The book contains an introduction, six short chapters on the individual airborne battalions, a summary, appendices, and a bibliography. It is liberally illustrated with pictures of German paratroopers in their barracks and in Poland, as well as of their return to Germany. The author includes numerous high-quality scans of assorted German documents, including personnel records, awards certificates, and death notices held in private collections, including his own. Additionally, the book follows some individual paratroopers, particularly officers, after the Polish campaign to tell of their later exploits and, in many cases, their deaths or incapacitation later in the war.
The first German paratroop units originally formed during August and September 1936. The fledgling paratroopers experienced difficulties stemming from an unproven doctrine, shifting tables of organization, and multiple command relationships that were all being developed as the units formed. Both the German army (Wehrmacht) and air force (Luftwaffe) sought control over these men and units. As a result, the initial German units found themselves serving two masters until the Luftwaffe created the 7th Fliegerdivision (7th Air Division) and brought all airborne troops under its command in 1938. A unified command under 7th Fliegerdivision, however, did not guarantee combat employment as a unified force, as events in Poland soon revealed.
Operation Fall Weiss (Case White), the German invasion of Poland, introduced the world to the blitzkrieg. The blitzkrieg’s traditional narrative and imagery of slashing Panzers (tanks), diving Stukas (dive-bombers), and rapidly collapsing Polish defenses belie the slightly more drawn-out and costly nature of the conflict. Fighting only concluded on 6 October 1939 and at significantly higher costs to the German military than anticipated. Some infantry divisions suffered casualty rates approaching 10 percent. Overall, the Germans took approximately forty thousand to fifty thousand casualties in the short campaign.
The paratroopers of 7th Fliegerdivision were initially tasked by Wehrmacht high command to serve as an operational reserve for the entire campaign. During the initial phase of the invasion, the division (or elements thereof) were loaded into aircraft for combat jumps on three occasions but ultimately conducted none. Instead, after these false starts, the paratroopers were either airlifted to already-secured airfields or motored to their operational areas to conduct mopping up operations against the remnants of the Polish army, which was still fiercely fighting for survival.
The majority of the book focuses on the actions of two battalions: II and III Battalions of Fallschirmjäger Regiment 1 (II.FJR 1 and III.FJR 1, respectively). The other three battalions receive a few pages each, largely because their roles in Poland were primarily as unused reserve forces or employment at logistical tasks vice active combat. The lack of use led to morale issues among the men, resulting in many paratroopers requesting transfers back to their original infantry or engineer units at the conclusion of the campaign.
Combat for both II.FJR 1 and III.FJR 1 was proven to be more costly than initially anticipated. Both units, while elite, were green and inflexible compared to the Polish resistance, resulting in the bloodying of both battalions in separate engagements. Janzyk includes numerous photos of the paratroopers of II.FJR 1 in action around Wola Gułowska, adding a visual element to otherwise dry prose.
While an interesting snapshot of German paratrooper operations before their more-famous introduction into the Low Countries a year later, Operation Fall Weiss is not a standout book when it comes to telling the story of the Fallschirmjägers. Sadly, the voice of the German paratrooper is largely absent, giving the book a sterile feel. Janzyk quotes no interviews, diaries, or letters. The closest the reader comes to a narrative feel are summations of combat reports filed by II.FJR 1 and III.FJR 1 after their engagements in late September 1939. Readers looking for a German version of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers or Phil Nordyke’s Four Stars of Valor will have to look elsewhere. To get a sense of the German paratrooper in combat, readers would be better served by reading Volker Griesser’s The Lions of Carentan: Fallschirmjager Regiment 6, 1943-1945 or Alan Clark’s The Fall of Crete.
Book Review written by: Maj. Timothy Heck, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve