Friedrich-August Freiherr von der Heydte was the highly decorated commander of Germany’s First Parachute Army’s Battle School. In December 1944, when Germany’s General Kurt Student was notified that within eight days, he was to launch an airborne attack in support of the Sixth Panzer Army, he called upon von der Heydte to command a parachute assault, code-named Operation Stösser (Falcon).
By December of 1944, the Germany Army, which had begun the decade with a sweeping series of military victories, was in retreat. The Allies had landed at Normandy and were heading to Berlin from the west. The Russians, triumphant after first withstanding and then overcoming the Germans at Stalingrad, were on their way to Berlin from the east. But Germany, clinging to its hopes of victory, was staking its fate on one more effort, Wacht am Rhein.
Operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), or the Battle of the Bulge as it was known to the Americans, was Germany’s make-or-break attempt to avoid capitulation. The Germans knew that they had to reach Antwerp before the Allies were able to repair the damage to the deep water-port. With Antwerp back in operation, the Allies would be able to reinforce their front lines with supplies and reinforcements quickly instead of taking the longer route across France.
In order to reach the Belgian port, the Germans planned to go through the Ardennes. The forest had been lucky for the Germans early in the war. Because of its rough, uneven terrain and dense forests, the area was regarded as impossible for an army as modern and mechanized as the Wehrmacht to travel. The minimal defenses had allowed the Germans to sweep across the landscape and invade France, shocking the Allies and laying claim to Europe. They hoped that, this December of 1944, they would once again prevail by going through the Ardennes, which was the dividing line between the Americans in the south and the British in the north. In order to accomplish their aims, they needed a successful paratroop landing.
Von der Heydte, who was born in 1907, first joined the German army after World War I, a time when the Versailles Treaty stipulated the number of men who could serve. It was not a period when a young man could envision a promising military career, and von der Heydte left the army in 1926. The following year, he transferred to the Austrian Consular Academy to study law and religion.
He rejoined the German military in 1934 because he was in danger of being arrested by the Gestapo after he and a friend beat up a Nazi who had insulted the Catholic Church. Because of von der Heydte’s Catholic faith, he earned the nickname of “the Rosary Paratrooper” from Hermann Goering. Von der Heydte, an enthusiastic horseman, had become a paratrooper because his cavalry regiment was turned into an anti-tank unit. In 1940, he earned an Iron Cross First Class for his service in the western campaign.
Von der Heydte asked to use his own regiment for Operation Stösser, but his request was denied out of concern that this would make the Allies aware that a counterattack was coming. The II. Parachute Core was told to send their best men to serve in Operation Stösser, but instead, they sent their worst, the troublemakers who resisted the strict discipline of the military. But von der Heydte, because he had a cousin who had been involved in an assassination plot against Hitler earlier that year, was being closely watched by the Germans for signs of disloyalty and didn’t dare to object to the soldiers he’d been given. Nonetheless, 150 men from his own Sixth Parachute Regiment disobeyed orders and joined von der Heydte.
The odds were against the mission. The Germans had no current aerial photographs of the drop area and had to conduct the drop without a preliminary reconnaissance so that the Allies would remain unaware of the counterattack. The unit, with only eight days of training, had no time to develop the cohesiveness that was vital for a military force. In fact, many of the men had never even jumped from an airplane.
The plan was for von der Heydte and his men to take the Baraque Michel crossroads early in the morning on December 16, but a combination of fuel shortages and poor weather delayed the drop until December 17 in the only nighttime drop conducted by the Germans during the entire war. His paratroopers were to hold the crossroads for twenty-four hours until the Twelfth SS Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend relieved them.
By this time, the Luftwaffe lacked enough experienced pilots and many of those assigned to this mission had never flown the Ju 52 transport planes before. Half of the pilots had never flown in combat. They had not been trained in flying in formation or conducting night-time drops. When von der Heydte voiced his concerns, Field Marshal Walter Model admitted that he gave the whole Ardennes Offensive less than a ten percent chance of succeeding. But it would go forth. For one reason, because Hitler ordered it. And for the other, it was the only chance to end the war under more promising circumstances.
Shortly after midnight on December 17, despite a snowstorm, strong winds, and low cloud cover, transport planes carrying 1300 paratroopers took off. Only a portion of the paratroopers landed near the intended drop area; the weather sent a number of planes off course. Two hundred fifty of the men were dropped near Bonn, which was fifty miles away from the targeted drop zone. Even the paratroopers aboard planes that flew close to the drop zone were affected by the winds, which inflicted a punishing landing on the men as well as taking them off target. The inexperience of the paratroopers was fatal; some died when they landed, others were crippled in the fall. Bodies would be found the following year after the snow melted.
With only three hundred paratroopers for the mission, von der Heydte realized that he lacked the strength in numbers to take the crossroads and only had enough ammunition for one fight. Instead, he directed the men to employ guerrilla-like tactics against the Allied troops. The wily plan confused the Allies into believed that a major drop of paratroopers had been successful, not realizing that the paratroopers were scattered all over the Ardennes because the jump had not been able to concentrate them in the intended area. As a result, the Allies, thinking that the rear needed to be secured, placed troops there instead of sending them where they were needed against the main German attack. But because none of the radios had made it through the drop, and Model had denied von der Heydte’s request for carrier pigeons, there was no way to relay the information that his unit had obtained.
His supply of water was limited and he only had food for one more day, so von der Heydte withdrew his forces toward the German lines on December 19. He divided his men into smaller groups so that they could try to make contact with other German units. By now von der Heydte was exhausted; he had frostbite and was suffering from pneumonia and had been wounded. On Christmas Eve, 1944, von der Heydte surrendered to the Allied 47th Infantry Regiment.
Operation Stösser was a failure and the Battle of the Bulge was not the turning point that the Germans needed it to be. The Allies would continue to advance to Germany and the end of the war was in sight.
Read more interesting articles on the Battle of the Bulge:
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- An infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge
- Killing this soldier was the saddest memory of my life – Joseph Robertson
- Operation Wacht am Rhein in 28 images