The Air Force’s Panzer Division
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Nazi philosophy, such as it was, made much of the glorious German past, particularly its military past. Heroes of the feudal age, like the Hohenstaufen emperors, or the mercenary Landesknechts, became celebrated once again as champions of the people. Adolf Hitler admired these medieval figures, and his Nazi regime in some ways modeled itself on this supposed Golden Age.
Just as the Hohenstaufens gained their military strength through vassals pledged to provide military support, so did Hitler’s feudal lords each pledge his own private army to serve their Nazi overlord. The Nazi barons curried favor by placing their troops at the disposal of their Führer; and so troops from the Waffen SS, railroad administration, national police, national labor service, concentration camp guards, Nazi Party security, German Navy and even local police and fire departments serve at the front alongside the regular army.
Seeing himself as the first among Hitler’s Nazi vassals, Hermann Goering would not be outdone. As commander of the German Air Force, he put over two dozen divisions of ground troops into the field. But none of these units received his patronage like the one that bore his name, the unit that would end the war as the Hermann Goering Parachute Panzer Corps.
When the Nazis took power in 1933, Germany as yet had no Air Force, at least officially. Hitler tapped Goering as Interior Minister of Prussia, with a brief to reorganize the police force to advance the party’s goals. Goering began filling key positions with Nazis and forming new branches, including a secret police unit that would become the dreaded Gestapo. As part of this reorganization, he also set up a special paramilitary unit, the Special Purpose Battalion Wecke. Stationed in working-class Berlin, the battalion hunted down Communists and Socialists, committing a number of murders. A year later, during the “Night of the Long Knives,” the battalion’s men arrested or murdered politically inconvenient members of the old Nazi storm trooper organization and some conservative politicians who’d served their purpose and likewise become surplus to Hitler’s needs. The battalion’s first commander, Walther Wecke, was purged himself three days later.
When the German Air Force came into the open in 1935, Goering was named its commander and he brought his special battalion with him — with blood on its hands, he couldn’t safely leave it outside his patronage umbrella. The unit, now renamed Regiment General Goering, provided the troops for the first German parachute units, and acquired a large anti-aircraft component: by 1939 it had three anti-aircraft battalions plus two more separate batteries against one undersized battalion of infantry. Now serving as Goering’s personal guard, the regiment provided small detachments that participated in the occupations of Austria and Czechoslovakia and the invasion of Poland, displaying Goering’s fealty to his feudal lord.
The full regiment finally went to war in the 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. Never one to hide his lantern under a basket, Goering ordered the regiment to detach smaller battle groups to join Army panzer divisions in their advance, ostensibly to provide additional anti-aircraft protection. This also, of course, allowed Goering to present his seemingly ever-present regiment to Hitler as a major contributor to the victory over the French, but the heavy 88mm anti-aircraft gns proved very useful against heavily armored French and British tanks on more than one occasion.
Rescue or robbery? Troops of the Hermann Goering Division remove artworks from the Abbey of Monte Cassino.
The structure of the regiment as primarily an anti-aircraft unit with an attached infantry component (one specializing in security) made it particularly well-suited to protecting key installations. In early 1941, Goering’s special regiment went to Ploesti in Romania to secure the oil fields there. It advanced into the Soviet Union in the wake of the 11th Panzer Division. The big anti-aircraft guns again proved their worth against enemy armor, but in December the regiment returned to Germany.
Through early 1942 the regiment grew, officially becoming a brigade that summer. The guard battalion remained, joined by a guard anti-aircraft battalion. A separate two-battalion motorized infantry regiment was formed, and the other anti-aircraft units were gathered into a three-battalion regiment, with the third battalion equipped as field artillery. Before the brigade saw any action, Goering managed to wrangle a commitment from the Army to transfer experienced tank crews to the Air Force, and ordered 5,000 Air Force men to volunteer for ground combat. With these additions, in October 1942 the brigade became a panzer division.
The Hermann Goering Panzer Division retained a unique organization, as before featuring a heavy anti-aircraft component. Two full regiments of panzer grenadiers, each of three battalions, were formed using survivors of a parachute regiment decimated on the Eastern Front. Each regiment had three battalions, the first of each mounted in armored halftracks and the other two in trucks. In addition, the division had a two-battalion light infantry regiment plus a two-battalion tank regiment. The anti-aircraft regiment remained at three battalions, now all equipped with anti-aircraft guns, while a new four-battalion motorized artillery regiment provided fire support. New reconnaissance, assault gun and engineer battalions rounded out the combat elements. The ceremonial units — a guard regiment and guard anti-aircraft battalion — remained on the division’s organization chart, though these now stayed in Berlin on detached duty.
This made for a powerful formation on paper, much larger than the equivalent Army or even Waffen SS divisions, but one that would have been very difficult to control in the field had it actually entered combat with its paper strength. When Hitler began casting about for troops to hold the French colony of Tunisia as a bridgehead in North Africa, Goering immediately offered his namesake division, even though it was not yet fully formed. All of its combat-ready subordinate units were lost in the subsequent surrender, and it commenced formation all over again, moving to Sicily in June to combat the possible Allied invasion of the island.
When the Allies landed in July 1943 the re-named Hermann Goering Parachute Panzer Division, “the toughest unit in the German Army” according to George C. Scott as Patton, fought with only limited success. Army officers criticized its use of armor, but grudgingly acknowledged the fighting qualities of the former paratroopers in its panzer grenadier battalions. The division escaped the island, and was stationed near Salerno when the Allies landed there in September 1943. The Air Force troops failed to throw the invaders back into the sea, and began a northward withdrawal. The Goering division did not fight at Monte Cassino, but was involved in the controversial removal of the art treasures held there; whether this represented “looting” or “rescue” remains in dispute.
The division remained in the front lines into the summer of 1944. Its troops massacred at least 250 Italian civilians in the town of Civitella in late June 1944, and two weeks later the unit was alerted for transport to the Eastern Front. Cadres left the division for the old Polish training ground at Radom, where a “sister” division, the 2nd Herman Goering Parachute Panzer Grenadier Division, was to begin formation in September. Once complete, it would join the newly renamed 1st Hermann Goering Parachute Panzer Division to form the Herman Goering Parachute Panzer corps.
The 1st Division went into action near Warsaw in July 1944; a few of its units were diverted to the Polish capital in September where they slaughtered an unknown number of unarmed civilians. Its sister division joined it in October, when the newly formed corps moved to East Prussia. Unlike the older division, the new Goering division followed Army organizational practice fairly closely, with two regiments of motorized infantry and one of artillery, and reconnaissance, engineer and assault gun battalions. It did not have an anti-aircraft element, supposedly drawing those as needed from corps assets.
Officers of the Hermann Goering Parachute Panzer Division confer in Italy, 1944.
The new corps fought in East Prussia until January, when it was encircled and its survivors evacuated by sea. Sent back to the front and bolstered by the remnants of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzer Division, it fought in Saxony and was encircled again. This time there would be no escape, though both Air Force divisions broke apart in a mad dash for the American lines.
Though sometimes called an elite unit, the Goering regiment/division/corps recorded few battlefield successes and was at best a second-rate combat formation. In military terms, the unit was a failure. But it was never intended to serve a purely military end. As a political force, the unit kept Goering’s name in front of Germany military leaders, particularly Adolf Hitler, and re-assured the Führer that his Air Force commander and second in command had placed his feudal levies on the war lord’s service. And in the event of Hitler’s demise, Goering would have had a fully equipped panzer force at his personal disposal. On that score, the unit must be judged highly successful.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.