Air Pollution:
The Waffen SS Parachute Battalion

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2015

Though lauded for its “efficiency” by some post-war apologists, Nazi Germany resembled nothing more closely than a brutal feudal system in which barons jockeyed for power and the approval of their master. This yielded several competing military institutions, all of them trying to adopt the trappings of modernity.

In 1937, the Waffen SS, then a relatively small organization, attempted to form a parachute battalion. This effort foundered under opposition from the larger and better-organized Luftwaffe, as one Nazi baron outplayed another. But by 1943, things had changed. Herman Goering, the Luftwaffe chief, had steadily lost power and influence as drug addiction sapped his personal strength and several signal failures of his Air Force (chiefly, the failures to re-supply Stalingrad or to stop the Allied strategic bombing offensive) eroded his political standing. Now Heinrich Himmler could form a parachute battalion in the Waffen SS as part of its huge expansion, and even force the Luftwaffe to train and equip his butchers from the sky.

SS paratroopers on the Eastern Front, June 1944.

While the SS was a criminal organization dedicated to mass murder, Parachute Battalion 500 began as a pack of criminal’s criminals. Unable to find enough volunteers among regular SS formations, the battalion made up its numbers from SS prisons: members of the SS who had been convicted and imprisoned for military offenses or other crimes. By good service in the battalion, they had the opportunity to have their records wiped clean. And if they died doing so, as must have seemed likely, their death benefits would be restored whereas their families would receive nothing if they expired behind bars.

With 1,000 recruits, training began at Chlum in occupied Czechoslovakia and moved to Madanrushka-Banja in Yugoslavia, where the Luftwaffe operated one of its jump schools. Luftwaffe instructors conducted the jump training there and at Papa in Hungary, where a Luftwaffe mission was assisting the Hungarians in expanding their own parachute unit.

Herbert Gilhofer’s battalion went into action in February in Yugoslavia, fighting partisans. In April they returned to base to receive a new commander, Kurt Rybka, and a new mission. They would play the key role in Operation Knight’s Jump, an attempt to capture or kill Josip Broz Tito.

Two members of SS Parachute Battalion 500
on their way to attack Tito.

The battalion would jump onto Tito’s headquarters in a cave complex located among the hills above Drvar in western Bosnia, a fortified area known as “The Citadel.” The 7th SS Mountain Division, a German-Croatian infantry division, some collaborationist units and a smattering of independent German units would follow up and relieve the paratroopers after they had achieved their objective.

The landing took place on the morning of 25 May 1944. Planning for the operation ran into a problem immediately: The Luftwaffe had lost hundreds of Ju52 transport planes in the attempt to re-supply Stalingrad by air during the winter of 1942-43, and the losses had never been made good. Only enough planes and gliders could be assembled to land part of the battalion, so the SS men would attack in two waves: one at 7 a.m., and the second at noon. Three hundred men would jump in the morning wave plus another 300 landing in gliders; the final 300 would jump in the second wave.

As soon as the paratroopers landed, Tito and his staff escaped. The remaining partisans resisted fiercely, shooting up the assault team detailed to seize Tito. Fierce fighting raged all morning, and though Rybka had not secured the drop zone he failed to abort the second landing. The partisans greeted the drifting troopers with intense machine-gun fire, killing most of them before they hit the ground. Rybka pulled his men back to the town cemetery, and the next day troops from 7th SS Mountain Division relieved them. Of the nearly 1,000 men who participated, over 800 were killed or wounded.

After the Knight’s Jump.

After another anti-partisan operation in Yugoslavia, the company-sized remnant fought on the Eastern Front during the summer of 1944 and gradually regained its strength. On November the battalion received a new number, 600, to designate that it “no longer had criminals within its ranks” (at least by SS standards; all of the former convicts had been killed or wounded).

Two companies were attached to the SS Panzer Brigade 150 during the German offensive in the Ardennes known as the Battle of the Bulge. No airborne role for them in the operation appears to have been contemplated: apparently the replacements received since the Drvar disaster apparently were not jump-trained, and anyway the Luftwaffe could not supply transport planes.

Reunited after the offensive’s failure, the battalion fought on the Eastern Front for the remainder of the war as an independent unit and surrendered to the Americans in May 1945.

Though the battalion stood no chance of actually performing an airborne operation, we’re not bound by the dictates of reality in our Daily Content. The SS Parachute Battalion 600, available here as a free download, appears as a 1 January reinforcement in either America Triumphant or Alsace 1945. It may land on either map under the Paratrooper rule from America Triumphant, or enter as a normal reinforcement. If the latter course is chosen by the German player, it may not later attempt an airborne landing.

Order now to drop criminals from the sky over Alsace 1945.

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.