The 600th SS-Fallschirmjäger Batallion
Himmler supposedly got the idea to form an SS-Fallschirmjäger batallion in September 1943 (evidence suggests that SS troops were undertaking parachute training as early as 1937), after Operation Oak (Unternehmen Eiche). Operation Oak was launched on 12 September and included an airborne raid on the Campo Imperatore Hotel at Gran Sasso. The operation was planned by Kurt Student and lead by Otto Skorzeny by command of German dictator Adolf Hitler. During this raid, a group of German parachutists aided by a daring glider-based assault freed deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini without firing a single shot.
An SS Airborne Formation is Born
In October 1943, orders were given by Führer HQ to raise an SS airborne formation. This unit was often inaccurately referred to as a penal unit but was in fact made up of both regular volunteers and SS military prisoners classified under the SS military code as 'Bewahrungs- Soldaten' or 'b-soldaten.' This classification meant they commited violations such as sleeping on watch, failure to obey an order etc., rather than outright criminal acts such as murder, rape, larceny, etc. Dishonoured men of all ranks of the SS who volunteered were thouroughly screened by recruiters and those deemed worthy and rehabilitable could redeem themselves in this Batallion. The Batallion’s number designation, 500, stood for probationary unit, although more than half of the Batallion was made up from regular volunteers.
SS Fallschirmjäger Batallion 500 under the command of SS Sturmbannführer Herbert Gilhofer carried out jump training at the Kralyevo parachute school in Yugoslavia during November 1943, training was completed in Hungary, early in 1944.
In February 1944 the Batallion was given its first operation, not an airborne assault but rather an anti partisan sweep in Yugoslavia. By April 1944 the Batallion had returned to its base and was given orders to prepare for another mission (this time it was an airborne operation) and command of the Batallion was handed over to SS Hauptsturmführer Kurt Rybka.
The Raid on Tito's HQ
Unternehmen Rösselsprung (knights move) was the name given to the operation which had the objective of capturing Tito, at his Partisan HQ in the mountains surrounding the town of Drvar in Bosnia. They were also tasked with destroying allied military missions in the area as well as capturing the allied military liaison officers.
Due to a shortage of aircraft, the SS FJ Btl 500 would be dropped in two waves, one at 7am and one at midday. Other forces involved in the operation were the 7th SS Gebirgs Division & 1st Gebirgs Division who were to surround the town itself, as well as members of Yugoslavian anti-Tito factions and the 373rd Infantry Division (croatian). The paras would be accompanied by Brandenburgers and a Luftwaffe signals unit, for intelligence purposes.
At 7am on the 25th May 1944 (Tito's birthday), Hauptsturmführer Rybka and 313 FJs (in 3 groups) jumped from their transport aircraft over the town of Drvar. They met no resistance and within minutes they had secured their landing zone.
Next came the gliders. They carried 320 men who were organized into 6 gruppen, each assigned an objective; Panther (to capture Tito), Griefer (British military mission), Sturmer (Soviet military mission), Brecher (US military mission), Draufganger (intelligence group) and Beisser (radio station). Rybka was to attach himself to Gruppe Panther. The 6 gliders of Gruppe Panther had landed on target but met heavy resistance from Tito's men firing down from the mountainside.
Rybka signalled the para's in the town and with these men attempted to take the mountain stronghold. He directed several attacks which collapsed under heavy partisan fire from well prepared defensive positions. Meanwhile the partisans were being reinforced and launched their own counter attack taking back ground won by the SS FJs. Little did Rybka know that Tito and his entourage had already escaped by railway and were heading to the coast.
At midday, as planned, the second wave dropped into the battle zone, suffering heavy casualties to fierce partisan MG fire. Ultimately, link-up between the initial assault forces and their reinforcements was conducted and the combined force tried once again to take the stronghold. By late afternoon, after repeated attempts to secure the mountain, Rybka decided that his position was becoming untenable and decided to withdraw his forces back into the best defensible position available, the town cemetery.
All through the night of May 25th/26th, the FJs fought off repeated partisan attacks. The men were exhausted, many were wounded including Rybka. By daybreak on the 26th, a reconnaisance unit of the 7th SS Gebirgs Division "Prinz Eugen" managed to break through the encirclement to relieve them.
After the Raid
This battle was over for the survivors of SS Fallschirmjäger Batallion 500, and of the nearly 1000 FJ’s that entered the fray, only 200 remained unwounded at the end of it.
There was no rest for the survivors, they were sent to carry out other anti partisan operations elsewhere in Yugoslavia. It was not until early June 1944 that the Batallion, now under the command of SS Hauptsturmführer Siegfried Milius, was sent for rest and refitting.
At the end of June the Batallion was again mobilized and sent to the Eastern Front, its depleted ranks bolstered by volunteers. The FJs eventually headed to Estonia from where they were airlifted to Lithuania.
On 10 July 1944, the Batallion along with a regiment from the Großdeutschland Division was sent to relieve German forces trapped in Vilnius, Lithuania. This Kampfgruppe parried a Soviet armoured thrust on the city and stalled the Russian advance for over two weeks, allowing the evacuation of the wounded and the re-supply of the Vilnius defenders. The Batallion was finally withdrawn and sent to support other sectors.
Now numbering approximately 90 men, the Batallion was used as a “Fire Brigade” being rushed to hot spots all over the northern area of the Ostfront. Despite their heavy losses, the FJs remained in combat for the next several months as the Germans were desperate to stave off the Soviet offensive.
The SS-FJs were finally relieved in late October and were flown to Deutsch-Wagram, Austria where after a week's rest, they were incorporated into the SS-Fallschirmjäger Batallion 600.
The Newly Formed SS-Fallschirmjäger Batallion 600
The SS FJ Btl 600 was formally mustered on November 9th 1944 in Neu-Strelitz, their garrison town. As part of the formation of the 600 Batallion, soldiers of the 500th were given back their previous ranks and the right to wear the siegrunen.
The renamed Batallion would next see action in the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) when 2 Kompanies attached as part of Otto Skorzeny's 150th Panzer Brigade. After this operation, the remainder of the Batallion was rushed to the Oder front to take up positions on the eastern bank of the river to help stem the flow of Soviet forces. The Batallion stayed on the eastern bank until the April 1, 1945 when it was forced to withdraw under heavy Russian pressure.
The seriously depleted battalion continued to fight as a fire brigade north east of Berlin and at the end of April 1945 provided the rearguard for German forces pulling back from the Oder front.
As the end of the war approached, SS Fallschirmjäger Batallion 600 found itself fighting many rearguard actions before finally being isolated in one of the many pockets in Northern Germany. After being virtually wiped out three times in its eighteen-month existence, the unit surrendered to US forces in early May 1945 near the town of Hagenow, Germany