Major General Kurt Student, the commander of Germany’s 7th Air Division, was trying to restore order in Rotterdam on the morning of May 14, 1940, after he had helped conclude peace negotiations with the Dutch, who had been defeated in a mere five days. While attempting to calm the situation in the port city, he was struck from behind by a bullet that entered his skull, lodging behind his right eye. Members of his staff immediately rushed to his side. They knew that unless their commander received quick medical attention, he would not survive. Such a loss would be tragic for Germany’s airborne forces.
Kurt Arthur Benno Student was born May 12, 1890, in the village of Birkholz. At the age of 11, he was sent to the Royal Prussian Military Cadet School at Potsdam, and in 1910 he was enrolled as an ensign in the 1st Battalion, Graf von Wartenburg Regiment, and was promoted to lieutenant the following year. Three years later the youthful lieutenant volunteered for the flying service and was put through a monthlong pilot training program at Johannisthal before receiving an assignment as a replacement pilot.
In the opening months of World War I, Student served in Feldfliegerabteilung (field flying battalion) 17, which flew reconnaissance missions on the Eastern Front. He was given command of a unit in France attached to the Third Army on June 1, 1916, and four months later he took charge of Jagdstaffel 9, a new fighter unit tasked with seeking out and destroying enemy aircraft.
Never one to lead from behind a desk, Student stayed in the thick of many actions, becoming an ace in his own right before relinquishing command of his unit on March 14, 1918. On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered and, among other things, the subsequent Treaty of Versailles banned the defeated nation from maintaining an air force. An officer without a service, Student initially bemoaned his circumstances: “I had served an apprenticeship, only to discover that I had no sphere in which to practice my profession.”
Rather than give up the profession of arms altogether, Student obtained a coveted spot as an infantry officer in the Reichsheer, Germany’s miniscule peacetime army. When time permitted, he spent his off-duty hours keeping abreast of the many important changes in the field of aviation.
It was fortunate for Germany that he did. Unwilling to abide by the stringent demands imposed on them at Versailles, the Germans set up a number of covert methods of ensuring that their military did not fall too far behind its potential rivals. Now a captain, Student took a post with the Central Flying Office in 1920, and was tasked with secretly laying the groundwork for a future Luftwaffe.
While much planning was necessary, Student and others knew there was no substitute for actually taking to the skies. Forbidden from experimenting with aircraft, those clipped-wing German officers took advantage of loopholes within the treaty to pursue their interests in the cockpits of gliders. Nominally organized as civilian flying clubs, the government-sponsored organizations were, in fact, a means of training future air force leaders.
Happy to again be looking skyward, Student threw himself into his work with abandon, hardly slowing down when he fractured his skull during a glider accident in 1921. Unable to watch the maneuvers of his own pilots, he took every opportunity he could to observe the air forces of other nations. He regularly attended maneuvers of the Red Army Air Force between 1924 and 1928, and it was during those visits that he first became familiar with airborne operations.
The Allied Control Commission’s departure from Germany in 1927 gave men like Student a much freer hand in planning the next Luftwaffe. As one of the few officers who had remained active in military aviation, Student anticipated that he might eventually be tapped for an air force command. To make certain that he was properly placed for such an opportunity, he transferred back the following year to the Graf von Wartenburg Regiment to acquire the field experience that would be a prerequisite to any higher command.
When Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, one of his first acts was to begin secretly rearming Germany, and the Luftwaffe received the Führer’s considerable attention. To ensure its loyalty, the new force was headed by Nazi party member and World War I ace Hermann Göring. Desperately in need of trained aviators, Göring tapped Student to direct the Luftwaffe’s technical training schools. Student’s immense responsibilities ranged from training staff and establishing squadrons to overseeing the design and manufacture of aircraft and weapons systems. The task was made easier by the considerable amount of work he had done in the years since Versailles.
Student was promoted to colonel in 1935, the same year that Hitler formally renounced the Treaty of Versailles. The men of the Luftwaffe were exhilarated. No longer would they have to conduct their affairs in secret; they could once again proudly wear their uniforms and unit badges for all to see.
It was a heady time for the German armed forces, and the most modern and rapidly developing was the Luftwaffe. Seeking to break new ground, Göring and Student looked for ways to increase their service’s versatility. One area that attracted both men was airborne operations. Among other things, during his earlier visits to Russia, Student had seen airborne demonstrations that involved mass jumps of upwards of 1,500 paratroopers at once. In 1938, following the Nazis’ decision to create their own airborne force, Student was promoted to major general by Göring and made inspector of Germany’s nascent airborne organization. He was also given command of the newly organized 7th Air Division.
As he had done in the past while planning for a new Luftwaffe, Student set about building this new fighting force from scratch. With little more to go on than his recollection of Soviet maneuvers conducted 10 years earlier and his own imagination, he immediately began forming self-sufficient parachute units capable of opening new fronts and establishing bridgeheads behind enemy lines to ease a path for the armored forces.
Under Student’s direction, a training school was established west of Berlin in Stendal. Each member of the all-volunteer force was required to undergo one year of training before being accepted as a paratrooper. Unlike airborne forces subsequently created by other nations, Student insisted that the new German airborne soldiers become thoroughly proficient in working with gliders as well as parachuting from aircraft. The parachute and glider troops were known as parachute light infantry, or Fallschirmjäger. Troops who would follow on behind these initial assault waves in transport planes, to reinforce initial conquests and support the lightly equipped Fallschirmjäger, were known as air landing troops. It was an ambitious concept and one that was criticized by Student’s more traditional Wehrmacht counterparts.
Although the training was intense and the new Fallschirmjäger received a great deal of publicity, Student knew that only combat would demonstrate once and for all what his creation was capable of. Left out of the September 1939 invasion of Poland when Hitler decided that he did not want to give away the “secret” of his airborne force, it was not until the invasion of Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940, that Student’s 7th Air Division finally had a chance to prove itself. Much to its creator’s satisfaction, the airborne division succeeded spectacularly. With lightning speed, the Fallschirmjäger captured a handful of key objectives that allowed the ground forces to advance more rapidly. The only major mishap during the invasion occurred in Norway on April 14 when the Germans made a follow-up parachute assault on the town of Dombas to prevent Allied reinforcements from reaching Oslo. Bad weather forced the paratroopers to jump from low altitude. Many perished in the drop, and those who survived surrendered when their supplies and ammunition ran out.
The next challenge would be even greater. Speed was essential if the Germans were to overcome opposition during their pending invasion of France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. In order for his panzers to move fast, Hitler knew that he had to seize control of vital bridges and road junctions along the anticipated axis of advance. To secure those objectives, without which there could be no rapid breakthrough, the Führer turned to Student and 4,500 of his highly trained Fallschirmjäger.
Among the most challenging targets was the Belgian fortress of Eban Emael. Deemed impregnable by the Allies, the fort sat along the Albert Canal, and its capture was vitally important if the panzer forces advancing through Holland were to have any chance to get around the Allies’ left flank before they could react. For more than six months, a select group of 78 engineers from Student’s airborne forces under the command of 2nd Lt. Rudolf Witzig had been training for the operation.
In an attack that shocked the world and ushered in a new era of warfare, on May 10, 1940, 10 gliders carrying airborne troops descended from the sky, landed immediately on top of the fortress and seized it from its 200 startled defenders in a matter of minutes. Although badly outnumbered, these men disabled the fort’s guns and then held the important position against determined counterattacks. Meanwhile, more than 400 other Fallschirmjäger descended to earth and seized vital bridges at Canne, Vroenhoven and Veltwezelt. Largely through these efforts, the tanks of the XVI Panzer Corps were able to quickly cross the Albert Canal and move toward their objectives.
While a handful of Fallschirmjäger were securing crossings of the Albert Canal, the remaining 4,000 dropped around Rotterdam and The Hague, seizing both objectives. In the thick of the action for most of the fight, it was while trying to restore order in Rotterdam that Student was critically wounded. After emergency surgery by a Dutch doctor, he was transferred to a Berlin hospital. While recovering from his wounds Student learned that he had been awarded the coveted Knight’s Cross.
The victory had exceeded all expectations. In just six weeks, the Wehrmacht had conquered Western Europe and defeated one of the largest armies then in existence. Around the world, generals and military thinkers of all nations began to look more closely at the elements behind Germany’s success. In the United States and Great Britain, men like Bill Lee, James Gavin and Frederick Browning, who had previously endured years of frustration trying to convince their own militaries of the potential of airborne forces, were now finally listened to. On the same day that France signed the articles of capitulation in the railway car at Compiègne, the U.S. War Department at last gave authorization to form the first test platoon of paratroopers.
As Allied airborne officers scrambled to make up for lost time and pored over reports of the Fallschirmjäger’s success, Hitler turned his attention elsewhere. Recovered from his wounds, in January 1941 Student was given command of the XI Airborne Corps, which consisted of the full-strength 7th Air Division and the 22nd Air Division.
The new corps did not have long to organize itself. In spring 1941, after the Germans overran both Yugoslavia and Greece, Hitler overcame his own reservations about the potential cost and gave Student permission to conduct the largest and riskiest airborne operation to date: the invasion of Crete.
Student established his operational headquarters at Athens’ Hotel Grande-Bretagne to plan Operation Merkur, a watershed in military history that would see an airborne force attempt to seize an island held by superior numbers of enemy troops in well-prepared defensive positions. “I worked out all of the plans for the operation—and was allowed a free hand in this respect,” Student later said.
He had at his disposal 5,000 Junkers aircraft and 85 gliders to transport a force of roughly 22,000 men from both the 7th Air Division and the 5th Mountain Division, which the German high command had substituted for the 22nd Air Division. To overcome the 42,000 British, Commonwealth and Greek defenders, Student devised a plan of attack that called for simultaneous strikes by the initial wave of 6,500 Fallschirmjäger on Canea, which lay adjacent to the deepwater port at Suda Bay, as well as the three primary airfields on the northern coast at Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion. On May 20, the German aerial armada lifted off from more than a half-dozen airfields on the Greek mainland at the start of its historic invasion.
Despite Student’s careful preparations, the campaign got off to a bad start. In the face of stiff Allied opposition, the Germans failed to secure any of the airfields on the first day of the invasion, which prevented the arrival of reinforcements. The fate of the entire campaign soon came to rest on the outcome of the fighting around Maleme. There, Student’s paratroopers were opposed by New Zealanders who held the high ground adjacent to the airfield.
Fortunately for the Fallschirmjäger, the Kiwi commander made a tactical blunder and withdrew his men from Hill 107. The capture of that commanding high ground allowed the 5th Mountain Division to land critically needed reinforcements and supplies. Now firmly in place, the Germans went on the offensive and over the next several days seized one objective after another. Finally, on May 28, the British began to evacuate their forces from the southern coast.
The Germans paid a heavy price for their victory, however. One of every four soldiers engaged in the invasion force became a casualty, and among the initial assault waves the losses were even higher. Of the 6,500 men who landed the first day, 4,000 were killed, wounded or captured.
Still, Student was elated over the victory and entertained grandiose ideas that included additional air assaults on Cyprus and the Suez Canal. Horrified by the losses his airborne troops had suffered, however, two months after the victory Hitler told Student that there would be no more large-scale paratrooper assaults. “The parachute arm is one that relies entirely on surprise,” the Führer said. “In the meantime, the surprise factor has exhausted itself.”
Out of Hitler’s favor and relegated to the back burner, Student was now helpless to prevent his airborne units from being taken from him and fed piecemeal into the meat grinder that the fighting on the Eastern Front had become. Devoted to the airborne concept, Student nonetheless continued to perform his duties in good conscience, managing to raise three new divisions in a six-month period in 1942. Although no longer used as he had intended them, the airborne troops trained by Student performed exceptionally well, and following their service in Russia, North Africa and Italy they gained a well-deserved reputation as some of the most elite German troops.
For his efforts, Student was promoted to colonel-general the month after the Allies came ashore at Normandy. By that time, German airborne forces numbered 160,000, which was enough to form an entire army. Following the Allied liberation of France, in September 1944 Student was given command of the First Parachute Army and held Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group at bay for months. One of the reasons subsequently given for the failure of Montgomery’s ambitious Operation Market-Garden was Student’s presence in the area.
After helping defeat the largest airborne operation ever attempted up to that time, Student was made commander of Army Group H, which he led against Montgomery until he was relieved in January 1945 to train new airborne divisions. Called back to the front in April 1945 to head the First Parachute Army near Bremen, he was subsequently given command of Army Group Vistula and instructed to help stem the Russian tide sweeping across Germany. By then, however, the situation on the Eastern Front made such a promotion meaningless. Unable to reach his new command because all the available landing strips had been overrun by the enemy, Student diverted his plane to Lübeck, where he was captured by the British.
After the war, Student spent three years in confinement before being acquitted of alleged war crimes. For the next 30 years, he lived in retirement in Lemgo, Germany, dying on July 1, 1978, at the age of 88.
Originally published in the March 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.