GORDON WILLIAMSON, Illustrated by STEPHEN ANDREW
GERMAN MOUNTAIN & SKI TROOPS 1939-45
As the greatest tank battle of all time unfolded at Kursk in the central sector of the eastern front in the summer of 1943, the Soviets prepared to launch a massive offensive along a 400-mile front in the south. Over 2,500,000 Soviet troops were thrown at a German force only half as strong. On the southern edge of the front the Soviets advanced from the Gulf of Taganrog in mid-August, and by the end of September they were near Melitopol and approaching the Crimea. By the year's end German troops in the Crimea were cut off, and Kiev had been recaptured.
A fresh offensive started in September, continuing the German advance, with over four million troops now being thrown at the Germans, pushing them ever further to the west. By mid-May 1944 the Crimea had been cleared of German troops and the Red Army was approaching the Carpathian mountains. Romania was swiftly overrun, and the Gebirgsjäger were driven back to end the year in Hungary.
Hitler was now desperate to avoid the Soviets overrunning the Hungarian oilfields at Nagykanitzsa, and a German counter-attack was planned. By this point, 1.Gebirgs-Division was part of 2.Panzerarmee, which was to form the southern prong of a two-pronged attack. The offensive, around the area of the Platensee, started on 5 March, but the spring thaw had turned the terrain into a veritable sea of mud, and the heavier vehicles became bogged down almost immediately. Light infantry such as the Gebirgsjäger could still move, however, and for the first ten days or so of the offensive, the mountain troops made good progress. Soon even they began to falter, and the advance petered out. On 21 March a massive new Russian counter-attack began and the German line began to crumble immediately. Over 40 Red Army divisions faced a mere handful of German units, including 1.Gebirgs-Division and 13.Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS 'Handschar'.
Both 2.Panzerarmee and 6.SS Panzerarmee to the north were forced to retreat. Such was the reputation of 1.Gebirgs-Division for reliability and steadfastness that it was ordered to provide the rearguard, holding back the Soviet horde while the bulk of the German forces withdrew westwards.
In the last few weeks of the war, 1. and 9.Gebirgs-Divisions were fighting in the Steiermark area of Austria, fragmented into small battle groups which fought numerous last-ditch actions against the Red Army before being forced to surrender in May 1945.
Further north, 4.Gebirgs-Division had been driven back into Slovakia, where it became part of another notional 'armoured' force, 1.Panzerarmee. These so-called 'tank armies' had, by then, precious few armoured vehicles remaining. (1.Panzerarmee also went into Soviet captivity when the war ended.)
Further to the north, 3.Gebirgs-Division had also been forced back and was fighting in Upper Silesia when it was finally forced to surrender.
Somewhat more fortunate in their fates were Gebirgs-Divisions 5 and 8, which were operating in Italy. 5. Gebirgs-Division had been put into the line south of Rome in 1943 and took part in the fighting retreat up through Italy as part of LI Gebirgskorps. In the final stages of the war, it fought in the defence of the Gothic Line, before surrendering to British forces in the north-west of Italy in late 1944. 8. Gebirgs-Division saw action in Italy in the area around Bologna, as part of XIV Korps. It was driven back as far as the Po Valley, eventually surrendering to the Americans in the north-west of Italy in late 1944.
Divisions, 2, 6 and 7, which had withdrawn into Norway, were still there when the war ended and they surrendered to the British.
The base of General Böhme's casket has an engraved dedication plate and the interior of the lid bears a numeral 7 for 7 Gebirgs-Division. (P. Pleetinik via F.J. Stephens)
The only major involvement of mountain troop units on the Western Front in the second half of the war was during Operation Northwind. This was launched after the failure of the Ardennes offensive, as the Germans tried to relieve Allied pressure in the Ardennes by launching an attempt to drive through the American lines in the south and recapture Strasbourg. Elements of 6.SS-Gebirgs-Division 'Nord' were involved in the attempt to cross the River Moder and drive through into the Vosges region, Although the SS troops fared well, much better in fact than they had done on the Eastern Front, being by now seasoned veterans, the offensive was doomed. Launched at the beginning of January, it began to run out of steam within a few days, though the mountain troops of the 'Nord' Division did succeed in decimating the US 45th Division with relatively few losses to themselves. It then had the task of crossing the River Ruwer, supported by 2.Gebirgs-Division, and retaking Trier. In the bloody battle which ensued, the mountain troops were forced back, but not without inflicting extremely heavy losses on the Americans.
Major Friedrich Bader, showing a fine range of combat decorations. Note the Heeresbergführer badge, below the German Gross on the right breast pocket, and the Croat Order of King Zvonimir, below the Iron Cross on the left breast pocket. The Honour Roll clasp on the ribbon of the Iron Cross Second Class in the tunic buttonhole has been mounted upside-down, with the ribbon bow to the oakleaf wreath at the top rather than the bottom. For some unknown reason the Close Combat clasp above his left breast pocket has also been mounted upside-down. Note the use of metal rather than cloth cap insignia. (Josef Charita)
Ironically, 'Nord', after such an unimpressive start in combat on the far north of the Eastern Front, was by now the best unit available to the Germans on the southern part of the Western Front, and it gave good service, covering the retreat of most of the remaining German forces over the Rhine before attempting to escape itself. It was too late for most of the SS troops, however. Only a few managed to escape into German-held territory; the remainder became American captives.
In virtually every country occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, guerrilla movements of some kind sprang up. In occupied Yugoslavia, the Germans faced two distinct resistance groups: the Royalist Chetniks and Tito's Communist partisans. (The two groups hated each other almost as much as they hated the Germans.) Initially, partisan activity was not too serious a problem, but Tito soon organised his partisans along formal military lines. Disciplined and well trained, they grew steadily, soon numbering over 150,000.
When Italy capitulated in 1943, the Italian troops in Yugoslavia were withdrawn and many simply abandoned their weapons and heavy equipment. These were quickly snatched by 'Tito's partisans. Allied air-drops of supplies and equipment gave the partisans an even greater offensive capability.
The 7.SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs-Division 'Prinz Eugen' was raised specifically to combat the partisan menace in Yugoslavia. It first saw action in January 1943 in a major anti-partisan drive lasting until March, and shortly thereafter helped round up the remaining Italian troops still on Yugoslavian soil. 'Prinz Eugen' also assisted with the raising and training of the 13.Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS 'Handschar'.
In May 1944 the division took part in a major offensive aimed at capturing Tito and smashing the partisans, now known as the Yugoslav National Army of Liberation. Although Tito's headquarters at Drvar was captured, Tito himself escaped by the skin of his teeth. Several partisan divisions were decimated in the fighting, though losses were heavy on both sides and the partisans proved themselves brave and skilful opponents.
In the spring of 1944 the entire military balance in the area was changed when both Bulgaria and Romania changed sides and, together with massive Red Army forces, began a drive towards Belgrade. Soon the 'Prinz Eugen' Division found itself fighting not just partisans but front line enemy combat divisions.
'Prinz Eugen' was active in the area around Nish, covering the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe E, before it began its own retreat westwards.
During the last few months of the war, the division was used as a 'fire brigade', being rushed from one crisis spot to another as one of the few divisions still available which could be depended upon to continue to fight with absolute determination no matter what the odds. It formed the rearguard of the German retreat from the Balkans into Austria, and fought to the last, before being forced to surrender to the partisans on 16 May 1945. Many of the division's personnel were killed by the partisans.
The headgear worn by the Gebirgsjäger of the German army was, almost without exception, the standard headgear issued to all other branches of the service.
Features which distinguished headgear as Gebirgsjäger issue included the use of light green coloured piping to the crown and band of the peaked cap or Schirmmütze, and on the tropical peaked field cap an inverted chevron of light green coloured 'Russia braid' which enclosed the national colours cockade insignia. In addition, between the eagle and swastika national emblem to the front of the peaked cap, and the wreathed national colours cockade on the cap band, was pinned a small white metal stemless Edelweiss insignia. On the left hand side of the field cap was pinned, or sewn, a white metal or zinc Edelweiss, with stem. The one piece of headgear specific to Gebirgsjäger was the Bergmütze or mountain cap, closely modelled on the mountain cap as worn by Austrian mountain troops in the First World War. It was cut from field grey wool or tricot and had side flaps which could be folded down to cover the ears and back of the head in bad weather. These flaps buttoned under the wearer's chin and when not in use were fastened at the front of the cap, which also featured a short peak.
Major Ludwig Stautner of Gebirgsjäger Regiment 139. A veteran of the First World War, he wears the 1914 Iron Cross in both grades, to which the 1939 clasp has been added. Note also the Imperial German-pattern wound badge. The Heeresbergführer badge can be seen to good effect in this shot. (Josef Charita)
Insignia on the front of the Bergmütze consisted of an eagle and swastika over a national colours cockade, all woven in pale grey artificial silk on a green T-shaped backing.
The metal-stemmed Edelweiss insignia was worn on the left side flap.
A white cover was also produced for the Bergmütze as camouflage when operating in snowy terrain.
A group of mountain troopers from 7.SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs-Division 'Prinz Eugen'. The Odal Rune collar patch. Edelweiss arm patch and divisional cuff band are worn. Unusually, the SS-Sturmmann, on the extreme left, has added rank insignia and a cuff title to his denim fatigue jacket. (Paul Turner)
So popular was the Bergmütze that in 1943 a new general issue field cap for all branches of the armed forces, the Einheitsfeldmütze Modell 1943, was introduced. It was an almost exact copy of the Bergmütze but with a longer peak, and it replaced the Bergmütze.
Waffen-SS mountain troops had, like their army counterparts, specific identifying features for their headgear. Light green piping was occasionally used on the peaked cap (Schirmmütze) but this was by no means common. Confusing and contradictory orders were issued about the use of coloured piping on Waffen-SS peaked caps: coloured piping was only authorised for a very short period before being prohibited again, but those who had already obtained hats with coloured piping seem to have continued wearing them. White piping was the official branch colour for headgear piping for all Waffen-SS units, but original examples of such headgear with green piping do appear from time to time. The small, metal, stemless Edelweiss worn on army Schirmmützen was not, however, authorised for use on Waffen- SS peaked caps.
Waffen-SS mountain troops also used the Bergmütze and the M43 field cap. Insignia on these caps initially consisted of a woven artificial silk deaths head in pale grey on black to the front of the cap, with an eagle and swastika in the same colours on the left side flap. With the Edelweiss badge, which in the case of SS caps was embroidered, also added to the left side flap, the side of the cap looked rather cluttered. Caps were often worn with a single rather than the more normal two-button fastening as found on army caps. This exposed a greater area of the front of the cap and allowed both the deaths head and eagle to be worn at the front of the cap and Edelweiss only on the left side flap. Ultimately a new style of insignia was introduced with both the eagle and the deaths head in pale grey thread on a single trap-ezoidal field grey backing.
Mountain troops also wore a peaked field cap, similar to the M43 style but cut from camouflage- pattern cotton duck. Early patterns were non-reversible, but a second model had predominantly green camouflaged patterns on one side, reversible to a predominantly brown pattern on the other. Although appropriately coloured insignia were produced for these caps, it seems, from photographic evidence, to have been only very rarely worn.
Since many of the mountain troop personnel of the Waffen-SS were non-German volunteers of the Moslem religion, Himmler authorised the wearing of the fez by these troops. The Waffen- SS fez was a very simple piece of head-wear, made from pressed felt, without a lining and featuring a leather or artificial leather sweatband and a black cord 'tassel'. It was made in a burgundy colour material for dress wear and field grey for field wear. Insignia consisted of the standard machine-woven eagle and deaths head badges.
The majority of forms of dress worn by the Gebirgsjäger of both the army and Waffen-SS combat dress, parade dress, walking out dress and so on - were standard-issue garments as worn by all other branches. The following features identified them as Gebirgsjäger.
Light green underlay to the collar and cuff patches on the Waffenrock parade dress for both officers and other ranks.
Light green underlay to officers' shoulder straps.
Light green piping to NCOs' and other ranks' shoulder straps.
Light green strip of Waffenfarbe colouring to the centre of each bar of the officers' collar patch, and the earlier issues of NCO/other ranks collar patches.
Light green piping to the front, collar, cuffs and rear skirt of the Waffenrock parade dress tunic and to the front and collar of many privately purchased walking out dress tunics. Light green piping to the outer seam on the leg of parade dress and walking out dress trousers.
Light green backing to the flags in the standard bearer's arm patch. The Edelweiss mountain troopers arm patch. This was initially either machine-woven or machine-embroidered, with a green stem, white petals, yellow stamens and a silver-grey twisted rope-effect border, all on a dark green backing. The backing changed to a field grey colour on some wartime patterns, but most Gebirgsjäger seem to have continued to wear the earlier pattern.
Officers occasionally wore hand-embroidered bullion wire versions of the Edelweiss. Examples also exist on a tan coloured backing, but some doubt still exists as to the originality of these. (Ski-Jäger were considered part of the Jäger rather than the Gebirgsjäger branch. They wore the same light green piping where appropriate, but the badge worn on the left flap of the field cap consisted of a spray of three oakleaves - the Jäger badge with a ski overlaid diagonally on the oak- leaves. The arm patch consisted of a spray of three green oakleaves with brown stems, all on a dark green backing with a bright green twisted rope effect border. Laid over this diagonally was a ski in white thread. The entire badge was woven in artificial silk thread.)
The award document for the Lapland Shield, in this case to a senior NCO in the military police attached to 20.Gebirgsarmee in Norway. Note that the date of the award is after the end of the war. By this time most official documents had been 'de-nazified' by having the swastika on all ink stamps deleted. This document has been authenticated by an unaltered stamp.
Light green piping to NCOs' and other ranks' shoulder straps.
Light green intermediate underlay on officers' shoulder straps.
Mountain troops arm patch consisting of a black oval backing with silver-grey thread border containing a silver-grey thread Edelweiss with yellow thread stamens.
Some of the Waffen-SS Gebirgsjäger units also had collar patches or cuff-titles specific to them. A large number of Waffen-SS collar patches were designed and manufactured but never issued. The following are those which are known, from photographic evidence, to have been widely worn.