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Death From Above

5. Fallschirmjager Regiment in Tunisia
Part 1, November-December 1942

In July 1942 the II/FJR.5 (II Battalion, Fallschirmjäger Regiment 5) was sent to Africa as Battalion Hübner, which was part of Brigade Ramcke. The rest of the regiment was transferred to Reims (France) to train for Operation Hercules, the attack on Malta (which was later cancelled).

In late 1942 substantial Allied shipping was detected by the Germans moving through the straits of Gibraltar. The Germans recognised a new threat in the Mediterranean, initially thinking the Allies planned to invade southern France or Corsica, but it soon became apparent that Tunisia was their target.

The Stab (command company), I & III/FJR.5, under the command of Oberstleutnant Walter Koch, were mobilised from Reims and in a matter of days the Fallschirmjäger were flying above the wave tops aboard JU-52 aircraft on their way to Tunisia. 

The first men of FJR.5 were flown into Tunis in early November. A few days later on 12 November 1942 a flight of JU-52s supported by fighters arrived with the 600 Fallschirmjager of the III Battalion. The airlift continued until 16 November, by which time both battalions and support units were in Tunisia. The FJR.5 deployed around Tunis in defensive positions.

As of 16 November 1942 FJR5 had in Tunis:

I Battalion (Hauptmann Gerhart Schirmer, Hauptmann Hans Jungwirth)
Fallschirmkompanie Sauer (made from recovered Ramcke Brigade wounded flown in from Athens)
III Battalion (Hauptmann Knocke)

Schirmer’s battalion held the west of the city, Sauer’s ad-hock company the south and Knoche’s battalion was held in reserve.

In addition to Koch’s FJR.5, Major Witzig’s XI Fallschirmpionier Battalion, a heavy FlaK battery (four 8.8cm guns) and an armoured car company had also been flown in to boost the defence.

The Italians had also started to move in reinforcements with two battalions of the elite San Marco marine infantry and two battalions of the ‘Superga’ air-landing division.

The Fallschirmjager rushed through the city to set-up roadblocks and prepared to halt the advance of the Anglo-American Blade Force.

Vichy French forces still controlled most of the defence of Tunisia, and the Germans were still unsure of which way they would jump.

As the French substantially out numbered the Axis forces it was decided negotiation and diplomacy would be the best course of action. While reconnoitring the French positions, Hauptmann Knoche and two officers were arrested by the French, but through diplomacy and bluff he was able to convince the local French commander he was acting on behalf of General Nehring (German commander in Tunisia). 

Getting the lay of the land
Northern Tunisia

He was able to negotiate the expansion of the Fallschirmjager’s defensive area out to Medjez el Bab and to include three bridgeheads over the River Medjerda at Medjez el Bab, Tebourba and Jedeida.

The French continued to use delaying tactics and did not allow the Fallschirmjäger to push further westward, frustrating opportunities to stop the Allies taking key locations. An uneasy truce held between the Germans and French as the men of FJR.5 waited for the expected Allied attack.

In the meantime General Nehring decided to secure areas in the south of Tunisia. A small kampfgruppe was formed from Sauer’s company, with the addition of a further company from FJR.5, some cyclists and a company from the Headquarters defence battalion. The group set out in twelve JU-52s towards the airfield at Gabes, but was met with defensive fire when trying to land. The group turned back towards  Tunis, but en-route another plan was hatched and six of the planes landed 40km from the airfield on some flat open ground. 

Three small patrols were sent out towards the airfield. One patrol of seven Fallschirmjager was captured by the French garrison. The confident Fallschirmjager convinced their captors that if they weren’t released the airfield would be bombed. In the early morning another flight of JU-52s was mistaken for bombers and the French fled the airfield. The Fallschirmjäger talked their aircraft in and the Germans took control of the airfield. As a result nearby Gafsa was also taken soon afterwards.

On 19 November Koch was preparing an attack to clear Medjez el Bab, to force the river crossing and clear it of French resistance. The attack was undertaken by Knoche’s III Battalion, with the attack preceded by Stuka dive-bombers. As the Stukas attacked the French defending the bridge, the three columns of Fallschirmjäger moved forward and cleared the houses on the east bank of the river. The second column struck fierce resistance around the police station, while the third column’s attack on the bridge was thrown back by French counter-attacks. Fearful that his force would by outflanked by the numerically superior French force, Knoche broke off the attack.

Later the same afternoon a new plan was hatched by Knoche and Koch. 

Fallschirmjager prepare for a jump
This time the Fallschirmjäger would infiltrate through the French positions in ten groups of ten armed with substantial amounts of explosives. They would swim or wade the river and attack key positions on the western bank. At 0100 hours the first explosives were set off, causing confusion among the French and Americans on the western bank. Defensive positions opened fire allowing the Fallschirmjäger to locate their positions in the dark, and take out the positions one by one. The Germans then worked their way into the town of Medjez itself, setting up defensive positions.
Fallschirmjager in Tropical kit The Allies counter-attacked at dawn with tanks, but the Fallschirmjäger’s experience in Russia left them well prepared, they took out two tanks with explosives forcing the Allies to withdraw. No only were the Fallschirmjäger in possession of Medjez el Bab, but the Allies were forced to abandon substantial supplies, weapons and fuel in the town.

Schirmer’s I Battalion, with artillery and heavy anti-aircraft support, followed up the success, pursuing the Allies and pushing the defensive perimeter further westward as far as Oued Zarga. They encountered heavy resistance and fire from artillery and were pulled back to Medjez el Bab that evening.
Allied attacks on the Fallschirmjäger positions around Medjez el Bab continued for the next few days, but Koch’s men held their ground. FJR.5 was spread thin, an attack by US armour on El Aroussa threatened the rear of Medjez el Bab, and a Kampfgruppe was quickly formed by Koch, including the 88s. They rushed to El Aroussa where they turned back the American tankers, only to have to rush back across to Medjez el Bab to see off another Allied armoured thrust.

Medjez el Bab Scenario...

Allied pressure finally told and FJR.5 withdrew back to Massicault, with the 10. Kompanie covering the retreat and blowing the Medjez bridge. The Allied pursuit was slow and over the next few days Fallschirmjäger patrols were sent out to locate the Allies. On November 30 one patrol encountered the 2nd Battalion, British paratroopers who had been dropped to take the airfield at Pont du Fah.

While the Fallschirmjager gained a short respite, General Nehring was planning the next major offensive. More Axis troops had arrived, including the Tiger tanks of Schwere Panzer Abteilung 501, and the Luftwaffe had gained temporary air superiority. Nehring’s plan was to encircle the Tebourba area, with the Fallschirmjäger striking from their positions through El Bathan to close the ring. Most of the Axis forces in the north were committed to the attack with only a few guns and men guarding the western approaches to Tunis. 

On 4 December the III Battalion and support feinted towards Medjez el Bab, while the rest of FJR.5, covered by the feint, made an assault on El Bathan supported by recently arrived Panzers and air cover. They successfully pushed the Allies out of the town, and after regrouping, pushed on in the afternoon to attack the high ground at Jebel Lanserine, just west of the Tebourba road.

Fallschirmjager in Africa
US M3 Lee tank Nehring’s risky offensive had been a huge success; the western approaches to Tunis had been secured, just in time for the opening of the Tunisian rainy season. With the onset of the rain the dirt roads became impassable to all but the lightest of vehicles. This gave the Afrika Korps the time needed to retreat into Tunisia without the fear of what will be at their back when they arrived.

Also see the US 13th Armored Regiment...

January to May 1943...

Last Updated On Thursday, November 14, 2019 by Alexander at Battlefront