General Student
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Eben Emael

General Student was an ardent advocate of the use of airborne forces for surprise assault on an enemy target.  The assault on Crete was largely his plan.

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As a boy in Prussia, Student attended the Royal Prussian Cadet School in Potsdam in 1901, and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1911.  In 1913 he applied for pilot training, displayed a natural ability and at the beginning of the First World War, flew against the Russians.  His aptitude was soon recognized and he was selected as one of four pilots to try out the new Fokker fighter on the Eastern Front.  In 1916 he moved to the Western Front where, in 1917 following a dogfight, he crash-landed behind the German lines.  Severely wounded, his war was over.
Liddell Hart interviewed many of the German officers after the war, including Student.  A very useful book. The other side of the hill

Following the war Germany felt the need to circumvent the limitations placed on he fighting forces by the Allies at the Treaty of Versailles.  One way around the provisions of Versailles was to train an Air Force in Russia, where the Allies could not monitor what was going on.  Student was selected as one of the officers who could be retained in the depleted German forces following Versailles, and he became involved in the build up of the new German Air Force.  In 1928 Student was transferred to an infantry regiment to gain command experience, and had reached the rank of Major when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.

Student's big break came in 1938.  Hitler was preparing for his invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Student was given command of the first German parachute division.  Although Student had the backing of Hermann Goering for his air assault ideas, there were many high ranking officers in the Army and the Air Force who did not share this enthusiasm.  In the end he was not called on to use his new command in Czechoslovakia because of the agreement reached at Munich between Chamberlain and Hitler.  Goering's backing of Student had increased during this period, Student had shown himself to be enthusiastic and resourceful, by January 1939 he was at the head of both parachute and air-landed troops.  Student's intention was that the parachute troops would be the "shock" troops, relying on surprise to cause confusion in the enemy.  This method of deployment into battle would depend on young, fit troops, all of them volunteers with a very high esprit-de-corps, their officers jumping first and leading by example.  The parachute troops would then need to take their objective and hang on until re-supplied and reinforced either by air or advancing ground troops.  Still today in the British Army, the Parachute Regiment is one of the hardest to get into, and the hardest to come up against, as in the Falklands.

Student was also a keen advocate of glider landed airborne troops, to go along with those dropped by parachute.  A glider could make a silent approach after release from it's tug, it could then land in a confined space to unload a spearhead group against specific targets ahead of the parachute troops.  Both the parachute and the glider landed troops relied on the aging Ju 52 transport aircraft.  Rugged as these old tri-motor aircraft were, a very large number would be lost over Crete.  Not only were they slow moving but the limitations of the design of the German parachute (there were no shroud lines to pull for any level of directional control) meant that jumps had to be made below 400 ft. to have any accuracy over the drop point.  The problems of the German paratroops were further compounded by the need for their rifles and machine guns to be dropped in separate containers.  Many would die on Crete before they could reach these containers.

Hitler's plan for the invasion of Belgium and Holland, codenamed YELLOW, gave Student the opportunity to put his ideas into practice.  Airborne troops would land by glider and take the Belgian redoubt of Eben-Emael, guarding the bridges over the Albert Canal, while the rest of his force would make a surprise attack on the Hague and Rotterdam.  Eben-Emael was taken completely by surprise.  With a garrison of 1200 men it fell to a glider force of just seventy men, and the total surprise of the whole operation.  While the glider force was succeeding against the redoubt, the rest of Student's men were not having such an easy success around the Hague and Rotterdam.  The plan had been for them to capture Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch high command, this did not go to plan and they escaped to England.  The cities fell however to the German forces advancing behind Student's spearhead troops.

It was during this operation in Rotterdam that Student was severely wounded, a bullet in the right side of his head.  He later recovered in a Berlin hospital, was decorated by Hitler and promoted to General, later taking command of the newly constituted XI Fliegerkorps on 1st January 1941.

There were lessons to be learnt from Eben-Emael and Rotterdam.  While Eben-Emael was a great success by a small force, Rotterdam was a little different.  While also successful there was a great loss of men, equipment and aircraft.  A determined defense could take a dreadful toll of parachute troops in their descent and the period before they could find their equipment and re-form.  Lessons learnt here would allow the Allies to seriously disrupt the initial landings on Crete in 1941.

As a result of the landings on Eben-Emael and Rotterdam Goering had a special affection for Student, which allowed Student to propose his plans for further parachute assaults.  One of his plans was for an airborne assault on Crete as a natural extension of Hitler's plan to occupy Greece and expel the Allies there.  Student, in April 1941, used his relationship with Goering to get a meeting with Hitler whose staff wanted to use the paratroops against Malta, so securing Rommel's supply line in N Africa.  Hitler, planning for Barbarossa, saw Crete as a necessary part of that operation into Russia.  If the Allies held Crete then their aircraft could threaten the Ploesti oilfields, essential for Barbarossa.  The result of the 25th April meeting was Hitler's Directive Number 28 for the invasion of Crete.  Goering would have overall command and Student would achieve his ambition of leading the airborne assault of a strategic objective.

Student believed he would have full control of the operation against Crete, under Goering.  However, this was not to be the case.  The VIII Fliegerkorps under Richtofen was to provide air support to the assaulting forces, but Richtofen would not be under the command of Student.  The pair of them were to be equals, both coming under the command of General Lohr.  Lohr and Richtofen were both aware of the role of Crete in Barbarossa, and both felt that it was something of a distraction from the coming battle in the East.  On the 20th May 1941 Student's dream was realised as the first airborne invasion in history commenced.  From this point on however it all went less favourably for Student.  While the final outcome was victory for the Germans, the first one or two days brought them dangerously close to failure.  Large numbers of the parachute troops were killed quickly, many aircraft were lost and the intelligence on which Student had relied was wrong.  The island was much more heavily defended than he had been led to believe.

Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mätauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
German airborne troops in Greece prior to leaving for Crete.

By the end of the 21st May the setbacks on Crete caused the German Command to remove Student from operational control, he was not allowed to fly to the island as he wanted to do.  Command passed to General Ringel commanding the Mountain Troops.

When the war ended Student became a prisoner of the British and was accused of war crimes because of the actions of the German troops on Crete, particularly at Kastelli and Kandanos.  Student had issued orders in late May for a policy of "exemplary terror" to be used against the partisans, this was to include shooting hostages and the total destruction of villages.  Although the Greeks requested his extradition to stand trial in Greece for the actions on Crete, the British refused.  Student had been in hospital because of problems associated with his head wound from Rotterdam, and he was eventually released to live in Germany to the age of 88.