Die Gebirgsjäger – Germany’s Elite Mountain Troops

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The Gebirgsjäger are the light infantry part of the alpine or mountaintroops (Gebirgstruppe) of Germany and Austria. The word Jäger (meaning “hunter” or “huntsman”) is a characteristic term used for light-infantry or light-infantryman in German-speaking military context.

The mountain infantry of Austria have their roots in the three Landesschützen regiments of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The mountain infantry of Germany carry on certain traditions of the Alpenkorps (Alpine corps) of World War I. Both countries’ mountain infantry share the Edelweiß insignia. It was established in 1907 as a symbol of the Austro-Hungarian Landesschützen regiments by Emperor Franz Joseph I. These troops wore their edelweiss on the collar of their uniforms. When the Alpenkorps came to aid the Landesschützen in defending Austria-Hungary’s southern frontier against the Italian attack in May 1915, the grateful Landesschützen honoured the men of the Alpenkorps by awarding them their own insignia: the edelweiss. Together with the Fallschirmjäger (Paratroopers) they are perceived as one of the elite infantry unit of the German Army.

Gebirgsjäger in World War II

During World War II the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS raised a number of mountain infantry units.

An entire corps was formed in Norway by 1941. Its divisions were lightly equipped, with much of the transport provided by mules.

Gebirgsjäger with mules.
Gebirgsjäger with mules.

These mountain infantry were equipped with fewer automatic weapons than regular infantry, however the MG 34 or MG 42 machine gunners were provided with more ammunition than their regular infantry counterparts. Mountain infantry were identified by the edelweiss insignia worn on their sleeves and their caps.

MG-34 Machine Gun
MG-34 machine gun
MG-42 machine guns
MG-42 machine guns

Mountain infantry participated in many battles, including Operation Weserübung, Operation Silver Fox, Operation Platinum Fox and Operation Arctic Fox, the operations in the Caucasus, the Gothic Line, the invasion of Crete and the battles in the Vosges region of France. Special equipment was made for them including the G33/40 mauser rifle based on the VZ.33 rifle.

The G33/40 mauser rifle

The The G33/40 mauser rifle was a modified puška vz. 33 (“rifle model 1933″, sometimes referred to as krátká puška vz. 33 – model 33”) which was developed in Czechoslovakia and based on a Mauser type action. It was designed and produced in Československá zbrojovka in Brno during the 1930s. Production of a slightly modified version continued during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia for the German armed forces. This version was 5 mm longer (due to a different buttplate), a metal plate was attached to the left side of the gunstock and with a German type sling and laminated stock fitted this rifle was issued to German mountain troops as the Gewehr 33/40 (t) (‘t’ being the national origin designator tschechoslowakisch, the German word for ‘Czechoslovak’; (such national origin designators were German practice for all foreign weapons taken into service). Markings are of the German type, with code letters on the receiver ring in place of the Czech rampant lion.

From 1940 until 1942 another 131,503 of the Gewehr 33/40 (t) variant were produced for the German army: 29,000 Gewehr 33/40 (t) were produced in 1940, 48,049 Gewehr 33/40 (t) were produced in 1941 and 54,454 Gewehr 33/40 (t) were produced in 1942. The German armed forces also used the rifles previously issued to the Czechoslovak military. A few prototypes of G 33/40 (t) with wooden folding stocks were also produced for the German paratroopers, not shown in above totals, but this variant never went into serial production.

The G33/40 mauser rifle
The G33/40 mauser rifle

Gebirgsjäger Battle-Dress

Gebirgsjäger in full battle-dress
Gebirgsjäger in full battle-dress

Bergmütze (mountain cap) similar to the M43 (which was based on the Bergmütze) and with a shorter peak had the Edelweiss badge on the left and a T eagle on the front.

This item of kit was valued by the Gebirgsjäger and could be worn in battle especially at altitude where the weight off a helmet was impractical.

The Gebirgsjäger cap badge is based on the edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) (German: Edelweiß) flower which grows at high Alpine elevations. It is among the few Nazi military emblems not to include swastikas or rune symbols. Soldiers with approved mountain infantry training and who also completed an Edelweißmarsch high-altitude training hike could wear such an emblem on the left side of their cap.

Barettabzeichen Gebirgsjäger Cap Badge
Barettabzeichen Gebirgsjäger Cap Badge

Some period specimens have holes drilled in the extremities to allow the pin to be sewn on. Officers’ pins sometimes bore a bright finish. Pre-war versions often had a slightly convex shape while the late-war M43 field cap variant is more flat. Felt-backed versions are also known to exist.

Personnel of the German mountain units wore the pin with the stem facing forward, while units of Austrian origin pointed the stem towards the back.

In mountain theatres snow goggles (Schneebrillen) are often seen around the Bergmütze or worn to protect the eyes from snow blindness or the wind.

Elite Mountain Trooper with MP 44 machine gun.

Gebirgsjäger wore the standard M36 or M40 tunics, an Edelweiss badge was worn on right arm approximately 6″ down from the shoulder and the standard Heer chest eagle, Litzen (collar tabs) would either have grass green colour or be generic SS collar tabs. Shoulder boards would have grass green Waffenfarbe for infantry units.

Gebirgsjäger Edelweiss sleeve badge.
Gebirgsjäger Edelweiss sleeve badge.

Gebirgsjäger had their own wide cut trousers (Berghosen) with a narrow taper, reinforced crotch a pronounced seam down the front and canvas or leather straps at the ankle. There are some pictures of Gebirgsjäger wearing Kniebundhose (trousers that come to below the knee) and long socks but this was not common.

Another iconic piece of kit was the “Bergschuse” mountain boot with hobnailed soles and cleated edges and toes. Standard low boots were issued and used in non-mountainous terrain. There are pictures of Gebirgsjäger with their own civilian walking boots.

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A Gebirgsjäger showing his mountain boots, pack and Mountain cap to good effect.

Gebirgsjäger wore a great variety of winter clothing. A unique item of clothing for the service was the reversible anorak. Usually reed green, could also be tan coloured, both reversible to white. Made of a triple layer rayon material it was wind and rain proof. The original anoraks had only 2 chest pockets, in 1943 the 3 pocket version was introduced. Standard M36/40 Greatcoats were also worn in large numbers. From 1942 the standard issue 2 piece reversible winter suit was also used on the Eastern Front. Initially gray reversible to white, these would later become available in splinter and when used as white a red coloured armband would also be worn for identification purposes. Improvised sheepskin coats and fur hats were also sometimes worn, even Ushanka’s were also occasionally seen in use on the Eastern Front.

Wicklegamaschen (puttees) are worn wrapped around the top of the boot and bottom of the trouser leg secured by a buckle usually on the outside of the leg. The puttees are wrapped clockwise for the right foot and counter-clockwise for the left.

Standard German webbing and ammo pouches were worn by German Mountain Troops. At high altitude all unnecessary kit was left behind, including a lot of the time the bayonet, sometimes an empty bayonet frog may be worn with just a canteen hanging from the belt. Everything else would be stored in the backpack or left behind. The water bottle should be the larger 1 litre bottle (similar to the medics bottle, but with the standard clip fitting rather than the shoulder strap). Otherwise kit was standard Heer issue. Of course webbing worn depends on the terrain they were fighting in, the standard Heer layout of webbing and kit will be more applicable to some theatres.

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The standard issue backpack was the M31 mountain backpack, later the M44 rucksack was introduced based on the mountain pack design but available for issue to all troops not just Gebirgsjäger. Inside the backpack you would find: a groundsheet, blanket, wind cheater, spare shirt, spare pants, spare socks, balaclava, gloves, mess tin cutlery, rations, jewel stove, washing gear, candles or flash light, low boots, crampons, snow shoes, zeltbahn, climbing gear, compass etc. 5 colour coded bags were used to help store items in a tidy fashion. Troops had to carry about 32Kg of weight, often while ascending 2000m.

The Edelweiss Flower

The Leontopodium alpinum, (Edelweiß) in German, is a well-known mountain flower, belonging to the sunflower family. Edel means “noble” and weiß (or weiss) “white”.

Alpen Edelweiß, Leontopodium alpinum.
Alpen Edelweiß, Leontopodium alpinum.

The plant is unequally distributed and prefers rocky limestone places at about 1800–3000 m altitude. It is nontoxic, and has been used traditionally in folk medicine as a remedy against abdominal and respiratory diseases. The dense hair appears to be an adaptation to high altitudes, protecting the plant from cold, aridity and ultraviolet radiation. As a scarce short-lived flower found in remote mountain areas, the plant has been used as a symbol for alpinism, for rugged beauty and purity associated with the Alps, and as a national symbol especially of Austria and of Switzerland.

The Edelweiss was granted to the German alpine troops during World War II, for their bravery. Today it is still the insignia of the Austrian, Polish, Romanian, and German alpine troops. The Edelweiss flower was the symbol of Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS Gebirgsjäger, or mountain rangers and was worn as a metal pin on the left side of the mountain cap, on the band of the service dress cap, and as a patch on the right sleeve.

Gebirgsjäger Units involved in the North of Finland and Norway

2. Gebirgs-Division

2. Gebirgs-Division

The German 2nd Mountain Division was raised in 1938 from the former Austrian 6th Mountain Division and German mountain troops. It fought as part of Army Group South during the Invasion of Poland (1939, attacking from the territory of Slovak State), then took part in the invasion of Norway in 1940, and attempted to relieve the beleaguered 3rd Mountain Divisionat Narvik. In 1941 it moved into Lapland to participate in Operation Silberfuchs, the attack on the Soviet Arctic as part of Operation Barbarossa. In late 1944 it withdrew to Norway and then transferred to Denmark. In 1945, it fought on the Western Front, where it was engaged in heavy combat near Trier.

The Allies destroyed much of the division near Württemberg towards the end of the war, with survivors surrendering to the Americans.

3. Gebirgs-Division

The 3rd Mountain Division (German: 3 Gebirgs-Division) was a formation of the GermanWehrmacht during World War II. It was created from the Austrian Army‘s 5th and 7th Divisions following the Anschluss in 1938.

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History

The division took part in the Invasion of Poland 1939 as part of Army Group South, but was transferred to garrison the West Wall before the end of the campaign. In 1940 it joined the invasion of Norway, most famously sending its 139th Mountain Regiment under General Eduard Dietl to seize the ice-free Arctic port of Narvik. The Allies briefly managed to take the town back, but abandoned it to the Germans after the invasion of France.

In 1941 the division moved into Lapland to participate in Operation Silberfuchs, the attack on the Soviet Arctic as part of Operation Barbarossa, but failed to capture Murmansk. The division was withdrawn to Germany for rehabilitation at the end of the year, but left its 139th Mountain Infantry Regiment behind to operate independently. After rehabilitation, the division returned to Norway in 1942, where it served as a reserve. It was then transferred to the Eastern Front, where it served as a reserve for Army Group North near Leningrad. In November 1942 it was committed to the front where the Soviets had surrounded Velikiye Luki, and then transferred to the far south to help in the attempt to relieve Stalingrad. It fought the remainder of the war in the south, retreating with the front lines through the Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, and finally surrendering to the Soviets in Silesia at the end of the war.

Austrian-born German snipers Sepp Allerberger and Matthäus Hetzenauer served in the Eastern Front as part of the division.

6. Gebirgs-Division

6. Gebirgs-Division

The German 6th Mountain Division was established in June 1940, and was deployed to France for occupation duties. In December it was relocated to Poland, where it remained until the spring of 1941. It then took part in Operation Marita, the invasion of Greece during the Balkans Campaign. In September it was relocated to northern Finland, where it operated in Lapland (west of Murmansk). From July 1942 onward it was part of the 20th Mountain Army along the Arctic coast. It withdrew into Norway when the Germans evacuated Finland in late 1944, and surrendered to the British at the end of the war in 1945.

7. Gebirgs-Division

7. Gebirgs-Division

7 Mountain Division or 7 Gebirgs Division (German) was formed through the redesignation of 99 Light Infantry Division which had fought on the southern sector of the Eastern Front until being withdrawn to Germany and redesignated the 7 Mountain Division in October 1941. In 1942, it was sent to Finland and remained there until the Finnish withdrawal from the war. The division retreated into Norway where it remained until the end of the war.

9. Gebirgs-Division

The German 9th Mountain Division was the name given to two separate German military divisions by accident in 1945.

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Operational histories

Two simultaneous but independent attempts were made to raise the division in the waning days of the war; the resulting units are conventionally distinguished as Nord (“North”) and Ost (“East”), after the respective theaters where they were being assembled. For all practical purposes the 9th Mountain Division never fully came into being.

Northern division

In the spring of 1944 the 139th Mountain Regiment, which had been left in Lapland by the 3rd Mountain Division when it withdrew at the end of 1941, was reinforced to become Divisionsgruppe Kräutler. In September it received the additional designation of 140th Special Purposes Division, and as a result is mentioned once in late-war documentation as “Div.Gr.K (Div.z.b.V.140)”. On May 6, 1945 the OKW issued an order re-designating it as the 9th Mountain Division, but the order came so late that it is not actually listed as such on any situation maps or other official records. The unit had withdrawn from Lappland into Norway as German fortunes in the Arctic waned, and surrendered to the British at the end of the war. (Some documentation from the post-war period further confuses matters by referring to this unit as the 10th Mountain Division.)

Russland, Kaukasus, Gebirgsjäger

Eastern Division

In the spring of 1945 Shadow Division Steiermark controlled two RADbrigades, and these were mobilized for combat duty as an “Alarm” division under the name Mountain Division Steiermark. The division’s two regiments were composed of a very diverse mix of personnel from the Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, police, and other organizations. It appears also to be related to Kampfgruppe Raithel and/or Kampfgruppe Semmering, though the late-war documentation is weak. Its elements surrendered to the Soviets at the end of the war.

6th SS Mountain Division Nord

6th SS Mountain Division Nord

Their logo features the Hagal (Armanen rune).

The 6th SS Mountain Division Nord was a German unit of the Waffen SS during World War II, formed in February 1941 as SS Kampfgruppe Nord (SS Battle Group North).

The 6th SS Mountain Division Nord sleeve patch.
The 6th SS Mountain Division Nord sleeve patch.

The Division was the only Waffen SS unit to fight in the Arctic Circle when it was stationed in Finland and northern Russia between June and November 1941. It fought in Karelia until the Finnish armistice in September 1944 when it marched on foot 1,600 km through Finland and Norway. It arrived in Denmark in December and then transferred to western Germany. It fought in the Nordwind offensive in January 1945, where it suffered heavy losses and surrendered to the American forces in Austria at the end of the war.

Nordeuropa, Gebirgsjäger auf Ski

After the Norwegian Campaign and the surrender of Norway, Adolf Hitler did not want units of the Wehrmacht (regular army) to guard the new border between occupied Norway and the Soviet Union, created when Joseph Stalin annexed northernmost Finland, so he decided to send units of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-Death’s Head Units) formed from concentration camp guards.

The first unit to assemble in Kirkenes, was the SS Battalion Reitz, named after their commander Obersturmbannführer Wilhelm Reitz. The SS 9th “Totenkopf”Regiment, led by ObersturmbannführerErnst Deutsch soon followed.

They were joined in the Spring of 1941, by the SS 6th and 7th Regiments and moved into positions at Salla in northern Finland. The formation was well equipped but barely trained, and the commanding General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst did not trust their fighting ability.

Operation Arctic Fox

The 6th SS Mountain Division Nord was in position on the Norwegian–Finnish border by late June 1941 and as the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) started they were committed to the attack, in Operation Arctic Fox.

Involved in the battle at Salla, against strong Soviet forces they suffered 300 killed and 400 wounded in the first two days of the invasion.

The battle at Salla was a disaster: the thick forests and heavy smoke from forest fires disoriented the troops, and the units completely fell apart.

The Brigade got a new unit attached, SS Gebirgsjäger (Mountain) Artillery Regiment 6, and was now designated as a Division, the SS Division “Nord”. In September 1941 SS Division “Nord” was attached to the Finnish III Corps under Finnish General Hjalmar Siilasvuo (this was the only time that an SS Division was under the command of a non-German officer), and took up new positions at Louhi, Kiestinki.

By the end of 1941, it had suffered severe casualties. Over the winter of 1941–42 it received replacements from the general pool of Waffen SS recruits, supposedly younger and better trained than the SS men of the original formation.

1942/1943

The rebuilt Division was called into action against the Soviet spring offensive in 1942 and this time managed to hold its lines. Throughout the rest of 1942 and through 1943 it remained on the Kestenga front, which was quiet compared to other areas of the Eastern Front. In September 1942, the unit was renamed the SS Gebirgs-Division “Nord” (SS Mountain Division “North”) and in October 1943 became the 6th SS Gebirgs-Division “Nord”.

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1944/1945

In the Soviet summer offensive the division held its lines in heavy fighting until it was ordered to withdraw from Finland, upon the conclusion of a separate armistice between the Finns and the Soviets in September 1944. The 6th SS Mountain Division then formed the rear guard for the three German corps withdrawing from Finland in Operation Birch and from September to November 1944 marched 1,600 kilometers to Mo i Rana, Norway, where it entrained for the southern end of the country. The Norwegian Ski-Battalion unit was then left behind, in accordance with their contracts. They were merged into “SS-und-Schi-Jäger-Polizei-Battalion 506 (mot.) with app. 50% men from different German Police units in South Norway. The rest of the Division headed for Germany.

After crossing the Skagerrak in a naval convoy, the division briefly refitted in Denmark. The Division’s losses were replaced for the greater part of young Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) who had received only a brief training and had not volunteered but been drafted to the Waffen SS in the normal conscription procedure. Their fighting value was therefore correspondingly lower than had been the case with the former personnel and naturally lowered the combat abilities of the entire division.

The division was slated for participation in the German offensive in the Ardennes known as the Battle of the Bulge, but did not assemble in Aarhus, Denmark, until 20 December, several days after the attack had already begun.

Instead, the division was allotted to Operation Nordwind in the Low Vosges mountains of southeastern France. Arriving at the front lines just before New Year’s Day. Nord was the largest German division involved in Nordwind, and it had young and fit personnel compared to regular Army outfits. By 2 January, part of the division (SS Gebirgs Regiment 12 and 506th Battalion) went into action against the U.S. 45th Infantry Division, attached to 361st Volksgrenadier Division. For six days the SS men fought in and around the town of Wingen, finally being pushed back by the Americans with most of the battle group killed or captured.

Men of the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord after the 1944 Norwind Offensive.
Men of the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord after the 1944 Norwind Offensive.

On 16 January, the SS Gebirgs Regiment 11 surrounded six companies of the American 157th Infantry Regiment. The Americans were forced to surrender three days later, losing 482 men. The Nord advanced for four more days before being stopped by American counterattacks.

The Division remained on the western front after the Nordwind offensive, fighting the Americans around Trier and Koblenz on the Moselle River in March before going into 7th Army’s reserve in April. By this point the division had lost most of its heavy weapons (officially to fuel shortages) and was grossly understrength. In May 1945, the unit’s survivors surrendered to the Americans in Austria.

Gebirgsjäger in the modern German forces

Honouring tradition, upon the creation of the Bundeswehr in 1956, the mountain infantry returned as a distinctive arm of the West German army. Until 2001, they were organized as the 1. Gebirgsdivision, but this division was disbanded in a general reform. The successor unit is Gebirgsjägerbrigade 23 which has its headquarters in Bad Reichenhall. The battalions of these mountain infantry are deployed in southern Bavaria as this is the only high mountain area in Germany touching the Northern Alps. Since 2008 the unit is officially called “Gebirgsjägerbrigade 23 Bayern (Bavaria)” as a commendation of the close relationship between the state and the Gebirgsjäger.

According to the official Bundeswehr website, the brigade has a current strength of 6,500 soldiers.

References

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Die Gebirgsjäger – Germany’s Elite Mountain Troops”

  1. I do agree with all of the ideas you have presented in your post. They’re really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are too short for novices. Could you please extend them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

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