Brief Biography of General Kurt Student

In the movie Gettysburg General Robert E. Lee says to General James Longstreet: “General, soldiering has one great trap: to be a good solider you must love the army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.”[1] General Kurt Student no doubt well understood those feelings as he arrived on Crete five days after the initial landings by his elite Fallschrimjager and looked out to see hundreds of his men dead; their corpses bloated and stinking in the hot Mediterranean sun. This horrible sight would stay with Student for the rest of his life.[2]

The future Luftwaffe Colonel-General Kurt Arthur Benno Student was born on 12 May 1890, the third of four sons.[3] His family was minor Prussian gentry or Junkers. The family was not well off financially and could not hope to launch four sons into their careers of choice. Kurt would have liked to been a doctor, but there was no money for that kind of education, so upon the death of his mother, he entered a military preparatory school for the free education.[4]

Student’s matriculation at the Royal Prussian Military Cadet School and later at the Lichterfelde Cadet School was considered at the time to be the standard education for a youth of his class.[5] He did well enough in school to earn a commission to a light infantry, or Jager, regiment close to home in 1911. Oddly, Student with little skill in math and a dislike of heights, volunteered for flight training in 1913.[6]

During World War I Student was assigned to the fledgling Imperial German Flying Corps. At the start, he had “good” war. Fighting on both fronts he downed six enemy planes to achieve “ace” status. He also test flew the deadly Fokker tri-wing. Toward the end of the war he commanded a squadron and achieving the rank of Captain. In 1917, he was shot down and severely wounded. Student had barely recovered and returned to active duty when the World War One ended.[7]

Student was lucky enough to be retained as one of only four thousand officers allowed to the one-hundred thousand man Weimar Republic’s Army, the Reichswehr, by the Treaty of Versailles. The same treaty also forbade Germany an air force. Student, with his flying experience, was assigned to the Central Flying Office of the War Ministry, with the brief to secretly develop aircraft technology and doctrine for the future Luftwaffe. However, mere technical development would not be enough, so the Reichswehr high command also encouraged gliding as a sport to build a pool of skilled pilots. Student funneled secret government funds to the gliding clubs and also took part in the gliding competitions. He was badly injured with a fractured skull when his glider crashed in 1923.[8]

In order to get promoted, Student transferred back to his old infantry regiment in 1928, but his sub-rosa work with the Central Flying Office did not come to an end.[9] As part of a secret treaty with the Soviet Union, Student was allowed to observe a demonstration of Russian paratroop deployment in 1931, at this demonstration Student met fellow World War One flying ace Hermann Goering. Both air aces were impressed by the Russian display, even if some of the Soviet’s methods were frightening; such as having the paratroops cling to the wing-struts of bi-planes and open their parachutes to be yanked off by the slipstream![10]

In 1933 Hitler seized power in Germany; in 1935 Der Fuehrer repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and started to rebuild the German war machine. Student was, under the patronage of Goering, the head of the new Luftwaffe, made chief of the paratroop training school and Inspector General of Airborne Troops, as well as commander of the Seventh Flieger Division. During this time, until the Seventh went into combat in the Low Countries in 1940, Student was the prime mover of German Airborne force development.[11]

Student took a hand in all parts of developing the training, equipment and operational doctrine for “his” Fallschrimjager. He had a unique background to aid him in this task; he was a well-known pilot of powered aircraft and gliders, as well as an experienced infantry and staff officer with technological and equipment development experience.[12] Student instituted a policy of only accepting volunteers and also set up a rigorous training program, which was called “unbelievably hard” by the troops. Lastly, although a Luftwaffe officer, Student advocated the concept of using large scale airborne and glider-landings as a part of the Blitzkrieg to seize key terrain in advance of the Panzer divisions’ armored spearheads. This was the doctrine favored by the Army. The Air Force would have preferred to use the airborne forces for small-scale commando raid and other small special operations.[13]

The logical conclusion of the vertical envelopment operational concept advocated by Student was Operation Mercury: the invasion of Crete; where the airborne would not just support regular ground forces, but rather would conduct an independent operation, with the Fallschrimjager being supported by regular naval and air forces. Without a doubt, the airborne invasion of Crete, in fact, Crete as a strategic target at all, was the brainchild of Kurt Student. Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, (OKW), the German Military High Command, thought Malta was the better target for an airborne assault. The island fortress’ capture would secure the sea lanes to Africa. Student fearing an attack on so well defended an objective offered Crete as an alternate. Crete was the ideal for his paratroopers, thought to be lightly defended, in range of the Luftwaffe and having only one main road. Also Crete offered two strategic advantages; occupying it would secure the recently conquered Balkans and Greece, thus the southern flank of Operation Barbarossa and the island could also be used as a springboard to take Malta, Cyprus and maybe even Egypt. Through Goering, Student overcame Hitler initial reservations and on 25 April 1941 Student received Fuehrer Directive Number 28 authorizing the operation.[14]

From start to finish Operation Mercury was Student’s operation, although the overall command of the operation was given to General Alexander Loehr of the Fourth Air Fleet. Loehr’s primary job was to direct the combined arms elements of the operation; including his own Luftwaffe units and what naval forces could be brought to bear. Student’s command was technically just the ground forces, transport aircraft and gliders, but the overall concept and plan was his alone.[15]

Student’s first idea was to land his paratroopers and glider forces at the three main airfields and the administrative capitol simultaneously in a “single paralyzing blow”. As soon as one of the airfields were secured the Fifth Mountain (Gebirgs) Division would be flown in; this plan was the classic “oil spot tactics” of airborne attacks. [16] Loehr and the air support commander, Richthofen, objected to this plan, thinking that it could lead to defeat in detail of the scattered paratroopers, also Richthofen did not think his attack planes and bombers could provide effective fire support to four widely separated drop-zones. Instead Loehr and Richthofen favored a classic schwerpunkt, or a single focused attack, on Maleme, the airfield closest to German airbases in Greece. Student rejected this thinking as old-fashioned and limited. Plus he felt that a single assault would allow the Allies to turn the battle into a standard infantry fight, thereby losing the operational and tactical shock effect of parachute and glider landings. However, Student soon learned that even his 500 Junkers-52 (JU-52) transport planes and nearly 100 gliders would not be enough to carry all the paratroopers at once, so they would have to go in two waves. Still this did not change his thinking on attacking in four places, even though the second wave would not have of the advantage of surprise.[17]

Now Hitler intervened and demanded a seaborne landing as well. The mountain troops, already discontented about being crammed aboard airplanes were even more discontented about now being crammed on to boats. Student was also unhappy about this order, as he thought that the British Navy would be able to intercept the troop convoys and that Luftwaffe was overestimating its ability to protect the convoys.[18] In any case, poor command and staff work had the convoys sailing at night when the Luftwaffe could not intervene. The ramshackle troop convoys turned out to be easy meat for a British Navy well versed in night surface actions.[19]

The poor scheduling of the sea convoys was only one part of a generally rushed and haphazard operational planning. The fabled Grundlichkeit or “thoroughness” of German military preparation failed miserably during the run up to Operation Mercury.[20] By focusing on the innovative nature of the tactics to be used, Student and his staff virtually ignored other areas; such as sustainment, logistics, intelligence, counter-intelligence and deception. [21]

One of the biggest fault of the German planning was in the area of Command and Control. Not only would the four landings be separated by some distance and out of mutual supporting and communication range, but Student stayed in Athens, hundreds of miles away from the battlefield.[22] Adding to this was the fact that the several of the senior officers that were to command the ground fight were quickly killed or wounded once the invasion started.[23] Many radios were damaged on landing, so what reports Student received were spotty at best and seemed to confirm Loehr’s worst fears. The scattered landings were achieving very little and the Fallschrimjager had suffered heavy casualties.[24]

After the apparent failure for the paratroopers to accomplish much on the first day, Student cast the die.[25] He had a battalion of the remaining mountain troops loaded into the available JU-52’s and force landed them at Maleme, the one area where the Germans had at least partial control of an airfield. This gamble paid off; by the evening of 21 May a battalion of the Gebirgsjager had been landed and full control of the airfield established.[26] With sufficient ground troops now on the island and complete control of the air, the issue was no longer in doubt, although there was still hard fighting ahead and the island would not be declared secured for several more days.[27] The Battle for Crete was a German victory, but a pyrrhic one. The Germans suffered nearly 7,000 dead and wounded out of a force 22,000. Never again would the Germans launch a large scale airborne assault.[28]

An evaluation of Student’s part in Operation Mercury is not clear and easy. Once the situation on the ground was made apparent to him, Student kept his head and came up with a daring and ultimately successful plan to force-land the mountain troops. In this he displayed: “all the qualities of a great airborne commander.”[29] Further, Student can hardly be blamed for the fact that Ultra had broken the German codes and surprise was lost.[30] However, he can take the blame for the original concept of the plan which should have been changed when he realized he could not land all his forces in one wave. Also, he should be faulted for the poor command and control arrangements required by his decision to stay in Athens rather than land with his troops.[31] Without a doubt all the acclaim as well as the entire fault for the outcomes of the operation can be laid at Student’s feet. The plan and most of the decision-making was his from start to finish.

Student’s career did not suffer as the result of Crete. He continued to command troops throughout the rest of the war, most famously at Arnhem during Operation Market-Garden, where perhaps ironically he and his German First Airborne Army were the defenders against the attacking Allied paratroopers.[32] Captured after the war and put on trial for ordering reprisals against Cretan civilians, Student was sentenced to five years in prison but due to ill-health he was released after two years. He died in 1978. [33]

Annotated Bibliography

Ailsby, Christopher. Hitler’s Sky Warriors: German Paratroopers in Action, 1939-1945. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, Ltd., 2000.

Christopher Ailsby is an expert on the military of the Third Reich and had previously authored works on the Waffen-SS and the Kriegsmarine. In this work, Ailsby draws on his extensive private archive of photos to create an interesting visual and textual history of the German Fallschrimjager. This work is one of the most technical available; detailing equipment, organization and the developmental history of the German Airborne forces from 1938 to the end of the war. The author also goes into great detail and analysis of Kurt Student’s part in the development of the training, equipment, doctrine and organization of the elite German paratrooper units.

Citino, Robert M. “Dead On Arrivals?” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 22, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 14-27.

Robert M. Citino is the Professor of European History at the University of North Texas and has written several works on the German Army in World War II.   This article is a pure analysis piece of the German side of Operation Mercury and he is highly critical of General Student and his staff. Citino also does macro-historical evaluation of the affects of Operation Mercury on both the Germans and the Allies. Both sides learned very different lessons from the battle, for the Germans it was the end of large paratroop operations, for the allies it was a starting point.

Gettysburg. DVD. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. New York: New Line Cinema, 2004.

Based on the book The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara; parts of this movie are required viewing from some courses at US Army Command and General Staff College. The book is part of the required reading list for Professional Military Development in the US Military. The book and movie both have more to say about military leadership and war than many non-fiction works. For this paper the quote is used to demonstrate the feelings Student must have had as a professional military officer at seeing his dead comrades.

Hackett, Sir John. “Student: Colonel-General Kurt Student” in Hitler’s Generals. Edited by Correlli Barnett. 463-480. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

Sir John Hackett was a highly decorated soldier that served with the British First Airbourne Division at Arnhem and after his retirement he pursued an academic, literary and historical writing career. In his article on Student in the collected work: Hitler’s Generals, Hackett calls Student the father of all airborne forces and one of only two truly innovative German officers of World War Two (the other being Heinz Guderian, the father of Blitzkrieg). The background information on Student is in-depth and detailed without being pedantic. If the article has a flaw is it soft pedals Student’s part in alleged war-crimes on Crete during the occupation.

Hickey, Michael. Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare. New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.

Michael Hickey is an award-winning military literature author and retired British military officer. His book Out of the Sky is a survey history of airborne operation from World War Two until the late 1970’s. He calls The Battle of Crete the “high tide” of German paratrooper operations. Hickey’s writing is clean and clear. He does little analysis but does contextualize Student’s role in the history and development of paratroops and other air-landing troops. He also contextualizes Student’s role in the battle and subsequent use of German paratroops as elite ground infantry.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

John Keegan is the premier military historian of our time; his works like The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command are groundbreaking works of military history. In his book The Second World War, Keegan approached the war thematically rather than chronologically. For the purpose of this paper one of the “battle pieces” selected to illustrate the nature airborne warfare was the Battle of Crete. Keegan places the battle in context of the innovative nature of warfare during World War Two and Student’s part in this innovation. Keegan does some sharp analysis on the role of Allied code-breaking on the outcome of the battle.

Kiriakopoulos, G. C. Ten Days to Destiny: The Battle for Crete, 1941. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.

Professor Kiriakopoulos’ book investigates the often overlooked civilian resistance to the initial German invasion of Crete as well as the subsequent efforts by the occupiers to suppress this resistance. This book is often cited by later academic, military and popular works on the subject of Crete during World War Two. Kiriakopoulos claims that before this work the Battle of Crete was overlooked in America. Further the book is generously footnoted and includes much original information from interviews Kiriakopoulos conducting while researching the battle.

Quarrie, Bruce. Airborne Assault: Parachute Forces in Action, 1940-91. Sparkford, UK: Patrick Stephens, ltd, 1991.

The late Bruce Quarrie had a well deserved reputation for painstaking research and meticulous detail in his writing. His work Airborne Assault is a perfect example of this kind of writing. Nearly flawless in it description and details, this work is often cited in military academic papers on the subject of airborne operations in general and Operation Mercury in particular. The first chapter of this work focuses on Operation Mercury, while the second offers valuable in-formation regarding the development of the German paratroopers. While Quarrie doesn’t give much, if any analysis, the narrative is invaluable.

Reinhardt, Hellmuth. Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal, 4th Edition. Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 2008.

This work was originally written for and published by Historical Division, EUCOM, by a committee of former German officers under the publication number CMH Pub 104-13 in 1953. The primary author was Generalmajor (Brigadier General) Hellmuth Reinhardt, Deputy Chief, General Army Office, 1941-43, and later Chief of Staff, Eighth Army, on the southern front in the Ukraine and Romania. This work is now commercially available as cited. Other contributors included Kurt Student, Albert Kesselring and August von der Heydte. This work is a thorough analysis of German airborne and the German reaction to Allied air-landing operations as well, during the War. The work is utterly invaluable to anyone studying the subject of German paratroop operations in World War Two and is often cited by military and academic writers on this subject.

Williamson, Gordon. German Commanders of World War II: Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe & Navy, Volume 2. Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2006.

Gordon Williamson is a British Army veteran and the author of a number of titles for Osprey Publishers. This two volume set is lavishly illustrated, as are all Osprey publications, and features brief yet detailed biographies of German leaders in the Waffen-SS, Luffwaffe and Kriegsmarine. These commanders are generally less well known than then their German Army counterparts. The biography of Kurt Student is full of interesting details of his life and military career; it is certainly as good and is at least as valuable as the similar biography in Hitler’s Generals.

[1] Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (New York: New Line Cinema, 2004).

[2] G. C. Kiriakopoulos, Ten Days to Destiny: The Battle for Crete, 1941 (New York: Franklin Watts, 1985), 318.

[3] Gordon Williamson, German Commanders of World War II: Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe & Navy, Volume 2 (Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2006), 51.

[4] Sir John Hackett, “Student: Colonel-General Kurt Student” in Hitler’s Generals, ed. Correlli Barnett, (New York: Grove Press, 1989), 464.

[5] Michael Hickey, Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 17.

[6] Hackett, “Student”, 464.

[7] Callum McDonald, The Lost Battle: Crete 1941 (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 7.

[8] Ibid., 8 -9.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bruce Quarrie, Airborne Assault: Parachute Forces in Action, 1940-91 (Sparkford, UK: Patrick Stephens, ltd, 1991), 29.

[11] Hackett, “Student”, 466-467.

[12] Christopher Ailsby, Hitler’s Sky Warriors: German Paratroopers in Action, 1939-1945 (Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, Ltd., 2000), 29.

[13] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 30.

[14] John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 161.

[15] Ibid., 161-162.

[16] McDonald, The Lost Battle, 70 and Hellmuth Reinhardt, Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal, 4th ed. (Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 2008), 18

[17] McDonald, The Lost Battle, 70-71.

[18] Ibid., 72-73

[19] Ibid., 238-239

[20] Robert M. Citino, “Dead On Arrivals?” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 22, no. 2 (Winter 2010), 14.

[21] Ibid., 17.

[22] Michael Hickey, Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 61.

[23] Ibid., 65

[24] Ibid., 67.

[25] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 21.

[26] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 68.

[27] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 24-25.

[28] Citino, “Dead On Arrivals?” 25.

[29] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 73.

[30] Keegan, The Second World War, 163.

[31] Reinhardt, Airborne Operations, 19-20.

[32] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 73.

[33] Williamson, German Commanders of World War II, 54.

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