Kurt Student (1890-1978) played an important role in establishing Hitler's secret Luftwaffe (air force). He promoted the idea of using parachute assaults and glider attacks in warfare. Student masterminded the German airborne attack on Crete and was responsible for death of thousands.
Kurt Student was born into an upper middle class German family in the city of Birkholz on May 12, 1890. He hoped to be a doctor, but his family could not afford the education needed. Student's mother died when he was 11. His father sent him to the Royal Prussian Cadet School in Potsdam in 1901, where he could train for a career in the military. The school emphasized strict discipline, sports, and loyalty to the emperor and nation. Student did well in school, except in mathematics. Upon graduating in 1911, he became a lieutenant in the Imperial German Army. In 1913, he trained to be a pilot in the army air force.
During World War I, Student flew against the Russians and was one of four pilots to test a new kind of fighter plane, called a Fokker. In 1916, he was sent to the western front, where he led a group of fighter pilots called a flying circus. He was badly wounded in an aerial battle between fighter planes and crash-landed.
Having lost the war, Germany was not permitted to maintain an air force. In defiance of that ban, 180 German officers formed the Central Flying Office and secretly planned a modern air force. The army encouraged young Germans to take up the sport of gliding, and Student supported the young glider pilots with secret funds from the military. In 1923, Student crashed while gliding and fractured his skull, but managed to recover.
Rapid Promotions in Luftwaffe
Student became director of Air Technical Training Schools in 1932. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he created the German air force, called the Luftwaffe. Student was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Luftwaffe and created new technical courses and training programs for airmen. He received a second promotion in 1935. As colonel, his responsibilities included weapons and equipment. Student took a particular interest in parachutes and visited Russian paratroop schools. He headed the Air Testing Center and became involved with the parachute training school at Stendal, which was established in 1936.
On June 1, 1938, Student became a major general and head of the 7th Fliegerdivision, the first German parachute division. The paratroopers were known for their close connection to the Nazi party. The following year, Student also became inspector general of airborne forces. He was now responsible for both the parachutists and troops brought into combat by airplanes, known as air-landed or airborne troops. Student encouraged the development of the DFS 230, a new type of glider plane that could carry eight men. Glider troops later formed a special assault regiment.
The paratroops were used in the invasion of Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940, along with land and sea forces. In Denmark, three platoons of paratroops captured a bridge and several airfields. The airfield in Stavanger, Norway, was captured quickly. The airfield at the Norwegian capital of Oslo proved more difficult because of Norwegian resistance and heavy fog. Despite these obstacles, Oslo became the first national capital ever to be taken by airborne troops. On April 17, a final German paratroop attack on Norway ended in disaster for the Germans. One German transport plane was shot down and many paratroopers were killed when their parachutes failed to open. Those who landed fell into deep snow, lost their weapons, and were shot by the Norwegians. Thirty-four survivors surrendered.
Forces Impressed Hitler
On May 10, 1940, the occupation of the garrison of Eben Emael in Belgium took place. This fort was at the south end of a defensive dike, the Albert Canal. Eben Emael guarded three major bridges, each in turn guarded by a Belgian defense unit. Eben Emael was built on a hill that was almost impossible to capture from the ground. Because there was no large runway on which to land planes, the Germans decided to use gliders to capture Eben Emael. Gliders need very small landing areas and can carry troops. They can also be released from the airplane towing them, far from their target. They can, therefore, approach silently. At 5:30 in the morning, 39 gliders landed on Eben Emael. The defenders were caught off-guard. The Belgians fought back, but by noon of the next day they had surrendered. Seventy Germans had captured a garrison of 1,200 men. Sixty Belgians and six Germans had died in the fighting. Airborne forces at the Albert Canal defeated the defenders of the bridges before they could be blow up.
While the gliders attacked Belgium, German paratroopers attacked Holland. The Dutch fought fiercely at Rotterdam and Dordrecht. In The Hague, the Germans had problems. Their heavy transport planes sank on the soft runway and blocked the landing of incoming planes. Many planes were shot and casualties were numerous. Although the Germans had intended to capture the Dutch queen, she escaped to England. On May 14, 1940, Holland surrendered. Student went to Rotterdam to finalize the surrender and was struck in the head by a stray German bullet. A Dutch surgeon saved his life, but his recovery took eight months.
The success of the paratroops in Belgium and Holland greatly impressed Hitler. The Germans had minimized the losses of life and equipment. Student received a medal and promotion for his part in the attacks. Recruiting for the paratroops increased and a second parachute training school was created. Production of the DFS 230 gliders increased. When Student was well enough to return to duty, he received command of the XI Fliegerkorps.
The Battle for Crete
On January 25, 1941, Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, took Student to meet with Hitler. They discussed an invasion of Britain, but Hitler was not very enthusiastic. On the train returning to Berlin, Goering spoke with Student about attacking the British position in the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. Goering told Student to create plans for airborne attacks against Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Crete, and the Suez Canal.
After Hitler conquered Greece and Yugoslavia in April 1941, Student was eager to carry out the conquest of Crete, a large island in the Mediterranean, south of the Greek mainland. "Student was desperate to participate in this campaign by attacking Crete. Student was driven by his fierce professional ambition. Impatient with the role of spectator, he wanted to demonstrate his theories on mass parachute operations, silence his critics and consolidate his own position in the military hierarchy of the Third Reich," according to Callum MacDonald in The Lost Battle: Crete 1941. On April 21, 1941, Student met with Hitler and convinced him to attack Crete. On April 25, Hitler issued Directive Number 28, ordering the capture of Crete in an operation code-named Mercury. Overall command was given to Goering.
Student was thrilled at being able to plan the operation against Crete because an airborne assault of this size, without the use of ground forces, had never before been attempted. On May 7, Student flew to Athens where he learned that Goering had given overall command of Mercury to General Alexander Lohr. Under Lohr, Student and General Wolfram von Richtofen had to share command of the VIII Fliegerkorps.
In the battle for Crete, about 23,000 German troops attacked 32,000 British, Australian, and New Zealand troops. On May 14, the VIII Fliegerkorps began bombing Crete in the first phase of the attack. On May 20, the 7th paratroop division of Fliegerkorps XI parachuted onto Crete, landing at Maleme, Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion, attempting to capture and hold the airfields there. The fighting was heavy, with many casualties among the German paratroopers, who had not yet captured an airfield. In Athens, Student was very concerned about how the attack was progressing because the future of the airborne forces and his own career were at stake.
Lohr pressed Student to decide if the Germans should withdraw from Crete, but Student decided to concentrate on taking Maleme. If his troops did not capture it, Student was prepared to commit suicide, he admitted after the war. Hitler and Goering were very disturbed by the heavy losses among the paratroopers on May 20. Student was ordered to remain in Greece and not go to Crete at that point. He was replaced by General Julius Ringel, but fought bitterly against his removal from direct command. When a New Zealand commander withdrew from the Maleme airfield, the Germans captured it and thus were able to land the troops of the 5th Mountain division there on May 21. This enabled the Germans to conquer Crete.
On May 25, Student was allowed to leave Athens and go to Crete, although he still did not have direct control over the operation. He could give advice, but could not give direct orders to Ringel. The great losses suffered by his troops depressed him, and he appeared old and gaunt. On May 31, Student ordered a policy of "exemplary terror" against partisans, including shooting hostages, burning villages, and exterminating the male population of civilians in certain areas. Both sides paid a high price in the battle for Crete. The British and Empire forces tallied 1,472 dead, 1,737 wounded, and 11,835 prisoners. The British fleet lost many ships and there were 1,828 dead among their crews. The Germans totaled 3,352 dead, including 1,653 paratroopers, and 3,346 wounded. Of these losses Student wrote in Kommando, "For me the Battle of Crete carries bitter memories. I miscalculated when I suggested this attack, which resulted in the loss of so many valuable parachutists that it meant the end of the German airborne landing forces which I had created." Hitler was very disturbed by the losses, and major German airborne operations were not used again. For the rest of the war, Student's forces fought as infantry in Sicily, Italy, and northwest Europe. Student commanded Army Group G in Belgium, Germany, and Holland.
Charged with War Crimes
At the end of the war, Student was captured by the British. He was interrogated in London and accused of mistreatment and murder of prisoners of war. In May 1947, Student came before a military tribunal to answer eight charges of war crimes by his forces in Crete. He was found guilty of three of the charges and sentenced to five years in prison, but the verdict was not confirmed. Student was never tried for crimes against civilians. In September 1947, the Greeks asked to have Student turned over to them, but this request was refused. Later Student was given a medical discharge.
Student married and had one son, who later died in the military. He was known for his energy, intelligence, precision, and drive. Student had few interests outside of his career and hunting. He died in Lemgo, West Germany on July 1, 1978.
Further Reading on Kurt Student
Dupuy, Trevor N., Curt Johnson, and David L. Bongard, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
MacDonald, Callum, The Lost Battle: Crete 1941, The Free Press, 1993.
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne, A Dictionary of the Second World War, Peter Bedrick Books, 1990.
The World Almanac Book of World War II, edited by Peter Young, World Almanac Publications, 1981.