Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper by Martin Poppel

Airborne Warfare has always been one of my favourite subjects in military history. Its probably got something to do with the fact that my Granddad was a paratrooper and an Arnhem veteran, and – not surprisingly – I have read pretty much every book I can get my hands on about the great airborne battles of the Second World War. Or at least I thought I had. I’ve read about Bruneval, Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem, but only from the British and American (and Polish!) perspectives. But considering that the allies were relative latecomes to airborne warfare, its surprising to think that I have read virtually nothing about German paratroopers. Until now, that is.

Martin Poppel joined the German Fallschirmjaeger shortly before the start of the Second World War, and went on to see action in Poland, Holland, Crete, several stints on the Russian front, in Sicily and Italy, in Normandy and finally in Holland and north west Germany during early 1945. He was wounded three times (in Russia, Italy and Normandy). Initally serving as a junior soldier, he was eventually commissioned as an Officer, and ended the war as a Company Commander. He was captured when the allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945. Whatever the political direction of their masters, there can be no doubt that many Germans – especially the paratroopers – fought tenaciously throughout the war. After capture Poppel was taken to England and held in a Prisoner of War Camp in North East England, an experience he does not seem to have minded too much. He was finally released a year later in 1946. Fortunately, his family were in the US zone in Munich – many of his comrades families were in the Russian sphere.

Poppel’s war diary is a fascinating read. We gain a unique insight into the daily life of the German soldier. Poppel gives us plenty of interesting snippets, about comradely relations, equipment, rations, attitudes to the Nazis and the war in general. Its interesting to note that the elite status felt by parachute troops was not limited to the allies – the fallschirmjaeger were very proud of their status. They seem to have preferred to jump into action (Poppel performed two combat jumps) towards the end of the war the paratroopers were used increasingly as a ‘fire brigade’ in order to reinforce weak points. Another interesting point to note is that Germany’s airborne troops came under the command of the Luftwaffe rather than the Army, unlike the allies.

Its also interesting to note how Poppel refers to British soldiers almost completely as ‘Tommy’ or ‘the Tommies’. Also, how dismissive the German troops were of British and American equipment, and their fighting prowess. However, for me the most interesting point was how Poppel – by his own admission a supporter of the Nazi party earlier in the war – began to see the Nazi ideology in different eyes as the war went against Germany. When returning to his unit after being wounded, his commander warned him that his negative attitude had been noted. But, interestingly, when in a Prisoner of War Camp Poppel remarked that, even though he was by no means an ardent Nazi, he still could not believe what had happened to Germany, and it took some time for the last vestiges of years of Nazi indoctrination to disappear. Evidence of just how politicised the youth of Germany were. No wonder they fought so doggedly.

I found this a fascinating and enlightening read. It has reinforced, above all, my feeling that very often fighting men on either side have more in common with each other than they do with their own generals, and definitely more in common than they do with their own politicians. And, no matter how unpleasant some ideologies might be, in many cases men simply did not have any choice but to fight. And if we are to curb extremism, we need to understand how it takes hold.

Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper is published by The History Press

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13 Comments

Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Book of the Week, d-day, World War Two

13 responses to “Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper by Martin Poppel

  1. An oddity of the Wehrmacht was that EVERYTHING to do with a certain branch was represented – since paratroopers lept out of planes, they were Luftwaffe. The Kriegsmarine had infantry units just to guard naval bases. Goering took this to such an extreme, he managed to create an entire, elite Panzer division named after himself! – And another point, the majority of troops were not ardent Nazis prior to 1941. There are numerous diary entries and letters of soldiers expressing shock at the fact that Hitler’s tirades about the Soviets living in squalor were actually true! Prior to that, many enlisted in all branches tended to view Nazi propaganda as just that – political hogwash. After the invasion of Russia, the Wehrmacht became increasingly politicized up to July 1944, when things went crazy following the Valkyrie operation. – One final point; even though Hitler swore off large-scale para drops after Crete, the Fallschirmjaeger still did jump training through early 1944. After that, manpower needs were so desperate, the training became very rushed. Yet, the FJ still held the concept of their elite status, even though by 1945 less than 1 man in 10 knew how to parachute!

  2. James Daly

    Its a theme that is being discussed regarding the current Defence Review in the UK – is jump training still relevant? It obviously helps as part of the ‘toughening’ process, but since the UK hasn’t got the capability of dropping more than a Battalion by parachute at any one time, its a capability that might be rolled back in time. Grenadiers no longer throw genades as they used to, but they still hold that elite status.

  3. Elite status is a unique benefit – you can’t quantify it, but it doies wonders for the members given it. Our U.S. 101st Airborne hasn’t seen a parachute in decades, but they carry their swagger from their WW2 ancestry. The sister unit of my adoptive Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, your “The Rifles” is redundant – everybody with a firearm by definition carries a rifle, but when an enlisted man in the unit dies, we’ve lost a Rifleman. Part of elite status in many units is going through some particular ordeal (like the 101st I mentioned above), and jump training is definitely unique, and growing more unusual in this day of “riding into battle”. Our U.S. Marines are currently being re-examined for their utility in future combat. One point they will NOT bend on is amphibious landing capability, despite the growing improbability of a significant amphibious war. It may seem a useless expense to the bureaucrats, but anything adding that “elite” zeal to a unit is priceless when things hit the fan! Just my (very) humble opinion.

  4. James Daly

    Something we’ve had problems with over here is that whenever there is a crisis, everyone calls for the Marines and Paras. Of course, for years they were the designated fire brigade for troublespots. But I remember an ex-Senior NCO saying to me once ‘if they’re crack troops, what does that make everyone else?’ – and its a fair point. But I think infantry are slowly morphing into overarching light infantry – able to jump on vehicles, board a helicopter, or landing craft as and when necessary, but with the basis of the traditional infantry soldier at the core.

  5. I have to agree with the “crack” comment – if you look at the WW2 re-enacting community, everybody is airborne, SS, US marine, Guardsmen. Nobody seemed to want to be the “average” grunt. You know, the type that actually did most of the fighting! And you are VERY right about the changing times. Even the juggernaut that is the U.S. Army needs to shift more towards the so-called “RDF” – Rapid Deployment Force. Part of the reason for so many casualties early in Iraq and A-stan were due to last war equipment. You can carry Humvees and trucks in a C-130, but only a couple Bradleys in a C-17. That’s why we relied on the poor over-worked Stryker so much – it was the only thing light enough to move in-theatre quickly, but still have some limited protection. All armies need to look toward the RDF model, since there seems to be little chance of a grand, sweeping “Fulda Gap” scenario anywhere in our immediate future. IMHO, again!

  6. James Daly

    I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the re-enactment thing. When I worked in a WW2 themed museum, we used to dress up in uniform on a particular anniversary. I wanted to be a ww2 para as a tribute to my grandad, but i decided not to as i would just look like a glory-hunter. In my research into Portsmouth’s WW2 dead I’ve shown just how many young men fought and died in line infantry regiments, in the artillery, the engineers… real unsung heroes.

    I think the British Army has done very well with its light armoured vehicles in ‘Stan – the Cougar, Warthog, etc – nimble yet better protected than the Land Rover. Shame the replacement for CVR(T) looks pretty dubious.

    I think the days of having an infantry with all manner of specialism are a thing of the past – its not operationally viable to have units that only fly, units that only swim, etc – ‘oh sorry, we can’t do armour, we’re light infantry don’t you know…’

  7. A bit off topic, but when I was re-enacting, I had a “spare” USAAF persona for airshows. I turned down an officer’s kit (as a pilot) to be a flight engineer. At one site, two of my friends were strenuously romancing a pair of European girls (German and Czech, I think) and were strutting around in their officers’ uniforms. One of the girls asked why my uniform looked “different”. I stated that I was an enlisted man, a flight engineer as opposed to the other two lieutenant pilots. She then asked what my job was. I stated it was “to put back together what those pilots screw up”. The girls laughed and were highly impressed – my buddies were VERY unhappy to say the least! Don’t get me wrong, I love ALL aircrew, but I think engineers, radiomen, navigators, and especially ground crew get short shrift in history texts.

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