Germany’s Most Versatile Dog of War, Hermann Ramcke

Germany’s Most Versatile Dog of War, Hermann Ramcke

Khalid Elhassan - September 19, 2018

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a nugget of conventional wisdom that nobody seems to have passed on to Hermann Bernhard Ramcke (1889 – 1968), one of Germany’s most versatile dogs of war. He started his military career as a sailor and then a Marine with the Imperial German Navy, with whom he saw combat in World War I. In the interwar years, he fought as a volunteer on the side of the Whites in the Russian Civil War, and switched to the German army. Finally, he joined the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, qualified as a paratrooper while in his fifties, and became one of the war’s outstanding leaders of airborne forces.

In addition to being one of Germany’s most versatile soldiers, Ramcke was also one of his country’s most decorated ones, earning the highest military awards available in both world wars. However, while an outstanding soldier, Ramcke was also a nasty piece of work as a human being. An ardent Nazi to his dying day, he was convicted of war crimes against French civilians, and was fortunate to get away with even graver war crimes against Greek civilians in Crete.

Germany’s Most Versatile Dog of War, Hermann Ramcke
Young Ramcke in the Imperial German Navy. Island Farm

Ramcke’s Pre-Paratrooper Career

Ramcke was born in 1889 into a family of farmers in Schleswig, and joined the Kaiser’s navy in 1905 as a ship’s boy. When WWI began, he was serving aboard the SMS Prinz Adelbert, an armored cruiser, and saw action in the Baltic and North Sea. In July of 1915, his ship was torpedoed by a British submarine and suffered extensive damage, which required correspondingly extensive repairs. By then, Ramcke had acquired a taste for action and the adrenaline rush of combat. Fearing that the war might be over by the time the Adelbert returned to service, he transferred to the Marines.

It was a stroke of good fortune. For one thing, Ramcke ended up seeing plenty of action and combat with the Marines – as much as he had ever wanted and more. He also stood out and gained recognition in ground combat operations with the Marines that, as an enlisted man, would have been unlikely as a sailor aboard ship. On top of that, the Adelbert ended up repaired sooner than Ramcke had thought she would, and was rushed back into combat in October, 1915. That was just in time to cross paths with another British submarine, which promptly torpedoed her.

The Adelbert was less fortunate the second time around. The torpedo detonated her ammunition magazine, and the resulting massive explosion quickly sent her to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Of her complement of 675 officers and men, only 3 survived what proved to be the worst German naval disaster in the Baltic during the war. Ramcke escaped death in his former ship, then escaped death on numerous occasions as a Marine infantryman on the Western Front.

His unit fought in Flanders, where Ramcke distinguished himself, earning the Iron Cross second class in 1916, and the Iron Cross first class – a rarity for enlisted men – soon thereafter. He would go on to win the Prussian Military Merit Cross – the highest bravery award available to noncommissioned officers and enlisted men in the Imperial German Forces – and get commissioned as an officer for heroics displayed in a hard fought defensive action.

Germany’s Most Versatile Dog of War, Hermann Ramcke
German Paratroopers in Holland, 1940. War Relics Forum

After the war, Ramcke volunteered to fight in the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks, as a member of the “Russian Army of the West” – a unit composed primarily of German WWI veterans. He remained with the Reichswehr during the interwar years, and by 1937 he had risen to lieutenant colonel in the new Wehrmacht. In July of 1940, he was promoted to colonel and transferred to the 1st Fallschirmjager Division – Germany’s elite parachute landing division. He successfully completed the qualification course, and became a paratrooper at age 51.

Germany’s Most Versatile Dog of War, Hermann Ramcke
German paratroopers landing in Crete. Wikimedia

Ramcke in Crete and North Africa

After qualifying as a paratrooper, Ramcke was placed in command of the 1st Fallschirmjager Division’s replacement battalion. In 1941, he took part in the planning for Operation Mercury – Germany’s airborne invasion of Crete. Things got off to a bad start for the Germans when the operation began on May 20th, and the island’s defenders – Greek and Allied military, plus Cretan civilians – inflicted heavy casualties upon the paratroopers. By the end of the first day, the defenders were confident that they would prevail, but things changed the following day, thanks to Allied missteps, and the German paratroopers’ intrepidity and aggressiveness.

A vital German objective was the airfield of Maleme, whose capture would allow reinforcements to be flown in. Throughout May 20th, the airfield’s defenders, occupying a strong position on a nearby hill, beat back numerous assaults from a paratroop battalion. The attackers sustained grievous losses, including the death of the battalion’s commander, and the success of the entire invasion hung in the balance. That night, because of a communications failure, the defenders inexplicably withdrew, and left the airfield undefended. It was promptly occupied by the Germans.

Ramcke had not taken part in Operation Mercury’s landings, but he was selected on the 21st to take charge of the Germans in and around Maleme. He cobbled together an ad hoc task force of about 500 men, comprised of disparate personnel who had not made it to Crete on the first day, and parachuted with them into Maleme. Under Ramcke’s command, the German paratroopers put up a ferocious fight, and beat back repeated Allied attempts to retake the vital airfield.

Ramcke and his men stabilized the situation around Maleme, and expanded the perimeter around the airfield so transport airplanes could land with desperately needed reinforcements, munitions, and supplies. He then turned command of the airfield and its surroundings to an infantry general, and led his paratroopers to continue the fight elsewhere. During the fighting in the Cretan interior, some of Ranke’s men were mutilated. In retaliation, he ordered the razing of nearby villages and the slaughter of their inhabitants – war crimes for which he was never prosecuted.

Germany’s Most Versatile Dog of War, Hermann Ramcke
Ramcke, center, with Erwin Rommel in North Africa. Bundesarchiv Bild

In 1942, Ramcke’s unit was renamed Ramcke Parachute Brigade, and sent to join Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps in North Africa. His unit was attached to an Italian division during the Axis assault towards the Suez Canal, until halted near El Alamein. During heavy fighting, Ramcke’s brigade, lacking motorized transport, was cut off, surrounded, and written off as lost by higher commanders, who had no means of rescuing or transporting. So Ramcke and his men rescued and transported themselves. Despite heavy losses of 450 men out of 1050, Ramcke led his men in a breakout which stumbled upon a British supply convoy. The paratroopers seized the convoy’s trucks, and 600 survivors made their escape. Ramcke was sent back to Germany, where Hitler personally awarded him the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross.

Germany’s Most Versatile Dog of War, Hermann Ramcke
Ramcke with men of the 2nd German Paratroop Division in Brittany. Pintrest

Ramcke in Italy and France

In 1943, Ramcke was promoted to lieutenant general, and placed in charge of the 2nd Parachute Division. When Italy abandoned the Axis in 1943, Ramcke led his men in attacking Italian units near Rome, and seized the city. However, he was seriously injured in the fighting, and was evacuated to Germany. While recuperating, he published a memoir, From Cabin Boy to Paratroop General, which was heavily promoted by the Nazis, and sold about 400,000 copies. That enriched Ramcke, and further enriched Hitler, who owned a big stake in the book’s publisher. He rejoined his division in early 1944 on the Eastern Front, but took ill and had to return to Germany. He resumed command in May of 1944.

After the D-Day landings the following month, Ramcke and his division were sent to Brittany, suffering heavily from Allied aircraft that ruled the skies above northern France, and from ambushes by French partisans. They finally reached their destination, and the 2nd Parachute Division found itself fighting American units near Avranches. When the Allies broke out from the Normandy beachhead in Operation Cobra, July 25th to 31st, 1944, German forces in Brittany were pushed back into a steadily shrinking pocket around the port of Brest. On August 8th, American forces approached Brest and demanded its surrender, but were rebuffed. Hitler designated the forces in and around the port city, numbering about 30,000 men, Festung Brest (Fortress Brest), and placed Ramcke in command, with orders to fight to the last man.

Ramcke was game. Upon taking command, he spread out the experienced and hardened veteran paratroopers amongst the rest of his command to brace and stiffen them for the coming onslaught by 3 American armored divisions and French resistance fighters. Determined assaults to capture Brest began on August 21st, and by September 1st, the port city was completely surrounded and cutoff. Ramcke’s actions during the Battle of Brest were described as “fanatical”, as he fought without letup against impossible odds. Most of Ramcke’s men surrendered on September 18th, but he continued the fight at the head of a group of diehards, until they were captured on the 19th. That same day, he was awarded the Swords and Diamonds to his Knights Cross – one of only 27 people to ever receive such a decoration.

Germany’s Most Versatile Dog of War, Hermann Ramcke
Ramcke upon his capture by American troops on September 19th, 1944. Pintrest

In captivity, Ramcke made no bones about being an unrepentant Hitlerite, and his captors viewed him as one of the most vocal Nazis they had encountered. He saw Germany as an innocent country that was wronged by the rest of the world, and was deemed by interrogators to be a “bombastic nasty man who sought to blame others for the crimes of the [Nazi] regime“. After stints in British and American POW facilities, he was transferred to the French, who charged him with war crimes for his conduct during the Battle of Brest.

In 1951, he was tried for executing civilians, looting civilian property, and intentionally destroying civilian houses. He was convicted and sentenced to five and a half years, but was released after only three months. He was never tried for his war crimes in Crete. After his release, Ramcke returned to Germany, where he earned a reputation as an extreme right winger, speaking at rallies for SS veterans, in which claimed that the Allies had been the real war criminals.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Avalanche Press, Bennighof, Mike – Alamein: The German Parachute Brigade

Blumenson, Martin – Breakout and Pursuit (1961)

Mitcham, Samuel W. – Defenders of Fortress Europe: The Untold Story of the German Officers During the Allied Invasion (2009)

War History Online – Hermann Ramcke, German Marine Turned Paratroop General

Wikipedia – Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke

World War II Gravestones – Ramcke, Hermann Bernard