The Fallschirmgefreiter (Paratrooper Corporal) Karl-Heinz Rohrbach

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the editorial team

In the uniform display case inside the Sala del Giogo at the MuGot – Museo Gotica Toscana in Ponzalla, there is a German paratrooper uniform and documents belonging to a young soldier who fought on the Gothic Line during the Battle of Giogo. This soldier is Paratrooper Corporal Karl-Heinz Rohrbach, of whom we know part of his life as a Wehrmacht soldier.1 This is his story.

An image of Duisburg in 1925

Education in the Hitler Youth

Karl-Heinz Rohrbach was born in Duisburg, Germany, on August 24, 1925. Unmarried and Catholic, he was still a student when he was drafted. Like all Germans of his generation, K.H. Rohrbach was a member of the Hitlerjugend (the Hitler Youth).2He must have been determined and disciplined, as he even earned the merit badge.3. It is important to remember the disturbing fact that both in school and in the Hitler Youth, the education aimed to produce German citizens who were aware of racial differences and at the same time obedient, ready for sacrifice, and willing to die for the Führer and the Fatherland. Devotion to Adolf Hitler was an essential component of the training provided by the Hitler Youth.

His training battalion

On August 7, 1942, not yet of age, Rohrbach underwent his enlistment examination and was deemed fit for service. The criteria for fitness included physical health, mental capacity, and political loyalty to the Nazi regime. Young men thus entered the army, trained to become Nazi soldiers. Before joining the Wehrmacht, the armed forces, the young men were required to complete a period of compulsory civil service with the RAD, the National Labor Service. For three months, from April to July 1943, Karl-Heinz served as an "Arbeitsmann" – a laborer – in the Reichsarbeitsdienst.4. On 24 April he received the obligatory lesson for all conscripts on espionage, counter-espionage, sabotage, national betrayal and safeguarding service secrets.

Having obtained his discharge from the RAD, since his previous request was accepted, he joined the Luftwaffe airborne troops as a veteran soldier.

Recruitment and training

His first target unit is the Flieger Regiment 32, also called the «Kapuste» regiment, named after the commander5. The unit is based in Angers, western France. Here he receives basic training, studies the weapons supplied - pistol, machine gun, rifle and machine gun - and is assigned the identification plate. After only six weeks of training, in September 1943, soldier Rohrbach transferred to his first operational unit: Flieger Regiment 63, also garrisoned in Blois, France.

For a couple of months he continues training and carries out tasks of defense and garrison of the territory; then he was sent to the Stendal parachuting school, the «Fallschirmschule I». The training is short but intense. At the end of three weeks he makes the six jumps required for the parachutist license.

Assignment to Fallschirm-Jäger-Regiment 12

Parade of the 12th Parachute Regiment in Crete

Meanwhile, a new Fallschirmjaeger division is being established. Men are needed to form the ranks. Thus Karl-Heinz Rohrbach was sent to Italy and assigned to the 12th Parachute Regiment, a department designated to continue the exploits of the glorious "Sturm-Regiment", famous for the actions carried out in Crete and Russia. The Regiment is part of the 4th Division, which has a comet as its insignia6. The commanders are veterans with proven experience and reliability. The troop is a little less so, made up of poorly trained elements of various origins.

Not everyone is a certified skydiver. Guided by more experienced men, they will be able to make their contribution to the Nazi cause. And so it will be. Rohrbach arrived at the unit on January 10, 1944.

German parachutist certificate

The Italian front and the Battle of Anzio

The 4th Parachute Division was deployed in January 1944 to face the Allies at Anzio. The units prepared for the offensive led by Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner to destroy the Anzio beachhead. Here, Rohrbach experienced his baptism of fire. He took part in numerous battles and in three attempts to break through the Allied lines in the area south of Ardea, near Campo di Carne. Let's briefly recount those fierce days of the German counteroffensive against the Allied landing.

In the landing zone south of Anzio, starting from 22 January 1944, where Operation Shingle (gravel) took place, German units were almost non-existent. The Allies had no difficulty in establishing the bridgehead and deepening it inland to the north in the Campo di Carne area, passing Aprilia up to Campoleone.

German infantry marching towards Neptune, overtaking a Panzerjäger Elefant.

But on January 25th the first serious resistance began to be organized by the German units that were reaching the new front. Among these men was also Karl-Heinz Rohrbach. From 25 to 31 January, while heavy fighting was taking place near Cisterna, where the American troops were active, and Campoleone, where the British units were engaged, other allied units joined the clashes. However, the German resistance was ferocious, counting on 5 almost complete divisions: the 26th and Hermann Goring armored divisions, the 3rd and 90th armored grenadiers and the 4th Paratroopers, of which Rohrbach's 12th was part.

After a week of relatively balanced situation, with attacks and counterattacks on both sides, on 8 February a strong German attack began with the aim of entirely eliminating the Anzio landing site. On the 9th the Germans reconquer Aprilia; on February 10th Corroceto. The Americans counterattack, but with little results. On 16 February 1944, at 6.30 am, 4 German divisions, supported by the fire of around 450 artillery pieces, began a violent offensive. Successes were soon blocked by the massive use of Allied naval artillery and air attacks. On 29 February the offensive thrust of the Wermacht units resumed with vigor, only to stop on 1 March, without succeeding in driving the Anglo-Americans back into the sea.

Rohrbach on the Gothic Line

Badge in black for war wounds

Subsequently, with the resumption of the Anglo-American advance following the capture of Rome on 4 June 1944, Karl-Heinz Rohrbach took part in countless clashes during the retreat along the peninsula. In this period he was injured by an artillery shell, probably lightly, on his right hand. Wound for which he will receive the black badge11.

German paratroopers of the 12th Regiment on the Gothic Line

In September Rohrbach had long since returned to his post in the 12th Company; and between the 13th and 15th of September 1944 he took part in the very tough fighting on the Giogo Pass. He is now considered a veteran: on the 1st of October he is promoted to Corporal and on the 7th he receives the Iron Cross 2nd class6, in recognition of the value demonstrated during the actions of the previous weeks.

He continued to fight with his unit throughout the winter in the Apennines, retreating to the outskirts of Bologna.

Then, on April 10, 1945, he was transferred. A new parachute division is being trained in Austria and experienced soldiers are needed to train the recruits. Corporal Rohrbach, not yet twenty years old, arrived at the 28th Parachute Regiment, established in March 1945, together with many of his comrades returning from the Italian front. The war is almost over, but intense fighting continues against the Russians. Karl-Heinz Rohrbach remained with his unit until 8 May 1945.

The last fights: against the Russians in Czechoslovakia

Rohrbach's Regiment, after various engagements, arrived in Czechoslovakia south-west of Brno at the beginning of May 1945. It was immediately deployed against the Russian armored units. The 28th Paratroopers was destroyed in heavy fighting in the Brno-Tischnowitz-Iglau area12. Part of the men were captured in the area west of Brno.

The fate of the young Karl-Heinz is unknown; but his name does not appear in the database of German casualties. So it is reasonable to assume that he survived the conflict and that he managed to return home to his loved ones in Duisburg.

The story of a soldier, even if he survived 18 months of war on three fronts, never has a happy ending. The atrocities that this very young German paratrooper corporal may have witnessed make him a part of an immense tragedy.

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1. This story is described in the volume illustrating the Mugot collections. Tuscan Gothic Museum. La Guida, Florence, Edizioni Gotica Toscana, 2024. His biography presents some reasons of interest since the personal and military news of the Germans who fought in Italy are relatively rare due to the imprecise nature of the Whermacht data and the actions carried out on the Italian territory as found in the now declassified German archives. To date, there is no comprehensive study on the war of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS in Italy. Neither the exact number and precise location of the German units are known, nor the circumstances of killings and injuries in the context of military actions on the front or during the war. Memoirs and reports contained in official war diaries have often proven unreliable during detailed research. To overcome this limitation, historical research is committed to creating reliable tools from which to draw information. As in the case of the bank built by the researcher Carlo Gentile for the German Historical Institute of Rome, who conducted, between 2000 and 2004, a documentary study that reworks over 16,000 entries obtained from period sources, especially from the funds of the “Deutsche Dienststelle” (formerly “Wehrmachtsauskunftsstelle”) in Berlin and those of the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg. A database that records all those Italian sites (cities, municipalities, villages, hamlets, road crossings) where the presence of German troops or units between 1943 and 1945 is documented. In any case, the name does not appear in this archive by Karl-Heinz Rohrbach.

2. To understand the effects of the powerful Nazi propaganda machine on the minds of young Germans born between 1920 and 1935; to understand the power of the indoctrination policy of the young generations which changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of German boys and girls; read the pages of the ideologue of the Hitler Youth tried in Nuremberg B. VON SCHIRAC, I believed in Hitler, Roma, Castelvecchi, 2019.

3. The golden Hitler Youth badge with oak leaves (German: Das Goldenes Hitler-Jugend Ehrenzeichen mit Eichenlaub) was established in 1935 to recognize outstanding services to the Hitler Youth. Only about 250 were awarded. The badge is similar to the other badges, but is framed by a narrow oak leaf border and is of superior workmanship. It was recognized as an official decoration of the Party and could therefore be worn on any uniform.

4. The Reich Labor Service (RAD) was an organization of the National Socialist German Empire. The Reich Labor Service Act was passed on June 26, 1935. § 1 (2) reads: “All young Germans of both sexes are obliged to serve their people in the Reich Labor Service. § 3 (1) states: “The Führer and Reich Chancellor determines the number of conscripts to be called up annually.” and establishes the duration of service. ” Initially, young people (before military service ) were called to labor service for six months. From the beginning of the Second World War the Reich Labor Service was extended to young women; https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichsarbeitsdienst.

5. Flieger-Ausbildungs-Regiment 32 was formed on 1 April 1939 in Uetersen with the task of conducting basic training courses for Luftwaffe recruits. In August 1942 it was renamed Flieger-Regiment 32. In 1943, IV./32 became I./Flieger-Regiment 94, and V./32 became I./Flieger-Regiment 91. The regiment underwent several transfers, including to Rochefort in Brittany.

6. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4th_Parachute_Division_%28Germany%29

7. The Wounded Badge (German: Verwundetenabzeichen) was a badge of merit awarded to wounded soldiers. The medal had three versions corresponding to three different materials and with precise concession standards: (1) Iron (or black) badge: for one or two wounds (including air raids); (2) Silver Badge: for three or four wounds, or for the loss of a hand, a foot or an eye during war actions, for partial hearing loss, for facial disfigurement or brain damage; (3) Gold Badge: For five or more wounds, or for total loss of sight, or for severe brain damage, or for severe mutilation. It could also be granted posthumously. 

12. Cfr. https://www.lexikon-der-wehrmacht.de/Gliederungen/Fallschirmjagerregimenter/FJR28.htm

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