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Airborne Operations in World War II

Benjamin Franklin, America's versatile commissioner in Paris, was so enthused by the success of hot air balloons in 1784 that he posed this interesting military question. "Where is the prince who can afford to cover his country with troops for its defense as that ten thousand men descend from the clouds might not in many places do an infinite deal of mischief?".

A plan to drop the US 1st Infantry Division from a Handley-Page Bombers on the German controlled city of Metz was devised by a young officer on General Billy Mitchell's staff, Lewis H. Brereton. He presented the plan to General Billy Mitchell who supported it and took it to General "Black Jack" Pershing. "I proposed to him that in the spring of 1919, when I would have a great force of bombardment planes, he should assign one of the infantry divisions permanently to the Air Force, preferably the 1st division; that we would arm the men with a great number of machine guns and train them to go over the front in our large airplanes, which would carry ten or fifteen Soldiers. We could equip each man with a parachute, so when we desired to make a rear attack on the enemy, we could carry these men over the lines and drop them off at a prearranged strong point, fortify it, and we could supply them by aircraft with food and ammunition. Our low flying attack aviation would then cover every road in the vicinity, both day and night, so as to prevent the Germans falling on them before they could thoroughly organize the position. Then we could attack the Germans from the rear, aided by an attack from our Army from the front, and support the maneuver with our great Air Force."

Shortly after World War I, General Billy Mitchell proposed that parachuting troops from aircraft into combat could be effective. During the demonstration of his concept at Kelly Field at San Antonio, Texas, six soldiers parachuted from a Martin Bomber, safely landed, and in less than three minutes after exiting the aircraft had their weapons assembled and were ready for action. Although the U.S. observers dismissed the concept, not all of the observers arrived at the same conclusion.

The Soviets and Germans were impressed with the demonstration. The Soviet Union was the first nation to take a serious interest in parachuting as a means to introduce ground forces into battle. In the USSR, static line parachuting was introduced as a national sport and the population was encouraged to join the Russian Airborne Corps. The German observers eagerly grasped the idea and planners worked quickly to develop an effective military parachute organization.

For the first time, in August 1930 at Veronezh, Russia, Soviet paratroopers participated in military maneuvers. Their actions were so effective that a repeat performance was given in Moscow one month later. The Red Army created a test unit in 1931 and by 1935 was able to employ two battalions of parachute infantry in field exercises. By 1935 the Russians were off to a head start on Airborne warfare and made the world's first spectacular use of parachutists.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, several other European nations followed suit. The prewar Soviet example inspired enthusiasm among the Germans, French, and British. The British organized parachute forces in 1936 and used them continually in their maneuvers. The French organized a parachute battalion in 1938 but inactivated it in 1939.

Germany launched a particularly aggressive program, placing it in the air force under the command of a former World War I pilot, Major General Kurt Student. The German parachutists were complimented by glider units, an out-growth of the sport gliding program that developed flying skills while Germany was under Versailles Treaty restrictions on rearmament. By 1940 Hitler had 4,500 parachutists at his disposal, organized into six battalions. Another 12,000 men formed an air infantry division designed as an air-landed follow-up to a parachute assault. A force of 700 Ju-52 transport planes was available to carry these troops into combat and each Ju-52 could hold up to 15 men.

Despite their early entrance upon the Airborne stage the USSR made little use of Airborne troops in World War II. The Soviet Union made the first combat use of parachute forces. On 2 December 1939, as part of its initial abortive invasion of Finland, the Red Army dropped several dozen paratroopers near Petsamo behind the opposing lines. They apparently came down on top of a Finnish unit, which shot many of them before they reached the ground. Subsequent Soviet attempts during the Finnish campaign to employ airborne forces, all small in scale, met equally disastrous fates. Their later activities were principally concerned with the dropping of supplies and individuals for guerrilla activities.

It was left to the Germans to develop and use paratroopers and glider-borne soldiers in mass operations.Germany's first use of airborne forces achieved favorable results. As part of the April 1940 invasions of Norway and Denmark, the Luftwaffe assigned a battalion of paratroopers to seize several key installations. In Denmark, two platoons captured a vital bridge leading to Copenhagen, while another platoon took control of an airfield. In Norway, a company parachuted onto the airfield at Stavanger and quickly overwhelmed its 70 defenders, thus paving the way for the landing of 2,000 air infantrymen. Although these operations were critical to German success in the campaign, they received little attention at the time, perhaps due to the much larger and bloodier naval battles that occurred along the Norwegian coast.

German airborne forces achieved spectacular success just one month later. A mere 4000 German parachutists jumped in Holland in May 1940 and gained control of vital points that helped open the way for the ground armor and infantry divisions that overwhelmed the Dutch defenses. Four battalions reinforced by two air infantry regiments captured three Dutch airfields, plus several bridges over rivers that bisected the German route of approach to the Hague, Holland's capital, and Rotterdam, its principal port. In each case the airborne units held their ground until the main assault forces arrived overland. The final parachute battalion, supported by two regiments of air infantry, landed near the Hague with the mission of decapitating the Dutch government and military high command. This force failed to achieve its goals, but did cause considerable disruption.

One battalion breached Belgium's heavily fortified defensive line during the offensive of May 1940. A handful of gliderborne troops-fewer than a hundred in all-landed on top of the mighty Belgian border fortress of Eben Emael early in the morning of 10 May 1940 and seized this single most important anchor in the Belgian defense line. Their successful tactical use enabled the panzer divisions to sweep across the low countries, and made the conquest of France relatively easy.

The last major German use of parachute assault came a year later. The Germans planned to seize the island of Crete by a combined air and sea attack on 20 May 1941. The vaunted British sea power intercepted the German convoy. Almost half of the German amphibious forces were lost, and the rest were driven back. However, the Germans had established complete air superiority, and landed gliders and paratroopers at four separate points. The objective was to capture three airfields for the ensuing arrival of air-landed reinforcements. The British and their Greek allies valiantly fought and annihilated three of the four air-landed forces. Casualties were heavy among the first waves of 3,000 men landed by parachute and glider, but others continued to pour in. At the fourth and successful German point of attack, an airfield was seized. Despite an overwhelming superiority in numbers, the 42,000 Allied defenders did not press their initial advantage. Late in the second day the Germans began landing transports on the one airstrip they held, even though it was under Allied artillery fire, and soon the Air-transported Mountain Division was landed. Seven days later the Germans held all of Western Crete. Ammunition, food, blood plasma, and other supplies were brought in by air. From the seized airfield, the Germans supported a new amphibious attack, and soon Crete was theirs. After a few more days of bitter fighting, the Allied commander concluded that he was defeated and began to withdraw by sea. The largest and most spectacular German airborne assault of the war, the conquest of Crete in 1941, was also the turning point for the Germans: thereafter they never mounted a tactical paratroop attack of more than battalion size. In the course of the battle, the Germans suffered 6,700 casualties, half of them dead, out of a total force of 25,000. Allied losses on the island were less than 3,500, although an additional 11,800 troops surrendered and another 800 soldiers died or were wounded at sea during the withdrawal. The loss of 4000 men killed, most of them paratroopers, dampened German ardor for such assaults.

The Allies decided that airborne operations were a powerful tactic, inasmuch as the Germans had leap-frogged 100 miles of British-controlled waters to seize Crete from a numerically superior ground force. As a consequence, the US and British armies would invest heavily in creating parachute and glider units. Hitler reached the opposite conclusion. Having lost 350 aircraft and nearly half of the 13,000 paratroopers engaged, he determined that airborne assaults were a costly tactic whose time had passed. The Germans never again launched a large operation from the air.

Spurred by the successful employment of airborne troops by the Germans in their invasion of the Low Countries, US military branches began an all-out effort to develop this new form of warfare. Controversy surrounded the effort and the various branches made several colorful proposals. The Air Corps made the most unique proposal. Its staff proposed that the Air Infantry be called "Air Grenadiers" and be members of the "Marines of the Air Corps."

In April 1940, following the controversies, the War Department approved plans for the formation of a test platoon of Airborne Infantry to form, equip, and train under the direction and control of the Army's Infantry Board. In June, the Commandant of the Infantry School was directed to organize a test platoon of volunteers from Fort Benning's 29th Infantry Regiment. Later that year, the 2d Infantry Division was directed to conduct the necessary tests to develop reference data and operational procedures for air-transported troops.

In July 1940, the task of organizing the platoon began. First Lieutenant William T. Ryder from the 29th Infantry Regiment volunteered and was designated the test platoon's Platoon Leader and Lieutenant James A. Bassett was designated Assistant Platoon Leader. Based on high standards of health and rugged physical characteristics, forty-eight enlisted men were selected from a pool of 200 volunteers. Quickly thereafter, the platoon moved into tents near Lawson Field, and an abandoned hanger was obtained for use as a training hall and for parachute packing.

Lieutenant Colonel William C. Lee, a staff officer for the Chief of Infantry, was intently interested in the test platoon. He recommended that the men be moved to the Safe Parachute Company at Hightstown, NJ for training on the parachute drop towers used during the New York World's Fair. Eighteen days after organization, the platoon was moved to New Jersey and trained for one week on the 250-foot free towers.

The training was particularly effective. When a drop from the tower was compared to a drop from an airplane, it was found that the added realism was otherwise impossible to duplicate. The drop also proved to the troopers that their parachutes would function safely. The Army was so impressed with the tower drops that two were purchased and erected at Fort Benning on what is now Eubanks Field. Later, two more were added. Three of the original four towers are still in use training paratroopers at Fort Benning. PLF training was often conducted by the volunteers jumping from PT platforms and from the back of moving 2 1/2 ton trucks to allow the trainees to experience the shock of landing.

Less than forty-five days after organization, the first jump from an aircraft in flight by members of the test platoon was made from a Douglas B-18 over Lawson Field on 16 August 1940. Before the drop, the test platoon held a lottery to determine who would follow Lieutenant Ryder out of the airplane and Private William N. (Red) King became the first enlisted man to make an official jump as a paratrooper in the United States Army. On 16 August 1940, 48 brave volunteer members of the US Army Parachute Test Platoon pioneered a new method of warfare. On 29 August, at Lawson Field, the platoon made the first platoon mass jump held in the United States.

Their successful jump led to the creation of a mighty force of more than 100,000 paratroopers. Members of this force were assigned to the legendary 11th, 13th, 17th, 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions and numerous other units that fought in every theater during World War II. The soldiers of the Parachute Test Platoon also forged a unique warrior spirit, a relentless passion for victory, and a reputation that still strikes fear in potential adversaries.

Initial discussions concerning parachute troops within the U.S. Army rested upon a general assumption that these troops would be employed principally in small detachments for demolition work in enemy rear areas. This notion, however, soon gave way to a concept that parachute troops should be used as assault units to seize and hold airheads for air-landing troops. Actually neither concept ever became the basis for major U.S. Army airborne operations during World War II.

Airborne troops were not to be employed unless they could be supported by other ground or naval forces within approximately three days, or unless they could be withdrawn soon after their mission had been accomplished. No fire support could be expected, except from tactical aviation, until contact was made with ground forces. Consequently air superiority would be a fundamental prerequisite for successful airborne operations. Actual operations during the war generally followed this doctrine, and airborne commanders considered it basically sound.

In the spring of 1940, it was obvious to a number of Marine officers that parachutists constituted an ideal alternative for speedily seizing a surprise lodgement on an enemy coast. The Marine Corps did not develop formal airborne doctrine until late 1942. It came in the form of a 12-page manual titled Parachute and Air Troops. Its authors believed that airborne forces could constitute "a paralyzing application of power in the initial phase of a landing attack." Secondarily, parachute troops could seize "critical points," such as airfields or bridges, or they could operate behind enemy lines in small groups to gather intelligence or conduct sabotage operations. By the end of 1942 the Marine parachute program was finally in full swing and capable of producing 135 new jumpers per week, though actual numbers were never that high.

The chronic shortage of aircraft also continued to hobble the Marine's program. In the summer of 1943 the Corps had just seven transport squadrons, with only one more on the drawing boards. If the entire force had been concentrated in one place, it could only have carried about one and a half battalions. As it was, three squadrons were brand new and still in the States and another one operated out of Hawaii. There were only three in the South Pacific theater. The final reevaluation of the USMC parachute program began in August 1943. Simply put, there were far too few transport planes in the entire Marine Corps for the regiment to jump into combat, which was its only reason for existence. The 1st Parachute Regiment officially furled its colors on 29 February 1944.

By the summer of 1944 the US Army had formed five Airborne Divisions and six Airborne Regiments. By the end of World War II the US had used Airborne troops in fourteen major offensives and dozens of smaller operations. Anglo-American airborne forces mounted major assaults in Sicily in July 1943, Normandy in June 1944, and across the Rhine in March 1945. Smaller airborne landings occurred in North Africa in 1942 and in the Pacific: the Nadzab (New Guinea) operation in 1943, the dramatic long-range operations in Burma by Wingate's Raiders in 1943 and 1944, and the highly successful parachute drop on Corregidor in February 1945.

In the small hours of "D-Day", 6 June 1944, the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions descended by parachute and glider to protect the invasion zone's western extremity, and to facilitate the "Utah" landing force's movement into the Cotentin Peninsula. Though badly scattered and lacking much of their equipment, these brave paratroopers kept the Germans occupied and helped ensure that the "Utah" Beach assault went relatively easily. The British and Canadian attacks, assisted by an air-dropped division on their eastern flank and a longer naval bombardment, generally also went well. Not so in the "Omaha" area, where deep beaches backed by steep hills meant that the US troops landing there were exposed to withering fire from enemy small arms, machine guns and artillery. Casualties were very heavy and the assult only succeeded after a day of brutal fighting, with warships coming in close to provide direct gunfire in support of the hard-pressed soldiers. By nightfall on the sixth of June, the situation was favorable, even on Omaha.

Operation MARKET, the airborne invasion of Holland in September 1944, was the greatest airborne operation ever mounted. It is likely to remain unsurpassed. Over a period of six days, almost 35,000 Allied soldiers - they constituted most of the First Allied Airborne Army - dropped or landed in the battle areas along a corridor linking Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem in southern Holland. Starting on the morning of 17 September 1944, a thousand B-17 and B-24 bombers and escort fighters of the US Eighth Air Force from Britain cleared a corridor for the troop carrier aircraft through the thicket of German antiaircraft defenses in the Low Countries. Hundreds of British and American fighter planes followed immediately afterwards to sweep the areas selected for dropping the Allied paratroopers and landing the gliders filled with more troops and equipment.

Finally came the troop carriers and gliders, escorted by hundreds of fighter planes, flying in splendid V-formations towards their destinations. On D minus 1, gliders available amounted to 2,474. They carried 9,566 troops into combat, of a total of 30,481. This latter figure compares with 17,062 in the Normandy assault and 7,019 in the invasion of southern France. In all, nearly 4700 transports, gliders, fighters, and bombers passed overhead within the space of a few hours. And beginning shortly after 1300 hours, some 20,000 American and British soldiers parachuted or landed by glider within one hour and twenty minutes in good order behind enemy lines.

To penetrate the heart of the German homeland it was necessary to pass the Siegfried Line and that natural barrier, the river Rhine. The Siegfried Line, asystem of fixed defenses with its artfully constructed tank traps, minefields, and fire-control point, presented a formidable obstacle to the Allies. The logical place to achieve the double result of flanking the Siegfried Line and crossing the Rhine was at Arnhem, on the Neder Rijn in Holland.

To secure the area around the port of Antwerp, General Montgomery was given command of Operation MARKET GARDEN. The tactical plan envisioned establishing a bridgehead across the Rhine near Arnhem, Holland. The British Second Army was to be the spearhead of the ground attack. An Airborne Corps consisting of the British First and the American 82nd and 101st Divisions was to seize key bridges and other points to facilitate the advance of the Second Army. The success of the Airborne Divisions was in direct ratio to the distance they were dropped from Allied lines and the time required for the ground forces to join up. By D+1 the British Guards Armored Division had passed through the 101st Division area. By D+2 contact had been established with the 82nd Division. The ground troops and the 101st and 82nd Divisions continued advancing towards Arnhem. The British First Airborne, after an initial success, was soon in dire need of reinforcements and supplies. From D+2 to D+8 weather seriously hampered resupply and reinforcement attempts. On D+8 British armor finally broke through. Only 2,500 men were left - the British had lost almost an entire division. Long after many episodes of World War II are forgotten, the desperate stand of the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem will be recalled with deep admiration.

In spite of the difficulties at Arnhem the airborne operations had proceeded not only according to plan but also with much lower loss than expected. Moreover, they did much to disprove the view that daylight airborne operations over enemy territory heavily defended by flak are excessively hazardous. The great dividends in accuracy of dropping and landing and in quick assembly of troops, which are to be had by daylight, were enjoyed to the full.

In World War II, the US Army first used airdrop methods to resupply remote or encircled forces, as well as resupply indigenous forces to fight the enemy. Military leaders realized that if personnel could arrive by parachute, so could much-needed supplies.

The most significant airdrop operation occurred in Bastogne, Belgium, in December 1944 when the 101st Airborne Division was encircled by German forces. Raids by Germans had decreased the division's supplies to a minimum. Therefore, resupply by air was the logical method. Although aircraft losses and casualties resulted, both soldiers and civilians were surprised at the success of the operation and the ability of the unit to maintain its foothold until reinforcements arrived.

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