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Airborne Assault Troops [VDV] - Early History

The Soviet Union was the first state to constitute airborne forces, the first to drop airborne forces into battle, the first to include a major airborne drop in a major field exercise, and the first to totally mechanize its airborne forces. Since 1930, the Soviet Army maintained the world's largest airborne force. Today's Russian airborne is still the world's largest.

Contemporary Soviet sources credit the theoretical writings and direct, practical support of Marshal Mikhail V. Tukhachevskii, with laying the foundation for the creation and development of Airborne Troops. Writing in the 1920's and 1930's, Tukhachevskii developed the concept of the "deep operation", wherein, he saw that the great power, speed and range of modern means of destruction would permit hitting the enemy to the entire depth of his disposition simultaneously. Under this concept, the deep operation was to be carried out by combined armed forces, in which airborne units were to play an integral role.

The history of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) began in the late 1920s. In April 1929, near the village of Garm (the territory of the present-day Republic of Tajikistan) several planes landed a group of Red Army men, which defeated a detachment of Basmatchi due to support of local residents. The year 1930 marked the beginning of a serious preoccupation with parachute troops in the USSR. On August 2, 1930 during the exercise of the Air Force (AiF) of the Moscow Military District near Voronezh for the first time a small unit of 12 people was parachuted for the first time to perform tactical tasks. This date is officially considered to be the birthday of the VDV.

In 1931 separate detachments of parachutists were made into battalions and a little later into regiments. In 1931, the Leningrad Military District (LenMD) formed as a part of the 1st air brigade a prototype air motorized landing unit with 164 people in number, designed for airland delivery. Later, an inorganic paraborne unit was formed within the same air brigade. In August and September 1931 during the Leningrad and Ukrainian Districts exercise that unit was landed and performed tasks behind outlined enemy lines. In 1932, the Revolutionary Military Council of the USSR adopted the decision to deploy the units in the air battalions of special purpose. By the end of 1933 there were already 29 air landing battalions and brigades, having joined the Air Force.

The Leningrad Military District was tasked with training of instructors in air landing and development of airborne tactical standards. In 1933 an osnaz brigade was formed in the Leningrad military district. It included a battalion of parachutists, a battalion of mechanised infantry, a battalion of artillery and three squadrons of aircraft. However, it turned out to be of little use to the Army, because it was not only too large and too awkward to manage, but also under the authority of the NKVD rather than the GRU. After a long dispute this brigade and several others created on the same pattern were reorganised into airborne brigades and handed over entirely to the Army.

To begin with, the airborne forces or VDV consisted of transport aircraft, airborne regiments and brigades, squadrons of heavy bombers and separate reconnaissance units. How many there were of them and how many men they included is not known. There is fragmentary information about their tactics and training. But it is known, for example, that one of the training schools was situated in Kiev. It was a secret school and operated under the disguise of a parachute club, while being completely under the control of the Razvedupr (GRU). It included a lot of women. In the course of the numerous maneuvers that were held, the reconnaissance units were dropped in the rear of the `enemy' and made attacks on his command points, headquarters, centers and lines of communications. It is known that terrorist techniques were already well advanced. For example, a mine had been developed for blowing up railway bridges as trains passed over them. However, bridges are always especially well guarded, so the experts of the Razvedupr and the Engineering Directorate of the Red Army produced a mine that could be laid on the tracks several kilometres away from the bridge. A passing train would pick up the mine which would detonate at the very moment when the train was on the bridge.

By the end of 1933, there were already 29 airborne battalions and brigades that were part of the Air Force. The Leningrad Military District was assigned the task of training instructors in the airborne affair and developing operational-tactical standards. In 1934, 600 paratroopers were involved in the teachings of the Red Army.

To give some idea of the scale of the VDV, on maneuvers in 1934, more than 900 men were dropped simultaneously by parachute. At the famous Kiev manoeuvres in 1935 no less than 1188 airborne troops were dropped at once on the maneuvers of the Kiev Military District, followed by a normal landing of 1765 men with light tanks, armored cars and artillery. In Belorussia in 1936 there was an air drop of 1800 troops and a landing of 5700 men with heavy weapons [by another account, the 1936 Belorussian Military District air drop consisted of 3000 paratroopers, with 8200 men with artillery and other military equipment air landed]. In the Moscow military district in the same year the whole of the 84th rifle division was transferred from one place to another by air. Large-scale and well armed airborne attacks were always accompanied by the dropping in neighbouring districts of commando units which operated both in the interests of the security of the major force and in the interests of Razvedupr.

In 1938 the Soviet Union had six airborne brigades with a total of 18,000 men. This figure is, however, deceptive, since the strength of the`separate reconnaissance units' is not known, nor are they included in that figure. Parachutists were also not trained by the Red Army alone but by `civilian' clubs. In 1934 these clubs had 400 parachute towers from which members made up to half a million jumps, adding to their experience by jumps from planes and balloons. Many Western experts reckon that the Soviet Union entered the Second World War with a million trained parachutists, who could be used both as airborne troops and in special units -- in the language of today, in spetsnaz.

Improving training during exercises, paratroopers gained their experience in real combat. In 1939, the 212th airborne brigade (ABB) participated in defeating the Japanese at Khalkhin Gol. For courage and heroism shown 352 paratroopers were awarded orders and medals. In 1939-1940, during the Soviet-Finnish war, the 201st, 202nd and 214th Airborne Brigades fought together with rifle units. On the basis of the experience gained in 1940 the new brigade staff was approved as composed of three battle sections: the parachute, glider and air-landed ones.

From March 1941 the VDV began to form airborne corps (ABC) of brigade composition (each corps had 3 brigades). In April 1941 five airborne corps were formed. All five were in the first strategic echelon of the Red Army, three facing Germany and two facing Rumania. The latter were more dangerous for Germany than the other three, because the dropping of even one airborne corps in Rumania and the cutting off, even temporarily, of supplies of oil to Germany meant the end of the war for the Germans. Five airborne corps in 1941 was more than there were in all the other countries of the world together. But this was not enough for Stalin. There was a plan to create another five airborne corps, and the plan was carried out in August and September 1941. But in a defensive war Stalin did not, of course, need either the first five or the second five.




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