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Airborne Forces - a brief history of their creation and development


"Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, so that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?" -

Benjamin Franklin 1784


"We ought to have a corps of at least 5000 parachute troops, including a proportion of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, together with some trustworthy people from Norway and France. I hear something is being done already to form such a corps but only on a very small scale".

Winston Churchill to General Ismay on 22 June 1940.


"...the only aircraft available for dropping parachutists at present are the Whitley bombers, which are not considered satisfactory. They can only carry 8 men...huddled up in the bomb tube in great discomfort, and then drop through the middle of a small hole, with no margin for error in poise. I submit that Lord Beaverbrook be asked to buy at least 30 Douglas [aircraft], Captain Balfour can find them".

Ismay to Churchill 27 July 1940.


Thus, it was finally realised by Britain that not only was a large force of parachute troops an urgent requirement but so was a suitable means of transporting them into battle. Fortunately both problems were to be addressed at an early stage in their development in this country.

Britain had been late in recognising the value of an airborne force: there was a lot of catching up to be done ... and quickly.



The Soviet Union had begun experimenting with parachute troops in the early 1930s, planning to drop entire units complete with vehicles and light tanks. To help train enough experienced jumpers, parachute clubs were organised with the aim of transferring into the armed forces if needed. Planning progressed to the point that Corps-size drops were demonstrated to foreign observers, including the British Military Attaché Archibald Wavell, in the Kiev military district manoeuvres of 1935.


The German observers were suitably impressed and, recognising the potential of airborne forces, a parachute training school was set up at Stendal (Borstel) complete with modified Junkers Ju52 aircraft: training commenced in earnest on 3 May 1936.

France, Portugal, Japan, Argentina and even Peru all set up airborne units at about the same time.

Britain however, did nothing.


France was particularly keen on airborne forces and became the first nation to organise a women's airborne unit. In 1938 200 nurses enlisted in a newly formed parachute corps to bring help from the air to injured mountain climbers and victims of air crashes, flooding and other natural disasters. In addition to their peacetime rôle they were also reservists who would form a uniformed medical unit during wartime.


Russia tried some small scale uses of paratroopers during its abortive invasion of Finland but with disastrous consequences, most of the paratroopers being shot by the Finns before they even landed.

By 1940 Germany had 4,500 paratroopers organised into six battalions with a further 12,000 men trained as an air infantry division to follow-up after an initial parachute assault. Most importantly, Germany had recognised the need for a designated transport force and had made available 700 Ju-52s to convey the troops, each aircraft holding up to 15 men.

German paratroopers or Fallschirmjäger were used to good effect during the invasion of Norway and Denmark. In April 1940 small detachment were dropped to capture Aalborg airfield in Denmark and Oslo's airstrip into which they rapidly flew reinforcements.

On 10 May 1940 glider-borne troops captured the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael thus opening up Belgium to attack by German Army Group B.

The first ever major use of airborne forces took place during the invasion of the Netherlands which commenced on 10 May 1940 with paratroopers capturing several major airfields. Simultaneously small units of paratroopers were dropped to capture strategic bridges across the country thus enabling the 9th Panzer Division to drive straight into the heart of the Netherlands. Within four days the main Dutch forces capitulated: those in Zealand holding out until the 17th.

Britain however, still did nothing.


Almost a year later to the day on 20 May 1941 Fallschirmjäger began the invasion of Crete. For the first time in history paratroopers were used en masse and as the main strike force but although they were successful in capturing the island and ejecting the Allied forces their success came at a price. The Allies had decrypted German messages from the Enigma machine and apart from the Allied military forces the Germans were met with mass resistance from the civilian population. Because of the resulting casualties suffered by the Fallschirmjäger and loss of the element of surprise Hitler refused to authorise the use of large airborne forces again, employing them predominantly as ground troops.



The German success on Crete was more beneficial in the long run to the Allies. According to U.S. Army Major General James ‘Jumping Jim’ Gavin, the British had captured the German manual for paratrooper operations and had passed a copy along to the Americans. That manual was the basis for the training and preparation of Allied airborne forces and convinced the Allied military and political leaders that airborne forces were vital to the success of any future invasion of Europe. So began the laborious process of building up the airborne divisions that were to assault fortress Europe during 1943 and 1944.

Britain finally took action


Britain had at last begun to develop an airborne-assault force and this now continued in earnest. No 2 Commando had been chosen for the first training in parachute duties and the regiment quickly grew into the 11th Special Air Service Battalion and ultimately, on 1 August 1942, the Parachute Regiment. Training of the initial 350 Officers and other ranks was completed in December 1940 and on 10 February 1941 38 members of No. 11 SAS known as "X" Troop, took part in Operation Colossus, a raid on a fresh water aqueduct in southern Italy designed to test the capability of the airborne troops and their equipment. It was also to be a test of the ability of the Royal Air Force to accurately deliver them.

In 1940, the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bomber had been selected as the standard paratroop transport; in this role, the ventral turret aperture was commonly modified to be used for the egress of paratroopers. The airborne troops were thus transported to the target but equipment failures and navigational errors meant that a significant portion of the troops' explosives, and a team of Royal Engineers' sappers, landed in the wrong area. Despite this setback the remaining members of "X" Troop successfully destroyed the aqueduct but although they managed to withdraw from the area, they were all captured by the Italian authorities within a short time.

The first operation by the Parachute Regiment was Operation Biting on 27 February 1942. The objective was to capture a Würzburg radar on the coast of France. The raid was carried out by 'C' Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, under the command of Major John Frost. The raid was entirely successful. The airborne troops suffered relatively few casualties, and the pieces of the radar they brought back, along with a captured German radar technician, allowed British scientists to understand enemy advances in radar and to create counter-measures to neutralise them.

The success of the raid prompted the War Office to expand the existing airborne force, setting up the Airborne Forces Depot and Battle School in Derbyshire in April 1942, as well as converting a number of infantry battalions into airborne battalions in August 1942.


Meanwhile in the Far East, Japanese paratroopers of the Teishin Dan (Raiding Brigade) together with Japanese Navy marine paratroopers were being used in the Dutch East Indies campaign of 1941-42 but after suffering heavy casualties were rarely used again until 6 December 1944 when a 750 strong detachment attacked U.S. airbases in the Burauen area of Leyte in the Philippines. Though they destroyed some planes the Japanese were wiped out.

Across the Atlantic although the Americans had experimented with parachutes to save lives and insert troops into combat as well as developing gliders with which to deliver troops, artillery and supplies, it was not until the German airborne successes in Norway, Belgium and Crete that they recognised the true potential of airborne forces. In June 1940 a specially formed platoon began testing airborne tactics and equipment.



On 15 August 1942 the 82nd and 101sts Infantry Division were redesignated as the 82nd Airborne Division, the "All American Division" and the 101st Airborne Division, the famous "Screaming Eagles". Airborne training began immediately and by 1943 a further three Airborne Divisions, the 11th, 13th and 17th had been activated.



The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was formed on 1 July 1942. The initial training was carried out at Fort Benning in the United States and at RAF Ringway in England. Groups of recruits were dispatched to both countries with the intention of getting the best out of both training systems prior to the development of the Canadian Parachute Training Wing at CFB Shilo, Manitoba.

In Australia the Paratroop Training Unit (PTU) was formed in November 1942 while approval was granted for the establishment of the 1st Parachute Battalion in August 1943. The 1st Parachute Battalion reached full strength by January 1944, but did not see any fighting. Z Special Unit teams were parachuted into the interior of Borneo during 1945 as part of the preparations for the Australian-led Borneo Campaign.

In 1942 whilst planning the Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, it was decided to attach the British 1st Parachute Brigade, part of the 1st Airborne Division, to the Allied forces taking part, as an American airborne unit, the 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was also to be used during the invasion.

Units from the brigade dropped near Bône on 12 November, then near Souk el-Arba and Béja on 13 November, and at Pont Du Fahs on 29 November, seizing airfields, fighting as infantry after each action and linking up with an Allied armoured force and supporting it until December.

Torch was the first major airborne assault carried out by the United States. The 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment flew all the way from Britain, over Spain, intending to drop near Oran and capture airfields at Tafraoui and La Sénia, respectively 15 miles (24 km) and 5 miles (8 km) south of Oran. The operation was marked by weather, navigational and communication problems. Poor weather over Spain and the extreme range caused the formation to scatter and forced thirty of the 37 aircraft to land in the dry salt lake to the west of the objective. Nevertheless, both airports were captured.

Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily opened with two American and two British airborne assaults on the night of 9/10 July 1943.

The British were to seize the Ponte Grande, the bridge over the River Anape just south of Syracuse, and hold it until British infantry arrived from the beaches at Cassibile, some 7 miles to the south. Glider infantry from the British 1st Airborne Division's 1st Airlanding Brigade, were to seize landing zones inland.


Strong winds of up to 45 miles per hour blew the troop-carrying aircraft off course and the American force was scattered widely over south-east Sicily between Gela and Syracuse.

The British air-landing troops fared little better. Only 12 of the 147 gliders landed on target and 69 crashed into the sea with over 200 men drowned. In spite of these mishaps the widespread landing of airborne troops, both American and British, had a positive effect as small isolated units, acting on their own initiative, attacked vital points and created confusion.

On the night of 11 July, a reinforcement drop of the 82nd behind American lines at Farello airfield resulted in heavy friendly fire casualties when, despite fore-warnings, Allied anti-aircraft fire both ashore and aboard U.S Navy ships shot down 23 of the transports as they flew over the beachhead.

During the evening of 13 July 1943, over 112 aircraft carrying 1,856 men and 16 gliders with 77 artillerymen and ten 6 pounder guns, took off from North Africa in Operation Fustian. The initial target of the British 1st Parachute Brigade, was to capture the Primosole Bridge and the high ground around it, providing a pathway for the Eighth Army, but heavy anti-aircraft fire shot down many of the Dakotas before they reached their target. Only 295 officers and men were dropped close enough to carry out the assault. They captured the bridge, but the German 4th Parachute Regiment recaptured it. However the "Paras" held the high ground until relieved by the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division of the Eighth Army, which re-took the bridge at dawn on 16 July.

In the light of the many mis-drops and the appalling friendly fire incident left the Allied commanders having to reassess the use of airborne forces.

Even when plans for the invasion of Northern Europe were still in embryo it was patently obvious that a large airborne force would be the key to its initial success.

As early as 1940 the Germans had recognised that a large fleet of suitably adapted aircraft was vital to success.

The Allies had also realised this but these adapted aircraft also required specially trained pilots and aircrew but even by 1943 such suitably equipped aircraft and trained crews were not available in sufficient numbers. So in late 1943 and early 1944 the existing force of three squadrons was greatly enlarged, substantially re-equipped and trained in parachute troop delivery, glider towing and re-supply techniques. Better tactics and logistics had been learned from earlier airborne drops, and these would be applied for the assaults in Northern Europe.

No. 38 Wing had been formed on 15 January 1942 initially from 296 and 297 squadrons with the later addition of 295 squadron formed in August 1942. All three squadrons were equipped with Whitley bombers and in late 1942 were engaged in leaflet drops over France. They converted to Albermarles in early 1943 before flying out to Algeria to take part in the airborne part of Operation Husky in the summer.

On their return to the UK reorganisation of Airborne Support began. On 11 October 1943 570, 298, 299, 190, 196 and 620 squadrons were added to 38 Wing which was renamed No. 38 (Airborne Force) Group. At that time four squadrons were equipped with Albemarles (295, 296, 297, 570), one with Halifaxes (298) and four with Stirlings (299, 190, 196, 620). A further Halifax unit, 644 Squadron, was added in February 1944.

From February 1944 many sorties were made over mainland Europe in support of Special Operations Executive and detachments of the Special Air Service.

46 group was formed on 1 January 1944 and consisted of Nos. 48, 223, 272, 512, 575, Squadrons with the addition in September 1944 of No. 437 Squadron RCAF. All its squadrons were equipped with Dakotas and crews like those of 38 Group trained in dropping paratroopers, glider towing, and re-supply operations.

By 5 June 1944 38 Group’s updated resources had been fully redeployed between RAF Brize Norton, RAF Fairford, RAF Harwell, RAF Keevil and RAF Tarrant Rushton in preparation for Operation Overlord.

From then to 16 June the Group was fully involved in operations Tonga (the delivery of paratroop-filled gliders at the onset of Overlord) and Mallard (the delivery of the main airborne forces and their equipment by glider). A total of 8500 British and Canadians were delivered by parachute and glider between 5 and 7 June and suffered 800 casualties.

The 6th Airborne division was 8,500 strong and included the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, as well as the 6th Air Landing Brigade of glider borne troops. Their role was to seize or destroy several bridges over two rivers and the Caen canal, silence enemy positions in the area and secure the eastern flank of the beaches.

The 3rd Parachute Brigade had to land in the very heart of the enemy's defences and destroy the Troarn, Varaville, Robehomme and Bures bridges across the Dives river, while its 9th battalion hit Merville. At the same time, their colleagues in the 5th Parachute Brigade were given a similar task and briefed to hold the bridges north of the village of Ranville spanning the River Orne and the Caen canal, as well as preparing a landing zone for the glider troops.

Operation Tonga began at 22:56 on the night of 5 June, when six Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers took off from Tarrant Rushton airfield towing six Horsa gliders carrying the coup-de-main force consisting of D Company, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry reinforced with two extra platoons from B Company and a party of sappers, who were tasked with capturing the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne. A few minutes later, between 23:00 and 23:20, six Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle transports took off carrying pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, who were to mark the three drop-zones to be used by the airborne troops of the division. Another sixteen Albemarles followed the transports carrying the pathfinders, these transporting elements of the 9th Parachute Battalion, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and 3rd Parachute Brigade Headquarters. After this small group, the remainder of the transports carrying 6th Airborne Division began to take off thirty minutes after the pathfinders, this 'lift' being divided into three groups. The first consisted of 239 Douglas Dakota and Short Stirling transports and seventeen Horsa gliders carrying the bulk of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades and their heavy equipment. These forces were due to land in their respective drop-zones at 00:50. The second part of the lift was destined to land at 03:20 and consisted of sixty-five Horsa and four Hamilcar gliders transporting 6th Airborne Division headquarters and an anti-tank battery. The final part of the lift was formed of three Horsa gliders carrying sappers and men from the 9th Parachute Battalion, who were to land atop Merville Battery at 04:30. A second 'lift' of 220 Horsa and Hamilcar gliders carrying the 6th Air-landing Brigade and other units were to land at another drop-zone at 21:00.


Operation Tonga was a successful airborne operation, with all of the tasks allotted to 6th Airborne Division being achieved within the time limits imposed on the individual units of the division. These tasks had been achieved despite the problems caused by a large number of the airborne troops being scattered throughout the operational area assigned to the division due to a combination of bad weather and poor navigation on the part of the pilots of the transport aircraft carrying them. Glider-borne airborne troops also suffered from navigational errors, with ten of the eighty-five gliders assigned to the division landing more than two miles from their landing-zone. However, an unintended but beneficial result of these scattered drops was that the German defenders were greatly confused as to area and extent of the airborne landings.

Around 13,100 American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions made night parachute drops early on D-Day, June 6, followed by 3,937 glider troops flown in by day. The two divisions were delivered to the continent in two parachute and six glider missions and suffered 2499 casualties.

The 82nd's mission was to protect the far right flank of the invasion in the Cotentin peninsula and the 101st's was to secure four exits across the marshland near the coast for the invading US 4th Infantry Division at Utah beach.

Transport was via hundreds of twin-engine Dakota aircraft that held 18 parachutists or "stick". On approaching the coast of France a cloud bank dispersed many planes and in the resulting chaos the paratroopers were scattered all over the Cotentin peninsular. Several hours were taken up in trying to find their units and organise themselves into cohesive fighting units.

Although most of their objectives had not been secured by dawn the scattered drop had been successful by causing great confusion to the Germans as to where the main force was concentrated and what its objectives were.

Following the success achieved by the use of airborne forces during the initial phases of the invasion of Northern Europe the Allied commanders were encouraged to use the paratroopers and glider borne forces again; but such plans were repeatedly negated as the advancing ground troops reached intended objectives before the airborne forces could be deployed.

General Bernard Montgomery however had conceived a plan to drop a carpet of airborne forces over 60+ miles across German held Netherlands. Their objective was to capture and hold five key bridges between Eindhoven and Arnhem to enable the British XXX Corps spearheaded by the British Guards Armoured Division to make a rapid advance into the lower Rhine region of the Netherlands and once under control to threaten the north German plains. It was intended that the British 1st Airborne should be relieved by the fourth day i.e. 20 September at the latest. Code-named Market Garden the operation consisted of two parts, Market, the airborne assault and seizing of the bridges and Garden the ground assault by XXX Corps.


35000 paratroopers and glider troops of the British 1st Airborne Division, the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were dropped in the largest airborne operation in history. Transport of the men and equipment and their resupply was effected by IX Troop Carrier Command (a U.S. Airforce Unit), 16 squadrons of No. 38 Group (RAF) using converted bomber aircraft and No. 46 Group transport formation of the RAF. Transported was provided by 1438 C47 Dakota Transports (1274 USAF and 164 RAF), 321 converted RAF bombers, 2160 CG-4A Waco Gliders, 916 Airspeed Horsas (812 RAF and 104 U.S. Army) and 64 General Aircraft Hamilcars.


On 17 September 1944 the 101st Airborne were dropped near Eindhoven tasked with taking the bridges at Veghel and Son. Although they took the Veghel Bridge the Son Bridge was blown up by the Germans and although a pontoon bridge was erected the advance of XXX Corps was critically held up pending this being put in place. Further north the 82nd were inserted into the Nijmegan area where they secured the Grave Bridge but did not have time to attack the Nijmegan Bridge which was not taken until 20 September.

At Arnhem although the force landed safely their radios were defective. Due to the lack of communication between the units a co-ordinated attack could not be made and although Lt. Colonel John Frost managed to get to the Arnhem Bridge with 500 men the rest of General Roy Urquhart's force operating in small units were unable to get through. Communications with Divisional HQ meant that earlier dispatch of reinforcements could not be requested nor could they relay the gravity of the situation to the outside world. Later as ammunition and other supplies became critical communications regarding resupply were also lacking.

The pilots of the British fighter-bombers of the 2nd Tactical Airforce, were under strict orders not to attack enemy targets on the ground without specific requests from observers on the ground but found that their radios were tuned to a different VHF frequency to those of the American 306th Fighter Control Squadron.

With one set back after another the operation gradually unravelled into a disaster.

Of the ten thousand men who had landed at Arnhem, fourteen hundred were killed and over six thousand captured; only twenty-four hundred paratroopers safely crossed to the south bank of the Rhine in small rubber boats. Total casualties for the operation including those captured were more than 15000.

Transport had been a monumental task: 14,589 troops had been landed by glider and 20,011 by parachute. Gliders had brought in 1,736 vehicles and 263 artillery pieces. 3,342 tons of ammunition and other supplies were brought in by glider and parachute drop.


But if it seems that the pilots and aircrew were nothing more than glorified delivery boys, then think again. During Operation Market 144 transport aircraft were lost along with most of their crews but a description of the courage displayed by these "delivery boys" is perhaps best left to someone who witnessed it first-hand. On the ground at Arnhem was Sgt. Jock Walker of the Army Film and Photographic Unit; he later had this to say about the RAF crews and the RASC dispatchers who accompanied them.

The R.A.F. supply planes and their dispatchers were giants among brave men; whenever they came over with supplies (which unfortunately usually fell to the enemy) all the fury of the enemy was directed against them, but steadfastly they flew straight and level through the most fearful ‘flak’ - the dispatchers at the doors, chucking out the containers, even when repeatedly hit and set on fire, flying on, blazing torches in the sky, until they eventually crashed in flames. What devotion to duty and so sorrowful to watch. There wasn’t a man on the ground that wasn’t moved by this display of courage and, in the main, with no benefit to us.

Remaining cognisant of the ensuing catastrophic outcome of Market Garden due in part to the perils of delivering airborne forces too far ahead of the follow up ground troops, when Montgomery later planned an airborne operation in support of the Rhine Crossing he decided that the airborne forces were not to be inserted until 12 hours after the first ground troops had crossed the river. The delay afforded the added benefit of cancellation in the event of the ground troops failing to establish a suitable bridgehead on the eastern side of the Rhine.

Code named Varsity the operation on 24 March 1945 was the first mass landing tactical operation in that the troops were landed in close proximity to their intended objectives. 17300 men of the 17th American Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne Division including the 1st Canadian Battalion were landed near Hamminkeln and Wessel. The troops were landed in a single airlift within a time scale of one hour.

The plan was for the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps to capture key territory and to generally disrupt German defences and thereby aid the advance of Allied ground forces. The British 6th Airborne Division was to capture the villages of Schnappenberg and Hamminkeln, clear part of the Diersfordt Forest of German forces, and secure three bridges over the River Issel. The U.S. 17th Airborne Division was to capture the village of Diersfordt and clear the rest of the Diersfordt Forest of any remaining German forces. The two divisions were then to hold the territory captured until relieved by units of 21st Army Group.

Although the operation was successful the airborne forces suffered over 2000 casualties. However Rhine bridges and towns were captured thus denying their potential use to the Germans to delay the advance of the Allies.

The operation was the last large-scale Allied airborne operation of World War II and was the largest ever airborne operation in a single day in one location.

Air drops of supplies however continued unabated not only in support of airborne troops but also to ground troops as they pushed forward outstretching their ground logistical support.

And in the jungles of Burma Major General Orde Wingate's Chindits operating deep behind enemy lines in the war against Japan air were for long periods totally dependent on airdrops for their supplies. In fact the second largest airborne invasion of the war had taken place in Burma in March 1944. Code named Operation Thursday it consisted of a force of 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers with air support provided by the 1st Air Commando USAAF.

The post war development of the helicopter was to gradually relegate the parachute drop to a mainly tactical or covert role involving far smaller units. The more notable post war parachute drops were in the Korean War of the early 1950s, the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the Vietnam War of the 1960s. Yet as recently as January 2013 250 French paratroopers jumped into Mali in support of an offensive to capture Timbuktu.

Air support however is a different matter and continues to be a vital necessity for both military and civilian needs. From the transport of supplies for ground troops to massive humanitarian aid operations to regions of famine, flood, earthquake and other natural disasters, the need for airborne assistance continues to escalate.

For a more detailed account of the development and operational histories of airborne forces the following are excellent sources of information.

The British Airborne Forces 1940-45 Origins, Sicily, Normandy, Arnhem and Rhine Crossing

http://www.pegasusarchive.org/

History of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces of various nations.

https://paradata.org.uk

Fallschirmjager, The German Paratroopers

http://www.2worldwar2.com/fallschirmjager.htm

The future of Airborne Forces (includes some historical data and film)

http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2013/04/the-future-o...

Special Operations Forces

https://sofrep.com/tag/parachute/

RW 27.04.2017

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Last Modified: 27 April 2017, 22:15