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Airborne Operations During World War II

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Virtually all of what are called 'revolutions in military affairs' — armored warfare, strategic bombing, combined-arms tactics, submarine warfare, amphibious assault, aircraft carrier–based operations — appeared in one form or another during World War I. The only revolution that had yet to make its appearance by November 1918 was what is today termed airborne operations, although farsighted aviation advocate Brigadier General William 'Billy' Mitchell had earlier proposed that infantry dropped by parachute could be used to attack German air bases in 1919, as a means to extend the damage that air power could inflict.

The war's end brought such innovations to a halt, while the penurious decade that followed the conflict ensured that virtually nothing moved forward in terms of preparation for using aircraft to project military power beyond military lines. Only science fiction writers, and precious few of them, took up the possibility of dropping military formations behind enemy lines.

In the mid-1930s, two ambitious tyrannies, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, became interested in the possibilities that airborne operations might offer. As with their work in mechanized warfare, the Soviet interest in airborne operations bore fruit first. In 1935 the Soviets dropped large numbers of paratroopers during their annual maneuvers. Tragically for the Russian people, Josef Stalin's brutal and megalomaniacal regime then proceeded to carry out a drastic purge of the Red Army's officer corps — a savage bloodletting that all but ended early airborne warfare development and destroyed much of the Soviet Union's military effectiveness.

The Nazis did not purge their officer corps. Instead, as a part of Germany's massive military buildup, Adolf Hitler devoted significant resources to the creation of innovative new forms of the combined-arms approach to war. The Luftwaffe, under the ambitious Hermann Göring, took the development of airborne forces under its wing. Concomitantly, the army began developing supporting forces that could reinforce paratroopers by airlift and glider insertion once the airborne had established an aerial bridgehead.

With thorough and frightening effectiveness, by the late 1930s the Germans had developed a coherent doctrine for airborne operations, the trained troops to execute such operations and the equipment that would allow its paratroopers, or FallschirmjÄger, to carry out their missions once they had reached the ground. The Luftwaffe was able to supply the transport for airborne operations by transitioning its first bomber force, which largely consisted of Junkers Ju-52/3ms, into the transport force, as faster and more effective bombers such as the Heinkel He-111, Dornier Do-17 and the Junkers Ju-88 became available.

Nevertheless, the number of trained airborne troops and their supporting structure was relatively small — not much more than a reinforced regiment — when World War II broke out in September 1939. A portion of that force was used in the Polish campaign, but the German conquest was so rapid and overwhelming that relatively little attention focused on the use of paratroopers.

The German Experience
The first major use of Germany's airborne forces came during Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Norway in spring 1940. The German navy was supposed to capture Oslo, but Norwegian reservists using old Krupp guns and shore-based torpedoes along the Oslo fiord managed to sink the brand-new heavy cruiser Blücher and stop the naval attack cold. The Luftwaffethen flew in a company of paratroopers to seize Oslo's undefended airstrip. Over the course of the morning and early afternoon of April 9, the Germans flew in sufficient reinforcements to move into the capital in the afternoon, but by that time the government had fled, and Norwegian resistance went underground.

France was an even bigger success for the Fallschirmjäger. In early May 1940, the strength of German airborne forces was nearly that of a light infantry division. But their impact on the opening moves of one of the most important battles of World War II was out of all proportion to their size. In the southern Ardennes, Fieseler Fi-156 Storch light reconnaissance planes dropped members of the Brandenburg Regiment on the bridges immediately to the south of the 10th Panzer Division's route of march. In Belgium a small group of German gliderborne troops landed on top of the great Belgian fortress of Eben Emael on the morning of May 10. The supposedly unconquerable fortress fell to the glidermen in a matter of hours, opening the way for Colonel-General Fedor von Bock's Army Group B to advance into northern Belgium, which fatally fixed the attention of the French high command there.

An even greater success came with two simultaneous airborne operations during the invasion of Holland. The first involved a strike that was quite similar to what Mitchell had first proposed in 1918. In this case, German paratroopers landed at the airport near The Hague, the intention being that they would be reinforced by troops brought in by Ju-52s. The aim was to seize the Dutch government and effect a surrender of its forces before the fighting even began. While the paratroopers initially seized the airfield, Dutch troops quickly drove them off before they could be reinforced. The attack, however, resulted in the Dutch high command's focusing on the defense of the capital and rushing its reserves to The Hague.

Meanwhile, a far more dangerous German drive, led by paratroopers, was gathering steam on the Netherlands frontier. In an operation that resembled the later Operation Market-Garden in conception, if not in execution, the Germans dropped small packets of paratroopers to seize the crucial bridges that led directly across Holland and into the heart of the country. They opened the way for the 10th Panzer Division. At every point they succeeded, while the German armored force showed none of the hesitation that would later mark the Allied armored drive in September 1944. Within a day, the Dutch position was hopeless.

How important were these opening moves by airborne troops? In and of themselves they were, of course, not decisive. But airborne incursions throughout France and the Low Countries helped to create a climate of fear and promoted the idea that the Germans were invincible. Moreover, the rumors that swirled around their use, some of which were spread by German propaganda — such as paratroopers disguised as nuns — helped to further the disintegration of Allied morale and cohesion. But perhaps most important of all was the fact that their achievements in the Low Countries contributed substantially to Army Group B's success in keeping the French high command focused on northern Belgium and the Netherlands, while the great German armored drive crossed the Ardennes and smashed its way across the Meuse River between May 13 and 15.

Crete
The next major use of Fallschirmjäger occurred in May 1940, when the Germans confronted the fact that, while their invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece had been an enormous success, the British still held the strategically important island of Crete. There is considerable disagreement among historians about whether Crete or Malta should have been the German target in late May 1941. But the evidence is clear, at least to this author, that the Germans made the right decision. They could not afford to allow the British to keep a base from which the Royal Air Force (RAF) could attack the Romanian oil fields, which were absolutely essential to the German war effort throughout World War II.

Operation Merkur, the invasion of Crete, on May 20, 1941, came very close to being the first major German ground defeat of the war. Aided by Ultra — the breaking of the high-level German ciphers — the British had advance warning that the Germans were preparing to launch a large-scale airborne operation against the island. That information was passed along to Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, the island's commanding officer, who paid no attention to the intelligence. Instead he deployed the majority of his forces to guard the beaches against a seaborne landing, despite the Royal Navy's assurances that it could prevent such an occurrence.

The German plan for the assault split the airborne forces in half: the first drop coming against the airfield at Maleme on the western end of the island; the second coming later in the day, against Heraklion on the eastern end of the island. The Germans significantly underestimated the number of Commonwealth troops available to Freyberg, and they completely underestimated the determination of the Cretan population to defend their homes. The landing at Heraklion was an unmitigated disaster. The operation against Maleme airfield did not go much better. The attacking paratroopers took horrendous casualties and managed to establish only a few footholds against the New Zealand battalion defending the airfield. Moreover, throughout the first day the German airborne command in Athens largely failed to glean how badly things were going. Fortunately for the embattled Fallschirmjäger, Freyberg and the local commanders failed to reinforce the defenders at Maleme.

That evening the New Zealand commander on the scene, whose battalion had also suffered heavy casualties — but no heavier than the Germans' — took his troops off the crucial hill that dominated the airfield. The next morning the German paratroopers found themselves in control of Maleme. Soon a steady stream of Ju-52s flew in reinforcements, and the Germans managed to build up sufficient forces to overwhelm the Commonwealth defenders.

The conquest of Crete occupies a special place in military history as the first successful invasion of an island carried out entirely from the air. Nevertheless, the German airborne victory proved to be enormously costly, which many historians have suggested discouraged Hitler from using airborne forces against Malta in early June 1942. This author's estimate is that it was not Merkur's butcher's bill but rather how close the operation had come to failure that was the major factor in the Führer's decision.

German operations on Crete are also notable in that, following their seizure of the island, the invaders engaged in the wholesale slaughter of the local population in retaliation for what they saw as the natives' outrageous desire to defend their homeland. As with the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, the Luftwaffe's paratroopers were fanatical Nazis, thoroughly indoctrinated with the Führer's ideology.

German paratroopers and airborne commandos played a less significant role as airborne forces for the remainder of the war. There were some successes: the seizure of the Tunisian bridgehead in response to Operation Torch — the Allied landing in North Africa in November 1942 — and Benito Mussolini's rescue in September 1943. But for the most part German paratroopers fought as regular infantry. It was in this role that they added new luster to their fearsome reputation on battlefields in Russia, North Africa, Italy and Western Europe as well-trained and tough opponents, ferociously motivated by ideology.

The Allied Experience
Interestingly, the Allies may have gained the most from the German success on Crete. According to U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James 'Jumping Jim' Gavin, the British captured the German doctrinal manual for paratrooper operations and immediately passed a copy along to Americans. That manual, with relatively few exceptions, was the basis for the training and preparation of Allied airborne forces. Besides providing a how-to guide, the German success on Crete also persuaded Allied military and political leaders that they would need airborne forces if they were going to successfully invade Europe. Thus began the laborious process of building up the airborne divisions that were to assault Hitler's Festung Europa, or fortress Europe, in 1943 and 1944.

Sicily
The first division-sized employment of Allied airborne forces came during Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, which began on July 10, 1943. While the landings succeeded, the drops were anything but a success. Gale force winds completely upset the navigation for the transport aircraft. Of 144 gliders carrying British infantry, only 54 landed in Sicily and only 12 near their objectives. An American force of 3,400 paratroopers was dropped all over the southeastern part of the island — 33 sticks in the British area, 53 near Gela and 127 in the neighborhood of the 45th Infantry Division. Only the 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was together when it landed — but 25 miles from its objective. Regardless of the lack of concentration, the American paratroopers immediately caused a massive headache for the defending Germans and Italians. As the official history suggests: '[B]ands of paratroopers were roaming through the rear areas of the coastal defense units, cutting enemy communications lines, ambushing small parties, and creating confusion among enemy commanders as to exactly where the main airborne landing had taken place.' Perhaps most important, some of these small groups of paratroopers were able to delay the deployment of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division against the Allied landings at Gela.

To the east, despite its small size, a party of British paratroopers seized Ponte Grande, but proved too few to prevent the Italian defenders from regaining the bridge. By the morning of the second day, both the British and Americans had a firm foothold on the eastern and southern shores of the island. Only at Gela were the Germans putting significant pressure on American troops. As a result George S. Patton ordered that the 504th Regimental Combat Team be dropped in to reinforce the line. That order led to one of the worst incidents of friendly fire during World War II. Despite careful efforts at coordination to ensure that the U.S. Navy would not fire on the incoming aircraft, the troop carrier formations came under intense anti-aircraft fire from the Allied fleet off Gela.

Allied naval and merchant units had been under attack by formations of Ju-88s and other Axis aircraft all day, including a major raid that ended immediately before the troop carrier aircraft arrived overhead. The slow-flying formations, clearly illuminated by a quarter moon, were sitting ducks for anxious naval gunners. Once one ill-disciplined gun crew opened up, everyone in the fleet, on the beaches and in the landing zones fired. It was mass slaughter. By the time it was over, the troop carriers had lost 23 out of 144 aircraft dispatched, with a further 37 aircraft badly damaged. Six of the aircraft shot down had their full load of paratroopers on board. Altogether, the 504th lost 81 dead, 132 wounded and 16 missing. Under intense anti-aircraft fire the transport crews once again dropped paratroopers all over southeastern Sicily; by evening on the 12th the regiment still only numbered 37 officers and 518 men.

The difficulties encountered in mass parachute drops in Sicily did not deter the continuation of the buildup of Allied airborne forces. In an era when military organizations and political leaders were more willing to accept casualties than is the case today, senior officers such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Patton and Sir Alan Brooke wrote off the high casualty rates and flawed employment to a lack of experience rather than to a flawed concept. Moreover, the successful reinforcement of the Salerno bridgehead by a regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division in a short period of time also helped to strengthen the idea that paratrooper formations could be very useful in future military operations.

Normandy
The great moment for the Allied airborne forces came with Operation Overlord in June 1944. Their contribution to that effort alone more than justified the considerable resources that both the British and U.S. armies had poured into development of airborne tactics and training.

At the end of 1943, the Allies made a major command shift. The team that had been running the war in the Mediterranean was brought to the British Isles to plan and execute the great invasion of France. Eisenhower became the supreme Allied commander, with British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder as his deputy. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery returned from the Mediterranean as well, to assume control of the initial phase of ground operations.

When they arrived in England, Eisenhower and his deputies inherited a scheme that was largely driven by what were thought to be the available resources. The initial plan for the invasion called for a three-division amphibious landing, supported by the drop of one airborne division. Both Eisenhower and Montgomery found the planning assumption of a four-division attack completely unacceptable. They even implied that they were not willing to command the invasion unless those numbers were substantially increased. They got their way. The Combined Chiefs of Staff found the logistical and amphibious resources to increase the invasion force to a six-division landing force — three American, two British and one Canadian — supported by a drop of three airborne divisions.

The proposal for a three-division airborne drop almost immediately resulted in a considerable fight between the overall commanders of Allied operations in support of the invasion, with Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory on one side and Montgomery and Eisenhower on the other. Leigh-Mallory argued, not very tactfully, that the paratroopers were going to be slaughtered by the Germans. According to him they would suffer upward of 95 percent casualties.

Eisenhower countered with his belief that the airborne assault at night would not suffer such a high casualty rate, but that it did not matter what the casualty rate was so long as the airborne troops accomplished their mission. As the supreme Allied commander, he got his way. But that argument brought a special poignancy to his visit to the members of the 101st Airborne Division on June 5, 1944. As he talked to the young paratroopers, Eisenhower was well aware that he might be sending all those men to their deaths.

What exactly was to be the mission of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne and the British 6th Airborne? The British airborne troops had perhaps the most crucial mission in terms of Normandy's geography. They were to seize the solid ground on the east side of the Orne River, while a specially trained gliderborne force was to seize the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne at Benouville to achieve a linkup with the amphibious landings. The control of that ground, because of the swamps and marshy terrain lying farther east, would mean that the Germans could attack the British and Canadian beaches from the south, but not from the east. And that one direction — to the south — was more than enough to keep the Canadians busy when the murderous juvenile delinquents of the 12th SS Panzer Division 'Hitlerjügend' arrived. The task of the American paratroopers was similar to that of the British: They were to keep the Germans off the backs of the soldiers making the Utah Beach landing and disrupt German communications throughout western Normandy.

The drops more than accomplished their mission and — to use that dreadful military euphemism — at 'an acceptable cost.' The British were luckier in that their drops were more concentrated, while the glider attack on the Caen Canal Bridge — remembered forever afterward as 'Pegasus Bridge' — and the Orne River Bridge succeeded beyond the planners' wildest expectations. By late morning the commandos of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, had linked up with the 6th Airborne and the hard ground on the east side of the Orne was relatively secure.

The American paratroopers were less lucky in that, due to weather, bad navigation and German anti-aircraft fire, the troop carrier pilots dropped them all over Normandy. While that may have had a direct impact on their cohesion as fighting forces, the small groups of paratroopers spread havoc and confusion throughout the Norman countryside. In particular, their actions distracted the attention of German commanders away from the landings, including that on Omaha Beach. Moreover, enough paratroopers landed near where they were supposed to that the airborne was able to accomplish its basic missions — Lieutenant Dick Winters' assault on the German battery at Brécourt Manor near the Utah Beach landing site being a notable example.

Once they had accomplished their mission, the paratroopers were supposed to be withdrawn in preparation for their next mission. They were not. The two American divisions stayed on line well into June and took terrible casualties. The British 6th Airborne Division remained even longer, suffering so many losses that it was not available in September for the Holland operation.

Market-Garden
Operation Market-Garden, the failed attempt to liberate much of the Netherlands and seize a direct route into northern Germany, was the greatest airborne operation in history. But it was an ill-fated undertaking from the outset. The planning began just after Montgomery had stopped the advance of the XXX Corps north of Antwerp. An advance of just another 10 kilometers would have put the whole of the German Fifteenth Army in the bag and prevented most of that army's participation in the late September battles. As early as September 5 and 6, Ultra decrypts had uncovered the fact that the Germans were planning to redeploy the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions in the Arnhem area for rest and refit — a fact that the Dutch underground and aerial reconnaissance confirmed during the week immediately before the operation was to begin.

The final ingredient in the recipe for disaster was the appointment of Lt. Gen. Frederick 'Boy' Browning, the worst kind of supercilious British officer, to overall command of the operation. Browning received the appointment over the far more experienced American Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, one of the war's great divisional commanders, for reasons that to this day are not clear. Browning's position in the British army was largely due to British prejudice based on tradition and prestige: Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, apparently felt the need to appoint a Guardsman to a corps command.

As the countdown to the start date of September 17, 1944, continued, the Allies seemed to provide their own obstacles to success. The more experienced American 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions were assigned easier roles in seizing the bridges on the way to Arnhem, and the most difficult task was left to the British 1st Airborne Division, which had no combat experience. Planners for the 1st Airborne Division then let the RAF air transport commander talk them out of using the fields immediately south of Arnhem as the main drop zone, because of German anti-aircraft gun concentrations. Instead the 1st Airborne dropped into areas that were six miles from their target. General Gavin later commented that if he had been in charge of the Arnhem drop, he would have taken the RAF's refusal to drop the troops closer all the way to Eisenhower. Moreover, there was not enough air transport to carry the whole division, so it was decided that only half would drop the first day and half the second day. The lack of sufficient airlift was made even worse by Browning's decision that he and his headquarters would fly in by glider on the first day and would require no fewer than 34 gliders, all of which came out of the hide of the combat forces. Finally, annoyed at one of his intelligence officers for squawking about the possibility that the German armor might be present in force in the Arnhem area, Browning fired the offending officer and then failed to pass along his warning to the 1st Airborne, which might at least have taken along more anti-tank mines as a precaution if it had been notified of that threat.

The errors continued when the jump was made on the 17th. One of the German commanders in the immediate area was General Kurt Student, the German airborne pioneer, who quickly recognized what the Allies were up to. His Fingerspitzengefuhl (hunch) was soon reinforced when German troops recovered the plans for the operation that an American lieutenant colonel (probably part of Browning's headquarters) had carried with him on a glider that crashed. None of the British radios worked on landing, and Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, the British 1st Airborne's commander, got trapped in Arnhem while his colonels argued about who should be in charge.

Despite all the command failures and mishaps, the performance of the airborne troops was magnificent. Two moments in the fighting stand out in my mind: the holding of the north end of the Arnhem bridge by Colonel John Frost's 2nd Parachute Battalion of the 1st Airborne and the seizure of the main bridge over the Waal River at Nijmegen by the 82nd Airborne's 504th Parachute Infantry.

However, there was not much that fighting skill could do to overcome the effects of planning incompetence and bad luck. The troops from the German Fifteenth Army caused nothing but headaches as the British XXX Corps drove north to link up with the isolated airborne divisions and secure the land route over the Rhine. British armor simply did not move with the requisite speed. As always, the Germans reacted with the audacity and ruthlessness that their doctrine called for. By the time that the Guards Armored Division reached Arnhem, all that could be done was to pull out the remnants of the British 1st Airborne Division, which had suffered more than 8,000 casualties, a stark contrast to the 1,500 casualties that XXX Corps had suffered in its too leisurely drive north.

As Allan Millett and I have suggested in our book, A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, 1937-1945, 'Market-Garden's dismal showing reflected the systemic and conceptual mistakes of Allied leaders, their inability to grasp war on the operational level, and the inherent difficulties of the Western Front in September 1944. In the largest sense Montgomery's strategy was territorial in nature, aimed at gaining a bridgehead over the Rhine and then fighting a battle on the north German plain. But there was no discernable operational objective….'

The Final Jump
The Allied airborne divisions were to experience considerable fighting over the remainder of the war, but with the exception of the great airborne drop in support of Montgomery's crossing of the Rhine against negligible resistance, those battles did not involve airborne operations. The one great battle that did not occur was the grudge football match between the 101st and the 82nd, which was scheduled for late December, but was called off for the obvious reason that the divisions were the only reserves available to the Allies when the Germans attacked in the Ardennes on December 16, 1944. So what did the airborne forces achieve in World War II? From the German point of view, airborne troops were a cheap investment that yielded significant dividends, particularly in a psychological sense. Their military role in the 1940 campaigns was impressive. The 1941 Crete invasion was costly, but it was of considerable strategic importance. The operation denied the British the use of a very important base from which they could have attacked the Romanian oil fields. On the Allied side, the resources expended on the development of airborne forces were considerable — but then the Americans had plenty of resources to expend. The airborne's contribution to the success of the Normandy landing was impressive and important. For the first two days it provided a shield that allowed the reinforcement and expansion of the beachheads to go forward with very little interference from the Germans.

But in the largest sense the spirit of the airborne represented the determination of the American and British people not to allow tyranny to hold sway over the great cities and homes of European civilization. And as we stand at the dawn of the 21st century, we should not forget the cost that those young men paid to guarantee our freedom. For some their reward was a burial plot in a far-off land; for others it was the burden of terrible memories and the pain of never-healed wounds; for still others it was the pain of losing friends and family members. Those 'bands of brothers' paid a price for us that is our burden and our children's burden. Let us never forget.



This article was written by Williamson Murray and originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of World War II.

For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.


3 Responses to “Airborne Operations During World War II”


  1. 1
    Geoff Crowhurst says:

    "…and the most difficult task was left to the British 1st Airborne Division, which had no combat experience…". Does Tunisia, North Africa, Sicily and Italy not count as combat experience?

  2. 2
    Lone Poulsen says:

    I realize that my country belongs to one of the world's smallest kingdoms and thus can be easily overlooked, but Denmark was attacked by Germany on the morning on April 9th, before the attack on Norway began. The world's first attack by parachute troops thus took place at Masnedø fort, when Germany occupied Denmark. The fort is situated on a small island, but important because of a strategically bridge the Germans needed in their further advance against Norway. The fort was only guarded by three Danish soldiers, and it did not come to fighting. So even though we quickly surrendered ourselves to Germany, the place for the world's first attack with paratroopers was in Denmark not Norway.

  3. 3


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