Death from Above? The Airborne Illusion

One of the first entries I made on this blog dealt with amphibious operations, traditionally labeled the most complex of all military undertakings (The American Way of War, July 24th, 2009).  There’s good reason for that.  They require advance planning, and you’re asking for trouble if you’re scrambling at the last moment.  They require logistical support of a high order, and doing one on the cheap is practically a guarantee of failure.  In war, all things may be dicey–“contingent” is our  current buzzword–but amphibious ops just might be the diciest of all.

I’ve been thinking about that post a lot lately, however, and I’ve concluded that I just might have been wrong.  After all, for all the complexity, it isn’t easy to find a failed amphibious operation in World War II.  Dieppe?  Sure.  The conception was weak, the planning helter-skelter, the firepower insufficient.  But after that?  One success after the other, at least for the Western powers. 

There was a type of operation in World War II that often did fail, however:  the airborne attack.  Even when it did succeed, friendly casualties were usually massive.  Let’s review the record.  The Germans had some success early on, with drops in Norway and the Netherlands in 1940.  In both cases, however, the results were more mixed than most folks realize.  In Norway, one surprised German company landed directly on top of a Norwegian strongpoint at Dombås.  The Norwegians raked it with fire, surrounded it, and took it prisoner. In the Netherlands, airborne landings around the Hague ran into Dutch antiaircraft fire, and the same thing happened, with over 1,200 German airborne troops becoming POWs.  Finally, every aficionado of the airborne arm knows what happened on Crete in May 1941:  a successful campaign to seize the island–airborne’s one clear wartime triumph–at what the Germans regarded as an unacceptable cost. 

And then there is the Allied airborne record.  Here the record really isn’t mixed:  it’s pretty bad.  Take the Sicilian landings in July 1943 (Operation Husky), for example. The British 1st Airlanding Brigade, tasked to seize the Ponte Grande south of Syracuse, saw most of its gliders land in the Mediterranean with the loss of everyone on board; only 54 of 144 aircraft landed in Sicily at all.  Instead of 1,700 men at the bridge, fewer than 100 made it, and they would be overrun by Italian defenders later in the day.  The U.S. 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment was supposed to jump on the high ground north of Gela, the Piano Lupo, but few landed anywhere near it.  Colonel James Gavin wasn’t even sure whether he was in Sicily at all, or what continent he was on.  A drop to reinforce the Gela bridgehead the second night went badly, with dozens of gliders and transports shot out of the sky by friendly ground troops with a case of the jitters.  The same thing happened to the British a few days later, when a landing at the Primosole Bridge ran into a wall of friendly flak en route. 

A mixed picture in Normandy.  A disaster in Arnhem.  I could go on.  Suffice it to say:  here was a highly complex form of war requiring careful coordination between land and air, precise intelligence about the enemy’s dispositions, and a great deal of luck.  Its margin of error was zero, and you started paying the price the moment you left the airplane.

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21 Responses

  1. Bill Nance

    Massed airborne operations have always been a bit of a fantasy. As you note, they simply didn’t work most of the time, and when they did, the effects were limited.

    That said, airborne ops are at their best in small – limited operations for a strategic or operational goal. Anytime you go over a certain limit, anywhere from battalion to brigade dropping, you meet with lots of problems (more than the normal associated with a drop).

    Even today, the odds of dropping anything more than small commando units or maybe a battalion or so approaches the realm of silliness. In low intensity conflict, you don’t need more than that strength. In high intensity conflict, air dropping a bunch of light infantry behind bad guy lines presents you with more of an operational liability than a strength. The 82nd Airborne in Desert Shield was referred to (even by themselves) as a speedbump – and they were air landed.

    Ranger battalions are great at strategic seizures for which we would use paratroops for. The rest of airborne infantry are simply back up if Rangers ain’t available, or light infantry with cool berets.

  2. Luke Truxal

    I think the reason the Allies went to larger airborne operations is because of the issue of accuracy. The idea being that this is a new concept, technology, and the delivery method is not the most accurate. Like Allied strategic bombing you tighten up large formations and drop as many bombs or troops in this case and eventually you are going to hit the target or drop zone. Maybe you use overkill on the numbers just to make sure you get enough airborne troops in the right area and that way you aren’t putting all of your eggs in one basket. Also, the Allies experimented with night drops which was basically area paratroop dropping. It’s a guesstimate versus a more precision daylight drop which will cost more casualties. So instead of less being more like Bill proposes maybe in WWII more is needed because of the lack of a proper delivery system.

    I think WWII strategic bombing is dealing with the same issues that WWII airborne assaults are. Precision daylight drops/bombing or night area drops/bombing? Good thing no one came up with “round the clock” airborne assaults.

  3. Bill Nance

    except you look at where airborne ops were actually successful (and didn’t just play area disruption – a VERY expensive means of doing that).
    – Pegasus bridge – a small British force glidered almost directly onto the target (at night).
    -some of the American landings in MARKET-GARDEN. Small forces dropped on top of, or close enough to their targets to take it by suprise, landed with a degree of accuracy.

    In fact, by late war (1944) most airborne drops hit their DZs with remarkable accuracy – the outlier being Normandy, which was at night, under fire, and the first time a 3 division drop was done. The biggest issue was the size of transport aircraft which could only hold a very small number of men (in contrast to our smallest transport today which holds 64). Thus, to drop a division is a HUGE investment of resources. Yet, when you look at the stats, most of the airborne ‘bang’ could have been achieved with a much smaller commitment of resources.

    The biggest problem with “vertical envelopment” on the operational scale is logistics. You drop a division, that division now has to secure a large enough lodgement to support a division, meaning they need more troops simply for self defense, and not for offensive operations. By contrast (and counterintuitively) a smaller commando force dropped immediately on a major objective with a plan for ground forces to relieve them – only has to worry about the objective and less about securing their rear.

    In Market Garden, the 1st British Airborne spent almost all of its time after the first day defending its drop zones against German counterattcks so that they could be resupplied. The only force that actually made it to the objective was destroyed due to a failure of ground forces to properly relieve them.

    Again in market garden, at Nijmegan, the 82nd had a number of objectives and had to secure their rear area. Remarkably, they were able to fight onto all but one, and hold their rear area. But the strain of all this meant they didn’t have the a– to take down their most important objective, the highway bridge at Nijmegan.

  4. Rob Citino

    Logistics, yes… you’re dropping a force (especially a division-sized one) into isolation, essentially. But isn’t another problem the lack of heavy weapons? Isn’t that the crisis that ALL these airborne drops (even the ones that “worked”) faced once they hit the ground?

  5. Bill Nance

    Roger, lack of heavy weapons is a huge determiner of success or failure.

    However, I think that your smaller commando style ops can work around this problem with speed and shock action. The hard part is holding what you win. In modern examples, we simply cover the paras with aircover until ground forces show up. In WW II, I think they just prayed.

    Additionally, smaller forces have less of an influence on a planner’s imagination. A planner that knows that only a company is going in, will necessarily realize (or should) the inherent difficulties that company will face and plan accordingly in terms of how long it will have to hold until relieved, etc.. When you drop a division, there is this feeling that “hey it’s a division, it can handle it” Though Monty never writes it, I honestly believe that’s what he was thinking when he heard about the increased German forces around Arnhem.

    Someone sent me a wiki link about the Tetrarch light tank that the Brits used in glider ops in WW II. Apparently it didn’t work so hot, and was withdrawn from direct combat pretty quickly.

  6. Rob Citino

    Great stuff, Bill. I agree that smaller “commando style ops” can still work. “Insertions,” we would call them. And I do agree with you that “smaller forces have less of an influence on a planner’s imagination.” But isn’t it the divisions that took the heavier casualties in WWII? :) Unavoidable, I guess.

  7. Perry Colvin

    Dear All,
    I like the dialogue that has been going on here, everyone has been spot on about the limitations of airborne operations in WWII, but I think that the more interesting question is: why were these an issue? I think that the root of the problem stems from the same place as the problems with strategic bombing early in the war, i.e. no operational experience to base decisions on. The concept of airborne assault was concieved of in the 1930s and then put into production in the war, and thus I feel that it suffers from the same “way of the future” syndrome that strategic air power does. In this case, plans were drawn up for drops that would be fine if EVERY possible thing went correctly, but, planes get lost, time tables get disrupted and yes, the enemy shoots back(often with bigger guns than you have). If you look at the drops later in the war, you see aerial operations with much more limited scope than say on D-day, and I think this was the product of the recognition of what airborne troops capabilities really were.

  8. Bill Nance

    I don’t think that later airborne ops were more limited than D-Day. Of the two significant ones – Market/Garden and Varsity. Both were large multi-division drops intended to play a significant role in the execution.

    In the case of Market-Garden, the airborne was expected to fight independantly for a much longer time than experienced during any previous operation, and was supposed to play a much larger role than they played on D-Day.

    Varsity learned the lessons of Market-Garden as far as depth was concerned, but dropped the airborne so close to the front that they were chewed up and spit out by the German’s main line defenses.

    I agree with you on the concept of likening airborne ops to strategic bombing in that the concept was forwarded without real analysis.

    The problem with both is that the partisans of airborne warfare pushed the concept well beyond reality. We see this today with modern military theorists pushing theory past reality and into fantasy. Information dominance and active protective systems are among them. The concept goes that we won’t need a lot (or any) heavy forces because the US forces will always be able to see first, decide first, and act first. Great idea in theory. Unfortunately, it rarely works that way in practice, and – as you said – the other side gets a vote, and they are trying very hard to win too.

    One of the reasons Market-Garden even happened, is that you had leaders itching to use the 1st Allied Airborne Army without critical analysis of whether such a formation should even exist. By late summer 1944, they had the data to make the critical analysis, just no one wanted to admit that such a huge agglomeration of resources could be such a waste – so they HAD to use it – in their minds.

  9. Perry Colvin

    I agree with you, there were so many people very invested in the concept of airborne infantry that the Market-Garden operation was more of an experiment than anything else. There had been too many “mitigating” factors associated with the D-day drops for serious proponents of airborne operations to think twice before committing troops to another large scale drop. Those factors would have been darkness and disorganization, but I think that the problems on D-day, and for that matter Market-Garden and Varsity, were symptomatic of a more fundamental technological problem stemming from aircraft and communication.
    Your point about modern emphasis on information dominance is very true, but I think that in 1944 a lot more information and communication was needed before any large scale airborne operation could succeed. I think that the only way that any airborne operation would have been legitimately successful would have been for it to be tied to large scale close air support (in leiu of heavy weapons) and a far more sophisticated and accurate system of delivery that would put more men on the ground in closer proximity to one another faster. Unfortunately the technology and organization for this didn’t exist and wouldn’t for a long time, perhaps this inadequacy in technology is in some way responsible for our belief today that all our soldiers need is an iphone with some cool apps to be victorious regardless of their opposition.

  10. Bill Nance

    I like your thoughts on inadequacy on technology at the time. Luke pointed out the similar issue with Strategic bombing. Of course, even with perfect comms and air-ground integration, things can still go south if the weather crumps, grounding most of the air cover. One of the reasons that things like ranger school are so demanding. We expect things to go to pieces and prepare the troopers for that. Of course, it’s the job of the commander to not put people in those conditions unless absolutely necessary.

  11. Mike Stout

    Even with all of the logistical problems regarding airborne assaults, with the possible exception of Operation Varsity in 1945 every single major airborne operation was used either as prelude moves for a larger mission or were intended to receive heavy ground support within a short time after the drops. Even the assault on Crete was supposed to be reinforced by several transports’ worth of ground troops and heavy weapons. Sicily and Normandy were the opening moves for massive amphibious landings and Market-Garden was supposed to secure crossing sites along a chain of towns and cities that the British armor was to be moving through.

    The primary weakness in these plans was that the reinforcements often were late or never came. The seaborne arm of Operation Mercury was turned back by the Royal Navy and Air Force and never landed until very late in the invasion, while the British armored units in Market-Garden were delayed by the German resistance. The airborne units stayed vulnerable to heavy weapons if their support never showed up.

    The technological problems for communication, drop coordination and aircraft carrying capacity certainly didn’t help, but the majority of airborne missions in WWII – German drops in 1940, Husky, Overlord, Market-Garden, even Mercury – were spearhead missions, which in terms of significance are technically the most dangerous level of support missions for a larger body of one’s army. Being a spearhead meant facing the often untouched bulk of the enemy, and Citino has made the point about the high airborne casualty rates. Lack of heavy weapons while surviving until reinforcements arrived was the primary reason for such high losses during major operations.

    As for the comments on small-scale operations: Eben-Emael, 1940. That’s all I need to say :)

  12. Ken Russell

    Before being too quick to label Operation Market-Garden as an example of poor airborne operations (vertical envelopment), we need to understand that only Operation Market was the airborne operation. Operation Garden involved armor and mechanized infantry units tasked to link up with the airborne forces involved in Operation Market.

    One should consider that Operation Market, which was the airborne part of the operation, went pretty well, including the drops – especially considering they were in daylight. Very low casualties, accurate drops, and accurate follow-up glider landings. Remember, once the drop and assembly ends, it is no longer an airborne operation; the vertical envelopment is over.

    The final phase of Operation Market was the ground tactical plan being executed by light infantry forces (the airborne units). Even considering the poor intelligence around the Arnhem area, the Operation Market ground tactical plan, designed for taking and holding the bridges for 3 days in order to set conditions for Operation Garden, went exceedingly well. I believe holding objectives for 7 days (4 days beyond the plan) with light infantry against enemy armor would be considered quite a success by most people.

    What didn’t go well was the planning and execution of Operation Garden, the ground maneuver unit plan. Planning on using one route, through restrictive terrain, with a less than aggressive exection of such, caused the airborne ground maneuver units to have to hold well beyond the 3 days against increasing enemy firepower. Eventually, that is what caused the failure and high casualties of M-G, not the airborne operation and vertical envelopment, however the Poles might beg to differ since the bad intell around Arnhem caused them to take massive casualties during their airborne operation on Day 2 or 3 I believe.

    While large scale airborne operations success may be arguable, before painting them with the brush of failure perhaps we need to examine them in more detail and make sure we seperate the airborne operation from other factors that may have led to less than optimal outcomes. Operation Market, examined by itself, was a success. Operation Garden was a dismal failure. Due to the failure of Operation Garden, Operation Market-Garden failed.

  13. Bill Nance (the Elder)


    One of your earlier comments about the lack of heavy weapons in an airborne operation are spot on! Having been engaged in “professional” wargaming for some time and using the results of those wargames to validate or write operational plans, two major concerns always came to the fore in developing the plans for an air assault (whether it was airborne or air assault) and that was 1) how do you get supporting artillery (and ammunition) to the LZ and 2) how soon can you push through with a ground relief due to the lack of logistics and heavy weapons. Too many times I saw a BDE air assault successfully secure their objective only to be destroyed by a lack of counterfire assets. The comments by Bill Nance (the Younger) about covering the “Paras” with air until you establish the link-up is a very modern American paradigm because of the overwhelming air superiority we have enjoyed since the latter days of WW-II and the better technology of our aircraft and air delivered munitions. However, imagine a much less permissive air environmet either through enemy air defense systems or weather (it still has a significant effect on the amount and accuracy of air delivered weapons).

  14. Justin

    Did not the concept of vertical envelopment geometrically expand operational art? It might be anachronistic to say that the American planners and commanders understood the elements of operational design during World War II; however, they certainly were able to link those concepts to create successful airborne operations. Paratroopers offered the allies an operational reach well beyond anything mechanized forces could attain in a few days or weeks. Airborne operations provided both depth and simultaneity to amphibious operations. Paratroopers could seize decisive points (geographic places) well in advance of ground forces. Finally, they gave Allied commanders the ability to control the tempo of the operation. This forced the Germans to expand energy and time preparing for an airborne assault that could come at any location or time. There was risk involved and that was clearly understood by Eisenhower prior to Operation OVERLORD. However, when all the above elements are taken into account, I believe the benefits outweighed the dangers. These risks were mitigated somewhat by jumping at night and by the extensive training the airborne divisions undertook.
    Regarding successful airborne operations, I believe Operation VARSITY was already mentioned as a success but were there not more? Besides Operation DRAGOON, the Pacific theater offers two great examples. The 11th Airborne Division jump on Los Banos as well as the 503rd PIR jump on Corregidor were both successful.

  15. Sam McGowan

    The problem with airborne operations in WW II was that the Allies never used them as intended. The Germans did, but their operation at Cyprus failed because the British controlled the seas around the island. The Nadzab operation in the Southwest Pacific was a complete success, as was Corregidor. In Europe the First Allied Airborne Army was created as a large airborne army to carry out “bold” plans, such as seizing airfields and establishing an airhead deep inside occupied territory onto which troop carrier transports would fly conventional infantry and even artillery. Even though Marshall and Arnold pushed for such operations, Bradley was reluctant to carry them out. Operation MARKET was a complete success. The failure was on the part of the British III Corps to advance, not to mention a failure of intelligence. The airborne operations in Sicily, on D-Day and Southern France all accomplished their objectives. Granted, there were heavy losses in Sicilty but most of them were due to trigger-happy Allied soldiers and sailors who opened up on the low-flying transports with everything they had.

  16. Sam McGowan

    Cyprus should read Crete. What the heck, they are both Greek islands!

  17. Jon

    Seems everyone is centered on Airborne Ops in WWII. The Grenada drop by Army Rangers to rescue our medical students worked fairly well, as did the Ranger and 82nd boys in the Panama drop in 1989. Also in 1967 the 173rd jumped in the 2/503rd in Vietnam without any loss of life and was well supplied immediately. They were used as a blocking force in operation Junction City. That operation included a number of 105mm howitzers and their ammo being dropped. The 173rd made another combat jump into Iraq in 2003 to open the Northern front when Turkey refused to allow our 4th ID to move throught their space. The 173rd dropped in about 1000 of its paratroops along with some SF guys. Other SF soldiers were already on the ground and being used as Pathfinders to mark the DZ which was an Iraqi airfield. Follow on troops landed in cargo aircraft. This operation worked very well.

    Lets not forget that the 82nd Airborne was the first U.S. conventional ground combat force to arrive after Iraq invaded Kuwait. They were not dropped in but landed in Saudi Arabia. Since they were already packed and on stand-by as our quick reaction force, they were the first boots on the ground. It was kind of funny since the Navy came in soon after and gave the 82nd boys the food that was to be given to the Marines who the Navy thought would be the first ground force to arrive. It upset the Marines greatly to see the soldiers eating their chow.

  18. Will

    I think the issue is more about size than anything else. Do we need an airborne asset? Absolutely. Does it need to be the size of a division? No. The 82nd Airborne needs to be built around their infantry regiments. The infantry and some slice elements would actually be the ones parachuting into combat and they should be the ones on jump status, not the whole division. Also, airborne training should be limited to only those heading to an airborne assignment in order to save money. Right now, the airborne is too bloated and needs to be streamlined.

    We cannot give up our strategic ability to drop troops anywhere in the world within 18 hours, but we should look at the package and ask ourselves if it is really required to maintain such a large airborne force. I just feel that the 82nd Airborne infantry units should be designated as airborne commando regiments to act as the shock troops for conventional forces. We have the Rangers, but they work for USASOC and is a special operations outfit. The 82nd infantry has nearly the same capability as the Rangers and they should be converted to a more commando type of role that conventional commanders can use at their disposal.

    The mixed record of airborne ops has more to do with planning and execution than the actual use of the insertion method. Airborne ops are inherently dangerous (did my share of mass tactical jumps), but can be extremely effective for specific operations to either seize territory or assault key targets in a area. We have small kinetic engagements in today’s world and airborne ops would be great in this atmosphere. WWII is a bad example to talk about the shortcomings of the airborne. It was a massive undertaking against a sizeable enemy force. Mistakes and failures were bound to happen at times given the scope of the missions and the logistics involved which only points at the shortcomings of the period since back in those days they could not drop any support elements like artillery and armor to help add to the combat power of the light infantry.

    We still need the airborne, but it definitely needs to be changed.

  19. Demarche

    Don’t know if ya’ll have heard this rumor about possibly a brigade of the 82nd being dropped into enemy fire at a Libyan air strip late Sept-early Oct.

    Supposedly their intel had said the rebels had control, but it had been taken back by the Libyan army before the drop. Some reports had said over 380 82nd troops were killed. (If the mission was as large as a brigade it should become obvious at some point…there are only 3 in the 82nd, right?)

    This is unconfirmed, but there has been a lot of reports and news anomolies that seem to lend credence to the rumor. One strange thing building on another.

    Maybe if you guys have any insiders you might be able to get some info.

    Surely, Obama, Clinton, Sec of Def, the generals and whoever else responsible should be impeached and/or held accountable.

    This would be a travesty of the highest kind if these chickenhawk warmongers are playing fast and loose with some of our best and brightest and bravest! And since it is a ‘secret’ mission, we never know the truth…

  20. Devante

    I believe airborne operations can work even if they are market garden sized, the main problem would be enemy aircraft and anti aircraft fire. Both would have to be cut down for operations like those to work and they need to get a steady resupply which would be big. If I were General I would bring back the 11th, 13th, and 17th airborne, and redesignate the 101st back to jump status. Airborne divisions are a very valuable asset as a helicopter are very limited in range and are not exactly that silent. We learned a lot from Market Garden but the operation itself was not a failure, it was lack of sufficent resupply and the failure of the British III Corps to arrive on time to back up Arnhem. Please excuse me if I spelled Arnhem wrong, paratroopers are actually very sufficent they’re the digestive juice that spiders inject in their prey to dissolve their insides. And hopefully in the future, paratroopers will turen to orbital drop operations as dropping from space in drop pods will be the next step in Airborne/Spaceborne operations. If paratroopers had equals they will have to be marines, that was a random opinion. They both specialize in certain kind of operations.


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