Death from Above? The Airborne Illusion

By Robert M. Citino
3/15/2010 • Fire for Effect

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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