Paratroopers were to play a decisive part in World War Two. Paratroopers were vital in the German attack on Crete, the initial attacks by the Allies at D-Day and they played an important role in the Allies failed attack on Arnhem.
Paratroopers developed an elite image on both sides during World War Two. The British paras who fought with such bravery at Arnhem helped to cement this image even in defeat. The German Fallschirmjager’s attack on Crete did the same from the German perspective.
In World War One, Winston Churchill suggested dropping “flying columns” to destroy enemy bridges, factories and sabotage communications. An American officer, Colonel ‘Billy’ Mitchell, devised a plan to actually drop troops by parachute from a British Handley-Page bomber onto the city of Metz. It was cancelled because the Armistice was signed.
Between the wars, all the world’s military powers toyed with the idea of airborne operations. The Russians took an early lead in this field. In 1936, 1,200 men in the Red Army, parachuted during manoeuvres near Kiev. The watching foreign military attaches were suitably impressed. The Russians called these troops ‘locust warriors’. Ironically, despite their pre-war lead in this field, the Russians barely used paratroopers inWorld War Two. Men destined to lead Russian partisan groups were dropped behind German lines. A legend held by the Red Army told of soldiers who were dropped from a low flying plane without parachutes as they were targeted at a large snow-bank!
As the war approached neither Britain nor America had paratrooper regiments. Both countries put their faith in the movement of complete military units by air – men, supplies, artillery pieces etc. This was known as air-landing. The French had created a battalion of paratroopers in 1939, but it soon disbanded.
The Germans launched what can be classed as the first airborne ‘attack’ on March 12th, 1938 when German paratroopers seized and captured an airfield at Wagram in Austria during the take-over of Austria.
In the attack on the Netherlands, German paratroopers played a major role isolating the city of The Hague and in Belgium, they seized vital bridges and took a strategic fort at Eben Emael.
One year later, the Germans used paratroopers to attack Crete. This was the first time that paratroopers were given the task of attacking and defeating a complete target. At the time, it was the largest airborne attack in history. Though the island was taken after heavy fighting and the attack passed into military folklore, the Germans took very heavy casualties (25%) and Hitler lost faith in this form of attack. On the orders of Hitler, German paratroopers were sent to Russia where they fought as ground troops. However, the British read more into this battle and with the support of Churchill, Britain soon had an airborne division.
In June 1940, Churchill had written to the head of the military wing of the War Cabinet Secretariat:
Major John Rock of the Royal Engineers was given the task of creating a British airborne unit. Unlike the Germans, the British paratroopers were part of the army. Rock’s unit was based at Ringway, Manchester and it had to make do with minimal supplies. Its first planes were Whitley bombers which had the rear gun turret removed so that paratroopers could jump out of the plane (as opposed to jumping out of a side door).
The British made their first demonstration jump in November 1940 when four Whitley bombers dropped 50 paratroopers. In the same month, General ‘Boy’ Browning was appointed General Officer Commanding Airborne Troops. By the end of December 1940, everything was in place to create the British 1st Airborne Division whose distinctive mark was to be the maroon beret and a shoulder patch with Bellerophon astride the winged horse Pegasus.
In America, an airborne brigade was discussed in 1939 by the Chief of Infantry. A parachute test platoon came into being in June 1940 under the control of the Infantry. This platoon was headed by Major William Lee. In the autumn of 1940, a parachute battalion was created in America and a parachute school was founded at Fort Benning in Georgia. The Americans, like the British, experimented with the use of gliders to deliver their men to a drop zone.
Both Britain’s and America’s airborne divisions tended to total about 9,000 men. The tendency was to go for lightly armed men to boost their ability to move around a battlefield. This put them at a disadvantage on the ground if they were confronted by tanks and other armoured vehicles. The damage down to the Germans in Crete taught a lesson to the British and Americans in that any area that was prepared for an airborne attack, would result in heavy losses for the attackers.
Airborne soldiers at D-Day took disproportionately high casualties compared to the beach landings (with the exception of Omaha) while the airborne attack on Arnhem proved to be a failure. The success of the Allies in using parachute regiments to capture airstrips in Burma was only due to the involvement of ground forces as well as airborne troops. In the western sector of Europe, the speed of the Allies advance was such that the time to plan and co-ordinate a massed airborne raid was never available.
On many occasions, paratroopers were used as normal infantrymen. This happened in both the European conflict as well as in the Pacific. During the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower used three airborne divisions as infantry units to fight off the German counter-offensives. In the Philippines, the US 11th Airborne Division fought as regular infantrymen.