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Tracing America's Airborne Heritage

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Tagged As: Airborne, Army, History, and Military

Battlefield commanders have employed the principles of enveloping their enemies since the beginnings of warfare. However, the act of enveloping an enemy is restricted by the earth's terrain and the dispersion of forces dictated by the scale of the opponent's defense. The advent of the airborne soldier changed the face of battle dramatically. The ability to quickly and accurately drop soldiers immediately behind or within an enemy's position gave commanders the capability of three-dimensional envelopment. Airborne soldiers alleviated the limitations of maneuver in difficult terrain and eliminated the time required to circle forces around an enemy to attack its rear. Although first employed during World War II, airborne insertion was not a revolutionary concept. Airborne soldiers were long a strategist's pipedream and as technology progressed, they were finally manifested as an experiment. Despite successful showings, airborne units were not in demand until the need for tactical innovation during the second World War necessitated their use. Their unprecedented success led to a crash course paratrooper development race that quickly evolved into the airborne programs still in use today.

The notion of inserting soldiers into combat via an air drop dates as far back as Benjamin Franklin. He proposed that "ten thousand men descending from the clouds might do an infinite deal of mischief." Parachute canopies were already commonplace as safety devices in aircraft and balloons during the early twentieth century. America's first attempt at an airborne operation resulted from the need to break the stagnation of trench warfare during the first World War. However, the scheduled test of Air Force General William Mitchell's plan was canceled because the armistice was signed. Over the next quarter century, airborne development in the United States and Europe ground to a halt for lack of resources and need.

Unilateral interest in airborne capability was sparked anew with the release of Russian film propaganda demonstrating a functional airborne unit. The footage documented a drop from Moscow to Vladivostok whereupon the airborne soldiers quickly seized a test facility. The film went further than merely proving an airborne unit's practical uses. Going beyond demonstrating a simple squad insertion, the film depicted several division drops totaling 600 and 1200 men. While the rest of the world had yet to realize the utility of airborne units, the Russians developed several mass parachute battalions from a fear of the Japanese.

Germany joined the airborne bandwagon first. The armistice from the first World War denied Germany the privilege of possessing an air force, however, neither gliders nor paratroopers were expressly forbidden. Germany decided to convert a portion of their Luftwaffe pilots into paratroopers under the premise they were already accustomed to the air. The first parachute experiments began in June 1935 at a commercial flying school which was converted into an aerodrome. By January 1936, German experiments were complete and the Richtlinien fur die Aufstellung von Fallschirmjager Verbanden (Instructions on the Formation of Parachute Troops) was published.

America's endeavors into developing airborne units were not serious until the second World War had already broken across Europe. The first American parachute platoon was synthesized at Ft. Benning by order of Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall in 1940. America's volunteer test platoon developed its doctrine on the fly. Training procedures and apparatus, including the 250-foot towers, were derived from a captured German paratrooper manual. American paratroopers were required to be between eighteen and thirty-two years old, measure between sixty-six and seventy-four inches tall, and weigh no more than 185 pounds. Training consisted of parachute maintenance, gymnastic tumbling, calisthenics, canopy maneuvering, and live jumps. Despite developing an airborne program nearly a decade later than its European counterparts, America effectively gleaned the best aspects from other nation's training doctrine and incorporated lessons learned from their mistakes in combat situations.

The first effective uses of airborne units in combat were German insertions during the Blitzkrieg. Debate exists over whether Germany actually deployed paratroopers over Poland in 1939 because of Adolf Hitler's intent to keep the existence of his paratroopers secret. On the 9th of February 1940, German paratroopers made their first documented appearance seizing bridges and airfields in Denmark and Norway. Capturing the Belgian fort Eban Emael on the 10th of May 1940 marked the turning point for airborne units. Here, approximately seventy-seven Germans rode gliders undetected onto the fort's rooftop and captured 1200 Belgian soldiers within a day's time. Simultaneously, 400 more Germans silently seized bridges along the Albert Canal opening a passageway through Belgium for Germany's thrust into France. Germany continued to use its airborne units for smaller, support operations until Crete. For eleven days between the 20th and 31st of May 1941, German gliderborne soldiers and paratroopers fought to take Crete. Although the invasion of Crete was a disaster of execution and coordination, 22,000 German soldiers eventually overpowered the 40,000 British forces. Capturing Crete represented the first time a target was taken solely by airborne units and the last time Germany employed large scale airborne operations in the second World War.

Training airborne soldiers in the United States developed almost to the letter from the German training program. America's fledgling doctrine was born from captured documents and experience from test runs on training grounds. The best input came from analyzing the German technique in combat. From these early footsteps, General James M. Gavin further refined the American airborne doctrine by combining translated German and Soviet airborne documents into FM31-30, the definitive guide to American operations during the period. From practical implementation, America learned the paratrooper's weaknesses, strengths, and strategy.

Proper employment of airborne units yields the highest probability of success. Germany's initial dominance during the Blitzkrieg resulted from a superb mixture of paratroopers as supporting units to the main effort. During the early 1940's, military doctrine did not include a defense against vertical envelopment and forces were taken by complete surprise. The Belgian fort Eban Emael, for instance, was modeled after the French Maginot line and constructed entirely to repel ground forces. The Wehrmacht used paratroopers primarily as shock troops to inflict heavy damage from within the objective itself and cause chaos and disruption. During this time, the main effort closed on the target to complete the operation. Paratroopers were also employed to seize airfields and bridges so that heavy artillery could be delivered by air or armored units could reinforce the infantry. Airborne units had the advantage of speed, stealth, and mobility working to their benefit.

These new units were not entirely the flawless gems they appeared to be. Accurate intelligence of an objective was next to impossible for airborne units to obtain. Their targets were typically those beyond the range of reconnoitering scouts, forcing many units to jump blind. Airborne forces are highly susceptible to interception before they reach the objective. Either the carrier crafts bearing the entire force could be brought down by anti-aircraft guns or the paratroopers themselves could be machine-gunned as they float down to the drop zone. Self-sufficiency is their greatest weakness. Once inserted, airborne units cannot be resupplied or reinforced unless the objective is secure, forcing them to estimate how much equipment they will require without overburdening themselves. These deficiencies were evident in the Crete operation. The German intelligence did not anticipate the size of the British defense, the Luftwaffe and paratroopers were viciously attacked by anti-aircraft batteries, and the soldiers, expecting equipment drops, were armed with only pistols and grenades.

America absorbed all of Germany's mistakes and amended its doctrine. Unity of command was the single most important lesson learned. German paratroopers were under command of the Luftwaffe until the drop itself. Disputes between ground command and air command often led to misplaced drop zones or mission abortions. America denoted ground command as the authority for all operations involving airborne units. To further coordinate command and control issues, America learned to send airborne commanders to the drop zone first. The typical dispersion of forces during the drop created a need for authority figures to be on the ground organizing the soldiers as they landed. Air superiority and adequate equipment combine as necessary elements to keep the paratroopers alive to completion of the objective. The final lesson regards maintaining simplicity in objectives. Coined "oil-spot" tactics by General Kurt Student, the dispersed paratroopers must know their common goal. These "oil-spots" of paratroopers eventually converge and envelop their common objective. With these revisions in the doctrine, America successfully launched its airborne campaigns into Normandy and Sicily without incurring the failures the Germans faced at Crete.

Airborne soldiering arose from necessity during the second World War. When properly used, the tactical edge paratroopers provided represented a definite revolution in military doctrine. Introduced to existence by Russians as a counteragent against the Japanese, the Germans quickly adopted the program to build up its army for a new strike against Europe. Germany's thorough research developed such an effective means of training that the United States virtually cloned the German training procedure. Still hesitant about the manner in which to utilize paratroopers, the Allies held back and witnessed a German swarm unleash a cruel demonstration of airborne's lethality. Learning from mistakes at Crete, the United States and the Allies refined their own programs and turned the German's sword against them. According the General James M. Gavin, one of the most prominent figures in developing America's airborne doctrine, "We are at a critical point in the evolution of military science. We are in a competition, a competition in which the winner will emerge from the present crisis with the best means and methods of fully using the space about out planet. Airborne troops are our best national security and the world's most promising hope for international security."

Annotated Bibliography

"Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal". [on-line] (accessed 23 February 1999); available from Internet.

  • This primary source document was written by a committee of former German Officers, most of whom are the principle figures in Germany's airborne infancy. It is comprehensive of a complete pro/con analysis of German airborne strategy and tactics and includes a breakdown of Eban Emael and Crete. It further discusses the Allied airborne system. It is well composed and presents a very unbiased and objective approach to the subject considering its authors.

"Chute Troops." Newsweek, 30 November 1942, 20.

  • This primary source article is relatively weak for evidence on the development or origins of any airborne unit. It does however provide a brief glimpse into the concept of airborne soldiers. This article appears to have been written to satiate '40s era readers interest in the latest development.

"German Airborne Operations and Their Influence on US Airborne Development". (accessed 21 February 1999); available from Internet.

  • This anonymous Internet reference is a secondary source document that breaks down the evolution of America's airborne system. Following a brief overview of Crete, the document describes the characteristics of Germany's system that were adopted and modified by America's airborne program. It was superbly written and exhibits no factual disputes with other resources.

Baldwin, Hanson W. "Skytroops." New York Times, 26 October 1941, sec. M, 4.

  • This primary source newspaper article takes readers into the training program after it's development stages. It is an excellent resource to examine the fruits of the America's research into airborne to see what was implemented and what was not. It is written with a distinct American favor.

Booth, T. Michael. "Paratrooper: The Life of General James M. Gavin". New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

  • The autobiography of James Gavin is a superb secondary resource. It documents his life, providing a foundation upon which to appreciate his reputation in the airborne community. The book also includes a general history of airborne development internationally.

Cluxton, Donald E. Jr. "Concepts of Airborne Warfare in World War II". Durham: Department of History Duke University, 1967.

  • This historical assessment of airborne operations in the second World War covers the major battles in which airborne units were employed. The document discusses the rights and wrongs of allies and axis forces involved from an objective perspective. It is a quality secondary resource from which to build a historical foundation.

Gavin, James. "Airborne Warfare". Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1947

  • Components of this primary source book are a definitive look into America's airborne system. There is little reference to German origins, however, Gavin delves into the practical application of airborne strategy, strengths, and weaknesses from first person experience.

Hoyt, Edwin P. "Airborne: The History of American Parachute Forces". New York: Stein and Day, 1979.

  • This secondary resource provided background information on the critical battles that established airborne's legitimacy. It was useful for verifying the information found in other resources.

Miksche, Major F.O. "Paratroops". New York: Random House, 1943.

  • This secondary resource is an interesting resource that greatly details the German side of airborne development. It is written with a distinct bias toward German programs, but this is important to maintain adequate breadth of perspective. It is well written and factual including many snippets of information applicable to other angles of research.

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