The U.S. Army carried out some small-scale experiments at Kelly and Brooks Fields in 1928 and 1929, and in 1936 the Soviets demonstrated a full-blown parachute landing during Red Army maneuvers. Some 1,500 men were dropped in the exercise. One observer—Major General A. P. Wavell—commented that the previous year vehicles had also been landed by aircraft.
During World War II, the Soviets maintained an airborne corps and numerous Guards Airborne Divisions. These troops, although elite, were never used for strategic purposes. However, on several occasions the Soviets dropped parachute troops behind German lines to aid partisan operations and to disrupt German lines of communication. Ominously for the paratroopers, there were no operations in which drives of ground troops were coordinated with parachute operations to relieve these troops once they had been committed to battle.
British reaction to the reports from the Soviet Union was one of mild interest only, although some antiparachutist exercises took place in Eastern Command, in which Lieutenant Colonel F. A. M. Browning (commanding the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards) took part. Browning was later, as Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Browning, to command all British airborne forces in World War II. The matter then rested until the Germans showed how effective parachute and air-landing troops were when they carried out their spectacular landings in 1940 in Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
Although manpower demands in Britain in 1940 were such that it should have been impossible to raise a parachute force of any significance, nevertheless at the urging of Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, by August 1940, 500 men were undergoing training as parachutists. Fulfillment of Churchill's order that the number be increased to 5,000 had to await additional equipment and aircraft.
Gliderborne troops were part of the plan, and various gliders were under consideration as troop-carrying aircraft. Inevitably such a new branch of infantry was beset with problems, mainly of supply, and there was also a body of resistance to the concept itself in the regular units of the British army. This attitude often led battalions to post their least effective men to such new units merely to get rid of them; the best men were jealously guarded by their commanding officers.
The War Office (representing the British army) and the Air Ministry (representing the Royal Air Force [RAF]) had to agree on aircraft. However, because Bomber Command was becoming aggressively conservative of aircraft, the only plane initially available for training and operations was the Whitley bomber. Aircraft stocks available to airborne forces were initially severely limited until a supply of Douglas C-47 and DC-3 Dakota (Skytrain in U.S. service) aircraft was established, whereon the parachute troops found their perfect drop aircraft. Gliders were also developed, and the American Hamilcar design could carry a light tank.
Progress in developing airborne forces was slow; Royal Air Force objections were constant, in view of the pressure on the RAF to carry the continental war to Germany by means of the strategic bombing campaign. There is no doubt, however, that once the United States came into the war, the situation eased enormously, and equipment became readily available from the United States that Britain was unable to manufacture.
To provide more men for the airborne forces, the War Office decided in 1941 that whole battalions were to be transferred en masse, even though extra training would be needed to bring many men up to the standards of fitness for airborne troops. At the same time, the Central Landing Establishment became the main training center for airborne forces. The 1st Parachute Brigade was established under the command of Brigadier General R. N. Gale, consisting of four parachute battalions. Initially three battalions were formed, which exist to this day in the British army as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, Parachute Regiment.
The Glider Pilot Regiment, also formed in 1941, was based at Haddenham, near Oxford, having moved from Ringway (now Manchester Airport). Pilots were recruited from among army and RAF volunteers, but they were part of the army once trained. Airborne forces are infantry, but they have to be fitter than the average soldier, and so training was rigorous. Troops were trained to endure in the cold, in wet weather, and in heat. They had to be fit to withstand the impact of the landing and to fight alone with light weapons and without support for some days.
The airborne concept at that time was twofold: to raid, in which case troops would be extracted by land or sea after the operation (such as the attack on the German radar station at Bruneval in northern France) or to land at the rear of the enemy to capture a strategic target. Two examples of the latter are the Orne bridge landing on D day in June 1944 and Operation market-garden ( market was the airborne portion) the following September when the 1st Airborne Division tried to capture the bridges across the Rhine at Arnhem in Holland.
Airborne forces were regarded, justifiably, as an elite force, but they were a force of considerable strength by the end of the war. Despite the losses suffered at Arnhem, where the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Parachute Regiment held the northern end of the road bridge for four days against two German Schutzstaffel (SS) panzer divisions, the 1st Airborne Division was again up to strength for the Rhine crossing operation in March 1945.
British airborne forces were also engaged in the Far East, and the 44th Indian Airborne Division came into being there. In the Pacific Theater, airborne operations were on a smaller scale than in Europe because the jungle limited the ability to drop large numbers of troops.
The first U.S. airborne division was the 82nd, a conversion of the 82nd Infantry (all-American) Division, formed in March 1942. Major General Omar N. Bradley commanded the division, with Brigadier General Matthew B. Ridgway as his assistant. Ridgway was appointed divisional commander as a major general in June 1942, and the division became the 82nd Airborne Division that August. The 82nd went to North Africa in April 1943, just as German resistance in the theater was ending. It took part in operations in Sicily and Normandy, and under the command of Major General James M. Gavin, it participated in Operation market in the Nijmegen-Arnhem area and also in the Ardennes Offensive.
The 101st Airborne Division was activated in August 1942 with a nucleus of officers and men from the 82nd Division. The 101st was commanded by Major General William C. Lee, one of the originators of U.S. airborne forces. The division left for England in September 1943. Lee had a heart attack in the spring of 1944, and the division was taken over by Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, who led it through D day and Operation market, when it secured the bridge at Eindhoven. The division distinguished itself in the defense of Bastogne during the German Ardennes Offensive.
Three other U.S. airborne divisions were established: the 11th, which served in the Pacific and jumped into Corregidor Island and fought in the Battle of Manila; the 17th, which was rapidly moved to Europe for the German Ardennes Offensive and then jumped in the Rhine Crossing with the British 6th Airborne Division; and the 13th, which, although it arrived in France in January 1945, never saw action.
Cooperation between British and U.S. airborne forces was very close. When the U.S. 101st Airborne arrived in England, it was installed in a camp close to the training area for the British 6th Airborne Division, which had prepared much of the camp in advance. Training and operational techniques were almost identical, and there were common exercises and shoots to create close bonds among troops. There were also frequent personnel exchanges to cement friendship. Similar arrangements were made between the U.S. 82nd Airborne and the British 1st Airborne Division.
Parachute training in the United States was centered at Fort Benning, Georgia, and in 1943, some 48,000 volunteers started training, with 30,000 qualifying as paratroopers. Of those rejected, some were kept for training as air-landing troops. In Britain, Polish troops were also trained as parachutists to form the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade, which fought at Arnhem in Operation market. Contingents from France, Norway, Holland, and Belgium were also trained, many of whom served operationally in the Special Air Service Brigade.
One great contribution made by the United States to the common good was the formation and transfer to England of the U.S. Troop Carrier Command. As noted previously, transport aircraft shortages had bedeviled airborne forces' training and operations from the outset. The arrival of seemingly endless streams of C-47 aircraft (known to the British as the DC-3 or Dakota) was a major help. Further, the Royal Air Force in 1944 had nine squadrons of aircraft, or a total of 180 planes, dedicated to airborne forces.
The British Commonwealth also raised parachute units. Australian paratroopers (1st Australian Parachute Battalion) served in the Far East, and the Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion served in Europe.
Several small-scale operations had been carried out before 1943 with mixed success, but the big date for airborne forces was 6 June 1944. Plans for D day required the flanks of the invasion beaches to be secured in advance, and only airborne forces could guarantee this objective. In Britain for the invasion were two British airborne divisions (1st and 6th) and two American airborne divisions (82nd and 101st). The plan was to use all the available airborne and gliderborne troops in the initial stages of the operation. Unfortunately, even in June 1944, transport aircraft available were insufficient for all troops to be dropped at once. All aircraft were organized in a common pool, so that either British or American troops could be moved by mainly American aircraft. This was another fine example of the cooperation that existed at all levels within the Allied airborne forces.
Operation overlord began for the paratroopers and gliders in the dark of the early morning of 6 June. To the west, American paratroopers dropped at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula to secure the forward areas of what were to be Omaha and Utah Beaches. Despite many dispersal problems, the troops managed to link up and were soon in action, denying the Germans the ability to move against the beachheads. The troops fought with great gallantry despite their weakened strength (caused by air transport problems), and by the end of the day, contact had been established with the shipborne forces from the beachheads.
In the east, Britain's 6th Airborne Division was tasked with controlling the left flank of the British invasion beaches. Perhaps the most startling operation (for the Germans) was the coup de main attack by gliderborne air-landing troops of 11th Battalion, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who landed so close to their target that they were able to capture bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne. On a larger scale, the 3rd Parachute Brigade was ordered to take out the Merville Battery, which posed a threat to the invasion beaches. The 9th Parachute Battalion, which planned to attack with 700 men, was so spread out on landing that only 150 men were available. With virtually no support, however, the men attacked the battery and captured it. The battalion lost 65 men and captured 22 Germans; the remainder of the German force of 200 were either killed or wounded.
The essence of airborne forces is morale; training inculcates a feeling of superiority among the men, and their distinctive headgear and equipment marks them as men apart. All Allied parachute and glider troops in the war were of a high standard, and their fighting record bears this out. Even when things went wrong, as often happened when troops were dropped from aircraft, the men made every effort to link up and to carry out the task they had been given.
Harclerode, Peter. Para. London: Arms and Armour, 1992.; Imperial General Staff. Airborne Operations. London: War Office, 1943.; Otway, T. B. H. Official Account of Airborne Forces. London: War Office, 1951.