The first German exercises took place in the autumn of 1937, followed later that year by the first use of cargo gliders. Expansion was rapid, and in 1938, Generalmajor (U.S. equiv. brigadier general) Kurt Student was organizing the first airborne German division to take part in the "liberation" of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. This 7th Flieger (Parachute) Division had two parachute battalions, one airborne infantry battalion and an airborne infantry regiment, three airborne SS battalions, and airborne artillery and medical troops. The division was not needed in 1938, and it was decided that the 7th Parachute Division would be all-parachute, whereas the 22nd Infantry Division would be gliderborne.
In the April 1940 German invasion of Norway, a parachute battalion dropped on Stavanger airfield and secured it in 35 minutes. On 10 May 1940, Germany captured bridges and an airfield in Holland, while gliderborne troops attacked and captured Fort Eben Emael in Belgium, which opened the German route into the Low Countries during the invasion of France. Airborne operations had proved their worth, so much so that the British immediately began to form their own parachute units.
These successes encouraged the German High Command to expand its airborne assets. It formed XI Flieger Korps, which included three parachute regiments of three battalions each plus parachute signals; medical, artillery, antiaircraft, antitank, machine gun, and engineer battalions; and the necessary supply troops. These troops were originally seen as the spearhead of the invasion of Britain, but that operation never took place.
The Germans next employed paratroops in their 1941 Balkan Campaign to capture the island of Crete. Student saw this as the forerunner of other more ambitious airborne operations. The largest airborne operation to that point in history, it involved 9,000 men and 530 Junkers Ju-52 transport aircraft flying from Greece. Thanks to Allied ultra intercepts, the defenders knew the drop zones in advance. Although by rushing in reinforcements the Germans were able to secure their objectives, they paid a heavy price. They sustained 6,700 casualties (3,000 killed) and lost some 200 transport aircraft in the operation. Student wanted to go on and try to take Malta, but Hitler refused. Crete was the graveyard of the German airborne forces; henceforth they fought as elite ground troops only, whose fighting abilities were recognized by all who met them in battle.
The Italians started early in their evaluation of airborne forces. Their first experiments occurred in 1927, when 9 men dropped on Cinisello airfield. Some 250 paratroops then began training and took part in a training drop at Gefara in Libya. A training center was set up at Tarquinia in central Italy, and in April 1941, Italian paratroops captured the island of Cephalonia, off the west coast of Greece. Although a small number of parachute troops continued thereafter, the planned Italian assault on Malta never took place, and Italian paratroops fought in a ground role for the rest of the war.
The Japanese began parachute training in 1940 with four training centers in the Japanese home islands. In autumn 1941, they were joined by about 100 German instructors, and soon there were nine training centers and 14,000–15,000 men under training. Both the Japanese army and navy had paratroops, all of whom were ready for operations at the start of the war.
Japanese army paratroops numbered about 6,000 men and were known as raiding units. They were divided into parachute and gliderborne units. Their first operation in February 1942 was to capture Menado airfield in the Celebes Islands. They then attacked the airfield and oil refineries at Palembang. Although the Japanese managed to capture the airfield, the refineries were destroyed before they could take them over. A week later the Japanese successfully struck Timor in coordination with seaborne troops.
Operations after this were mainly tactical, especially an assault on Leyte in December 1944. This attack was virtually a total failure. However, Allied intelligence summaries noted that the Japanese parachute troops were part of a well-organized, well-trained force that could have proved extremely effective had the emphasis in the Pacific war not been on manpower and ships to capture the many islands of this area.
MacDonald, Callum. The Lost Battle: Crete, 1940. New York: Free Press, 1963.; Otway, T. B. H. Airborne Forces. London: Imperial War Museum, 1990.; Whiting, Charles. Hunters from the Sky: The German Parachute Corps, 1940–1945. New York: Stein and Day, 1974.