The first airlift was primarily for liaison purposes, moving key personnel about. As aircraft capabilities grew, air transportation came to include the rapid delivery of logistical support for air and surface forces. Additionally, beginning during World War I, supplies were dropped to ground forces, and agents were inserted by parachute behind enemy lines. Airlift potential grew as aircraft capabilities for payload and range increased during the interwar years because of the development of enhanced bomber designs and improved transports produced for the rapidly growing commercial air transportation industry. Several military experiences illustrated the expanding potential of airlift, including the movement of ground units from North Africa to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, which was critical for the Nationalist side. Additionally, both Germany and the Soviet Union experimented with the use of parachute forces and gliders in airborne assaults and with the air-landing of combat forces and supplies to support rapid-offensive ground operations.
From the early phases of World War II, airlift played an important role—in a mission commonly referred to as tactical airlift—by providing routine and emergency logistical support for combat forces in all major theaters of operation. The importance of aerial logistical support for ground forces, tactical air forces, and naval forces in all theaters grew significantly during World War II. This support included the rapid movement of key personnel, delivery of critical equipment and supplies, movement of mail, and evacuation of wounded or ill personnel. The German military demonstrated the exceptional value of airlift during its rapid ground operations, especially in the Eastern Theater in the vast expanses of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union also used airlift to support its widely dispersed and often isolated and cut-off forces.
U.S. and British forces also relied heavily on airlift support, both in geographically remote locations—such as the China-Burma-India Theater and the southwest Pacific islands—and in support of mobile combat operations. The aerial resupply of China by flying over the Himalayas—"the Hump"—was a high point in large-scale airlift support operations during the war. U.S. and British airlift operations were also important in mobile operations in North Africa and Western Europe. In the drive across France, supplies delivered by British and American transports and bombers were especially important in helping ground forces and tactical air units continue offensive operations under the logistical constraints imposed by limited port facilities.
Tactical airlift also included the rapid movement and air landing of small units, delivery of airborne assault forces, and the rapid reinforcement or resupply of units in isolated locations or in dangerous combat situations. The Germans had a well-developed operational concept at the start of the war, demonstrating remarkable effectiveness in the early seizure from the air of key facilities during the Norwegian Campaign and in securing the fortress of Eben Emael in Belgium in the invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940. German landings in Crete the next year also demonstrated the value of aerial envelopment, as well as the inherent dangers and risks of such activities. Later, the Germans also employed aerial logistical support to supply their forces trapped in Stalingrad and under pressure in North Africa. However, these efforts had limited effect; the Germans' airlift capability was restricted and aircraft losses were high in these missions compared with the needs of the forces being supplied.
Soviet doctrinal concepts for airborne and air-landing support of offensive operations were well developed and openly demonstrated in exercises during the 1930s. However, the impact of early losses and German control of the air limited Soviet assault operations. Nonetheless, in the final campaign of the war, the Soviets conducted extensive air assault operations against Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea, often seizing airfields and key facilities.
In the Pacific Theater, the Japanese employed airborne forces early in the war. U.S. and British forces effectively used airborne landings in Burma and often supplied ground forces that were operating away from fixed supply lines. In the southwest Pacific, airborne assaults and aerial resupply efforts were very important for American operations in the widely dispersed islands of that theater. American and British forces conducted a series of increasingly sophisticated large airborne operations in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Southern France, Operation market-garden (the attempt to cross the Rhine at Arnhem), and Operation varsity (the final Rhine crossing). Some Allied bombers were also used in September 1944 in an attempt to supply the Polish Home Army in its uprising in Warsaw.
For special missions that supported covert and guerrilla operations, airlift resources were used to insert personnel, deliver supplies, and extract personnel from enemy-occupied territory. The Soviets conducted extensive operations in support of partisan activities in German-held territories. British and U.S. aircraft regularly worked with agents and local resistance organizations in occupied Europe, especially in France and the Balkans. Similar activities were conducted to support local guerrilla bands in the China-Burma-India Theater and observer operations in the Pacific islands. An additional innovative development was the use of helicopters for the first time in rescue roles.
The significant development of tactical airlift during the war was matched by the equally impressive growth of the use of long-distance aerial routes between theaters in a mission that has become known as intertheater airlift or strategic airlift. The long-distance airlift grew from the prewar commercial transportation systems, including the flying boat services in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Airlift allowed key personnel and critical supplies to be delivered in a timely fashion, especially compared with the time needed for surface travel on a global scale. The most extensive system was the U.S. airlift network that stretched from the continental United States to every theater of operations, covering all continents except Antarctica. During the early period of the war, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), in addition to absorbing airline operations under contract, developed its long-range delivery capability in the Ferrying Command. This organization delivered aircraft under the Lend-Lease program and developed operations for passengers and high-value freight.
In June 1942, the USAAF established the Air Transport Command, which had responsibility for all ferrying and air transportation activities to the combat theaters. The American air routes grew into a global web: routes included from the Northeast United States to Canada and across the North Atlantic to England and Europe (paralleled by British routes); to Canada and Alaska and on to the Aleutian Islands and to Soviet Siberia; from Southeast U.S. bases to Brazil and on to Africa and the Middle East, continuing on to the Soviet Union or India and China (the longest leg of the network); and from West Coast bases to Hawaii and on into the Pacific islands and Australia. These flights moved matériel and key personnel to all theaters and allowed the rapid return of wounded personnel and returning combat-experienced aircrew members, who became trainers for new flying personnel. Additionally, senior commanders and staff members were able quickly to visit theaters for on-the-scene assessments and conferences with the theater commanders and staffs. By the end of the war, the Air Transportation Command included approximately 210,000 military and 105,000 civilian personnel. The extensive global coverage provided routine and regular flights, as well as responsive emergency missions, over the entire system.
Air Transportation Command provided the foundation for the Military Air Transport Service, the long-range transport capability of the U.S. Air Force after the war. The evolution of airlift missions during World War II established the patterns of airlift for all major military forces in the postwar period.
Jerome V. Martin
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