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Airborne Operations During World War II

Published Monday, June 12, 2006 in World War II  | Print This Post Print This Post  | Email This Post Email This Post

Virtually all of what are called ‘revolutions in military affairs’ — armored warfare, strategic bombing, combined-arms tactics, submarine warfare, amphibious assault, aircraft carrier–based operations — appeared in one form or another during World War I. The only revolution that had yet to make its appearance by November 1918 was what is today termed airborne operations, although farsighted aviation advocate Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell had earlier proposed that infantry dropped by parachute could be used to attack German air bases in 1919, as a means to extend the damage that air power could inflict.

The war’s end brought such innovations to a halt, while the penurious decade that followed the conflict ensured that virtually nothing moved forward in terms of preparation for using aircraft to project military power beyond military lines. Only science fiction writers, and precious few of them, took up the possibility of dropping military formations behind enemy lines.

In the mid-1930s, two ambitious tyrannies, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, became interested in the possibilities that airborne operations might offer. As with their work in mechanized warfare, the Soviet interest in airborne operations bore fruit first. In 1935 the Soviets dropped large numbers of paratroopers during their annual maneuvers. Tragically for the Russian people, Josef Stalin’s brutal and megalomaniacal regime then proceeded to carry out a drastic purge of the Red Army’s officer corps — a savage bloodletting that all but ended early airborne warfare development and destroyed much of the Soviet Union’s military effectiveness.

The Nazis did not purge their officer corps. Instead, as a part of Germany’s massive military buildup, Adolf Hitler devoted significant resources to the creation of innovative new forms of the combined-arms approach to war. The Luftwaffe, under the ambitious Hermann Göring, took the development of airborne forces under its wing. Concomitantly, the army began developing supporting forces that could reinforce paratroopers by airlift and glider insertion once the airborne had established an aerial bridgehead.

With thorough and frightening effectiveness, by the late 1930s the Germans had developed a coherent doctrine for airborne operations, the trained troops to execute such operations and the equipment that would allow its paratroopers, or FallschirmjÄger, to carry out their missions once they had reached the ground. The Luftwaffe was able to supply the transport for airborne operations by transitioning its first bomber force, which largely consisted of Junkers Ju-52/3ms, into the transport force, as faster and more effective bombers such as the Heinkel He-111, Dornier Do-17 and the Junkers Ju-88 became available.

Nevertheless, the number of trained airborne troops and their supporting structure was relatively small — not much more than a reinforced regiment — when World War II broke out in September 1939. A portion of that force was used in the Polish campaign, but the German conquest was so rapid and overwhelming that relatively little attention focused on the use of paratroopers.

The German Experience
The first major use of Germany’s airborne forces came during Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Norway in spring 1940. The German navy was supposed to capture Oslo, but Norwegian reservists using old Krupp guns and shore-based torpedoes along the Oslo fiord managed to sink the brand-new heavy cruiser Blücher and stop the naval attack cold. The Luftwaffethen flew in a company of paratroopers to seize Oslo’s undefended airstrip. Over the course of the morning and early afternoon of April 9, the Germans flew in sufficient reinforcements to move into the capital in the afternoon, but by that time the government had fled, and Norwegian resistance went underground.

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