US Air Force Combat Control Teams - A Unique History
World War II spawned both the conventional and the special operations roots of US Air Force Combat Control Teams. Conventional roots sprouted in the European theater while, special operations heritage can be traced to the Pacific theater. In the European theater German paratroopers surprised the Allies with their effectiveness in April 1940 while invading Norway and Denmark. Shortly thereafter, they shocked the world with a victory in Crete.
The European Theatre
German paratroopers surprised the Allies by successfully supporting a seaborne invasion of Norway and Denmark in 1940. However, they shocked the world with their first stunning victory over the British on Crete
in 1941. This operation involved classic door kicking or the seizure of airports and port facilities as well as
the subsequent engagement of lightly armed airborne troops as conventional infantry against a well
equipped, well trained force five times its size. While this battle heralded the potential value of the use of airborne forces to the allies, it was catastrophic for the Germans;
about half of the paratroopers were casualties.
As a consequence, Hitler never used them in an airborne capacity for the rest of the war.
The Allies first major airborne assault took place in June 1943 when the 82nd Airborne Division jumped into battle near the city of Gela on the island of Sicily. Over 200 C-47s were involved in this first night mass tactical airdrop. Before the planes even approached the drop zone(s) they were mistaken for enemy and 10% of them were shot down by US Navy gunners. Poor visual references and 35 mph winds wreaked havoc with two battalions landing 30 miles off the DZ (drop zone) and a third 55 miles away!
Despite this lackluster drop score paratroopers were able to slow a German counterattack and gave seaborne forces time to gain a foothold at the beach-landing site.
General Gavin, Deputy Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, decreed that future paratroop operations must include some means of placing more personnel on the objective. Thus the Army Pathfinder was born. Specially trained troops would jump in and establish electronic and visual aids for the main assault force. The visual aids were burning buckets of gas-soaked sand and the Eureka radar beacon with its paltry ten-mile range filled the role of an electronic NAVAID. Despite the limits of their equipment, the DZ acquisition aids and the communications abilities of the pathfinders made an unbeatable combination. Where the pathfinders were used, subsequent parachuting operations were far more successful; where they weren't used, operations suffered. For example, during the Normandy invasion pathfinders jumped in 30 minutes prior to the main force and over 13,000 highly motivated paratroopers were able to effectively engage the Germans.
Many of the troops landed in dispersed geographical areas owing, in part, to the desire of relatively untrained aircrews to successfully complete their drops on target. Curiously, this led to confusion by the Germans who were unable to identify the locus of the airborne assaults. For the most part, however, the troops landed in close enough proximity to their planned DZs to successfully accomplish their assigned missions.
In sharp contrast to D-day, a smaller airborne operation was launched in the South of France in support of a sea-borne invasion but without the use of pathfinders. The results were similar to those in Sicily. In comparing the operations it was hard for senior service commanders to escape th conclusion that some means of providing navigational aides, marking drop zones and providing air traffic control to participating aircraft were critical to success.
Late in the war, troop-carrier squadrons developed gliderborne teams known as Combat Control Teams. The glider pilot and four enlisted technicians utilized a jeep and a trailer-mounted radio to pass critical information to the follow-on aircraft. Two Combat Control Teams infiltrated into Germany by glider with the 18th Airborne Corps during Operation Varsity. Following their infiltration, the teams were able to move rapidly to forward airfields where they supported resupply operations and provided airfield control.
"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."
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