Airborne forces are military units, usually light infantry, set up to be moved by aircraft and 'dropped' into battle. Thus they can be placed behind enemy lines, and have an ability to deploy almost anywhere with little warning. The formations are limited only by the number and size of their aircraft, so given enough capacity a huge force can appear "out of nowhere" in minutes, an action referred to as vertical envelopment.
Conversely, airborne forces typically lack the supplies and equipment for prolonged combat operations, and are therefore more suited for airhead operations than long-term occupation; furthermore, parachute operations are particularly sensitive to adverse weather conditions. Advances in helicopter technology since World War II have brought increased flexibility to the scope of airborne operations, and helicopters have largely replaced large-scale parachute operations, and (almost) completely replaced combat glider operations. However, due to the limited range of helicopters and the limited number of troops that can be transported by them many countries retain Paratroopers as a valuable strategic asset.
Airborne forces can be divided into three categories:
The basic premise of the Airborne is that they can arrive with such speed that a coherent defence cannot be mounted against them for some time. It is assumed that this tactical advantage cannot be sustained for very long, so effective Airborne missions require the rapid advance of ground based troops in support.
Airborne forces are generally composed of infantry and light, non-armored vehicles and guns. After the Korean war, vehicles light enough to be dropped by parachute were developed, including the US M113 and retired M551 Sheridan airborne tank. The Soviets developed the BMD-1 and BMD-3 fighting vehicles. Helicopters can also transport vehicles such as the German Wiesel AWC, LAV-25 and British CVR(T) series. The Stryker was specified to be air-capable, but is too large to be practical to be transported by C-130 Hercules, helicopter, or air dropped. Large transports can carry only small numbers of main battle tanks or heavier infantry fighting vehicles.
"Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, so that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?" -Benjamin Franklin, 1784
The first modern consideration of the use of what we now call a paratroop force dates back to 1918. Towards the end of World War I, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell suggested dropping elements of the United States 1st Infantry Division behind German lines near Metz. The operation was planned for February 1919 but the war ended before such an attack could be seriously planned. Mitchell conceived that US troops could be rapidly trained to utilise parachutes and drop from converted bombers and land near Metz thus causing disruption behind the enemy's lines in sychronistaion with a planned infantry offensive.
The first true paratroop drop was carried out by Italy in November 1927. Within a few years several battalions had been raised and were eventually formed into the two elite Folgore and Nembo divisions. Although these would later fight with distinction in World War II, the divisions were never used in a parachute drop. Men drawn from the Italian parachute forces were dropped in a special forces operation in North Africa in 1943 in an attempt to destroy the aircraft of the USAAF based there while they are still on the ground.
At about the same time the Soviet Union was also experimenting with the idea, planning to eventually drop entire units complete with vehicles including light tanks. To train enough experienced jumpers, parachute clubs were set up all over Russia with the aim of being able to transfer skilled members (or at least the men) into the armed forces if needed. Planning and organization progressed to the point that Corps-size drops were demonstrated to foreign observers, including the British Military Attache Archibald Wavell, in the Kiev military district maneuvers of 1935. By the late 1930s, the USSR possessed the largest Airborne forces in the world, but development stagnated prior to WW2 as a result of the Great Purge.
One of the observing parties, Germany, was particularly interested. In 1936, Major F W Immans was ordered to set up a parachute school at Stendal (Borstel), and was allocated a number of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft to train on. The military had already purchased large numbers of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft which were now modified (slightly) for use as paratroop transports in addition to their other duties. The first training class was known as "Ausbildungskommando Immans", They commenced the first course on May 3rd, 1936.
During the invasion of Norway and Denmark in Operation Weserübung the Luftwaffe dropped paratroopers on several locations. In Denmark a small unit was dropped on the Masnedøfort on the small island of Masnedø to seize the Storstrøm Bridge linking the islands of Falster and Zealand. A paratroop detachment was also dropped at the airfield of Aalborg which was crucial for the Luftwaffe for operations over Norway. In Norway a company of paratroopers was dropped at Oslo's undefended airstrip. Over the course of the morning and early afternoon of April 9 1940, the Germans flew in sufficient reinforcements to move into the capital in the afternoon, but by that time the Norwegian government had fled.
In the Battle of France, members of the Brandenburg Regiment were landed by Fieseler Fi 156 Storch light reconnaissance planes on the bridges immediately to the south of the 10th Panzer Division's route of march through the southern Ardennes. In Belgium a small group of German glider-borne troops landed on top of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael on the morning of May 10 1940 and disabled the majority of its artillery. The fort held on for another day before surrendering. This opened up Belgium to attack by German Army Group B.
Two simultaneous airborne operations were made during the invasion of the Netherlands. German paratroopers landed at three airfields near The Hague, hoping to seize the Dutch government. From one of these airfields they were driven out after the first wave of reinforcements brought in by Ju-52s, was annihilated by anti-aircraft fire and fierce resistance by some remaining Dutch defenders. As a result, numerous crashed and burning aircraft blocking the runway, prevented further reinforcements to land. This was one of the few occasions where an airfield captured by paratroops has been recaptured. The other two airfields were recaptured as well. Simultaneously the Germans dropped small packets of paratroopers to seize the crucial bridges that led directly across the Netherlands and into the heart of the country. They opened the way for the 9th Panzer Division. Within a day the Dutch position was hopeless. Nevertheless, Dutch forces inflicted high losses on the German transportation aircraft.
The Fallschirmjäger's greatest victory and greatest losses occurred during the Battle of Crete. The Ultra enabled the British to wait on each German drop zone, yet despite compromised secrecy, surviving German paratroops and airlanded mountain troops pushed the Commonwealth forces off the island in part by unexpected fire support from 75 mm guns. Seaborne reinforcements were destroyed by the Royal Navy. However, the losses were so great that Hitler forbade their use in such operations in the future. He felt that the main power of the paratroop was novelty, and now that the British had clearly figured out how to defend against them, there was no real point to using them any more.
There was one notable exception to this and that was the use of airborne forces in special operations. On September 12 1943, Otto Skorzeny led a daring glider-based assault on the Gran Sasso Hotel, high in the Apennines mountains, and rescued Benito Mussolini from house arrest with very few shots being fired.
A fundamental decision was whether to create small Airborne units to be used in coup-de-main type operations, or to organize entire Airborne Divisions for larger operations. Many of the early, successful Airborne operations were coups-de-main carried out by very small units. The Allies eventually formed two British and five US Airborne Divisions: the British 1st Airborne Division and 6th Airborne Division, and the US 11th Airborne Division, 13th Airborne Division, 17th Airborne Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and 101st Airborne Division. By 1944 the British Divisions were grouped in the 1st Airborne Corps under General Frederick Browning, while US Divisions in the ETO (the 17th, 82nd, and 101st) were organized into the XVIII Airborne Corps under Gen Matthew Ridgway. Both Corps fell under the First Allied Airborne Army under US General Lewis Brereton.
One week later, after repacking their own chutes, the battalion conducted their second combat jump on 15 November 1942 to secure the airfield at Youk-Les-Bains near the Tunisian border. From this base the battalion conducted combined operations with various French forces against the German Afrika Korps in Tunisia. One unit, the 3rd Regiment of Zouaves (French Algerian Infantry), awarded their own Regimental Crest as a gesture of respect to the American Paratroopers. This badge was awarded to the battalion commander on 15 November 1942 by the 3rd Zouaves' Regimental Commander, and is worn today by all members of the 509th Infantry.
The 1st Airlanding Brigade captured the Ponte Grande bridge south of Syracuse, and before the Germans' counterattack, the beach landings took place unopposed and the First Air Landing Brigade were relieved by the 8th Army as it swept inland and north towards Catania and Messina. For more details on this action see the article on The Staffordshire Regiment.
On July 13 1943, more than 112 aircraft and 16 gliders carrying 1,856 men, took off from North Africa. The British First Parachute Brigade's initial target was to capture the Primosole bridge and the high ground around it, providing a pathway for the 8th Army, but heavy anti-aircraft fire shot down many of the Dakotas before they reached their target. Only 295 officers and men were dropped close enough to carry out the assault on the bridge. They captured the bridge but the German 4th Parachute Brigade recaptured it. They held the high ground until relieved by the 8th Army, but the mission had been a failure.
The Allied commanders were forced to reassess the use of airborne forces after the many misdrops and the deadly friendly fire incident. Nevertheless, improved training and some tactical changes kept airborne units in the war, eventually in much-increased numbers.
In April 1945 Operation Herring, an Italian commando-style airborne drop aimed at disrupting German rear area communications and movement over key areas in Northern Italy, took place. Another operation, Operation Potato, was mounted by men drawn from the Folgore and Nembo divisions, operating with British equipment and under British command as No 1 Italian Special Air Service Regiment. The men dropped in small groups from American aircraft and carried out a successful railway sabotage operation in Northern Italy.
The Allies had learned better tactics and logistics from their earlier airborne drops, and these lessons were applied for the assaults along the Western Front.
US airborne forces dropped over 5000 airborne troops during this operation. They were called the "1st Airborne Task Force", composed of several unattached units, including the 509th and 551st PIBs and the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team.
Operation Market Garden of September 1944, involved 35,000 troops dropped up to behind the German front lines in an attempt to capture a series of bridges over the Maas, Waal and Rhine rivers, ultimately enabling the Allies to outflank German fortifications and penetrating into Germany. The operation was hastily planned and many key planning tasks were inadequately completed. Three complete airborne divisions executed Operation MARKET, the airborne phase. These were the British 1st Airborne Division, the US 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division, as well as the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. All three Divisions, as well as the Independent Brigade, were landed or dropped at various points along Highway 69, or "Hell's Highway", in order to create a "carpet" over which the British XXX Corps could rapidly advance in Operation GARDEN, the armored phase. It was a daylight assault, with little initial opposition, and most units achieved high accuracy on drop and landing zones. In the end, after strong German counter-attacks, the overall plan failed: the British 1st Airborne division was all but destroyed at Arnhem, and the final Rhine bridge remained in German hands.
Operation Varsity was a daylight assault conducted by two airborne Divisions, the British 6th Airborne Division and the American 17th Airborne Division, both of which formed a part of the US XVIII Airborne Corps. Conducted as a part of Operation Plunder, the operation took place on the 24th of March, 1945 in aid of the attempt by the British 21st Army Group to cross the Rhine river. Having learnt from the heavy casualties inflicted upon the airborne formations which took part in Operation Market-Garden, the two airborne divisions were dropped several thousand yards forward of friendly positions, and only some thirteen hours after Operation Plunder had begun and Allied ground forces had already crossed the Rhine. There was heavy resistance in some of the areas that the airborne troops landed in, with casualties actually statistically heavier than those incurred during Operation Market-Garden. The British historian Max Hastings has labelled the operation both costly and unnecessary, writing that 'Operation Varsity was a folly for which more than a thousand men paid for with their lives...'
In September 1943, in New Guinea, the U.S. 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment made a highly successful, unopposed drop at Nadzab, during the Salamaua-Lae campaign. This was the first Allied airborne assault in the Pacific Theater.
The U.S. 11th Airborne Division saw a great deal of action in the Philippines as a ground unit. The 511th Parachute Regiment, made the division's first jump near Tagaytay Ridge, 3 February 1945, meeting no resistance at the drop zone. The division also jumped to liberate 2,000 Allied civilians interned at Los Baños, 23 February 1945. The final operation of the Division was conducted on 23 June 1945, in conjunction with an advance by U.S. ground forces in northern Luzon. A task force from the 11th was formed and jumped on Camalaniugan Airfield, south of Aparri.
Rikusentai airborne troops were first dropped at the Battle of Menado, Celebes in January 1942, and then near Kupang, during the Timor campaign, in February 1942. Teishin made a jump at the Battle of Palembang, on Sumatra in February 1942. Japanese airborne units suffered heavy casualties during the Dutch East Indies campaign, and were rarely used as parachute troops afterwards.
On 6 December 1944, a 750-strong detachment from Teishin Shudan ("Raiding Division") and the Giretsu special forces unit, attacked U.S. airbases in the Burauen area on Leyte, in The Philippines. The force destroyed some planes and inflicted casualties, but was wiped out.
Japan built a combat strike force of 825 gliders but never committed it to battle.
Source for the Vyaz'ma Operation: The Soviet Military Encyclopedic Dictionary (1983), p. 174.
Russia pioneered the development of combat gliders, but used them only for cargo during the war.
The 187th served in six campaigns in Korea. Shortly after the war the 187th ARCT was considered for use in an Airborne drop to relieve the surrounded French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam but the United States, at that time, decided not to send its troops into the combat zone.
The unit was assigned to the reactivated 101st Airborne Division and subsequently inactivated as a combat team in 1956 as part of the division's reorganization into the Pentomic structure, which featured battle groups in place of regiments and battalions. The 1st and 3rd Battalions, 187th Infantry, bearing the lineages of the former Co A and Co C, 187AIR, are now with the 101st Airborne Division as Air Assault units.
Israeli paratroopers led by Ariel Sharon dropped into the important Mitla Pass to cut off and engage Egyptian forces. This was the IDF's first and only combat parachute operation in its entire history up to present day.
In 1963, in the Battle of Ap Bac, ARVN forces delivered airborne troops by helicopter and air drop. The use of helicopter-borne airmobile troops by the United States in Vietnam was widespread, and became an iconic image featuring in newsreels and movies about the conflict.
In February 1967 Operation Junction City was launched, it would be the largest operation the Coalition Force would assemble. During this operation, 845 members of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), the 319th Artillery (Airborne), and elements of H&H company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade made the only combat jump in Vietnam.
The Soviet Union maintained the world's largest airborne force during the Cold War, consisting of seven airborne divisions and a training division. The VDV was a semi-independent branch of the army and was a 'prestige service' for Russia. Recruits were almost exclusively Slavic, and received much more rigorous training than ordinary Soviet units. Although a light infantry force, the paratroops were the recipients of several pieces of specifically-designed equipment, such as the BMD-1, AKS-74 and ASU-85 self-propelled gun. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it was the VDV who spearheaded the assault. As an elite force, the VDV developed two distinctive items of clothing: the telnyashka, or striped shirt, and the famous blue beret.
Airborne assault (воздушно-штурмовые войска) units wore similar striped shirts (as did the naval infantry) but used helicopters, not the Military Transport Aviation's IL-76's, AN-12's, and AN-22's, which carried the Airborne Troops and their equipment. The airborne assault forces thus had tactical missions.
With the advantages of helicopter use, airborne forces have dwindled in numbers in recent years. Their strategic capabilities have ensured that Airborne forces are still a part of armies today with the 82nd Airborne Division and Russian Airborne forces being the largest formation of paratroopers in the world.
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