If Chaos Reigns: The Near-Disaster and Ultimate Triumph of the Allied Airborne Forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944by Flint Whitlock
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“Gentlemen, do not be daunted if chaos reigns; it undoubtedly will.” So said Brigadier S. James Hill, commanding officer of the British 3rd Parachute Brigade, in an address to his troops shortly before the launching of Operation Overlord—the D-Day invasion of Normandy. No more prophetic words were ever spoken, for chaos indeed reigned on that day, and many more that followed. Much has been written about the Allied invasion of France, but award-winning military historian Flint Whitlock has put together a unique package—the first history of the assault that concentrates exclusively on the activities of the American, British, and Canadian airborne forces that descended upon Normandy in the dark, pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944. Landing into the midst of the unknown, the airborne troops found themselves fighting for their lives on every side in the very jaws of the German defenses, while striving to seize their own key objectives in advance of their seaborne comrades to come. Whitlock details the formation, recruitment, training, and deployment of the Allies’ parachute and glider troops. First-person accounts by veterans who were there—from paratroopers to glidermen to the pilots who flew them into the battle, as well as the commanders (Eisenhower, Taylor, Ridgway, Gavin, and more)—make for compelling, “you-are-there” reading. If Chaos Reigns is a fitting tribute to the men who rode the wind into battle and managed to pull victory out of confusion, chaos, and almost certain defeat.
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If Chaos Reigns
The Near-Disaster and Ultimate Triumph of the Allied Airborne Forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944
By Flint Whitlock
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 2011 Flint Whitlock
All rights reserved.
THE GERMANS' BRILLIANT IDEA
"The 'G' stands for 'Guts.'"
A prime mover of the idea of airborne forces was Luftwaffe Generaloberst Kurt Student, generally acknowledged as one of Germany's most innovative generals. Born on 12 May 1890 in Neumarck, Bran denburg, Prussia, he grew to exemplify, in the words of an English biographer, "some of the best characteristics of the German professional soldier.... German airborne forces were almost the unique creation of this one man and were largely sustained by his continuing determination and drive."
At eleven years of age, knowing that he would be unable to pursue his dream of a medical career due to limited family resources, he entered the Royal Prussian Military Academy School at Potsdam, and then went on to the Hauptkadettenanstalt (Main Military Academy) at Lichterfelde, near Berlin. In March 1910, he was commissioned an ensign in a Prussian unit, the Regiment Graf Yorck von Wartenburg. Shortly thereafter, he began taking flying lessons and, in 1916, found himself an aviator in command of a fighter squadron. Although badly wounded in the head during aerial combat in October 1917, he recovered and was allowed to remain in the service, despite the downsizing of the German military man-dated by the Treaty of Versailles.
Although the Treaty proscribed a German air force, the Germans nevertheless continued to secretly develop fliers, aircraft (including gliders), and doctrine during the interwar years. And, after Hitler gained the office of Chancellor in January 1933, Student was named Director of Technical Training Schools for the air arm, which had been detached from the War Ministry and was now a part of the Minister of Aviation, headed by a Great War ace, Hermann Göring.
As Nazi Germany moved ever closer to another war, Student was heavily involved in the development of various aircraft and flying equipment, including the parachute. In early 1938, he was given command of Fliegerdivision 7 (7th Air Division) and, after watching a demonstration of several thousand Soviet parachutists, became intrigued with the idea of delivering infantry troops to the battlefield by parachute.
The conservative generals in the German High Command were slow to warm to the idea of airborne warriors, but Student pressed ahead. Finally persuaded, the High Command turned the 7th Flieger Division into a paratroop unit and a new division, the 22nd, into an air-landed (glider) division. Meanwhile, at a Darmstadt experimental station, Student championed the design and development of a nine-passenger military glider (the DFS 230)—the largest glider that could be towed aloft by a Junkers Ju 52/3—and began thinking of new ways to turn the skyborne soldiers into a potent battle force.
But there was little in the way of history to tell Student and his staff how to recruit, train, and employ parachute and glider troops. Everything about the fledgling airborne and glider forces had to be created "on the fly"—from formation flying (to prevent parachutists from being struck by following aircraft) to how the paratroops should exit a plane (a news-reel of the day showed Soviet paratroops crawling out onto the wing of an aircraft and leaping into space). Although never a rabid follower of Hitler or the Nazi regime, the dedicated and driven Student did his best simply because of his devotion to Germany.
Student's hard work paid off. On 12 March 1938, during the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria, the Germans used paratroops to secure the perimeter of the airfield at Wagram, northeast of Vienna. This was quickly followed by a battalion of troops brought in by thirty-seven transport planes, while other planes delivered artillery, ammunition, and equipment. This dramatic action demonstrated to the German High Command that the effective employment of lightly equipped airborne troops to seize an objective until better-equipped follow-on troops could arrive was feasible.
THE CONCEPT OF using a parachute to allow oneself to land safely after dropping from a great height is not new. A Frenchman, Louis-Sebastien Lenormand, is credited with jumping out of a tree while holding two parasols to slow his fall in 1783 (no word on whether or not they did the trick). Two years later, another Frenchman, Jean Pierre Blanchard, reportedly was the first to make a parachute out of silk and jump successfully from a balloon. The names of those who jumped unsuccessfully have been lost to history, but many intrepid balloonists thereafter also used these last-ditch safety devices when hotair ascents were all the rage–and very dangerous for the basket-borne occupants.
These initial jumps seemed to be for fun and recreation, but some people were beginning to think of this new device in military terms. In the year between Lenormand's parasol jump and Blanchard's silk-assisted leap, the inventive Benjamin Franklin mused after watching the Mongolfier Brothers demonstrate one of their balloons: "Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defence, 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?"
Nor are gliders a recent invention. Leonardo da Vinci made sketches and scale models of flying devices in the 15th century that resembled later gliders. In 1799, the Englishman Sir George Cayley devised a flying contraption with fixed wings and "flappers" that provided thrust and a movable tail that allowed for control. Then came a host of experimenters: Otto Lilienthal in Germany, Percy Pilcher in Britain, Lawrence Hargrave in Australia, and John Montgomery and Octave Chanute in America. Before they mastered the intricacies of powered flight, the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, designed and built numerous fullscale gliders. In fact, the craft that briefly lifted off the sands at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 was little more than a wood-and-fabric glider with an engine bolted to it.
During the First World War, balloons were frequently used to get a high-angle view of enemy lines—a fact which often brought swarms of enemy aircraft shooting at them; the balloonists had no option but to employ parachutes as a way of escaping a fiery death. Winston S. Churchill, then Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, had the idea of air dropping saboteurs behind enemy lines to knock out bridges, factories, and communications. At the same time, the American Colonel "Billy" Mitchell was working on a plan to drop troops by parachute from a British bomber onto the German-held city of Metz. Had it not been for the signing of the Armistice, Mitchell's plan likely would have proceeded.
Military minds continued to be intrigued by aerial transport and parachute operations during the interwar years. The United States was one of the earliest nations to experiment with the idea of moving troops by aircraft, although the possibility of dropping them en masse by parachute had not yet occurred to the War Department. In 1931, a group of soldiers from an artillery battery were flown ninety miles across Panama, but there was no parachute jump at the end. The following year, during Army maneuvers in Delaware, a small detachment was again moved by air to a landing field behind "enemy" lines.
The Russians were particularly keen on the airborne idea and during maneuvers in 1927, eight Soviet soldiers took part in the first "mass" parachute training jump in military history. Inspired by the success of this demonstration, Stalin had several thousand paratroops trained by the mid-1930s, calling them "locust warriors." In 1936, two battalions of troops, along with 150 machine guns and 16 light field guns, were airdropped into a field near Kiev. As Canadian military historian Brian Nolan wrote about the event, "For centuries, practitioners of the art of war dreamt, designed, and launched any number of manoeuvres to outflank their enemies. Now, by arranging one swoop from the sky, a general could place an attacking force anywhere he desired, adhering to Napoleon's maxim: if you can outflank the enemy, you will surely derange and confuse him."
That September, the Soviets did it again, this time dropping 5,200 paratroopers at once. While military observers from various countries may have been impressed, it was Kurt Student and the Germans who most took the demonstration—and the lesson—to heart. Despite the fact that the Soviets used airborne troops extensively in their 1939 invasion of Finland, they suffered high casualties. The French, too, organized a battalion of paratroops in 1939, but it was disbanded before war came.
As late as the fall of 1939, the United States still had not taken any steps toward military parachuting. But with England and France now at war with Germany, thinking began to roll in that direction. A meeting of the Chiefs of Infantry, Engineers, and Air Corps to decide which arm of service would be responsible for a contemplated detachment of "air infantry" was held; it was decided that the training and control of this new corps would be the responsibility of the Chief of Infantry. On 25 April 1940, just two weeks after Germany's invasion of Norway, the War Department granted approval for the Army to form a "test platoon" of parachutists at Fort Benning, Georgia, under the supervision of the commandant of the Infantry School. Major William C. "Bill" Lee, a World War I combat veteran, appointed twenty-seven-year-old First Lieutenant William T. Ryder, who had been studying and writing about paratroops for some time, platoon commander.
Like the Pony Express in the previous century, which advertised for "orphans" because the job was so dangerous, Ryder filled his ranks only with unmarried volunteers. Forty-eight bachelors of the 29th Infantry Regiment were selected to form the basis of a parachute test platoon. Once Ryder had his group, he whipped his men into superb physical condition. Soon the daily three-mile runs in the punishing Georgia heat and humidity turned into five-mile runs. To harden them for the shock of landing, Ryder had them jump from the backs of moving trucks. To enforce discipline, he and his NCOs punished every mistake, no matter how minor, with push-ups. To accustom them to heights, Ryder had the volunteers jump from towers—short platforms at first, graduating to increasingly higher ones, to finally dropping from a 250-foot steel tower modeled after one designed for wire-controlled parachute drops at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The men learned to pack their own parachutes, then do it again while blindfolded. Soldiers who couldn't stand heights or the grueling training regimen dropped out, replaced by others who wanted the glory of being paratroopers, even though the United States was not yet officially at war.
Then it came time for the test platoon to jump from an actual airplane, an obsolete C-39 (an amalgamation of a DC-2, DC-3, and B-18). On 15 August 1940, the men of the test platoon watched as a 150-pound dummy was thrown from a plane to simulate a parachute drop. Its parachute failed to open and the dummy smashed to the ground fifty feet in front of them. With this portentous event fresh in their minds, the next day the test platoon stood in ranks at Fort Benning's Lawson Army Airfield. Ryder, wearing a one-piece Army Air Corps twill coverall, a plastic Riddell football helmet, and brown, shin-high boots, told his men that he would make the first live jump. The aircraft would then return, gather eight enlisted paratroopers drawn by lots, and go back up.
The lieutenant and the jumpmaster, Warrant Officer Harry "Tug" Wilson—the Army Air Corps' most experienced parachute jumper at that time—took off. As the C-39 passed over the drop zone (DZ) at an altitude of 1,500 feet, Ryder crouched in the open doorway and looked at the ruddy Georgian landscape below him. On Ryder's back was a T-4 parachute pack containing a precisely folded, twenty-eight-foot diameter silk parachute that was attached to a static line that was, in turn, connected to an overhead steel cable running the length of the plane's interior. On his chest, attached to his main harness, Ryder had a rectangular bundle containing a smaller, twenty-two-foot reserve chute.
As the plane approached the drop zone, the pilot throttled back to ninety miles per hour. Jumpmaster Wilson leaned out and saw the red panels marking the forward edge of the drop zone, slapped Ryder sharply on the left leg, and then the lieutenant took a leap of faith into space. Two seconds later, he felt the jolt of the parachute's opening shock. After about a minute's descent, he landed safely and rolled forward in what in training is called a "PLF"—parachute landing fall. Lieutenant William Ryder had just made history by becoming the U.S. Army's first parachuting officer.
The plane returned to Lawson field and the eight selected enlisted men boarded, then the C-39 took off. Ryder later wrote: "Although Tug was Jumpmaster, I wanted to be at the door with him as each man made his first jump. This would not only give me the chance to observe closely each man's reactions and performance, but somehow it seemed proper and fitting to do so. As we climbed and circled for the next jumper, I conveyed to the men as best I could, the elation, satisfaction and confidence I'd experienced from my jump.... I joined Tug by the door and, with eager anticipation, awaited the historic occasions of the first enlisted man's qualifying parachute jump." That enlisted man was Private William "Red" King. His jump, like Ryder's, was a success.
After the first eight men jumped, it was the rest of the platoon's turn. On that first jump, the name of the Apache Indian chief Geronimo became associated with American paratroopers. How this came about is a curious story. It seems that a member of the test platoon, Private Aubrey Eberhardt, a 6'3" farmboy from Georgia, having just seen the Paramount Western Geronimo at the post theater the night before, was asked by his buddies if he were fearful of the next day's jump. The twenty-four-year-old Eberhardt scoffed at any suggestion that he might be scared and, to prove it, told his companions that he would yell "Geronimo!" when he departed the aircraft the next day rather than the counting of "One thousand! Two thousand! Three thousand!" that the unit had been taught as a way of timing to see if their main chutes had opened.
As he dropped, Eberhardt was true to his word, repeatedly yelling "Geronimo!" all the way to the ground. Soon the others in the platoon followed his lead and the shout caught on. As the test platoon grew into a battalion (the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion, activated on 2 October 1940) and the battalion into a regiment (the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, activated 15 November 1942 at Camp Toccoa, Georgia), the tradition was continued. The name Geronimo even appeared on the soldiers' uniforms and became the unit's motto.
As Ed Howard noted in his treatise on the tradition, "The cry also found its role in the civilian sector, introduced to the public by the intense media coverage of America's shock troops—the paratroopers. The Geronimo cry had entered the public mainstream, and to the public, Geronimo was a novel expression of bravery, carried by the equally new type of warrior—the paratrooper. It is no wonder the shout caught the attention of America, as it went hand in hand with the larger-than-life paratrooper. To the red-blooded American boy, the jump cry of the paratrooper seemed like just the thing to say for his equivalent event. What did little Johnny shout when he jumped from great heights such as the top bunk? 'Geronimo!' Across America the cry would be identified with a subsequent act of bravery, usually followed by pain!"
During the next six weeks, the platoon averaged one jump per week, either mass or individual, varying in heights from 750 to 1,500 feet. By September 1940, all the test platoon members had made five jumps—a number that became the standard to qualify for a parachutist's badge.
EVER THE MILITARY thinker (it was he who conceived the idea of tracked, armored fighting vehicles—"tanks"—in the First World War), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill realized that, with the introduction of gliders and paratroops, the Germans possessed a revolutionary new weapon that threw the old concepts of land warfare right out the window.
Excerpted from If Chaos Reigns by Flint Whitlock. Copyright © 2011 Flint Whitlock. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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Meet the Author
Author and military historian Flint Whitlock graduated from the Army’s Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in 1965 and spent five years on active duty, including a combat tour in Vietnam. He is the author of nine books, six of which are about World War II, and is currently the editor of WWII Quarterly. He has appeared in documentaries on the History Channel and on the television series War Stories with Oliver North. He now lives in Denver, Colorado.
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very well written book, easy to read and keeps your interest. Appears well researched! recommended for everyone, especially military buffs,etc.