The Airborne in World War II: An Illustrated History of America's Paratroopers in Action

The Airborne in World War II: An Illustrated History of America's Paratroopers in Action

by Michael E. Haskew


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250124463
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 585,416
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 9.70(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

MICHAEL E. HASKEW is the editor of WWII History Magazine and the former editor of World War II Magazine. He is the author of a number of books, including The Sniper at War, Order of Battle, and The Marines in World War II.Haskew is also the editor of The World War II Desk Reference for the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. He lives in Hixson, Tennessee.

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In a matter of months, the U.S. Army's airborne forces grew from theoretical to a practical weapon of warfare, and their fighting prowess was soon proven during World War II.

First Lieutenant William T. Ryder was a pioneer. On August 16, 1940, after the heavy cargo door of the Douglas C-33 transport aircraft was wrested open and a blast of turbulent wind filled the plane's fuselage, Ryder leaped from the safety of the hold above Lawson Army Airfield near Fort Benning, Georgia, and became the first man to officially parachute from an aircraft while a soldier of the United States' Army.

Ryder, the commander of the Army's Parachute Test Platoon, authorized just six weeks earlier, was followed by 10 members of his command, including the first enlisted man to jump, Private William N. "Red" King. A sense of urgency accompanied Ryder's historic jump, a necessary step in the evolution of an American airborne force that was destined to write a uniquely heroic chapter during World War II, a conflict that was already raging in Europe while it seemed inevitable that the United States would eventually become a belligerent.

The Airborne Idea

Among the Army's senior officers, the notion that soldiers might descend from the sky in great numbers and assault objectives behind enemy lines in a "vertical envelopment" was nothing new. In fact, the idea had been put forth by the controversial Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell, who became famous between the world wars as an advocate of airpower. Mitchell was aware that the parachute was already in use during World War I. Balloons were prime targets for fighter planes, and when these menacing aircraft came into sight the observers quickly exited their baskets and floated to the ground. The French and Italians had also used parachutes to insert demolition teams behind German lines.

In the fall of 1918, Mitchell proposed an airborne operation to utilize British Handley Page and Italian Caproni bombers to transport troops of the 1st Infantry Division across the trenchlines of No-Man's Land, parachuting the soldiers in the vicinity of the fortress city of Metz, France, which was heavily defended by the Germans. Fighter planes would strafe enemy positions, suppressing their response as the parachutists descended, assembled, and then opened fire, paving the way for a ground offensive that would capture the city. The armistice that ended the Great War preempted Mitchell's operation; however, the idea had received more than passing consideration.

After World War I ended, Mitchell maintained his interest in airborne operations. He wrote of a meeting with General of the Armies John J. Pershing: "I proposed to him that in the spring of 1919, when I would have a great force of bombardment planes, he should assign one of the infantry divisions permanently to the air force, preferably the 1st Division; that we would arm the men with a great number of machine guns and train them to go over the front in our large airplanes, which would carry 10 or 15 soldiers. We could equip each man with a parachute, so when we desired to make a rear attack on the enemy, we could carry these men over the lines and drop them off. ..."

Interwar Malaise

During the interwar years, enthusiasm for the development of airborne forces, including parachute and glider formations, waned substantially within the U.S. Army. Although some research and experimentation took place during the late 1920s, airborne concepts lay dormant for another decade. In 1938, officers at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, conducted exercises and in-depth discussions that led to the development of an embryonic airborne doctrine. No doubt, the Americans were aware that other armies were already examining the viability of airborne forces.

Perhaps the greatest advancement in airborne doctrine during the 1920s and 1930s occurred in the Soviet Union. The first parachute unit of the Red Army, the Parashutno Desantniy Otriad (PDO), was authorized during the period in the Leningrad Military District under the command of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a strategic visionary better known as a proponent of the Deep Battle theory of combat. On August 2, 1930, Soviet airborne troops executed their first jump from 1,500 feet (460m) near the city of Voronezh. Five years later, 2,500 airborne troops parachuted and landed in gliders during military exercises.

German officers, including Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, observed these maneuvers with great interest. An inspired Göring facilitated the conversion of a police unit into the first airborne formation of the Nazi military machine and called for volunteers to populate the new force. In January 1936, a nucleus of 600 officers and soldiers formed the first German parachute and glider companies. Under the command of General Kurt Student, these troops came to be known as the Fallschirmjäger.

Amid the escalation of tensions with Japan in 1939, Soviet airborne troops were deployed to the Far East and fought as light infantry. The Soviets seized Bessarabia from Romania in the summer of 1940, and airborne units jumped unopposed to occupy their objectives during the brief operation. The outbreak of World War II focused global attention on the combat prowess of German airborne forces. The Luftwaffe executed the world's first large-scale airborne combat operations on April 9, 1940, during the conquest of Norway. Elements of a Fallschirmjäger battalion seized key airfields in the vicinity of the capital city of Oslo, enabling ground troops to complete a swift victory.

A month later, German glider troops stunned the world again with their lightning seizure of Fort Eben-Emael on the Belgian border with the Netherlands. Fort Eben-Emael was thought to be nearly impregnable; however, during the execution of Case Yellow, the invasion of France and the Low Countries, these elite troops leveraged the element of surprise, landing silently on and around the fortress and subduing its defenders in a mere 30 hours.

Emboldened by their early successes, German war planners determined that the Greek island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea could be seized rapidly in a combined operation. The vanguard of the Nazi onslaught was a 15,000-man airborne contingent that began parachuting in the vicinity of tactically important locations on the island on the morning of May 20, 1941. Although the Germans were eventually successful, casualties were alarmingly high among both men and precious Junkers Ju-52 transport aircraft, which fell victim to accurate ground fire from British and Commonwealth troops defending the island. Nearly 300 planes were lost, and estimates of German casualties approached 7,000. Many of the fallen were elite Fallschirmjäger. Hitler was taken aback by the cost and suspended further airborne operations.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was dazzled by the lightning-fast and highly effective German airborne operations in France and the Low Countries. His demand that a British airborne force of 5,000 men be equipped, trained, and ready for action by the end of 1940 spurred the formation of the airborne forces that later came to be known as the Parachute Regiment. From this grew the famed 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions that constituted the 1st Airborne Corps, which fought bravely in World War II.

Airborne Awareness

With interest in airborne doctrine and operations growing, the U.S. Army's command establishment closely observed the results of the German operations. The Americans were impressed — although they remained unaware of the extremely high casualties the Germans had sustained in Crete — and the Army's efforts to establish operational airborne units gained new impetus.

During the course of World War II, five airborne divisions — the 82nd, 101st, 11th, 13th, and 17th — were formed within the U.S. Army, along with several independent parachute battalions and regiments. The development of training, doctrine, and equipment to support such formations took place rapidly once the highest echelons of the Army's command structure committed to the effort. Four days after Lieutenant Ryder made his milestone jump in Georgia, General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, issued orders to begin formal staff studies into the components of an operational airborne command.

Ryder's 50-man test platoon made a larger platoon-sized jump on August 29, 1940. On September 16, the first unit of the U.S. Army specifically organized for airborne operations, the 501st Parachute Battalion, was activated at Fort Benning with a cadre of 34 officers and 412 enlisted men, all of them volunteers.

Leaping Bill Lee

For nine months, the 501st was the sole formation of its type; however, as the Army grew to nearly half a million personnel, another battalion, the 502nd, was authorized. By the end of 1941, the 503rd and 504th Battalions were also organized. In the summer of that year, the Provisional Parachute Group was established as the airborne administrative headquarters, and Lieutenant Colonel William C. Lee was given command.

The 46-year-old Lee was an ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) graduate of North Carolina State University and a World War I veteran. During the 1930s, he had seen German airborne exercises firsthand. Later, as a staff officer serving under General Lesley McNair, chief of Army Ground Forces, he remained captivated by the potential of airborne warfare.

One story, perhaps apocryphal, is recounted that, while still a major on McNair's staff, Lee shared an office with his superior officer, a colonel, and talked incessantly about airborne operations. The exasperated colonel once turned to him and said, "Major, I am sick and tired of hearing your nonsense about airborne warfare. No American soldier is ever going to have little enough sense to jump out of an airplane even in a parachute, and I don't want to hear the word 'airborne' spoken in this office again."

Some time later, the phone rang in the shared office, and a terse voice on the other end of the line asked bluntly, "What are you folks doing toward developing airborne warfare?" Lee handed the phone to the colonel, who then gave permission for Lee to speak freely with the caller, who had identified himself as a representative of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Soon enough, Lee was at the White House, briefing the president on what he had seen in Germany. From that time forward, Roosevelt was a staunch supporter of the Army's airborne initiative.

In succeeding years, Lee secured his place in Army history and became known as the "Father of the U.S. Airborne." One of his innovative contributions to the training of individual paratroopers was the installation of 250-foot (75-m) towers at the Fort Benning jump school, from which soldiers experienced a parachute-assisted free fall. Lee had seen such a tower hoisting customers aloft by cable and then dropping them by parachute during the 1939 World's Fair in New York and recognized their practical application in airborne training.

Problems with transport aircraft and coordination with ground units handicapped the development of airborne tactics during exercises and maneuvers in 1941. Still, higher-level planning continued. In direct response to the German

One of Lee's contributions was the installation of 250-foot (75-m) towers at the Fort Benning jump school.

conquest of Crete, the 550th Infantry Airborne Battalion, the first air-landing unit of the army, was formed in Panama in July. The first air-landing unit formed in the United States was the 88th Infantry Airborne Battalion, organized in September. Throughout the summer, directives were issued. Studies of glider transportation, the development of new transport and cargo planes, and the ability to deliver the unassembled 75mm-pack howitzer artillery piece to the battlefield were undertaken as planners considered the concept of an airborne combat team complete with medical personnel, an antitank company, field artillery, and an infantry battalion.

By early 1942, it was clear that the organization and staffing of an airborne command structure had outgrown the strategic and tactical capabilities of the Provisional Parachute Group. The three existing parachute battalions in the United States and the single battalion stationed in Panama were reorganized. The 501st Parachute Battalion became the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. On March 23, 1942, a dedicated Airborne Command was created, and Provisional Parachute Group personnel formed its headquarters with Colonel Lee as its first commander.

After the U.S. entered World War II on December 7, 1941, six airborne regiments were authorized. As the regimental organization was solidified, the structure would facilitate the activation of the first airborne divisions. Parachute infantry battalions were activated at Fort Benning, Georgia, Camp Toccoa, Georgia, and Camp Mackall, North Carolina. With the authorization of new airborne divisions, the strength of each battalion was augmented prior to incorporation into a parachute infantry regiment.

Originally an infantry division that had fought with distinction during World War I, the 82nd was reactivated on March 25, 1942, with Major General Omar Bradley, who later became commander of the XII Army Group in Europe during World War II, in command. On August 15, the unit was redesignated the 82nd Airborne Division. Major General Matthew B. Ridgway took command, and training began at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.

On the same day that the 82nd Airborne Division was created, the 101st Airborne Division was activated at Camp Claiborne. Originally formed as an infantry division in July 1918, the 101st did not see action during World War I. It was reformed in 1921, but existed primarily on paper for the next 20 years. In 1942, William C. Lee, now a major general, was placed in command. During the ceremonies that activated the unit, he told the assembled troops, "The 101st has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny."

The 11th Airborne Division was activated on February 25, 1943, at Camp Mackall. The 17th and 13th Airborne Divisions followed at Camp Mackall on April 15 and August 13, 1943, respectively. Each was originally assigned the same mix of parachute, glider, and support units.

Glider pilots received specialized training, and the first qualified group completed its course in June 1942. Three months later, the first glider infantry battalions were authorized. Unlike the parachute troops, glider infantrymen were not volunteers, and although parachutists initially received $50 per month hazardous duty or "jump" pay, glider pilots and troops, nicknamed "Glider Riders," were not compensated with such a pay increase until the summer of 1944.

Injuries and deaths occurred during parachute training. However, glider training was hazardous in its own right. During the 10 months from May 1943 to February 1944, a total of 162 men were injured and 17 killed in glider accidents.

Paratrooper Preparation

On May 20, 1942, the Army issued FM 30-31, matter-of-factly titled Basic Field Manual: Tactics and Techniques of Air-borne Troops. The handbook included information on everything from parachute packing to weapons, unit structure, and ground deployment. Parachute troops, it declared, were the "spearhead of a vertical envelopment or the advance guard element of air landing troops or other forces." In other words, the primary mission of airborne troops was to take control of landing areas and hold them until relieved by stronger forces brought in aboard gliders or other aircraft. Such a premise held sway until combat experience dictated a review. Released on October 9, 1943, Training Circular No. 113 asserted that airborne and troop carrier units were to come directly under the control of theater commanders until deployed. Once committed to an operation, they would devolve to the control of the senior officer in the area of deployment. These forces were to be utilized as an element of a combined effort, operating in close cooperation with other military assets.

The commitment of airborne forces was guided by several maxims. These included the following:

• The element of surprise must be present.

• Parachute troops should not be used for missions that can be performed by other troops.

• The decision to use parachute troops should be made well in advance of the scheduled date of the operation.

• A comprehensive knowledge of the terrain involved in the operation is essential.

• A long-range forecast of meteorological conditions should be carefully considered during the planning phase.


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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Training 6

Chapter 2 Operation Torch 28

Chapter 3 Sicily and Italy 48

Chapter 4 D-Day and Normandy 82

Chapter 5 Operation Market Garden 120

Chapter 6 The Battle of the Bulge 152

Chapter 7 Operation Varsity and Beyond 188

Chapter 8 Airborne Operations in the Pacific 214

Index 222

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