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German airborne operations
an appraisal by German officers


The Germans carried out airborne operations on a large scale only twice in World War II; once in May 1940 in Holland, and again in May 1941 in connection with the occupation of Crete. Accordingly, German experiences are based in the main upon these two operations which took place during the first years of the war and which constituted the first large-scale airborne operations in the history of warfare. Although there were no other major airborne operations launched by the Germans, the German command, and in particular the parachute units which continued to be further improved during the course of the war, seriously concerned themselves with this problem. Two other cases are known in which plans and preparations for large-scale airborne operations progressed very far, namely, the intended commitment of parachute troops as part of the landing in England (Operation SEELOEWE) in 1904, and the preparations for the capture of the island of Malta in 1942. Neither of these plans was carried out.

The German airborne assault of Crete begins

Airborne operations on a smaller scale were carried out against the Greek island of Leros in 1943 and during the Ardennes offensive in 1944. The experience of minor operations such as these, as well as the trials, tests, and research done by the airborne troops during the war, are also discussed in this study.

The problems encountered in German airborne operations have been divided into three categories:

  • Planning airborne operations from the point of view of the higher command, designation of objectives for air lands, and cooperation with ground troops, the Luftwaffe, and the naval forces;

  • Actual execution of an airborne operation; the technique and tactics of landing troops from the air; and

  • Organization, equipment, and training.

In addition, a number of specific points and recommendations have been attached in the form of a appendix contributed by Col. Freiherr von der Heydte, who may be regarded as the most experienced field commander of German airborne troops.

In every air landing there are two separate phases. First the strip of terrain must be captured from the air; that is, an "airhead" must be established. This airhead may, or may not, include the objective. Second, the objective of the air landing must either be captured or held in ground battle. The second phase is similar in nature to conventional ground combat, if we disregard the method used to transport the troops and the factors of strength and supply which are influenced by the circumstances that all communication is by air. The first phase, however, has new and unique characteristics. Troops committed during the first phase require special equipment and special training. In limited engagements such troops can also carry out the missions connected with the second phase. For large-scale operations regular ground troops will have to be used in addition to special units. These ground troops need equipment modified to fit the conditions of air transport.

In recognition of these factors the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) had taken two steps even before the war. In the 7th Airborne Division of the Luftwaffe, a unit had been created whose mission it was to capture terrain by parachute jumps and landing troop-carrying gliders. An Army unit, the 22d Infantry Division, had been outfitted for transport by air and given the designation of "Air Landing Division."

Both of these units were committed during the first great air-landing attack in Holland in 1940, at which time the 22d Infantry Division had to be reinforced by elements of the 7th Airborne Division to capture the initial airhead. On the other hand, smaller missions, such ass that to capture Fort Eben Emael, were accomplished by troops of the 7th Airborne Division without assistance from other units. During the attack on Crete a year later, it was impossible for the airborne troops to achieve a victory alone. It was only when Army units transported by air had arrived that progress was made toward capturing the island. Since it had not been possible to transport the 22d Infantry Division to Greece in time, the 5th Mountain Division, already in Greece, had to be employed, a measure which proved to very successful. Preparations lasting approximately one month were sufficient to prepare the division for the new assignment. The special equipment of the mountain troops was suited both for transport by air and for commitment in the mountainous terrain of the island.

Principles of Employment

Junkers Ju 52

The airborne operations undertaken by the Germans during World War II may be classified in two groups, according to their purpose. In the first group, the attack took the form of sending an advance force by air to take important terrain features, pass obstacles, and hold the captured points until the attacking ground forces arrived.

This operation was aimed at a rigidly limited objective within the framework of a ground operation which was itself essentially limited. This was the case in the airborne operation in Holland in 1940 and, on a smaller scale, at Corinth in 1941 and during the Ardennes offensive in 1944. The common characteristic of all these operations is that they were limited to capturing the objectives and holding them until the ground forces arrived. Beyond that, there was no further action by the troops landed from the air, either in the form of large-scale attacks from the airhead or of independent airborne operations. At the time, such missions would have been far beyond the power of the troops committed.

In the second group are the operations having as their objective the capture of islands. On a large scale these included the capture of Crete in 1941; on a more limited scale these included the capture of Leros in 1943. Crete came closer to the concept of an independent operation, although the objective was strictly limited in space. The planned attack on Malta also belongs in this category. The experience of World War II shows that such missions are well within the means of airborne operations.

Two considerations influence the selection of the objective in airborne operations. The first is that in respect to their numbers, and also as far as their type, equipment, and training is concerned, the forces available must be fit for the task facing them. This is of course true of all tactical and strategic planning, but at the beginning of the war, because of a lack of practical experience, the manpower needs were greatly underestimated.

The second consideration-and this is especially important for airborne operations-is that at least temporary and local air superiority is an absolute necessity. This factor has a decisive influence upon the selection of the objective, at least as far as distance is concerned. The latter condition prevailed during the large-scale German airborne operations against Holland and Crete; but the first condition did not exist in equal measure, a fact which led to many crises. both were absent during the unsuccessful Ardennes offensive.

In preparing for an airborne operation the element of surprise must be maintained. In the operation against Holland surprise was easily achieved since it was the very first time that an airborne operation had ever been undertaken. Once the existence of special units for airborne operations and the methods of committing them had become known, surprise was possible only through careful selection of time and place for the attack, and of the way in which it was started. This requires strict secrecy regarding preparations. In the Crete operation such secrecy was lacking, and the grouping of parachute troops and transport squadrons became known to the enemy who had little doubt as to their objective. The result was that the German troops landing from the air on Crete came face to face with an enemy ready to defend himself; consequently, heavy losses were sustained.

[Field Marshal Kesselring's comments on the element of surprise: Airborne operations must always aim at surprise, which has become increasingly difficult but not impossible to achieve. Detection devices, for example radar equipment, can pick up air formations at a great distance and assure prompt countermeasures. Flights at very low altitude, such as were planned for the attack against Malta, are difficult to detect by means of such equipment. The effectiveness of these devises is neutralized by natural barriers in the terrain. Attention can be diverted by deception flights, and confusion is often caused by suddenly changing the course of the aircraft during approach runs, as well as by dropping dummies at various places behind the enemy front. Night operations increase the possibility of surprise,; in many cases this is also true fro the ensuing ground combat. It is impossible to overestimate the value of soundless glider approaches during twilight hours for the successful execution of air landings. It is easier to preserve secrecy in the assembly of airborne units than in concentrations prior to ground operations of the same size, since with proper organization the airborne troops can be assembled and attacks prepared deep in friendly territory within very short periods of time. Crete is the classic example of how this should *not* be done.]

Connected with the element of surprise is deception. A typical deceptive measure in airborne operations is the dropping of dummies by parachute. Both sides availed themselves of this measure during World War II. Experience shows that an alert enemy can soon recognize dummies for what they are. A mingling of dummies and real parachutist promises better result because it misleads the enemy as to the number of troops involved and leaves him guessing as to where the point of main effort of the attack is to be located and as to where only a diversionary attack is concerned. As an experiment, the German parachute troops also attempted to equip the dummies with smoke pots which would start smoking when they reached the ground, thus making it still harder for the enemy to see through the deception. This idea never advanced beyond the experimental stage.

Careful reconnaissance is also of special importance in airborne operations. The difficulty is that in airborne operations troops cannot, as in ground combat, conduct their own reconnaissance immediately in advance of the main body of troops. In attacking, their spearheads penetrate country that no reconnaissance patrol has ever trod. This is why reconnaissance will have to be carried out very carefully and well in advance. Military-geographical descriptions, aerial photography, reports from agents, and radio intelligence are sources of information. All this requires time. Before the Holland operation enough time was available, and it was utilized accordingly. Reconnaissance before the Crete attack was wholly inadequate and led to serious mistakes. For instance, enemy positions were described as artesian wells and the prison on the road from Alikaneos to Khania as "a British ration supply depot." Both the command and the troops had erroneous conceptions about the terrain in Crete, all of which could have been avoided if more careful reconnaissance had been made.

Several views were current among German airborne commanders as the best way of beginning an airborne operation. One method, which General Student recommended and called "oil spot tactics," consisted in creating a number of small airheads in the area to be attacked-at first without any definite point of main effort-and then expanding those airheads with continuous reinforcement until they finally ran together. These tactics were used in both Holland and Crete. General Meindl, on the contrary, was of the opinion that a strong point of main effort had to be built up from the very onset, just as was done in attacks made by the German panzer forces.

However, no German airborne operations were launched in accordance with this principle. Neither of the two views can be regarded as wholly right or wrong; which one will prove more advantageous will depend on the situation of one's own and the enemy's forces, terrain, and objective. Even in conventional ground combat an attack based on a point of main effort which has been determined in advance is in opposition to the Napoleonic method of "on s'engage partout et puis on voit" (one engages the enemy everywhere, than decided what to do). This implies, however, that a point of main effort will have to be built up eventually by committing the reserves retained for this purpose.

If the relatively strong forces required by this method are not available, it would be better to build up a point of main effort from the very beginning. On the other hand, since in airborne operations a thrust is made into terrain where the enemy situation is usually unknown, the "oil spot method" has a great deal in its favour. For example, it breaks up enemy countermeasures, as in the attack on Crete. During the initial attack there, parachute troops were distributed in a number of "oil spots;" there were heavy losses and no decisive successes. No further paratroopers were available and the decision was made to land the troop carriers of the 5th Mountain Division wherever an airfield was in German hands, even though it was still under enemy fire.

This was taking a great risk, but the plan succeeded from this point onward, the island was captured and the other "oil spots" liberated. At one time, the whole operation was within a hair's breadth of disaster because the airheads, which were too weak and too far apart, were being whittled down. After the decision to attack one point had been carried out and had succeeded, the remaining "oil spots" were useful since they prevented the enemy from moving his forces about freely. The advantages and dangers connected with this method are clear.

The unavoidable inference from the Crete operation is that commanders of airborne troops should land with the very first units so that clear directions for the battle can be given from the outset. The over-all command, however, must direct operations from the jump-off base and influence the outcome by making a timely decision as to where a point of main effort should be built up, and by proper commitment of reserves. For this purpose an efficient communication system and rapid reporting of the situation are necessary.

Since the actual fighting in airborne operations takes place on the ground and in general is conducted in close touch with other ground operations, it is advisable to have both airborne and ground operations under the same command. In the German airborne operations in Crete, the Luftwaffe was in command and neither the ground force commanders in Greece nor the OKH (Army High Command) had anything to do with the preparations; this is a mistake.

In airborne operations the air forces are responsible for keeping the air open for the approach and supply of the landing formations. They also aid in the operation by reconnaissance and by commitment of their tactical formations in preparing the landing and in supporting the troops which have landed. In this they must receive their orders from the command of the ground forces.

[Field Marshal Kesselring's comment on command for airborne operations: I do not agree with the statement about the conduct of airborne operations. These operations must be considered from the viewpoint of the Armed Forces High Command (OKW). The commander in chief of a theatre, for example the Eastern Theatre or the Southern Theatre, is also a joint forces commander with a joint staff. He is responsible for all airborne operations which are launched within his theatre. Hence, the commander of the airborne operation must also be subordinate to him. This commander will generally be an officer of the Air Force whose staff must be supplemented, according to the task assigned him, by Army and Navy officers as well as airborne officers. In some special cases and invariably in those cases where there is no direct connection with the ground and sea fronts, the OKW will plan the operation and conduct it directly.

German parachutes over Norway, their first operations theatre

The situation and the mission would probably be the decisive factors in making a decision about the chain of command. If the mission involves supporting a ground attack by means of an airborne operation directly behind the attack front, the army group will be given the over-all command, will assign missions, and will intervene whenever necessary for the purpose of air-ground coordination. As soon as the attacking ground troops establish an effective link-up with the airborne unit, the airborne troops will be brought into the normal chain of command of the attacking ground forces. Unit of command takes precedence over all other considerations. Until that time the airborne troops are commanded by their own unit commanders.

The highest ranking officer in the landing area commands at the airhead and is himself subordinate to the commander of the airborne operation-in the above case to the army group commander-who works in close coordination with the Air Force commander. In all other cases where, as in Holland, Crete, Oslo, there are no direct connections with operations of the Army or the Navy, a special headquarters, preferably commanded by an Air officer and staffed with Air Force personnel, should be placed in charge of the operations. In appropriate cases, it will be the Air Force commander concerned, especially if the tactical air support units for the airborne operation have to taken from his sector of the fighting front. This commander's responsibilities include not merely the landing of the first echelon but also the considerably harder problem of directing the following waves and modifying their landing orders in accordance with the development of the situation at the airhead. They also involve the preparatory bombing attack; protection by reconnaissance planes, bombers, and close-support aircraft aimed, I might say, at supporting the ground troops with high and low altitude attacks carried out by the extended arm of a flying artillery; the air transport of supplies; and finally the evacuation by air of casualties, glider pilots, and other specialists. The shortest possible chain of command is decisive for success.]

Mention has already been made of the fact that control of the air is an essential prerequisite for airborne operations. If that control is widespread and based upon maintaining the initiative in air combat, the air support of the airborne force will present few problems. Airborne operations based upon temporary and local air superiority are also possible, but they make strenuous demands upon the attacker's air force. Immediately before an operation, the enemy's forward fighter fields must be rendered useless, and all antiaircraft installations along the route selected for the flight must be neutralized. Enemy radar and communications facilities in the area should also be put out of action, and any enemy reserves near the projected airhead must be subjected to intensive bombardment. Such activity must begin so late that the enemy will have no time to bring in additional troops or to repair the damage.

Each airborne formation will require a fighter escort. From the point of view of air tactics, it will therefore be desirable to keep the number of formations or waves to a minimum. The primary mission of the escort will be to protect the troop-carrier aircraft against enemy fighter planes, especially during the landing and deployment of the troops for ground action. The neutralizing tactics already mentioned will have to be continued during and after the landing to insure the sage arrival of supplies and reinforcements. The troops on the ground will continue to require air support to take the place of artillery that would normally be supporting them.

Throughout World War II the German parachute troops had the benefit of close cooperation on the part of the Luftwaffe reconnaissance. The main problem was to see to it that the parachute troops received good aerial photographs and, if possible, stereoscopic pictures of the area they were to attack so that they could familiarize themselves in advance with the terrain. It proved to be advisable to distribute stereoscopic equipment down to battalion level and to send members of the parachute units to the aerial photography school of the Luftwaffe for special training in the use and interpretation of stereoscopic pictures. In this way, it was possible to offset to a certain degree the lack of terrain reconnaissance prior to an airborne attack.

Finally, the air forces support the airborne operation by attacking the enemy's ground forces. During the war all German airborne operations took place beyond the range of German artillery, and only in the case of the Ardennes offensive were parachute troops to be supported by longrange artillery bombardment. This plan was never put into operation because the radio equipment of the forward observer assigned to the parachute troops failed to function after the jump. Ground strafing and preparatory bombing of the landing area proved to be the best solution everywhere. Air attacks upon enemy reserves being rushed toward the airhead can be of decisive importance because of the extra time gained for the troops which have been landed. Opinions are divided, however regarding the value of direct air support of the troop fighting on the ground after their landing. On Crete, formations of the Luftwaffe's Von Richthofen Corps solved this problem in exemplary fashion.

Other experiences, however, would seem to indicate that it is impossible to support airborne troops, once they are locked in battle, by delivering accurate fire from the air or well-placed bombs. Lack of training and inadequate skill in air/ground cooperation may have disastrous effects. Systematic training, in which well-functioning radio communication from the ground to the air and coordination between formations on the ground and in the air are emphasized, should achieve results just as satisfactory as those achieved between armoured formations and air forces. It goes without saying that cooperation from the artillery, in so far as airborne operations are conducted within its range, is worth striving for, both in preparation of the landing and in support of the troops after they have landed. Attention may be drawn to the Allied airborne operation north of Wesel in March 1945 where British and American artillery support is said to have been extremely effective.

When airborne operations are effected on a beach, naval artillery takes the place of Army artillery. An increase in range made possible by the development of rockets will result in further possibilities for support.

When troops landed by air are joined by forces advancing on the ground, the airborne operations are conducted against islands and coast lines, junction with amphibious forces has the same effect. In World War II, accordingly, airborne operations were always conducted in coordination with ground or amphibious forces. How soon this junction with ground or amphibious forces will be effected depends upon the number of troops and volume of supplies, including weapons and equipment, ammunition, rations, and fuel, which can be moved up by air. This again depends upon the air transport available and upon control of the air to insure undisturbed operation of the airlift required for this purpose.

If such relief cannot be provided in time, the troops landed will be lost. So far, no way has been devised of fetching them back by air. In the German airborne operations of World War II, supplying troops by air over long periods of time was impossible, not only because control of the air could not be maintained, but also because of a lack of transport planes. In German doctrine, the guiding principle was that as much airlift was needed to re-supply a unit which had been landed by air with ammunition and weapons (excluding rations) for a single day of hard fighting as had been necessary for the transport of the unit to the drop point.

While this fighting does not take place at all times and be all elements at the same time, consideration must be given to the fact that in addition to supplies it will be necessary to bring up more troops to follow up initial successes and give impetus to the fighting. Eventually, the troops will need to be supplied with additional rations and, if they break out of their airheads, with fuel. In this field, too, postwar technical achievements offer new possibilities. During the war the Germans believed that junction of an airborne formation with ground troops had to be effected within two to three days after landing. On the basis of conditions prevailing in those days, these deadlines consistently proved to be accurate in practice.

airborne tactics

Three methods were used during World War II to land troops from the air at their place of commitment. Troops could be landed by parachute, by transport gliders released from tow planes, or by landing of transport planes. All three methods were used in varied combinations, depending upon the situation. In accordance with the lessons derived from World War II, the last method, for reasons which will be discussed later, is unsuitable for the initial capture of enemy territory from the air, that is, the creation of an airhead. Accordingly, only the commitment of paratroopers and gliderborne troops will be discussed here. (German experiences in the technique and tactics of these two methods are described in detail in the appendix.) The advantages and the disadvantages of the two methods will be compared here and conclusions drawn as to their future use.

Commitment of gliders has the great advantage that they land their whole load in one place. Since debarkation is a matter of seconds, the troops can bring their full fire and striking power to bear immediately after landing. The almost noiseless approach of the gliders, which have been released from the tow planes far from the objective, increases the element of surprise. Furthermore, diving gliders are able to make very accurate spot landings within a limited area. Glider troops are also able to open fire with aircraft armament upon an enemy ready to repulse them. German parachute troops were convinced that this would have an excellent effect on morale. In practice the method was used only once, so far as is known, and that was on a very small scale in July 1944 at Vassieux against the French maquis, but its success was outstanding. While the glider offers pronounced advantages during the first attack on an objective which is defended, in the subsequent phases of the airborne operation its advantages over the use of parachutes lie in the fact that it can deliver substantially greater loads, such as heavy weapons, guns, tanks, and trucks.

On the other hand, parachute jumps make it possible to drop very large numbers of troops at the same time within a certain area. Moreover, until the very last minute the commander can alter his selection of the drop point. He can accordingly adapt himself to changed conditions far more easily than is the case with gliders. The latter are released far from the objective and once this has been done there is no way of changing the landing area.

Dead German assault troops lie beside a crashed glider

On this basis it will be seen that the glider is particularly suited for the capture of specifically designated and locally defended objectives, such as Fort Eben Emael, while parachutists are more effective for the purpose of capturing larger areas. Among the German airborne troops a marked preference developed for a method in which an initial attack by gliders was quickly followed up by mass parachute jumps. This plan is not, however, universally applicable. In each case methods will have to be adapted to the situation, terrain, type of objective, and amount of resistance to be expected from the enemy; the commander of the parachute troops will have to make his decision within the framework of his mission.

[Field Marshal Kesselring's comments on the relative merits of parachute and glider landings:

The comparative advantages and disadvantages of parachute and glider landings are well described. Nevertheless, I maintain that at least the same concentration of forces can be achieved with a glider landing as with a parachute jump. Experience shows that parachute landings are very widely scattered, so that assembly takes considerable time. Gliders, according to their size, hold ten to twenty or even more men, who immediately constitute a unit ready for combat. If the landing area is fairly large-the condition of the terrain is of little importance-and if the unit is well trained, the assembly of strong fighting units in a small area will not present any difficulties.]

A weakness in the commitment of gliders is to be found in the fact that once they have been used they are immobilized on the ground and-at least on the basis of German progress by the end of the war-cannot be used twice during the same operation. The German conclusion was that transport planes had to be used as soon as possible. There is no doubt, however, that in time a way will be found to get the gliders back to their base, for example, by the addition of light engines, or the use of helicopters.

[Field Marshal Kesselring's comment on re-use of gliders:

The abandoning of gliders should not be considered a great disadvantage. Their construction is very simple and within the means of even a poor nation. Excessively complicated devices [for glider recovery] should be avoided. But this does not apply to the development of new types of air transport facilities, especially for peacetime and training requirements, which can perhaps also be used in particularly favourable military situations.]

It is important to clear the landing zone immediately so that more gliders can land in their turn. When large-scale glider landings in successive waves are to be made, special personnel will have to be provided for the purpose.

It must be mentioned in this connection that German gliders, patterned on those used in sport, had so-called "breaking points" (Sollbruchstellen), that is, joints of purposely weak construction, which would break first in crash landings or collisions with natural or artificial obstacles. This method brought about a substantial economy in construction of the gliders and simplification in procurement of spare parts and maintenance.

parachute troops

The necessity of having airborne units for the initial commitment during air landings has been recognized. In both Holland and Crete elements of Army units, in part by design and in part because of ignorance of the enemy or situated within situation, were landed from transport planes in territory still occupied by the sight of enemy artillery observers. This was recognized as a mistake resulting in serious losses. The only thing that saved the planes landing on the Maleme airfield in Crete from being completely destroyed by direct enemy fire was the fact that the ground was covered with dust as a result of drought and that the planes actually landed in clouds of dust.

German parachute troops waiting in an improvised airport in Norway

During the following war years, the parachute troops in Germany were steadily increased and improved. In accordance with the situation and the nature of their intended mission, the troops had to be trained for commitment either by parachute jumps or by transport gliders. The designation of "parachute troops" (Fallschirmtruppe) and "parachutists" (Fllschirmjaeger) given these units in Germany is accordingly not quite accurate. Fundamentally a major part of the German airborne force was suited for transport-glider commitment only, since the plans of training them as parachutists could not be carried out. In practice, the percentage of trained parachutists steadily decreased with the result that, as the war continued, these troops were almost exclusively used in ground combat. The Wehrmacht, because of the scarcity of manpower, found it impossible to keep these units in reserve for their special duties. It is evident that only the "rich man" can afford such forces, and that efforts must be made to withdraw these troops as soon as possible after each airborne commitment. Otherwise their value as special units will rapidly decrease, something very hard to remedy.

One fundamental lesson derived from the first air landing was that even the very first elements reaching the ground must be fully equipped for battle. The parachutists landing on Crete had nothing but their pistols and hand grenades, the remaining weapons and ammunitions being dropped separately in special containers. After the Crete operation this was changed. It was realized that both parachute and transport glider troops must reach the ground as combat units ready for action. They must have heavy weapons, and especially, tank-destroying weapons adapted to this type of transportation, as well as a suitable type of organization for even the smallest units, making it possible for each to fight independently. (Detailed information regarding the equipment of German parachute troops is contained in the appendix.) In order to capture a usable airhead for the air-transported units, the parachute troops, over and above the initial landing, must be able to capture airfields, or at least terrain suitable for landing air transports, and to push back the enemy far enough from these areas to avoid the necessity of landing within range of direct enemy gunfire. In other words, the parachute troops must be capable of attacks with a limited objective, and of holding the captured terrain. Consequently, the parachute divisions were equipped with all heavy weapons and artillery; and an airborne panzer corps was organized with one panzer and one motorized infantry division.

However, organization of these units never got beyond the initial activation as conventional ground troops, and all plans to use them for airborne landings remained in the theoretical stage. After the Crete operation no German parachute division was committed in airborne operations as a whole unit. The airborne panzer corps never even received adequate training. Only parts of the remaining parachute divisions, of which there were six in 1944 and ten or eleven at the end of the war in 194, were trained for airborne operations. General Student gives a total figure of 30,000 trained parachutists in the summer of 1944. Most of them were in the 1st and 2d Parachute Divisions, of whose personnel 50 and 30 percent respectively were trained parachutists. Commitment of the divisions in ground combat continually decreased these figures so that parachutists from all units had to be recruited for the airborne attack in the Ardennes offensive.

In the main, the training of these troops was inadequate. For instance, only about 20 percent of the parachutists committed in this action were capable of jumping fully equipped with weapons. This was a serious disadvantage because very few of the weapons containers dropped were recovered.

Accordingly, the Germans had no practical experience in large-scale commitment of parachutists with really modern equipment, nor was it possible to test the organization and equipment of such formations in actual combat.

Earlier German experience points to two important considerations. In the first place, the parachute troops will be in need of a supply service immediately after landing. On the basis of the Crete experience, it would seem advisable to incorporate service units in the first waves of parachutists. The greater the scale of the airborne operation, the more thought will have to be given to the matter of motorized supply vehicles. Today their transportation in transport gliders presents no technical difficulties. In the second place, in cases where the intention is to follow up initial jumps with the landing of great numbers of air-transported troops, engineer units will have to be assigned to the parachute troops at an early stage for the purpose of preparing and maintaining landing strips for transport planes.

Even though the German parachute troops lost their actual purpose in the last years of the war, they preserved their specific character in the organization of their personnel replacements. The operations actually carried out proved that the special missions assigned to parachute troops call for soldiers who are especially aggressive, physically fit, and mentally alert. In jumping, the paratrooper must not only conquer his own involuntary weakness but upon reaching the ground must be ready to act according to circumstances; he must not be afraid of close combat; he must be trained in the use of his own and the enemy's weapons; and, finally, his will to fight must not be impaired by the privations occasioned by such difficulties in supply as hunger, thirst, and shortage of weapons. For this reason, it is advisable for the parachute troops to take their replacements primarily from among men who have volunteered for such service. The excellent quality of the replacements which the German parachute troops were able to obtain until the very end explains why, even in ground combat, they were able to give an especially good account of themselves.

Good replacements, however, require careful training in many fields. Every paratrooper must be given thorough training in infantry methods, especially in close combat and commando tactics. This was shown to be necessary in all the operations undertaken. Only when the paratrooper proves from the outset to be superior to the attacking enemy can he be successful. Specialist training in the use of various arms and special techniques is essential. A mistake was made by the Germans in separating the initial jump training from the rest of the training program. Instead of becoming the daily bread of the paratrooper, jump practice accordingly evolved into a sort of "special art." All artificiality must be avoided in this branch of training.

Special emphasis must be placed on training officers for the parachute troops. One of the experiences derived from actual operation is that the officers must be past masters in the art of ground combat. The fact that the German parachute troops originated in the Luftwaffe caused a great many inadequacies in this respect. On the other hand, the parachute officer must have some knowledge of aviation, at least enough to be able to assess the possibilities of airborne operations.

There is no doubt that a sound and systematic training program for the parachute troops demands a great deal of time and that in the last years of the war the German parachute formations no longer had this time at their disposal. However, the time required for training, combined with the high standards set for the selection of replacements, acts as a deterrent to their commitment. The higher command will decide to make use of the troops only when all preconditions for a great success are at hand or when necessity forces it to do so. To commit these troops in regular ground combat is a waste. Commitment of parachute divisions in ground combat is justified only by the existence of an emergency. Once the divisions are committed as ground troops they lose their characteristic qualities as specialists.

air transported troops

The original German plan to use Army troops for this purpose and to equip and train them accordingly was abandoned early in the war. The 22d Infantry Division, which had been selected in peacetime for the purpose, participated in airborne operations only once, in Holland in 1940. It was found that their double equipment-one set for regular ground combat, the other for use in air-landing operations-constituted an obstacle; consideration for their special mission limited their employment for ground combat. When a fresh commitment in line with their special mission became a possibility in Crete, it was found impossible to bring them up in time. On the other hand, as early as the Norway campaign, mountain troops were flown for commitment at Narvik without much prior preparation. While in this case non-tactical transport by air was involved, the previously mentioned commitment in 1941 of the 5th Mountain Division in the airborne operation against Crete took place after only short preparation and was entirely successful.

On the basis of these experiences the idea of giving individual Army units special equipment for airborne operations was abandoned. The German High Command set about finding ways and means to adapt all Army units for transport by air with a minimum of changes in their equipment. The results were never put into practice because after Crete the Germans did not undertake any other airborne operations on a large scale. Crete, however, proved that the German mountain troops, because of their equipment and the training which they had received, as well as their combat methods, were particularly suited for missions of this nature. In the future the goal must be to find a way of committing not only mountain and infantry divisions but panzer and motorized formations in airborne operations. Their equipment and organization for this purpose will depend upon the evaluation of technical possibilities which cannot be discussed in detail here The chief demand which the military must make upon the technical experts is that the changes required for such commitment be kept to a minimum. A way must be found to determine the best method for such a change so that the troops can undertake it promptly at any time.

The lesson learned from German airborne operations in World War II was that air-transported troops can be committed only if the success of landing and unloading is guaranteed by a sufficiently large landing zone. These troops are not suited to the purpose of capturing an airhead. With the exception of the technical details concerned with their enplaning, these troops require no special training. The logical conclusion to be drawn from this lesson is that parachute troops, who capture the airhead, must be increased in number and supplied with more fire power.

troop carrier units

Pilot of a Ju-52 refuelling his airplane

Transporting troops by air to their area of commitment is more or less a matter of transportation alone and in an efficiently organized modern air force presents no difficulty at all. However, the approach flight and dropping of parachute troops is a part of the operation itself and determines its subsequent success or failure.

Transport squadrons-including both the transport planes for the parachutists and the tow planes for the gliders are to the parachute troops what horse teams are to the artillery and motor vehicles to the motorized forces. In each case correct tactical leadership for each mode of transport is a prerequisite for the correct commitment of the troops in time and space-consequently, they must be trained jointly. During commitment the transport squadrons must be subordinated to the parachute commanders, who must be trained to give orders to the transport squadrons in correct and systematic form. The ideal solution would undoubtedly be to incorporate the transport squadrons organically into the airborne forces, but this solution is expensive. Lack of sufficient materiel alone made it impracticable during World War II as far as the Wehrmacht was concerned.

A compromise solution would be close cooperation in peacetime training. The transport squadrons will have to be made available to the parachute units well in advance of an airborne operation since joint rehearsals are a prerequisite of success. This fact increases the amount of time needed for the preparation of an airborne operation and at the same time endangers the secrecy surrounding the undertaking, because such a grouping of units can give the enemy valuable leads regarding one's intentions.

The most important factor is the selection of the time and place of the jump and of the release of the gliders. This requires very precise orders and is subject to the decision of the commander of the parachutists. Again and again lack of care in this regard resulted in breakdowns during German airborne operations in World War II. Only twice did strict observance of this point result in smooth functioning-during the airborne operations to capture the Isthmus of Corinth in 1941, when the limited scope of the undertaking made it possible to commit transport squadrons having just finished thorough training in cooperation with parachutists; and during the capture of Fort Eben Emael in 1940, when the units participating in the operation had received joint training over an extended period.

The principle of subordinating the transport squadrons to the parachute commanders makes it imperative that the training of these commanders be extended to include flight training. In this connection mention must be made of the so-called pathfinder airplanes, whose mission in relation to airborne operations at night is described in the appendix. What has been said above also holds good for them. Their proper use is essential for success and demands, above all, skill in navigation in order to calculate timing accurately.

reasons for success and failure

In assessing the successes and failures of German airborne operations the following missions are taken into consideration: Holland, 1940; Corinth, 1941; Crete, 1941; Leros, 1943; and Ardennes, 1944. All other commitments of German airborne troops fall into the category of commando operations or of troop movements by air.

Holland, 1940.-On the whole, the airborne operations against Holland, in spite of a number of critical moments and relatively great losses, must be classified as successful. This success was connected not so much with achievement of the tactical objectives, such as the capture of a number of bridges which were important to the attacking ground forces, as with the morale influence exerted upon the enemy by a wholly new method of fighting. The very fact that in this way large forces could penetrate deep behind Dutch defences at the outset of the fighting undoubtedly broke the resistance of the Dutch and saved the German Army the cost of a serious fight in capturing Holland. Success is attributable mainly to the surprise provoked by this method, which was used for the first time in the history of warfare.

[Field Marshal Kesselring's comments on airborne operations in Holland:

This was the first airborne operation in history and should be treated in somewhat greater detail. The operation was under the overall direction of the commander of Second Air Force. The tactical commander was General Student. His headquarter was divided into a mobile forward echelon, headed by Student in person, and a stationary rear echelon, which was to assume special importance.

The operation was divided into the following parts:

1.An operation with gliders alone against Fort Eben Emael and the Maas bridge. With the capture of Fort Eben Emael, the enemy flanking actions against the Maas crossing were eliminated. The capture of the most important bridge guaranteed that the Maas River would be crossed according to plan and thus established the necessary conditions for the coordination of ground and air operations in Holland. The dawn missions succeeded surprisingly well.

2.A major airborne operation by two divisions to capture the Moordijk bridges, the Rotterdam airport, the city of Rotterdam, and the Dutch capital of The Hague and its airfields. Since the second part of the mission (22d Infantry Division-The Hague) was not successful the subsequent operations in the Dutch coastal area failed to take place.

The attempt at surprise was successful. Today one cannot even imagine the panic which was caused by rumours of the appearance of parachutists, supported by the dropping of dummies, etc. Nevertheless, the surrender of Rotterdam was the result of the bold actions of the parachutists and the air attack against the defended positions in Rotterdam. The operation had been organized by Student with the thoroughness characteristic of him. In fact, it had been a small military masterpiece, particularly with respect to the following:

a. The deployment of troops and troop-carrier formations among the only airfields near the border, just within range of the most distant objectives.

b. The incorporation of escort fighter wings in the transport movement, for which General Osterkamp can claim both the responsibility and the credit.

c. The coordination of the bomber escort attacks with the landing operations, which had been rendered even more difficult because the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe had ordered an attack against reported enemy naval vessels on the previous evening.

The success of the airborne operation with respect to its strategic effect is incontestable. The Dutch Theatre of Operations was practically eliminated. The failures and losses can be attributed to the following:

a. Interference with the plan of attack by the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, mentioned above.

b. The inadequate strength of parachutists in the air attack group of the 22d Infantry Division.

c. Defects in coordination between the 22d Infantry Division and the troop-carrier formations and inadequate training of both in the tactical doctrine for carrying out an airborne operation.

d. Technical defects in the signal communications system which made it difficult or impossible for the parachutists and transport formation to cooperate with the 22d Infantry Division and, similarly, hampered General Student in issuing orders to that division.

e. The command technique of General Student, who thought of himself as the commander of the Rotterdam operation and thus neglected liaison with the Second Air Force, especially during the most decisive hours.

However, all in all, the airborne operation proved successful as the first of its kind because essentially it was correctly organized and carried out with unparalleled verve. It taught us a great number of practical lessons, the application of which did not present any problems which were insurmountable from a technical or tactical point of view. It proved that an airborne operation needs its own command posts, both on the ground and in the air, as well as representation at a higher level.]

Corinth, 1941.-This was an operation on a limited scale undertaken by well-trained parachute troops and troop-carrier units. Resistance was limited. As far as execution of the operation is concerned, it may be rated as a complete success. The actual tactical success was limited to capture of the Isthmus of Corinth. The bridge over the Corinth Canal was destroyed by an explosion of undetermined origin, but makeshift repairs made it possible to use the bridge again that same day. If the attack had been made a few days earlier, the airborne operation, in the form of a vertical envelopment, could have been far more successful and large numbers of the British Expeditionary Force could have been cut off from access to their embarkation ports on the Peloponnesus. It is true, however, that resistance would have been greater in this case.

Crete, 1941.-The capture of the island of Crete was the most interesting and most eventful German airborne operation. The initial attack contained all the germs of failure. Only the fact that the defenders of the island limited themselves to purely defensive measures and did not immediately and energetically attack the landing troops saved the latter from destruction. Even though the situation was still obscure, the German command decided to commit its reserves (5th Mountain Division) in an all-out attack against the point which seemed to offer the greatest chances of success; the energetic, purposeful, and systematic commitment of these forces in an attack immediately after their landing changed the threatened failure into a success. A serious disadvantage for the attackers was British control of the sea at the beginning of the operation. Only after several days was it possible to break down this control to such an extent that somewhat insecure communications with the island were possible.

[Field Marshal Kesselring's comments on airborne operations in Crete:

I did not participate in the Crete operation, but later was frequently in Crete, and I have also talked with many parachute officers who were in action there.

The special characteristic of this operation was its improvisation. That the objective of the operation was achieved so quickly, in spite of all reverses, is the greatest tribute which can be paid to the fighting men and commanders engaged in it. Improvisation, however, should be avoided if possible, since the risk involved is too high in proportion to the number of men committed. But it is not true, as stated in this report, that "an airborne operation is ... time consuming ... and affords neither much freedom of manoeuvre nor a great deal of flexibility."

If the airborne troops have a suitable, permanent organization and if reconnaissance is begun early and carried out with all available means, there is no reason for assuming that an airborne operation cannot be carried out as swiftly as the situation demands. The art of command lies in thinking ahead. Applied to this particular problem, this means the prearrangement of an adequate, efficient ground organization, such as was available in the case of Crete, and the timely procurement of the necessary fuel, etc., via land or sea, which would also have been possible. Under ideal conditions, if permanent large-scale airborne formations had been available, this would have presented even fewer difficulties, since the combat troops would have been flown in by their own transport planes. One can easily conclude from this that a high degree of surprise might have been achieved under the assumed conditions. I repeat, because of the elements of danger inherent in airborne operations, improvisations can be resorted to only in exceptional cases and under particularly favourable conditions. Otherwise they should be rejected.

In this case it would have been advisable for the commander of the airborne operation and, if possible, the division commanders to have made a personal reconnaissance flight to inform themselves about terrain conditions and possible defence measures of the enemy, as a supplement to the study of photographs. The exceptionally unfavourable landing conditions should have induced them to land in a single area away from the occupied objectives with their effective defence fire, and then to capture the decisive points (airport and seaport) intact in a subsequent conventional infantry attack at the point of main effort. In doing this it would not have been necessary to abandon the use of surprise local glider landings directly into key points, the possession of which would have facilitated the main attack.] Leros, 1943.-This was an operation on a limited scale which, in spite of some inadequacies in execution, led to success within four days, mainly as a result of a favourable situation and coordination with landings from the sea.

Ardennes, 1944.-The airborne operations connected with the Ardennes offensive were definitely a failure. The force committed was far too small (only one battalion took part in the attack); the training of parachute troops and troop-carrier squadrons was inadequate; the Allies had superiority in the air; the weather was unfavourable; preparations and instructions were deficient; the attack by ground forces miscarried. In short, almost every prerequisite of success was lacking. Therefore, it would be wrong to use this operation as a basis for judging the possibilities of airborne operations.

At that time the Wehrmacht was so hopelessly inferior to the enemy in manpower and materiel that this operation can hardly be justified and is to be regarded only as a last desperate attempt to change the fortunes of war.

German landings after Crete

The airborne operation against Crete resulted in very serious losses which in percentage greatly exceeded those sustained by the Germans in previous World War II campaigns. The parachute troops were particularly affected. Since everything Germany possessed in the way of parachute troops had been committed in the attack on Crete and had been reduced in that campaign to about one-third of their original strength, too few qualified troops remained to carry out large-scale airborne operations at the beginning of the Russian campaign. Air transportation was also insufficient for future operations.

Furthermore, the German High Command had begun to doubt whether such operations would continue to pay-the Crete success had cost too much. The parachute troops themselves, however, recovered from the shock. Their rehabilitation was undertaken and lessons were drawn from the experience, so that a year later a similar undertaking against the island of Malta was energetically prepared. At this point, however, Hitler himself lost confidence in operations of this nature. He had come to the conclusion that only airborne operations which came as a complete surprise could lead to success.

After the airborne operations against Holland and Crete, he believed surprise attacks to be impossible and maintained that the day of successful airborne operations were over. The fact that the Cretan operations came so close to defeat strengthened his opinion. Moreover, the Malta operation would have to be prepared in Italy and launched from there. Prior experience with the Italians had proved that the enemy would be apprised in advance regarding every single detail of the preparations, so that even a partial surprise was impossible. Since Hitler had no confidence at all in the combat value of the troops, which with the exception of the German parachute troops were to be of Italian origin exclusively, he did not believe the undertaking could be successful and abandoned its execution.

The special circumstances prevailing at that time may have justified this particular decision, but the basic attitude in regard to airborne operations later turned out to be wrong According to General Student, Hitler and the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe were so thoroughly convinced that the day of successful airborne operations were over that they believed that not even the enemy would engage in any more large-scale preparations for airborne operations. When the attack by British and American paratroopers on Sicily proved the contrary, the Wehrmacht was itself no longer in a position to carry out large-scale airborne operation. The main essential, superiority in the air, was lacking.

The Luftwaffe, no longer a match for the Allied air forces, was unable to assemble enough planes to attain the necessary local superiority in the air and to maintain it for the time required; nor was the Luftwaffe able to make available sufficient transport space. It is true that airborne units were available, but because manpower was so scarce they were constantly being committed in ground operations. The special nature of their mission was retained only to the extent that they were transported by air to point that were threatened and that in some cases, as in Sicily, they were also dropped-by parachute. Aside from this, their training in their special field suffered from a lack of aircraft required for the purpose.

At the time of the Allied invasion of France the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe proposed to link up the planned counterattack with airborne operations in force. The OKW turned him down because first, the parachute troopers available were already fighting on the ground; second, their training was inadequate for such a purpose; and third, even if the needed troop carriers could be provided, the hopeless inferiority of the Luftwaffe made it impossible to achieve control of the air either in space or in time.

The lesson based upon German operations may then be summarized as follows: In airborne operations cheap successes cannot be achieved with weak force by mean of surprise and bluff. On the contrary, airborne operations which are to achieve success on a large scale require a great outlay of materiel, outstanding personnel, and time for training and preparation. Such operation are accordingly "expensive." From 1941 on Germany, in comparison to its enemies, was "poor".