Airborne forces

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U.S. paratroopers jump into Australia on a military training exercise.


Military parachuting form of insertion.


Delivering personnel, equipment, or supplies.


Attributed to Italian troops on November 1927.

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Basic Parachutist Badge given by the United States Army to those who complete Airborne School.

Airborne forces are military units set up to be moved by aircraft and dropped into battle. Thus they can be placed behind enemy lines, and have an ability to deploy almost anywhere with little warning. The formations are limited only by the number and size of their aircraft, so given enough capacity a huge force can appear "out of nowhere" in minutes, an action referred to as vertical envelopment.

Conversely, airborne forces typically lack the supplies and equipment for prolonged combat operations, and are therefore more suited for spearhead operations than long-term occupation; furthermore, parachute operations are particularly sensitive to adverse weather conditions. Advances in helicopter technology since World War II have brought increased flexibility to the scope of airborne operations, and helicopters have largely replaced large-scale parachute operations. Paratroopers are nonetheless retained by many armies.


General information

Airborne forces can be divided into three categories:

The basic premise of the Airborne is that they can arrive with such speed that a coherent defence cannot be mounted against them for some time. It is assumed that this tactical advantage cannot be sustained for very long, so effective Airborne missions require the rapid advance of ground based troops in support.


The idea of "Sky Soliders" is by no means a recent thought; The great Doctor Benjamin Franklin envisioned a time when soldiers would be delivered from the sky, with a crude, rudimentary understanding of parachutes. The first modern consideration of the use of what we now call a paratroop force dates back to 1918. Towards the end of World War I, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell suggested dropping elements of the United States 1st Infantry Division behind German lines near Metz. Fortunately, the war ended before such an attack could be seriously planned. It's somewhat unclear how this was to be achieved given the state of development of both the parachute and aircraft at the time.

The first true paratroop drop was carried out by Italy in November 1927. Within a few years several battalions had been raised and were eventually formed into the two elite Folgore and Nembo divisions. Although these would go on to fight with distinction in World War II, they were never used in a parachute drop.

At about the same time the Soviet Union was also experimenting with the idea, planning to eventually drop entire units complete with vehicles. To train enough experienced jumpers, parachute clubs were set up all over Russia with the aim of being able to transfer skilled members (or at least the men) into the armed forces if needed. The plan had progressed to the point that their large drops were demonstrated to foreign observers in 1936.

One of the observing parties, Germany, was particularly interested. In 1936, Major Immanns was ordered to set up a parachute school and was given a number of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft to train on. The military had already purchased large numbers of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft which were now modified (slightly) for use as paratroop transports in addition to their other duties.

Other nations, including Japan, also organized airborne units around this time.

World War II

German operations

Several groups within the German armed forces attempted to raise their own paratroop formations and there was some confusion all around. This changed when the Luftwaffe General Kurt Student was put in command of the effort, and the true power of the Fallschirmjäger finally started to take form. Several operations were carried out during the war of which the best known are mentioned below.

During the invasion of Norway in Operation Weserübung the Luftwaffe then flew in a company of paratroopers to seize Oslo's undefended airstrip. Over the course of the morning and early afternoon of April 9 1940, the Germans flew in sufficient reinforcements to move into the capital in the afternoon, but by that time the Norwegian government had fled.

In the Battle of France, members of the Brandenburg Regiment were dropped by Fieseler Fi 156 Storch light reconnaissance planes on the bridges immediately to the south of the 10th Panzer Division's route of march through the southern Ardennes. In Belgium a small group of German glider-borne troops landed on top of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael on the morning of May 10 1940 and it was captured in a matter of hours. This opened up Belgium to attack by the German Army Group B. Two simultaneous airborne operations were made during the invasion of Holland. German paratroopers landed at an airport near The Hague, hoping to seize the Dutch government. But they were driven out of the airport before they were reinforced by troops brought in by Ju-52s. This has been one of the few occasions where an airfield captured by paratroops has been recaptured. Simultaneously the Germans dropped small packets of paratroopers to seize the crucial bridges that led directly across Holland and into the heart of the country. They opened the way for the 10th Panzer Division. Within a day the Dutch position was hopeless. Nevertheless, Dutch forces afflicted a high loss of transportation aircraft to the Germans.

The Fallschirmjäger's greatest victory and greatest losses were suffered during the Battle of Crete. The losses were so great that Hitler forbade their use in such operations in the future. He felt that the main power of the paratroop was novelty, and now that the British had clearly figured out how to defend against them, there was no real point to using them any more.

There was one notable exception to this and that was the use of airborne forces in special operations. On September 12 1943, Otto Skorzeny led a daring glider-based assault on the Gran Sasso Hotel, high in the Apennines mountains, and rescued Benito Mussolini from house arrest with very few shots being fired.

Allied operations

The Battle of Crete convinced allied forces of the power of airborne assaults and spurred the organization of allied airborne forces.

Operation Colossus: the raid on the Tragino Aqueduct

Britain’s first airborne assault took place on February 10, 1941, when No. 2 Commando introduced themselves to the enemy by jumping into Italy and blowing up an aqueduct in a daring raid named Operation Colossus.

In some official circles Commandos were termed Special Service troops, and for this raid the men of No.2 Commando were termed "II Special Air Service", (the 'II' being the Roman numeral for '2' though generally thereafter corrupted to be 'eleven') This was the first time the term 'SAS' was used and when it was soon realised that far more than 500 paratroops were needed, the men of No.2 Commando became the foundation of the Parachute Regiment.

Operation Biting: The Bruneval raid

A Wuerzburg radar on the coast of France was attacked by British Paratroopers in Operation Biting on February 27, 1942. The electronics of the system were brought back to Britain for examination so that counter measures could be devised.

North Africa

Operation Husky Sicily

As part of Operation Husky four airborne operations were carried out, landing during the night of the 9/10 July; two were British and two American. The American troops were the 82nd Airborne division, making their first combat parachute jump. The strong winds blew the dropping aircraft off course and scattered them widely; the result was that around half the US paratroops failed to make it to their rallying points. British glider-landed troops fared little better; only 12 out of 144 gliders landing on target, many landing in the sea. Nevertheless the scattered airborne troops maximised their opportunities, attacking patrols and creating confusion wherever possible.

The First Air Landing Brigade captured the Ponte Grande Bridge and before the Germans counter attack, the beach landings took place unopposed and the First Air Landing Brigade were relieved by the 8th Army as it swept inland and north towards Catania and Messina. For more details on this action see the article on The Staffordshire Regiment.

On July 13 1943, more than 112 aircraft and 16 gliders carrying 1,856 men, took off from North Africa. Their initial target was to capture the Primosole bridge and the high ground around it, providing a pathway for the 8th Army, but heavy anti-aircraft fire shot down many of the Dakotas before they reached their target. Only 295 officers and men were dropped close enough to carry out the assault on the bridge. They captured the bridge but the German 4th Parachute Brigade recaptured it. They held the high ground until relived by the 8th army, but the mission had been a failure.


During the Allied invasion of Italy American and British Airborne forces were used in amphibious landings. During the main invasion on 9 September 1943, the US 82nd Airborne Division helped to seize the port of Salerno in Operation Baytown. The British 1st Airborne Division was landed by sea near the port of Taranto in the 'heel' of Italy (Operation Slapstick). Their task was to capture the port and several nearby airfields and link with the British Eighth Army before pressing north to join the US Fifth Army near Foggia.

Operation Overlord: D-Day

There were many separate Airborne operations during Operation Overlord on D-Day June 6 1944. But broadly the task of the airborn forces secured the flanks of the landing beaches in Normandy. The British secured the Eastern flank in Operation Tonga of which Pegasus Bridge is the best rembered objective. The Americans secured the western flank in Operation Chicago and Operation Detroit. There were other operatoins designed to take out specific hardend targets notably the huge guns of the Merville gun battery. Buried under 12ft-thick concrete, the four 75mm guns, just miles from the beaches of Sword, Juno and Gold, had the capability to engage warships out at sea and sink landing craft heading for the beaches. The task of putting them out of action fell to the ninth parachute brigade which they succeeded in doing for 36 hours by killing all but a handful of the gunners.

Southern France

On August 15, 1944, parachute units, which included the 4th, 5th and 6th Para battalions and lst Indian Army Pathfinders, dropped into Southern France between Frejus and Cannes as part of Operation Dragoon. Their objective was to capture the area, destroy all enemy positions and hold the ground until the US Seventh Army came ashore. Once they had captured their initial targets, they were reinforced by three thousand soldiers and critical equipment carried in over three hundred gliders in an operation code named Dove. The drop was almost unopposed and within days the British parachute group was withdrawn by sea to Italy in readiness for future operations.

Operation Market Garden: a bridge too far

Perhaps the most famous airborne operation of history is Operation Market Garden of September 1944, in which 35,000 troops were dropped 100 miles behind the German front lines in an attempt to capture a bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. Three complete airborne divisions, the British 1st Airborne Division, and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were dropped at various points along Highway 69 in order to create a "carpet" over which the British XXX Corps could rapidly advance. German opposition was some three times that expected, including two under-strength but very experienced panzer divisions, and in the end the British 1st Airborne division was all but destroyed and the bridge remained in German hands.

Operation Varsity: the Rhine Crossing

Operation Varsity - The Rhine Crossing was the biggest and most successful airborne operation in history and it marked the beginning of the end for Germany.

Post World War II

Operation Musketeer: Suez crisis

During the Suez Crisis, Operation Musketeer needed the element of total surprise to succeed, and all 660 men had to be on the ground at El Gamil airfield and ready for action within four and a half minutes. At 04.15 hours on November 5, 1956, 3 Para jumped in and although opposition was heavy, casualties were few.

Vietnam War

The use of helicopter-borne airmobile troops by the United States in Vietnam was widespread, and became an iconic image featuring in newsreels and movies about the conflict. In Feburary of 1967 Operation Junction City was launched, it would be the largest Operation the Coalition Force would assemble. 845 members of the 2nd battalion, 503rd PIR, 319th Artillery and elements of H&H company 173rd Airborne made the only combat jump in Vietnam.

Recent times

In recent times the Mil 24 Hind, H-3 Sea King/Commando, H-46 Sea Knight, CH-47 Chinook, UH-60 Blackhawk and H-53 Jolly Green Giant (or Sea Stallion) medium-lift helicopters have all been used to deploy soldiers or marines rapidly across battlefields (eg. in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, Iraq and Sierra Leone.)

Related topics

de:Fallschirmjäger fr:Troupe aéroportée zh:空降兵


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