Anyone who has watched more than one Army recruiting commercial is probably aware that the Army has paratroopers. And when I was a recruiter, a lot of young men (and not a few young women) wanted to enlist to be among the jumpers. The history of the Airborne forces in the Army is relatively short, dating only from 1940, but they’ve managed to pack a lot of heritage in that short span of time. They have seen their role evolve as technology has changed, but the fundamentals of airborne assault remain very much as they were almost 70 years ago.
The Army’s first look at airborne troops actually came in 1918, when Gen. John Pershing, commanding the American Expeditionary Forces in France was looking for a way to bypass the Germans trenchworks and put a force behind his lines. Pershing and Gen. Billy Mitchell considered putting one or two soldiers on small planes and dropping them by parachute, hoping to put the entire 1st Infantry Division behind the enemy lines. The war ended before they could do much more than start planning. That’s probably a good thing, as later practice would show there were challenges they hadn’t really considered.
While there was some interest in the concept of airborne operations during the years between WWI and WWII, nothing was done. The Army was terribly short on money, and the Army Air Corps didn’t have money to buy planes capable of carrying paratroopers. Mostly the Army kept an eye on developments in Russia and Germany. For the most part, the Army didn’t really see a need for large scale airborne operations. That changed pretty quickly with the successful German assault on Fort Eben Emael.
Fort Eben Emael was a Belgian fortress guarding a key river crossing that the Germans needed to seize in order to outflank the Maginot Line in their invasion of France. Any ground assault on the fortress would cost a lot of casualties and worst of all, cost a lot of time. Instead of a frontal assault by ground troops, the Germans landed a 78 man force by glider right on top of the fortress. Using shaped charges (the precursor to modern HEAT warheads) they breached the fortifications and forced the surrender of 1200 Belgian troops in one day.
The second German operation that got our Army’s attention was the invasion of Crete. The Germans airdropped troops into Crete, and despite appalling losses, managed to secure and airfield and bring in enough reinforcements to displace the British from this key island base. The German losses were so heavy the Hitler forbade any further large scale airborne operations. Allied leaders, however, learned a different lesson.
In 1940, the Army dipped its toe into the airborne waters by starting a test platoon to learn what the challenges and opportunities of this capabiltiy were. From that very modest beginning, a large force soon blossomed. One of the challenges the Army knew it was going to face was that it would have to make a lot of amphibious assaults during the war, the invasion of France being just the most prominent example. Looking at history, the learned that getting ashore wasn’t the real problem. The challenge was staving off the inevitable counterattack shortly after landing. By using airborne divisions to seize key road junctions and other terrain, the Army could buy some time to build up its forces ashore to defeat any counterattacks, helping to insure the success of any landings. And that’s just how the Army tried to use its airborne forces. At first, it didn’t always work the way they had planned. For instance, the 82nd Airborne in Sicily was scattered so badly that it couldn’t really seize any terrain objectives. But what it did do was so confuse the Germans that they couldn’t figure out where to counterattack until it was too late.
The original design for airborne divisions consisted of one regiment of paratroops and two regiments of infantry that would be flown in by glider. Being a glider grunt wasn’t a very popular option. Paratroops were volunteers, and got extra pay ($50/month, when a Private’s pay was $50/month). Glider guys didn’t get the chance to volunteer, or unvolunteer for that matter. Nor did they receive extra pay. By the time of the Normandy invasion, the Army had enough trained paratroops and, more importantly, enough planes to carry them, that the mix was changed to two regiments of paratroops and one regiment of glider infantry. In fact, later during the war, by reinforcing the divisions with another regiment, they effectively had 3 regiments of paratroops and one of glider infantry.
One of the real limitations of the airborne division in WWII was the limit on equipment size that could be airlifted in. This meant a real limit on the firepower of the division, as only smaller artillery pieces could be brought in by air. Also, while jeeps could be brought in by glider, there was no way to lift in trucks. That meant until the division could link up with ground forces, it could only move as fast as it could walk. If ground forces didn’t link up quickly, airborne forces could be surrounded and chewed to pieces. Doctrine called for a link-up in 48 hours or less, and for the airborne forces to be pulled out and held in reserve. Not surprisingly, it didn’t always work that way. In Normandy, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions both fought in the line for a month after linking up with ground troops. Same thing happened in Holland. During the Battle of the Bulge, the 82nd and the 101st were the only US divisions not committed to the line when the Germans attacked. They were quickly shipped in by truck to Bastogne and other critical points in the line, where they fought as conventional, if elite, infantry. The US would field five airborne divisions in WWII, the 11th, 13th, 17th, 82nd, and 101st.
After WWII, only the 82nd and 101st would stay in the active Army. The Air Force bought greatly improved transports such as the C-119 and the C-123 (which actually started out as a glider design) which were capable of dropping equipment such as trucks. This gave the airborne divisions far more mobility and lethality on the battlefield. During Korea, both airborne divisions served stateside as a strategic reserve in case the Soviets stirred up trouble elsewhere.
During Vietnam, the 82nd and 101st both served in the war, but neither made any significant combat jumps. Instead, they served as conventional light infantry. The only US combat jump of the war was made by the independent 173rd Airborne Brigade.
After the Vietnam War, the 101st was converted to an air assault division, moving mostly by helicopter (some units do retain airborne capability), leaving the 82nd as America’s sole airborne division. Since then it has served as the nation’s quick reaction force, able to put a brigade in the air in less than 18 hours, ready to jump anywhere in the world. The 82nd fought in Grenada, jumped into Panama in 1989, served as the first forces on the ground in Desert Shield and have made numerous deployments in support of the war in Iraq.
These days, supported by Air Force C-130, C-17, and C-5 aircraft, the 82nd can drop all of the division’s equipment and theoretically can be sustained by airdrop. And everyone in the division jumps, from the cooks to the division commander.
And while technology has greatly advanced, the role of the airborne hasn’t changed all that much. In WWII, the airborne would seize key terrain to allow ground forces to follow on. Today, we might expect to see the 82nd jump to seize airfields and ports to allow heavy units to be deployed to the war zone. And of course, they still offer a theater commander a complete and well trained infantry division, ready and able to execute all traditional infantry missions.