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HISTORY OF THE U.S. AIRBORNE

Airborne forces are military units, usually light infantry, set up to be moved by aircraft and "dropped" into battle. Thus, they can be placed behind enemy lines, and have the capability 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 airhead operations than for 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 air assaults have largely replaced large-scale parachute operations, and (almost) completely replaced combat glider operations.

WORLD WAR II

ALLIED OPERATIONS

Ironically, the battle that ended Germany's paratrooper operations had the opposite effect on the Allies. Convinced of the effectiveness of airborne assaults, the Allies hurried to train and organize their own airborne units. The British established No.1 Parachute Training School at RAF Ringway near Manchester, which trained all 60,000 European paratroopers recruited by the Allies during World War II.

An Airlanding School was also set up in New Delhi, India, in Oct/Nov 1941, at the then-Welllingdon Airport (now the defunct Safdarjang Airport) to train paratroopers for the British Indian Army which had been authorised to raise an airborne-capable formation earlier, resulting in the formation of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade. The Indian airborne forces expanded during the war to the point that an airborne corps was planned bringing together the 2nd Indian Airborne Division and the 6th British Airborne Division, but the war ended before it could materialize.

A fundamental decision was whether to create small airborne units to be used in specific coup-de-main type operations, or to organize entire airborne divisions for larger operations. Many of the early, successful airborne operations were small, carried out by a few units, such as seizing a bridge. The Allies eventually formed two British and five American airborne divisions: the British 1st Airborne Division and 6th Airborne Division, and the US 11th Airborne Division, 13th Airborne Division, 17th Airborne Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and 101st Airborne Division. By 1944, the British divisions were grouped into the 1st Airborne Corps under General Frederick Browning, while US divisions in the European Theatre (the 17th, 82nd, and 101st) were organized into the XVIII Airborne Corps under US Major General Matthew Ridgway. Both corps fell under the First Allied Airborne Army under US Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton.

OPERATION TORCH

The first United States airborne combat mission occurred during Operation Torch in North Africa on 8 November 1942. 531 men of the U.S. 2nd Battalion 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment flew over 1,600 miles (2,600 km) at night from Britain, over Spain, intending to drop near Oran and capture two airfields. Navigation errors, communications problems, and bad weather scattered the forces. Seven of the 39 C-47s landed far from Oran from Gibraltar to Tunisia, and only ten actually delivered their troops by parachute drop. The remainder off-loaded after 28 C-47 troop carriers, short on fuel, landed on the Sebkra d'Oran dry lake, and marched overland to their objectives.

One week later, after repacking their own chutes, 304 men of the battalion conducted a second combat jump on 15 November 1942 to secure the airfield at Youk-les-Bains near the Tunisian border. From this base, the battalion conducted combined operations with various French forces against the German Afrika Korps in Tunisia. A unit of French Algerian infantry, the 3rd Regiment of Zouaves, was present at Youk-les-Bains and awarded the American paratroopers their own regimental crest as a gesture of respect. This badge was awarded to the battalion commander on 15 November 1942 by the 3rd Zouaves' regimental commander, and is worn today by all members of the 509th Infantry.

OPERATION HUSKY: SICILY

As part of Operation Husky, four airborne operations (two British and two American) were carried out, landing during the nights of July 9 and 10. The American troops were from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, making their first combat jump. Strong winds encountered en route blew the dropping aircraft off course and scattered them widely. The result was that around half the paratroops failed to make it to their rallying points. British glider-landed troops fared little better. Only 12 out of 137 gliders in Operation Ladbroke landed on target, with more than half landing in the sea. Nevertheless the scattered airborne troops maximised their opportunities, attacking patrols and creating confusion wherever possible. On the night of 11 July, a reinforcement drop of the 82nd Airborne behind American lines at Farello airfield resulted in heavy friendly-fire casualties when, despite forewarnings, Allied antiaircraft fire both ashore and aboard U.S Navy ships shot down 23 of the transports as they flew over the beachhead.

Despite a catastrophic loss of gliders and troops loads at sea, the 1st Airlanding Brigade captured the Ponte Grande bridge south of Syracuse. Before the German counterattack, the beach landings took place unopposed and the First Airlanding Brigade was relieved by the 8th Army as it swept inland towards Catania and Messina.

On the evening of July 13, 1943, more than 112 aircraft carrying 1,856 men and 16 gliders with 77 artillerymen and ten 6 pounder guns, took off from North Africa in Operation Fustian. The British First Parachute Brigade's 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. They captured the bridge, but the German 4th Parachute Brigade recaptured it. They held the high ground until relieved by the 8th Army, which re-took the bridge at dawn of 16 July.

The Allied commanders were forced to reassess the use of airborne forces after the many misdrops and the deadly friendly fire incident.

ITALY

Italy agreed to an armistice with the Allies on September 3, 1943, with the stipulation that the Allies would provide military support to Italy in defending Rome from German occupation. Operation Giant II was a planned drop of one regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division northwest of Rome, to assist four Italian divisions in seizing the Italian capital. An airborne assault plan to seize crossings of the Volturno River during the Allied invasion of Italy, called Operation Giant, was abandoned in favor of the Rome mission. However doubts about the willingness and capability of Italian forces to cooperate, and the distance of the mission far beyond support by the Allied military, resulted in the artillery commander of the 82nd, Brig. Gen. Maxwell Taylor (future commander of the 101st), being sent on a personal reconnaissance mission to Rome to assess the prospects of success. His report via radio on September 8 caused the operation to be postponed (and canceled the next day) as troop carriers loaded with two battalions of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment were warming up for takeoff.

With Giant II cancelled, Operation Giant I was reactivated to drop two battalions of the 504th at Capua on September 13. However significant German counterattacks beginning September 12 resulted in a shrinking of the American perimeter and threatened destruction of the beachhead. As a result, Giant I was cancelled and the 504th instead dropped into the beachhead on the night of September 13 using transponding radar beacons as a guide. The next night the 505th PIR was also dropped into the beachhead as reinforcement. In all, 3,500 paratroopers made the most concentrated mass night drop in history, providing the model for the American airborne landings in Normandy in June 1944. An additional drop on the night of September 14–15 of the 2nd Battalion 509th PIR to destroy a key bridge at Avellino, to disrupt German motorized movements, was badly dispersed and failed to destroy the bridge before the Germans withdrew to the north.

In April 1945, Operation Herring, an Italian commando-style airborne drop aimed at disrupting German rear area communications and movement over key areas in Northern Italy, took place. However the Italian troops were not dropped as a unit, but as a series of small (8–10 man) groups. Another operation, Operation Potato, was mounted by men drawn from the Folgore and Nembo divisions, operating with British equipment and under British command as No 1 Italian Special Air Service Regiment. The men dropped in small groups from American C-47s and carried out a successful railway sabotage operation in northern Italy.

WESTERN EUROPE

The Allies had learned better tactics and logistics from their earlier airborne drops, and these lessons were applied for the assaults along the Western Front.

OPERATION NEPTUNE

One of the most famous of airborne operations was Operation Neptune, the assault of Normandy, part of Operation Overlord of the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944. The task of the airborne forces was to secure the flanks and approaches of the landing beaches in Normandy. The British glider transported troops and paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division secured the eastern flank in Operation Tonga of which Operation Deadstick, capture of the Pegasus Bridge is the best remembered objective. Another objective was the Merville gun battery. The American glider and parachute infantry of the 82nd (Operation Detroit) and 101st Airborne Divisions (Operation Chicago), though widely scattered by poor weather and poorly marked landing zones in the American airborne landings in Normandy, secured the western flank of VII Corps with heavy casualties. All together, airborne casualties in Normandy on D-Day totaled around 2,300.

Operation Dingson (5–18 June 1944) was conducted by about 178 Free French paratroops of the 4th Special Air Service (SAS), commanded by Colonel Pierre-Louis Bourgoin, who jumped into German occupied France near Vannes, Morbihan, southern Brittany, in Plumelec, at 1130 on the night of 5 June and Saint-Marcel (8–18 June). At this time, there was approximately 100,000 German troops and artillery preparing to move to the Normandy landing areas. Immediately upon landing, 18 Free French went into action near Plumelec against German troops (Vlassov's army). The Free French established a base at Saint-Marcel and began to arm and equip of local resistance fighters, operating with up to 3,000 Maquis. However, their base was heavily attacked by a German paratroop division on 18 June, and the men were forced to disperse. Captain Pierre Marienne with 17 of his companions (six paratroopers, eight resistance fighters and three farmers) died a few weeks later in Kerihuel, Plumelec, at dawn of 12 July. The Dingson team was joined by the men who had just completed Operation Cooney. Dingson was conducted alongside Operation Samwest and Operation Lost as part of Overlord.

In Operation Dingson 35A, on 5 August 1944, 10 Waco CG-4A gliders towed by aircraft of 298 Squadron and 644 Squadron transported Free French SAS men and armed jeeps to Brittany near Vannes (Locoal-Mendon), each glider carrying three Free French troopers and a jeep. One glider was lost with the death of the British pilot. The SAS teams remained behind enemy lines until the Allies arrived.

OPERATION DRAGOON: SOUTHERN FRANCE

On August 15, 1944, airborne units of the 6th Army Group provisional airborne division, commanded by US Major General Robert T. Frederick, opened Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France, with a dawn assault. Called the "1st Airborne Task Force", the force was composed of the 1st Special Services Forces, British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade, the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, the 509th and 551st Parachute Infantry Battalions, the glider-borne 550th Airborne Infantry Battalion, and supporting units. Nearly 400 aircraft delivered 5,600 paratroopers and 150 guns to three drops zones surrounding Le Muy, between Fréjus and Cannes, in phase 1, Operation Albatross. Once they had captured their initial targets, they were reinforced by 2,600 soldiers and critical equipment carried in 408 gliders daylight missions code-named Operation Bluebird, phase 2, simultaneous with the beach landings, and Operation Dove, phase 3. A second daylight parachute drop, Operation Canary, dropped 736 men of the 551st PIB with nearly 100% effectiveness late on the afternoon of August 15. The airborne objective was to capture the area, destroy all enemy positions and hold the ground until the US Seventh Army came ashore.

OPERATION MARKET GARDEN: "A BRIDGE TOO FAR"

Operation Market Garden of September 1944, involved 35,000 troops dropped up to 100 miles (160 km) behind German lines in an attempt to capture a series of bridges over the Maas, Waal and Rhine Rivers, in an attempt to outflank German fortifications and penetrate into Germany. The operation was hastily planned and many key planning tasks were inadequately completed. Three complete airborne divisions executed Operation Market, the airborne phase. These were the British 1st Airborne Division, the US 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division, as well as the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. All units were landed or dropped at various points along Highway 69 ("Hell's Highway") in order to create a "carpet" over which the British XXX Corps could rapidly advance in Operation Garden, the land phase. It was a daylight assault, with little initial opposition, and most units achieved high accuracy on drop and landing zones. In the end, after strong German counterattacks, the overall plan failed: the British 1st Airborne Division was all but destroyed at Arnhem, and the final Rhine bridge remained in German hands.

OPERATION REPULSE: RE-SUPPLY OF BASTOGNE

Operation Repulse, which took place in Bastogne on December 23, 24, 26, and 27, 1944, as part of the Battle of the Bulge, glider pilots, although flying directly through enemy fire, were able to land, delivering the badly needed ammunition, gasoline and medical supplies that enabled defenders against the German offensive to persevere and secure the ultimate victory.

OPERATION VARSITY: THE RHINE CROSSING

Operation Varsity was a daylight assault conducted by two airborne divisions, the British 6th Airborne Division and the American 17th Airborne Division, both of which were part of the US XVIII Airborne Corps. Conducted as a part of Operation Plunder, the operation took place on 24 March 1945 in aid of an attempt by the British 21st Army Group to cross the Rhine River. Having learnt from the heavy casualties inflicted upon the airborne formations in Operation Market Garden, the two airborne divisions were dropped several thousand yards forward of friendly positions, and only some thirteen hours after Operation Plunder had begun and Allied ground forces had already crossed the Rhine. There was heavy resistance in some of the areas that the airborne troops landed in, with casualties actually statistically heavier than those incurred during Operation Market Garden. The British historian Max Hastings has labelled the operation both costly and unnecessary, writing that "Operation Varsity was a folly for which more than a thousand men paid for with their lives ..."

PACIFIC THEATER

PHILIPPINES

The honors for recapturing the Rock went to the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team of Lieutenant Colonel George M. Jones and elements of Major General Roscoe B. Woodruff's 24th Infantry Division, the same units which undertook the capture of Mindoro island. The U.S. 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment most famous operation was a landing on Corregidor ("The Rock") in February 1945, during the Philippines campaign of 1944–45.

The U.S. 11th Airborne Division saw a great deal of action in the Philippines as a ground unit. The 511th Parachute Regiment made the division's first jump near Tagaytay Ridge on 3 February 1945, meeting no resistance at the drop zone. The division also jumped to liberate 2,000 Allied civilians interned at Los Baños, 23 February 1945. The final operation of the division was conducted on 23 June 1945, in conjunction with an advance by U.S. ground forces in northern Luzon. A task force from the 11th was formed and jumped on Camalaniugan Airfield, south of Aparri.

SOUTH WEST PACIFIC

In September 1943, in New Guinea, the U.S. 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment made a highly successful, unopposed landing at Nadzab, during the Salamaua-Lae campaign. This was the first Allied airborne assault in the Pacific Theater.

In July 1944, the 503rd jumped again, onto Noemfoor Island, off Dutch New Guinea, in the Battle of Noemfoor.

BURMA

A large British force, known as the Chindits, operated behind Japanese lines during 1944. In Operation Thursday, most of the units were flown into landing grounds which had been seized by glider infantry transported by the American First Air Commando Group, commencing on March 5. Aircraft continued to land reinforcements at captured or hastily constructed landing strips until monsoon rains made them unusable. Small detachments were subsequently landed by parachute. The operation eventually wound down in July, with the exhausted Chindits making their way overland to link up with advancing American and Chinese forces.

For Operation Dracula, an ad hoc parachute battalion group made up of personnel from the 153 and 154 (Gurkha) Parachute Battalions of the Indian Army secured Japanese coastal defences, which enabled the seaborne assault by the 26th Indian Division to attain its objectives with a minimum of casualties and time.

POST WORLD WAR II

KOREAN WAR

The 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team ("Rakkasans") made two combat jumps in Korea during the Korean War. The first combat jump was made on October 20, 1950 at Sunchon and Sukchon, North Korea. The missions of the 187th were to cut the road north going to China, preventing North Korean leaders from escaping from Pyongyang; and to rescue American prisoners of war.

The second combat jump was made on Wednesday, March 21, 1951, at Munsan-ni, South Korea codenamed Operation Tomahawk. The mission was to get behind Chinese forces and block their movement north. The 60th Indian Parachute Field Ambulance provided the medical cover for the operations, dropping an ADS and a surgical team totalling 7 officers and 5 other ranks, treating over 400 battle casualties apart from the civilian casualties that formed the core of their objective as the unit was on a humanitarian mission. The unit was to become the longest-serving military unit in any UN operation till date, serving from October 1950 till May 1953, a total of three and a half years, returning home to a heroes' welcome.

The 187th served in six campaigns in Korea. Shortly after the war the 187th ARCT was considered for use in an Airborne drop to relieve the surrounded French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam but the United States, at that time, decided not to send its troops into the combat zone.

The unit was assigned to the reactivated 101st Airborne Division and subsequently inactivated as a combat team in 1956 as part of the division's reorganization into the Pentomic structure, which featured battle groups in place of regiments and battalions. The 1st and 3rd Battalions, 187th Infantry, bearing the lineages of the former Co A and Co C, 187AIR, are now with the 101st Airborne Division as air assault units.

VIETNAM WAR

In 1963, in the Battle of Ap Bac, ARVN forces delivered airborne troops by helicopter and air drop. The use of helicopter-borne airmobile troops by the United States in the Vietnam War was widespread, and became an iconic image featuring in newsreels and movies about the conflict.

In February 1967 Operation Junction City was launched, it would be the largest operation the Coalition Force would assemble. During this operation, 845 members of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), the 319th Artillery (Airborne), and elements of H&H company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade made the only combat jump in Vietnam.

OTHER USES OF AIRBORNE FOR THE US

During the 1983 Invasion of Grenada, the 75th Ranger Regiment made a combat jump on Point Salines International Airport.

In 1989 during the U.S invasion of Panama the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division made its first combat jump in over 40 years. The 1st Brigade of the 82nd secured Omar Torrijos International Airport in Tocumen, Panama. The jump followed the 1st Ranger Battalion(+) of the 75th Ranger Regiment's combat jump onto the airfield. M551 Sheridan tanks were also dropped by air, the only time this capability was used in combat. At the same time as the combat jump onto Omar Torrijos International Airport, the 2nd and 3rd(-) Ranger Battalions, along with the 75th Ranger Regiment regimental headquarters, conducted a combat jump onto Rio Hato Airport.

On October 19, 2001 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the 3rd Ranger Battalion and a small Command and Control Element from the Regimental Headquarters of the 75th Ranger Regiment jumped into Kandahar to secure an airfield.

On March 23, 2003 A co 3/75 Ranger Regiment conducted a combat jump into Northern Iraq, to seize a desert airfield.

On March 26, 2003 the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted a combat jump into Northern Iraq, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to seize an airfield and support special forces: Task Force Viking. The paratroopers departed from Aviano Air Base, Italy on fifteen C-17s.

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