The German airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941 had diametrically opposite effects among the Allied and German strategists. The Germans, responding to tirades by Hitler, decided never again to commit large scale parachute forces. The American and British military leaders believed that the airborne assault on Crete was vindication of steps both countries had taken to create airborne forces.
The creation of the American airborne force had its beginning in World War I. In October 1918 Brigadier General William Mitchell received approval to proceed with planning on a proposal he had made to drop the 1st Infantry Division by parachute into the German rear near Metz. The responsibility for detailed planning was given to one of Mitchell’s young staff officers, Lewis H. Brereton. The plan was to use bombers as platforms from which the infantry would jump. The Armistice to end the war intervened and planning for the Metz operation stopped.
Almost 20 years would pass before the U.S. Army again seriously considered delivering troops to the battlefield by parachute. A 1928 demonstration at Brooks Field, Texas in which a three man fire team jumped from four planes and assembled a machine gun on the ground was the only sign of interest shown in using parachute forces; little attention and no further action resulted from this brief experiment.
In 1934 and 1935, Major William C. Lee, a U.S. Army officer serving as a military attaché in Paris and London, observed German military training. This training included soldiers jumping by parachute to capture objectives and equipment, and men being delivered to the battlefield by glider. Lee’s interest was immediate. Later, as an instructor at the Infantry School and as a student at the Command and General Staff College, Lee wrote articles and talked with his fellow students about his ideas for vertical envelopment. He refined his ideas based on discussions with staff and fellow students.
In a later assignment to the Office of Chief of Infantry, Lee, now a lieutenant colonel, continued to push his ideas for airborne infantry. This was to the dismay and displeasure of his boss, who wanted Lee to concentrate on coordinating armor projects and to be the resident expert on foreign military armor forces and organizations. However, when President Roosevelt saw a newsreel about German parachute forces and inquired about the American capability with such forces, Lee was given his dream project, on 25 June 1941. Others were also working on this project, including the Infantry Board, which had made several proposals to the Chief of Infantry on size of units, equipment, and how they should be employed.
On 26 June 1940, the Parachute Test Platoon was created at Fort Benning, Georgia with a strength of 2 officers, 1 warrant officer, 6 sergeants, and 42 enlisted men. This unit inaugurated many of the training doctrines employed by the U.S. airborne program during the remainder of the war.
Since there was no formal training course, the original test platoon got its training where it could. This included several trips to Washington Township, New Jersey for training on the 125-foot jump towers there that were owned by the Safe Parachute Company; towers based on this design, but 250 feet tall, were eventually built at Fort Benning. The Test Platoon also sent representatives to Chanute Field, Illinois to learn rigging, sewing, and maintenance of parachutes. The Test Platoon later passed this training on to other units as they were activated. The first jumps were conducted at Fort Benning on 16 August. Soon thereafter the Provisional Parachute Group was activated at Fort Benning to supervise the activation and training on the battalions and, later, regiments of parachute and glider units that would follow.
Over time training settled on a six-week course, which was conducted in several stages. ‘A’ Stage lasted three weeks and was almost exclusively devoted to physical training, especially running; the physical training did not stop when this stage was completed but carried over into all of the stages. ‘B’ Stage lasted one week and consisted of aircraft exit techniques from mock-ups of plane frames and from the 34-foot towers, controlling the parachute in the air, parachute landing falls, and parachute packing techniques. ‘C’ Stage lasted one week and included more parachute packing, the suspended harness, and the 250-foot towers. ‘D’ Stage was jump week. Five jumps qualified a trooper for jump wings, the badge of the paratroopers that had been designed by one of the early airborne officers, Lieutenant William P. Yarborough.
The parachute battalions, which would form the cadre of the regiments, were designated in the 500 series; thus, the first battalion activated was originally designated as the First Parachute Battalion, then redesignated as 501st within two weeks; the second was 502nd, and so on. 501st Battalion was later redesignated as 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment and formed the core of the 501st Regiment.
The entire redesignation and activation process was generally a smooth operation but there were several gyrations that were mind-boggling. For sake of continuity and lack of confusion, the unit involved in the operation in this discussion will be referred to by its final designation: the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. In June 1942, the 509th was sent to England and attached to a British airborne division for training. The battalion commander was Lieutenant Colonel Edson D. Raff.
The decision to commit parachute elements to the North African campaign was not made until early October 1942. The only American unit close enough to be considered for use in Africa was the 509th. When presented with the proposed mission for his unit, Lieutenant Colonel Raff told his theater commander he had no doubts about his unit’s ability to accomplish the mission. His only provision was that he be permitted to command the paratroopers once they were on the ground.
Raff made this condition because the plan called for the 509th to fly 1,500 miles, at night, in planes belonging to the 60th Troop Carrier Group. The 60th had been hastily assembled and its training had not reached the level that its cargo, the paratroopers, had. Since there were no plans to refuel after leaving England, Raff wanted it clear from the beginning that the paratroopers would be under his command on hitting the ground, not the Air Force commander’s in case he happened to land at the objective.
The plan for employment of the 509th was written by Raff and the airborne staff officer for Operation Torch, Major William Yarborough (who, in addition to designing the U.S. paratroopers’ jump wings, had also been instrumental in designing the special jump uniform American paratroopers wore during the period). Raff and Yarborough were friends and both wanted the airborne concept to work so they spent much time refining and reworking the plan. The plan called for the 509th to accomplish three objectives: destroy enemy fighters at an airfield designated “X”; seize and hold an airfield designated “Y”; and cut communications west of a town designated “L”, located east of airfield “Y”. All the maps, photographs, and terrain models used in the training were marked with these letter designations. The vital necessity was to gain air superiority. There was a strong possibility that the French would remain loyal to their puppet government at Vichy and oppose the Allied invasion in North Africa, and attention was focused on the two airfields.
Just after dark on 7 November 1942, the longest uninterrupted flight by paratroopers during World War II began. This had followed weeks of special training and rehearsals. Raff and his men were ready to show what they could do. The sky train consisted of 39 C-47s, each loaded to the brim with fuel for the long flight. The pilots, although fairly competent at beam-riding on airline routes, had little practical experience at dead reckoning or astro-navigation. They were, however, determined and adaptable. The planes maintained good order until they approached Spain. After the fighter escort turned back, the transports hit clouds that were moving lower just as the sky was getting dark. As they climbed through the clouds the planes became separated. The pilots continued to fly south while their loads of paratroopers, wrapped in blankets, slept in the cramped aircraft cabins.
By morning, 33 of the 39 planes were still within sight of one another but there was a bigger problem—the pilots weren’t certain where they were. The men of the 509th were also uncertain as to whether they would land to French cheers or drop by parachute between two fields and march against French guns. The answer was to have been radioed to Raff as his unit flew across the Strait of Gibraltar but, if sent, the signal was not heard. In the meantime valuable fuel was being burned while the pilots continued to figure out their location after reaching the African coast. Finally the air commander ordered one of his planes to land and find out where they were; it turned out that they were within about 100 miles of their targets.
At 0845, 8 November 1942, the paratroopers in the main group of planes got their first inkling of what kind of reception was awaiting them when they flew over La Senia airfield (Objective X) as Allied planes were bombing it. Confusion followed. Several of the troop carrier planes were short on fuel and landed in the desert. Twelve flew to an area between La Senia and Tafaraoui (Objective Y) where Raff ordered the paratroopers to jump. First the supply containers, then the troopers left the planes and floated to the ground underneath parachutes. Once assembled, the 509th quickly linked up with an armor force of the 1st Armored Division, which had arrived from the beaches near Oran, and together they occupied the airfields. A quick check of casualties among the paratroopers showed that, although about 20% of the unit was missing, there were no killed or wounded.
Raff considered the result of this operation to be an undramatic end to the first U.S. combat jump. In fact his paratroopers played little role in the objectives assigned to them. Although it was an inauspicious opening combat assault for American paratroopers, they were destined to do better.
The North African use of American airborne troops was, in some respects, similar to the Tragino Aqueduct mission. The targets in this case given to the paratroopers were appropriate and the justification for the targets was also good. However, because of the distance they had to travel from departure airfields in England, and the fact that when they arrived at the targets there was already an armor force on the ground, should cause a question as to whether this was a good use of special operations forces. Indeed, many things could have delayed the armor force, which would then have made the employment of airborne troops seem to be the correct decision. The answer, in this case, to the necessity of using special operations forces is fuzzy. The event shows they probably did not help much in capturing some of their assigned targets.
Since the U.S. planners were anxious to include paratroopers in this operation, assuming the risk of such a long flight to the target was definitely wishful thinking. A better use of these specific forces may have been to hold them in reserve and stage them out of Gibraltar, much closer to where they were to be used and more flexible in terms of what targets could be assigned to them.
This criticism of the plan is based on the flying distance from departure airfields to the targets, lack of navigation aids along the way, lack of updates on the ground situation while in flight, and the expectation that the ground battle plan would not impact on the airborne targets. This last must always be prominent in plans for parachute operations; if the airborne assault is into friendly lines it is probably an expensive waste of time and effort, unless it is planned that way from the start or is used to reinforce the ground situation.
On the other hand, some things went correctly in this operation. The intelligence on the targets was correct in that these sites were key military objectives. Several other forces (including air and armor) were either assigned the targets as well or simply went after them as targets of opportunity.
The use of untrained air crews to conduct the U.S. Army’s first airborne operation was not a decision that the parachute planners or troopers could change. It is one of three major instances of poor coordination in this operation; the others being the poor communications among the aircraft once they took off and the fact that the long pre-jump flight put most of the planes at the edge of their fuel capacities. As mentioned in the Tragino operation, why not pick a better mission to prove the principle? The obvious answer is that they had to accept what was available. However, that’s too pat an answer because in both cases it was the airborne advocates that were pushing for a chance to prove the usefulness of an airborne capability.
The plan was far from simple. It involved dropping paratroopers onto three separate targets after having flown all night to get there and receiving no tactical update. Even these days that would not have been a simple plan.
While there is no doubt that the 509th rehearsed operations while in England, those rehearsals did not involve enough complications to train the men to make adjustments to the plan once over the target or on the ground, or to take into account the long flight to the drop zones.
The presence of friendly armor forces at one of the targets removed any element of surprise for the jump operation. In addition, Raff really had no idea of the tactical situation on the ground when the jump sequence was conducted. This could have proved entirely disastrous to his command; fortunately it did not.
Many of the problems with this operation can be attributed to the communications (especially the lack thereof) that I mentioned earlier. If the airborne planners had examined this operation with more of a critical eye, they would have made a better plan, one that would have highlighted the new U.S. airborne capability better. In the event the problems mentioned did get taken into account on subsequent jump operations, which more than proved the principle of the airborne force capabilities.
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