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 (5. Gebrigsjäger 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.
Albert 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 maneuver 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 favorable 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 defense measures of the enemy, as a supplement to the study of photographs. The exceptionally unfavorable landing conditions should have induced them to land in a single area away from the occupied objectives with their effective defense 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.
Note to Crete, the Kondomari Massacre
Civilian Reprisals by Fallschirmjäger in Kreta
During the invasion of Kreta over 100 civilians were killed on the order of Generaloberst Kurt Student in retaliation for their involvement in the killing and mutilation of several dozen paratroopers who caught caught in trees during the landings. Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians, armed and otherwise, joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. Cretan civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather, and many Fallschirmjäger were knifed or clubbed to death as soon as they landed. An elderly Cretan was said to have clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking stick before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute lines.
The Cretans actions were not limited to harassment since the civil population also played a significant role in the Greek counter-attacks at Kastelli Hill and Paleochora. This was the first time that Germans had encountered broad resistance from a civilian population, and it was initially shocking for them. Fallschirmjäger reacted with equal ferocity after recovering. The Cretans were regarded as partisans since they wore no identifying insignia or even armbands, the German authorities felt free of the constraints implied by the Geneva conventions. Further enraging the Fallschirmjäger were rumors of battlefield mutilations by civilians torturing injured Fallschirmjäger.
However the book ‘The Lost Battle’, by MacDonald argues that battlefield mutilations were more than likely a result of carrion birds and physical decay of corpses left in the extreme heat. In the village of Kondomari more than 100 civilians were rounded up and executed by the Fallschirmjäger. Franz Peter Weixler, Wehrmacht kriegsberichter (Army war correspondent) photographed and preserved his negatives of the massacre. Weixler was later charged with treason and held by the Gestapo.
Fallschirmjäger fought tenaciously during every engagement, however they were known to be fair and when combat was over they cared for the wounded without regard to their allegiance. They were know for their fair and correct behavior and adherence to the Fallschirmjäger commandments. Generaloberst Student was convicted of the crime in 1946 by a British tribunal, the conviction was later overturned. However this killing of civilians was a huge stain on an otherwise soldierly deportment of the Fallschirmjäger during the war.
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 favorable 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 unfavorable; 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.
Section 7 – German Air 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, Belgium 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 Gen 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’.
Allied Airborne Operations in World War Two
The following discussion is based mainly on three major Airborne Operations in Western Europe-Normandy in June 1944 (the invasion), Nijmegen and Arnhem in September 1944, and North of Wesel in March 1945. The author had little data at his disposal concerning the actions against Allied airborne operations in Sicily in 1943, but this will hardly impair the validity of the following statements, since the airborne landings in Western Europe as well as the defense against them were based on lessons of the Sicilian campaign. Any analysis of these operations will therefore cover by implication the earlier experiences in Sicily, so far as they have not been superseded by more recent information.
Albert Kesselring’s comments on Allied airborne operations in Sicily : After the operation in North Arica and Italy, the first allied airborne operations in Sicily preceded the American and British seaborne troops landings on the beaches. After jumping, the paratroopers were scattered over a very wide and a very deep area by the strong wind. Operating as nuisance teams, they considerably impeded the advance of the Panzer-Division Hermann Goering and helped even to prevent it from attacking promptly the troops after their landings at Gela and elsewhere. This opposition would not have made itself felt so strongly if General Conrath had not organized his troops in march groups contrary to correct panzer tactics.
The second airborne operation of British parachutists took place in the night of July 13-14 1943, close to the Simeto bridge on the highway between Catania and Lentini. The Commander in Chief, South (OB Süd) anticipated an airborne operation in the Catania plain, even if an amphibious landing were not attempted there. He therefore had ordered that those parts of the plain which were west of the Catania airfield be denied the enemy through installation of wooden obstacles. The antiaircraft units protecting the large airfields in the Catania plain had been specially charged with defense against airborne troops. During the first day of the landing operation, every Allied air landing in the area around Catania could be attacked from the north by reserve of Brigade Schmalz of the Herman Goering Panzer Division and by troops of the 1.Fallschirmjäger-Division, which had been flown in to the eastern coast of Sicily. Even assuming the most favorable conditions for the enemy parachutists, no great allied success could be expected, at least no success which justified such a large commitment of men. Thus it was inevitable that the British parachute attack was crushed. Even their purely tactical success in occupying the Simeto bridge was only of a temporary nature and had no effect on the over-all situation.
Section 1 – Passive Defense Measures
The great latitude which the airborne attacker enjoys in selecting his target makes it extremely difficult for the defender to take passive defense measures against airborne operations. It is quite impossible to set up anti-air-landing obstacles throughout the country. Therefore, no more can be done than to determine what might constitute particularly desirable targets for an airborne attack and in what specific areas air landings directed against these targets might be undertaken by the enemy. These principles were followed by Germany in taking defensive measures against an invasion in the West, since experience Sicily clearly indicated that the enemy would also resort to airborne operations during an invasion. Accordingly, German anti-airborne measures were determined by the following two aims; first, to render useless any points which appeared particularly well suited for landing operations; and secondly, to protect all likely targets against attack by airborne troops.
The first purpose was served by erecting posts approximately 10 feet long and 6 to 8 inches in diameter, embedded 3 feet deep, connected by wires, and partly equipped with demolition charges. These obstacles were intended to prevent the landing of troop-carrying gliders. German experience showed that such post obstacles are effective only if they are equipped with demolition charges. If no demolition charges are used, although the glider may crash, the enemy will still be able to make a successful landing. Mining and flooding the terrain were additional measures. The former can be effective against gliders as well as airborne troops if the enemy lands at the very point where the mine field has been laid. However, since such mine fields are necessarily limited because of shortage of materiel and personnel, it is really a matter of luck if the enemy happens to land in a mine field. Furthermore, in the interest of one’s own troops, the local inhabitants, and agriculture and forestry, it is impossible to consider extensive application of this method. Undoubtedly, flooding large areas by means of artificial damming deters the enemy from landing at the particular spots. This method, in addition to others, was widely used on the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, however, at the time of the invasion, some of these flooded areas had dried up again because of lack of rain.
Laying mine fields and flooding areas serve a twofold purpose if, by their location, they not only prevent airborne landings but at the same time constitute obstacles against attack on the ground. In order to protect potential targets, preparations were made for all around defense by establishing fortifications, obstacles, and barriers and by wiring bridges for demolition. These are measures which have to be taken everywhere in modern warfare-not only against airborne operations but also against penetrations by mobile forces on the ground, against commando raids, and in occupied territories against partisans and rebels. Wherever they were adequately prepared and reinforced by the necessary personnel, they served their purpose.
Orders for resistance against invasion on the Atlantic coast called for an inflexible defense in which the coast constituted the main line of resistance. To counter any simultaneous large-scale airborne operations, instructions were issued to develop a “land front” several miles inland, with its rear to the coast. In this manner, it was intended to establish a fortified area between “ocean front” and “land front” which was to be defended like a fortress, thus preventing the juncture of the enemy elements attacking from the sea and those landing from the air. During the invasion, however, the Allies did not oblige by landing their troops inland beyond the land front, but landed them either into it or between the two fronts.
Furthermore, since the German land front was occupied by insufficient forces because of a shortage of personnel and since it had not been adequately developed, its value was illusory. As a matter of fact, the obstacles, such as flooding, at some points even protected Allied airborne troops against attacks by German reserves. Experience taught the Germans that passive measures have a limited value against airborne operations. Furthermore, in view of the great amount of time and materiel required, they can be employed only where the fronts are inactive for a long period of time. In mobile warfare, the only passive measures to be applied are preparations for an all-around defense carried out by all troops, staff, supply services, etc., behind the lines.
German Teller Anti-Tank Mine
The name came from their flat, plate shape.
The first variant was the TMi-29 mine that appeared in the 1930’s that were twice as powerful as any mine made up to then. It was 18″ in diameter and carried 13.2 lbs of TNT. The TMi-35 was a smaller mine that saw service until 1943. The TMi-35 mine was 13″ in diameter and weighed 21 lbs and was detonated by pressure placed on the lid that fired a central igniter. The TMi-43 mine was the last of this series to be introduced in WWII. It was similar to the Tmi-35 but it used Amatol explosives.
(Riegel translates to bar) The Germans also used “Bar Mines” or Riegelmines to provide anti-tank barriers. This mine proved to be the most effective anti-tank mine of the war.
S-Mine or Bouncing Betty
The first “S” mine was the Schrapnellmine 35 (SMi-35). The SMi 35 was buried with just its igniters protruding above ground or connected to trip wires. When tripped, the SMi 35 ejected a small cylinder that scattered some 350 small steel balls over an area of 164 yards. The Allies dubbed these the “Bouncing Betty.” The Stockmine operated on a similar principle to the SMi 35; however, the device was fixed on a wooded stake above ground. These are sometimes referred to as “stake mines”. The body of the SMi 35 was comprised of a concrete cylinder that held the charge and the shrapnel. The shrapnel was scattered when the trip wire was moved.
The Schu Mine was a small wood box that measured wooded six-inch by six-inch that conatained a detonator and a solid charge. Another name or spelling for this mine is “Shoe Mine” or “Shoe Box” mine. The “Shoe Box” was a favorite among the Germans. One of the places the Americans first encountered the Schu mine was during the failed attempt to cross the Rappido River on 21 January 1944.
In 1943, the Germans introduced another non-metallic mine, the Glassmine 43. This mine had a body made entirely of glass in order to reduce its delectability. Although, inevitably, part of the firing mechanism had to be metal, the mine was still difficult to detect. It is not known if these were used in Italy. See the color photo, below.
The Germans also buried artillery shells that had a long detonator. This allowed the artillery shell to be buried beyond the range of the mine detector. See quote below from Engineer.
Section 2 – The German Warning System
The prerequisite for a successful defense against enemy airborne operations is the early recognition of preparations for such operations. Frequently the signs of imminent air landings may be recognized from agents’ reports and radio interception. The Germans themselves had no doubt that the invasion from the West would involve airborne operations on a large scale. On the other hand, it will nearly always remain uncertain up to the last moment, where and when these operations may take place. Changes in the over-all picture obtained through radio interception may appear to give advance warning of an attack. If such changes occur frequently without an actual operation taking place, the alertness of the defender becomes blunted. The first positive reports are obtained through radar detection of the approach flight. In one case in Normandy it was possible, on the basis of radar, to infer as early as two hours before the jump that an airborne formation was approaching, and to alert the German forces in time. A well-organized observation service based on the cooperation of all units and agencies, even in the rear areas, should provide assurance that the point where enemy forces are actually landing is quickly determined.
All observation, however, is useless unless the reports are rapidly transmitted to the superior agencies and to units immediately concerned. Experience has proved that telephone communications are unreliable for this purpose since they are frequently disrupted by enemy action, such as preparatory bombing attacks. The transmittal of prepared messages by radio and appropriate warning broadcasts which all agencies and troops are able to receive has proved effective. As soon as the air-landings are an established fact, the net step is to determine where they are concentrated, which of the attacks are being made for the purpose of diversion and deception, and how wide an area is covered. This is extremely difficult, especially at night, and usually considerable time passes before some degree of clarity is possible. Therein lies the defender’s greatest weakness. However, it is never advisable to delay countermeasures until this clarity has been obtained. In most cases, the situation will remain obscure until the counterattack is launched. It is all the more important, therefore, that reporting should not be neglected during the fighting; this is a matter of training and indoctrination.
It is a unique characteristic of airborne operations that the moments of greatest weakness of the attacker and of the defender occur simultaneously. The issue is therefore decided by three factors: who has the better nerves; who takes the initiative first; and who acts with greater determination. In this connection, the attacker always has the advantage of being free to choose the time and place of attack, and he therefore knows in advance when the moment of weakness will occur, whereas the defender must wait to find out where and when the attack will take place. The attacker will always endeavor to aggravate the defender’s disadvantages by deception and try to force him to split up his countermeasures. As already mentioned in Chapter 1, the most popular method of deception is the dropping of dummies with parachutes.
In such cases an immediate attack rapidly determines whether it is a genuine landing operation or a diversion. Radio interception will also prove to be helpful at an early stage, for troops just landed must make prompt use of radio communications to establish contact with each other and with their superior commands at the jump-off base. Radio, however, cannot be used in diversionary actions. Even if dummies were equipped with radio sets functioning automatically or by remote control-which should not be an insoluble technical problem-alert and competent radio interception personnel would not be deceived for long. During the invasion in 1944, it was the signal intelligence service which was able, with comparative rapidity, to give the high command an accurate picture of the enemy’s tactical grouping during the air landings. The attacker will naturally endeavor to eliminate any targets such as radar equipment and long-distance radio stations by air attacks prior to the air landings. On the other hand, such attacks can also be an advance warning for the defender. In occupied territories it is also possible by careful observation and surveillance of underground activities to discover indications of imminent air landings, particularly if counterespionage elements succeed in infiltrating the enemy’s network of agents.
Section 3 – Counter Attack in the Air
Theoretically, the defender’s best method of defense against air landings is the employment of air forces to attack the enemy while he is still approaching and to annihilate him or force him to turn back. In 1944-45 during the Western campaign, it was a foregone conclusion that victories were out of the question in view of the hopeless inferiority of the Luftwaffe. To repeat, mastery of the air by the attacking air force will always be the prerequisite for successful airborne operations. The attacker endeavors, by means of bombing attacks, to destroy the defender’s air forces on the ground and to protect the approach flight with superior numbers of escort fighters. If the attacker is unable to accomplish this, he will of necessity abandon the idea of an airborne operation altogether. Only in exceptional cases and under particularly favorable conditions will it be possible for the defender to launch an air attack against approaching air formations with any chance of success.
Section 4 – Antiaircraft Defense Fire
A report made in June 1944 by Army Group B on the battle of Normandy includes the following statement : The designation of areas to be taken under fire by all weapons while opposing the landing of airborne troops has proved satisfactory. (Fire by 20-MM guns directed at enemy landing forces proved to particularly effective.) Countermeasures taken by the attacker include landings at night or during poor visibility. In this connection, the same report says, Rainy weather and low clouds are favorable for airborne operations because the planes are able to dive and land without being hit by flak. It is undoubtedly advisable to inflict the highest possible losses on airborne troops while they are still in the air and while they are landing. To this end, it is necessary for all weapons within whose range an enemy plane is landing to take such a plane under fire.
At Arnhem the British troops that landed in the vicinity of the Deelen airfield suffered heavy losses inflicted by German antiaircraft fire. By the same token, however, it true that antiaircraft fire alone cannot succeed in preventing an air landing, since enemy troops descending by parachute cannot by held off or turned back by overwhelming fire, as might be the case during ground combat. They have to come down, whether they want to or not, and some of them will always succeed in reaching the ground in good fighting condition. It would be a mistake to say that on that account that antiaircraft defense offers no chance of success. On the contrary, it is the very moment of landing which holds out the greatest promise of success for antiaircraft defense, for the enemy troops which are landing are without cover; they are defenseless to a certain degree and likely to suffer very heavy casualties.
At this juncture, it is impossible for the attacker to protect the troops from the air or by long-range artillery fire. Only gliders can use their arms against the firing defenders, and then only if they happen to be landing at the appropriate dive angle. The losses suffered by airborne troops while jumping and landing will greatly impair their combat efficiency and power of resistance. This will facilitate the task of subsequently annihilating them, and thus frustrate the landing attempt. For instance, the German invasion of Crete illustrates that it is possible to inflict serious casualties by antiaircraft fire. The same example, however, also demonstrates that the employment of antiaircraft fire alone is not sufficient to effectively resist an invasion. It can be achieved only through attack. If the defenders of Crete had not contented themselves with using antiaircraft fire alone but had immediately attacked the troops which had landed, the entire invasion would have failed at the outset.
Section 5 – Counterattack on the Ground
Experience gained during their own air landings caused the Germans to regard attack as the only effective means of combating airborne operations. Their fight against Allied airborne operations demonstrated the wisdom of this rule. The Germans failed to crush the Allied invasion, not because this principle proved erroneous, but because the necessary forces were either lacking or could not be brought up quickly enough or because German counterattacks were not conducted properly. In many instances, however, these attacks did impede the progress of Allied airborne operations; at Arnhem they brought Allied operations to a complete standstill.
The most vulnerable period of any air landing is the interval between the jump and assembling of the forces into organized units under a unified command. In order to exploit this weakness, German field service regulations stipulated that any unit within range of enemy troops which had landed from the air should immediately attack since every moment’s delay meant an improvement in the situation for the enemy. This method proved to be fundamentally sound. It led to success whenever the enemy landed in small scattered groups or whenever the landing was effected in the midst or in the immediate vicinity of German reserves ready for action. But these tactics are not successful if the defending forces available for immediate action are too weak to defeat enemy troops vastly superior in number, or if the defenders are too far from the point of landing to be able to exploit the enemy’s initial period of weakness. Then there is no longer any purpose in dissipating the defending forces in small isolated attacks or in doggedly fighting the enemy. It now becomes necessary to launch a systematic counterattack.
Speed in carrying out a counterattack against enemy airborne troops is essential, because it is certain that the enemy’s fighting strength will be increased continuously by means of additional reinforcements brought in by air. In general, only motorized reserves are successful in arriving in time. If the enemy’s air forces succeeds, as it did in Normandy, in delaying the arrival of reserves, the chances for success dwindle. The elements which are nearest the enemy have the task of defending important terrain features against air-landed troops, maintaining contact with them, and determining the enemy situation through reconnaissance until all necessary arrangements for the counterattack have been made.
The counterattack should be conducted under unified command and, as far as possible, launched as a converging attack from several sides and supported by the greatest possible number of heavy weapons, artillery, and tanks; it is directed against an enemy who is well prepared and whose weakness lies merely in that he may be troubled by lack of ammunition and in that his heavy weapons, in general, are inferior in number since he has not established contact with those elements of the invading force which are advancing on land. To prevent the enemy from establishing contact is therefore highly important. If this fails, the defender’s chances for success are considerably less. There are no cases during World War II in which the Germans succeeded in annihilating airborne enemy troops after they had established contact with their forces on the ground.
The greatest stumbling block encountered by the Germans in combating Allied airborne operations in the West was the superiority of the Allied air force. German failure to eliminate this air force, or even to clear the skies temporarily, led to the most serious delays in bringing up reserves. The general scarcity of mobile reserves, combined with the fact that they were tied down elsewhere by order of the German High Command, led to the result that in Normandy counterattacks were made too feebly, too late, or not at all. The success of the German counterattacks at Arnhem was due to the energetic action and unified command of Army Group B; the fortunate coincidence that two SS panzer divisions were in the immediate vicinity; the weather, which prevented Allied air intervention; and the resistance offered by the German troops at Nijmegen which prevented the prompt establishment of contact between Allied ground troops and airborne elements.
Section 6 – Counter landing Into the Enemy Airhead
German specialists in airborne tactics (General Student and others) adhered to the theory that the best defense against an enemy air landing was the launching of airborne operations into the enemy airhead. However, no practical knowledge was gained concerning such operations. During World War II there was only one case in which air landings were effected from both sides in the same area and in quick succession. In 1943 in Sicily, south of Catania, British parachutists jumped into an area where, unknown to the British, German parachutists brought in by air to serve as reinforcements had also jumped a short while before. German reports at hand vary in their appraisal of this incident. One report mentions a complete victory gained by the British troops with heavy casualties among the German parachutists. Another report speaks of the annihilation of the majority of the British paratroopers.
What actually happened was that one small British group did succeed in reaching its objective, the bridge at Primosole, but then lost it. Whether or not this occurred because of or in spite of dual airborne operations can hardly be determined without a more thorough investigation of facts. An air landing into an enemy airhead will always result in confusion on both sides. It will, of necessity, lead to chaotic hand-to-hand fighting, similar to the cavalry battles fought centuries ago, in which ultimately the tougher and more tenacious fighter will be victorious. The initial advantage is definitely gained by the opponent who is aware of the situation and jumps into the enemy airhead deliberately. If, in addition, he is supported from the outside by a concentrated thrust on the ground, it is quite likely that he will succeed in achieving a complete victory. The only question is whether, in the case of a large scale airborne operation which definitely presupposes the air superiority of the attacker, the defender will be in any position to carry out an air landing. At night this might be conceivable. In any event, such a counter-jump likewise requires preparations and is therefore possible only if the attacker lands in an area where the defender has taken such preparatory measures.
Section 7 – An Appraisal of Allied Air Landings
During a war, the success of one side and the failure of the other are interrelated. In general, the success of the defender’s measures can best be judged by the degree to which the attacker, as the active party, has been able to realize his goal. From this point of view the three major Allied airborne operations during 1944-45 will be briefly evaluated. The Allied air landings in Normandy in June 1944 were carried out in close tactical collaboration with the amphibious operations. The Germans expected the air landings to take place farther inland, and to be aimed at more strategic objectives. Defensive measures were taken accordingly. The choice of landing areas for the over-all operations came as a surprise and, consequently, the defensive front was such that in comparison with other areas it was inadequately fortified and was held by weak German forces. The majority of the German reserve was committed elsewhere and was only reluctantly released for action.
Passive defense measures taken by the Germans did not influence the progress of the Allied airborne operations to any large extent. The first air landing, owing to an error in orientation, was dispersed far beyond the originally planned area. This caused the dissipation of initial German countermeasures. Isolated German successes were not able to prevent the over-all success of the air landing. Besides, since the drop zones covered a large area, it was difficult for the German command to quickly gain an accurate picture of the situation. This resulted in the erroneous commitment of the reserves and also had an adverse effect on the morale of the German troops. Because of the unmistakable air superiority of the enemy, it was impossible for the German countermeasures to be executed rapidly enough. The German counterattacks were able to narrow the landing areas temporarily and to limited extent; they succeeded in preventing the troops which had landed from immediately taking the offensive. They also succeeded in temporarily placing the Allied airborne troops in critical situations.
The German reserves were almost completely tied down by the air landings, making it impossible to launch effective counterattacks against the amphibious assault. Consequently, the attackers were able to gain a foothold on the coast and, within a short time, to establish contact with the airborne elements. The tactical objective of establishing a bridgehead as thus accomplished despite German countermeasures. The significant fact is that the air landings made it possible to substantially increase the number of forces which had been brought to the mainland during the first phase, thus augmenting the purely numerical superiority of the attacker over the defender. It is open to question whether air landings with distinct concentration of forces on tactical objectives would have caused a more rapid collapse of the German over-all defense. Of course, the landings on the beaches would then have been more difficult. It also might have been possible to unify the German countermeasures against the invasion more effectively. The chances for greater victory would have involved a greater risk.
The air landings at Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem in September 1944 were directed at breaking up the German front and paving the way for the British troops to reach the northern flank of the Ruhr area via the Meuse, the Waal, and the lower Rhine Rivers. The plan of attack offered the best chances of a major strategic victory. The operations also differed greatly from the Normandy landing in that they occurred during mobile warfare. Consequently, the Germans were unable to take defensive measures to the extent possible under conditions of position warfare. On the basis of intelligence reports, the Germans had anticipated enemy airborne operations. Furthermore, the commanders in the near-by home defense zones (Wehrkreis VI and Luftgau VI), as well as those in Holland, had made arrangements well in advance in order to be able to quickly form motorized auxiliary forces (so-called alert units) from home defense troops and occupation forces. These measures proved very effective, although the fighting strength of the alert units was necessarily limited.
In conformity with German principles, the air landings were attacked as soon as they were recognized. Two factors proved particularly helpful for the Germans. First, the air landing was not accompanied by any major attack by the Allied ground forces, but was supported only by a thrust on a narrow front launched by relatively weak armored spearheads, and was not followed by a heavier attack until the next day; secondly, the weather changed. Consequently, as early as the next day, the reinforcement and resupply of the airheads was considerably hampered and nearly ceased altogether for several days. At the same time the operations of the Allied air force against the German countermeasures, which in Normandy had caused so much damage, were greatly curtailed for some days. The German counterattacks against the two southern airheads in the area of Eindhoven and south of Nijmegen neither managed to crush them completely nor prevented their joining forces with the advancing ground elements. However, the Germans repeatedly succeeded in causing critical situations which delayed the advance of the Allied ground forces. Specifically, they managed to hold the bridge at Nijmegen for another four days, thus preventing the enemy from establishing contact with the northernmost airheads at Arnhem.
At Arnhem, in the meantime, the counterattacks conducted under the unified command of Army Group B, whose operations staff was stationed there, had been successful. The two worn-out SS panzer divisions which by pure chance were still in the vicinity, and the above-mentioned alert units, whose fighting strength was negligible, were the only troops available at the time. Nevertheless, the airheads of the 1st British Airborne Division was narrowed continually, until it was finally annihilated with the exception of small portions which escaped to the southern banks of the lower Rhine River. The German tactics had proved successful. Although they had not been able to prevent a deep penetration by the enemy, the Germans had managed to dispel the great danger of a strategic break-through, such as the Allies had planned. It was another six months before the Allies were able to launch an attack across the Rhine.
The Allied airborne operation at the Rhine, north of Wesel in March 1945, involved two airborne divisions. They were dropped directly into the river defense zone, operating in closest tactical collaboration with the ground troops which were launching an attack across the river. This air landing had been prepared with the greatest attention to detail and was supported not only by a large scale commitment of air forces, totaling more than 8,500 combat planes in addition to over 2,000 transport planes, but also by the entire artillery on the western bank of the Rhine. It was practically a mass crossing of the river by air. The operation was a complete success for it was impossible to take any effective countermeasures. The German troops struck by the attack-wornout divisions with limited fighting strength-defended their positions for only a short time before they were defeated. The only reserves available consisted of one training division whose troops had been widely dispersed to escape the incessant air attacks. This division was issued orders to launch a counterattack, and one regimental group did temporarily achieve a minor success against the landed airborne troops. The rest of the division was not committed at all, because enemy lowlevel planes completely wrecked all means of transportation.
Additional Information & Photos
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Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
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Email : gunter [at] eucmh.be
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