During the Second World War, a new type of military operation was created which allowed armies to strike deep behind enemy lines. Airborne operations, which involved paratroopers and glider-borne infantry, were extremely risky and that is why some daring attempts ended in complete disaster.
Due to that fact, throughout World War II the bulk of paratroopers fought as infantry. However, four operations stand out as being the largest use in airborne forces ever.
Battle of Crete
Following the Axis victories in the Balkans and Greece, German General Kurt Student conceived Operation Merkur (Mercury) to capture the Greek island of Crete, which was being held by more than 40,000 British, Commonwealth and Greek troops.
Student devised a plan that employed some 15,000 Fallschirmjägers (paratroopers) in landings where they could then capture the airfields of Maleme, Rethymnon and Heraklion so that their reinforcements could be flown in by the air. The Allies had an advantage in that they had broken German codes and knew the invasion was coming, but just not where. The Allied commanders missed an opportunity, yet the Germans persevered and after hard fighting turned the tide. The Fallschirmjägers gained control of an airfield and reinforcements were able to arrive turning the tide of battle, but it was a hallow and costly victory. The German never used the elite paratroopers in an airborne operation again during the war.
Invasion of Normandy
Anyone who has seen HBO’s Band of Brothers knows the role the Allied airborne troops played on D-Day, but that is really just part of the story. Some 13,100 American paratroopers and nearly 8,500 British and Canadian paratroopers and some 1,200 aircraft also took part in the invasion of Normandy—landing in the late hours of June 5 and the early morning of June 6. They successfully landed inland, behind the main line of German beaches where they were able to secure key approaches to the Allied beachhead.
The use of airborne forces also highlighted how small units played a huge role. Among those thousands of British airborne troops was the small force of 181 men commanded by Major John Howard and joined with a detachment of Royal Engineers who landed at Ranville-Benouville in six 28-men Horsa gliders. They successfully captured the strategically important Bénouville Bridge—later renamed the Pegasus Bridge—over the Caen Canal in just ten minutes and held it for more than six hours to limit the effectiveness of a German counter-attack during the beach landings.
Taking place on March 24, 1945 this largely overlooked operation actually involved more than 16,000 paratroopers and several thousand aircraft—and it was the largest airborne operation conducted in a single day in one location. It was part of the larger Operation Plunder, the Anglo-American-Canadian assault to cross the northern Rhine River, with the Allied airborne landings helping to secure the river assault troops.
While many of the American paratroopers missed their drop zone, the operation was a major success and resulted in the capture of Rhine bridges. It was also the last large-scale Allied airborne mission of the war, but questions continue as to whether the operation was necessary given that American forces had already secured a foothold across the Rhine further south.
Operation Market Garden
“A bridge too far” has been used to sum up this battle practically since it ended in failure for the Allies on September 25, 1944 just eight days after it began. It involved some 41,000 airborne troops including paratroopers and glider-borne infantry.
Nearly 17,000 Allied soldiers were wounded or killed, and while much of the southern Netherlands was liberated, the objectives—notably the capture of the bridges at Arnhem—weren’t met and the battle ended as an operational failure. Yet despite the command failures and mishaps, the performance of the airborne troops has been hailed as noteworthy given the terrible conditions. As HistoryNet.com noted, “Two moments in the fighting stand out… the holding of the north end of the Arnhem bridge by Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion of the 1st Airborne and the seizure of the main bridge over the Waal River at Nijmegen by the 82nd Airborne’s 504th Parachute Infantry.” But in the end the fighting skills couldn’t overcome the poor planning and bad luck.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.