AvStop Magazine Online


The Germans carried out airborne operations on a large scale only twice in World War II; once in May 1940 in Holland, and again in May 1941 in connection with the occupation of Crete. Accordingly, German experiences are based in the main upon these two operations which took place during the first years of the war and which constituted the first large-scale airborne operations in the history of warfare. Although there were no other major airborne operations launched by the Germans, the German command, and in particular the parachute units which continued to be further improved during the course of the war, seriously concerned themselves with this problem. Two other cases are known in which plans and preparations for large-scale airborne operations progressed very far, namely, the intended commitment of parachute troops as part of the landing in England (Operation SEELOEWE) in 1904, and the preparations for the capture of the island of Malta in 1942. Neither of these plans was carried out.

Airborne operations on a smaller scale were carried out against the Greek island of Leros in 1943 and during the Ardennes offensive in 1944. The experience of minor operations such as these, as well as the trials, tests, and research done by the airborne troops during the war, are also discussed in this study.

The problems encountered in German airborne operations have been divided into three categories:

  1. Planning airborne operations from the point of view of the higher command, designation of objectives for air lands, and cooperation with ground troops, the Luftwaffe, and the naval forces;
  2. Actual execution of an airborne operation; the technique and tactics of landing troops from the air; and
  3. Organization, equipment, and training.

In addition, a number of specific points and recommendations have been attached in the form of a appendix contributed by Col. Freiherr von der Heydte, who may be regarded as the most experienced field commander of German airborne troops.

In every air landing there are two separate phases. First the strip of terrain must be captured from the air; that is, an "airhead" must be established. This airhead may, or may not, include the objective. Second, the objective of the air landing must either be captured or held in ground battle. The second phase is similar in nature to conventional ground combat, if we disregard the method used to transport the troops and the factors of strength and supply which are influenced by the circumstances that all communication is by air. The first phase, however, has new and unique characteristics. Troops committed during the first phase require special equipment and special training. In limited engagements such troops can also carry out the missions connected with the second phase. For large-scale operations regular ground troops will have to be used in addition to special units. These ground troops need equipment modified to fit the conditions of air transport.

In recognition of these factors the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) had taken two steps even before the war. In the 7th Airborne Division of the Luftwaffe, a unit had been created whose mission it was to capture terrain by parachute jumps and landing troop-carrying gliders. An Army unit, the 22d Infantry Division, had been outfitted for transport by air and given the designation of "Air Landing Division."

Both of these units were committed during the first great air-landing attack in Holland in 1940, at which time the 22d Infantry Division had to be reinforced by elements of the 7th Airborne Division to capture the initial airhead. On the other hand, smaller missions, such ass that to capture Fort Eben Emael, were accomplished by troops of the 7th Airborne Division without assistance from other units. During the attack on Crete a year later, it was impossible for the airborne troops to achieve a victory alone. It was only when Army units transported by air had arrived that progress was made toward capturing the island. Since it had not been possible to transport the 22d Infantry Division to Greece in time, the 5th Mountain Division, already in Greece, had to be employed, a measure which proved to very successful. Preparations lasting approximately one month were sufficient to prepare the division for the new assignment. The special equipment of the mountain troops was suited both for transport by air and for commitment in the mountainous terrain of the island.