AvStop Magazine Online


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, as 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.