AvStop Magazine Online
Section 11. AIRBORNE TACTICS
Three methods were used during World War II to land troops from the air at their place of commitment. Troops could be landed by parachute, by transport gliders released from tow planes, or by landing of transport planes. All three methods were used in varied combinations, depending upon the situation. In accordance with the lessons derived from World War II, the last method, for reasons which will be discussed later, is unsuitable for the initial capture of enemy territory from the air, that is, the creation of an airhead. Accordingly, only the commitment of paratroopers and gliderborne troops will be discussed here. (German experiences in the technique and tactics of these two methods are described in detail in the appendix.) The advantages and the disadvantages of the two methods will be compared here and conclusions drawn as to their future use.
Commitment of gliders has the great advantage that they land their whole load in one place. Since debarkation is a matter of seconds, the troops can bring their full fire and striking power to bear immediately after landing. The almost noiseless approach of the gliders, which have been released from the tow planes far from the objective, increases the element of surprise. Furthermore, diving gliders are able to make very accurate spot landings within a limited area. Glider troops are also able to open fire with aircraft armament upon an enemy ready to repulse them. German parachute troops were convinced that this would have an excellent effect on morale. In practice the method was used only once, so far as is known, and that was on a very small scale in July 1944 at Vassieux against the French maquis, but its success was outstanding. While the glider offers pronounced advantages during the first attack on an objective which is defended, in the subsequent phases of the airborne operation its advantages over the use of parachutes lie in the fact that it can deliver substantially greater loads, such as heavy weapons, guns, tanks, and trucks.
On the other hand, parachute jumps make it possible to drop very large numbers of troops at the same time within a certain area. Moreover, until the very last minute the commander can alter his selection of the drop point. He can accordingly adapt himself to changed conditions far more easily than is the case with gliders. The latter are released far from the objective and once this has been done there is no way of changing the landing area.
On this basis it will be seen that the glider is particularly suited for the capture of specifically designated and locally defended objectives, such as Fort Eben Emael, while parachutists are more effective for the purpose of capturing larger areas. Among the German airborne troops a marked preference developed for a method in which an initial attack by gliders was quickly followed up by mass parachute jumps. This plan is not, however, universally applicable. In each case methods will have to be adapted to the situation, terrain, type of objective, and amount of resistance to be expected from the enemy; the commander of the parachute troops will have to make his decision within the framework of his mission.
[Field Marshal Kesselring's comments on the relative merits of parachute and glider landings:
The comparative advantages and disadvantages of parachute and glider landings are well described. Nevertheless, I maintain that at least the same concentration of forces can be achieved with a glider landing as with a parachute jump. Experience shows that parachute landings are very widely scattered, so that assembly takes considerable time. Gliders, according to their size, hold ten to twenty or even more men, who immediately constitute a unit ready for combat. If the landing area is fairly large-the condition of the terrain is of little importance-and if the unit is well trained, the assembly of strong fighting units in a small area will not present any difficulties.]
A weakness in the commitment of gliders is to be found in the fact that once they have been used they are immobilized on the ground and-at least on the basis of German progress by the end of the war-cannot be used twice during the same operation. The German conclusion was that transport planes had to be used as soon as possible. There is no doubt, however, that in time a way will be found to get the gliders back to their base, for example, by the addition of light engines, or the use of helicopters.
[Field Marshal Kesselring's comment on re-use of gliders:
The abandoning of gliders should not be considered a great disadvantage. Their construction is very simple and within the means of even a poor nation. Excessively complicated devices [for glider recovery] should be avoided. But this does not apply to the development of new types of air transport facilities, especially for peacetime and training requirements, which can perhaps also be used in particularly favorable military situations.]
It is important to clear the landing zone immediately so that more gliders can land in their turn. When large-scale glider landings in successive waves are to be made, special personnel will have to be provided for the purpose.
It must be mentioned in this connection that German gliders, patterned on those used in sport, had so-called "breaking points" (Sollbruchstellen), that is, joints of purposely weak construction, which would break first in crash landings or collisions with natural or artificial obstacles. This method brought about a substantial economy in construction of the gliders and simplification in procurement of spare parts and maintenance.