AvStop Magazine Online


In assessing the successes and failures of German airborne operations the following missions are taken into consideration: Holland, 1940; Corinth, 1941; Crete, 1941; Leros, 1943; and Ardennes, 1944. All other commitments of German airborne troops fall into the category of commando operations or of troop movements by air.

Holland, 1940.-On the whole, the airborne operations against Holland, in spite of a number of critical moments and relatively great losses, must be classified as successful. This success was connected not so much with achievement of the tactical objectives, such as the capture of a number of bridges which were important to the attacking ground forces, as with the morale influence exerted upon the enemy by a wholly new method of fighting. The very fact that in this way large forces could penetrate deep behind Dutch defenses at the outset of the fighting undoubtedly broke the resistance of the Dutch and saved the German Army the cost of a serious fight in capturing Holland. Success is attributable mainly to the surprise provoked by this method, which was used for the first time in the history of warfare.

[Field Marshal Kesselring's comments on airborne operations in Holland:

This was the first airborne operation in history and should be treated in somewhat greater detail. The operation was under the overall direction of the commander of Second Air Force. The tactical commander was General Student. His headquarter was divided into a mobile forward echelon, headed by Student in person, and a stationary rear echelon, which was to assume special importance.

The operation was divided into the following parts:

1.An operation with gliders alone against Fort Eben Emael and the Maas bridge. With the capture of Fort Eben Emael, the enemy flanking actions against the Maas crossing were eliminated. The capture of the most important bridge guaranteed that the Maas River would be crossed according to plan and thus established the necessary conditions for the coordination of ground and air operations in Holland. The dawn missions succeeded surprisingly well.

2.A major airborne operation by two divisions to capture the Moordijk bridges, the Rotterdam airport, the city of Rotterdam, and the Dutch capital of The Hague and its airfields. Since the second part of the mission (22d Infantry Division-The Hague) was not successful the subsequent operations in the Dutch coastal area failed to take place.

The attempt at surprise was successful. Today one cannot even imagine the panic which was caused by rumors of the appearance of parachutists, supported by the dropping of dummies, etc. Nevertheless, the surrender of Rotterdam was the result of the bold actions of the parachutists and the air attack against the defended positions in Rotterdam. The operation had been organized by Student with the thoroughness characteristic of him. In fact, it had been a small military masterpiece, particularly with respect to the following:

a. The deployment of troops and troop-carrier formations among the only airfields near the border, just within range of the most distant objectives.

b. The incorporation of escort fighter wings in the transport movement, for which General Osterkamp can claim both the responsibility and the credit.

c. The coordination of the bomber escort attacks with the landing operations, which had been rendered even more difficult because the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe had ordered an attack against reported enemy naval vessels on the previous evening.

The success of the airborne operation with respect to its strategic effect is incontestable. The Dutch Theater of Operations was practically eliminated. The failures and losses can be attributed to the following:

a. Interference with the plan of attack by the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, mentioned above.

b. The inadequate strength of parachutists in the air attack group of the 22d Infantry Division.

c. Defects in coordination between the 22d Infantry Division and the troop-carrier formations and inadequate training of both in the tactical doctrine for carrying out an airborne operation.

d. Technical defects in the signal communications system which made it difficult or impossible for the parachutists and transport formation to cooperate with the 22d Infantry Division and, similarly, hampered General Student in issuing orders to that division.

e. The command technique of General Student, who thought of himself as the commander of the Rotterdam operation and thus neglected liaison with the Second Air Force, especially during the most decisive hours.

However, all in all, the airborne operation proved successful as the first of its kind because essentially it was correctly organized and carried out with unparalleled verve. It taught us a great number of practical lessons, the application of which did not present any problems which were insurmountable from a technical or tactical point of view. It proved that an airborne operation needs its own command posts, both on the ground and in the air, as well as representation at a higher level.]

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 (5th Mountain 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.

[Field Marshal 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.] 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.