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Section 1. PRINCIPLES OF EMPLOYMENT
The airborne operations undertaken by the Germans during World War II may be classified in two groups, according to their purpose. In the first group, the attack took the form of sending an advance force by air to take important terrain features, pass obstacles, and hold the captured points until the attacking ground forces arrived.
This operation was aimed at a rigidly limited objective within the framework of a ground operation which was itself essentially limited. This was the case in the airborne operation in Holland in 1940 and, on a smaller scale, at Corinth in 1941 and during the Ardennes offensive in 1944. The common characteristic of all these operations is that they were limited to capturing the objectives and holding them until the ground forces arrived. Beyond that, there was no further action by the troops landed from the air, either in the form of large-scale attacks from the airhead or of independent airborne operations. At the time, such missions would have been far beyond the power of the troops committed.
In the second group are the operations having as their objective the capture of islands. On a large scale these included the capture of Crete in 1941; on a more limited scale these included the capture of Leros in 1943. Crete came closer to the concept of an independent operation, although the objective was strictly limited in space. The planned attack on Malta also belongs in this category. The experience of World War II shows that such missions are well within the means of airborne operations.
Two considerations influence the selection of the objective in airborne operations. The first is that in respect to their numbers, and also as far as their type, equipment, and training is concerned, the forces available must be fit for the task facing them. This is of course true of all tactical and strategic planning, but at the beginning of the war, because of a lack of practical experience, the manpower needs were greatly underestimated.
The second consideration-and this is especially important for airborne operations-is that at least temporary and local air superiority is an absolute necessity. This factor has a decisive influence upon the selection of the objective, at least as far as distance is concerned. The latter condition prevailed during the large-scale German airborne operations against Holland and Crete; but the first condition did not exist in equal measure, a fact which led to many crises. both were absent during the unsuccessful Ardennes offensive.
In preparing for an airborne operation the element of surprise must be maintained. In the operation against Holland surprise was easily achieved since it was the very first time that an airborne operation had ever been undertaken. Once the existence of special units for airborne operations and the methods of committing them had become known, surprise was possible only through careful selection of time and place for the attack, and of the way in which it was started. This requires strict secrecy regarding preparations. In the Crete operation such secrecy was lacking, and the grouping of parachute troops and transport squadrons became known to the enemy who had little doubt as to their objective. The result was that the German troops landing from the air on Crete came face to face with an enemy ready to defend himself; consequently, heavy losses were sustained.
[Field Marshal Kesselring's comments on the element of surprise: Airborne operations must always aim at surprise, which has become increasingly difficult but not impossible to achieve. Detection devices, for example radar equipment, can pick up air formations at a great distance and assure prompt countermeasures. Flights at very low altitude, such as were planned for the attack against Malta, are difficult to detect by means of such equipment. The effectiveness of these devises is neutralized by natural barriers in the terrain. Attention can be diverted by deception flights, and confusion is often caused by suddenly changing the course of the aircraft during approach runs, as well as by dropping dummies at various places behind the enemy front. Night operations increase the possibility of surprise,; in many cases this is also true fro the ensuing ground combat. It is impossible to overestimate the value of soundless glider approaches during twilight hours for the successful execution of air landings. It is easier to preserve secrecy in the assembly of airborne units than in concentrations prior to ground operations of the same size, since with proper organization the airborne troops can be assembled and attacks prepared deep in friendly territory within very short periods of time. Crete is the classic example of how this should *not* be done.]
Connected with the element of surprise is deception. A typical deceptive measure in airborne operations is the dropping of dummies by parachute. Both sides availed themselves of this measure during World War II. Experience shows that an alert enemy can soon recognize dummies for what they are. A mingling of dummies and real parachutist promises better result because it misleads the enemy as to the number of troops involved and leaves him guessing as to where the point of main effort of the attack is to be located and as to where only a diversionary attack is concerned. As an experiment, the German parachute troops also attempted to equip the dummies with smoke pots which would start smoking when they reached the ground, thus making it still harder for the enemy to see through the deception. This idea never advanced beyond the experimental stage.
Careful reconnaissance is also of special importance in airborne operations. The difficulty is that in airborne operations troops cannot, as in ground combat, conduct their own reconnaissance imediately in advance of the main body of troops. In attacking, their spearheads penetrate country that no reconnaissance patrol has ever trod. This is why reconnaissance will have to be carried out very carefully and well in advance. Military-geographical descriptions, aerial photography, reports from agents, and radio intelligence are sources of information. All this requires time. Before the Holland operation enough time was available, and it was utilized accordingly. Reconnaissance before the Crete attack was wholly inadequate and led to serious mistakes. For instance, enemy positions were described as artesian wells and the prison on the road from Alikaneos to Khania as "a British ration supply depot." Both the command and the troops had erroneous conceptions about the terrain in Crete, all of which could have been avoided if more careful reconnaissance had been made.
Several views were current among German airborne commanders as the best way of beginning an airborne operation. One method, which General Student recommended and called "oil spot tactics," consisted in creating a number of small airheads in the area to be attacked-at first without any definite point of main effort-and then expanding those airheads with continuous reinforcement until they finally ran together. These tactics were used in both Holland and Crete. General Meindl, on the contrary, was of the opinion that a strong point of main effort had to be built up from the very onset, just as was done in attacks made by the German panzer forces.
However, no German airborne operations were launched in accordance with this principle. Neither of the two views can be regarded as wholly right or wrong; which one will prove more advantageous will depend on the situation of one's own and the enemy's forces, terrain, and objective. Even in conventional ground combat an attack based on a point of main effort which has been determined in advance is in opposition to the Napoleonic method of "on s'engage partout et puis on voit" (one engages the enemy everywhere, than decided what to do). This implies, however, that a point of main effort will have to be built up eventually by committing the reserves retained for this purpose.
If the relatively strong forces required by this method are not available, it would be better to build up a point of main effort from the very beginning. On the other hand, since in airborne operations a thrust is made into terrain where the enemy situation is usually unknown, the "oil spot method" has a great deal in its favor. For example, it breaks up enemy countermeasures, as in the attack on Crete. During the initial attack there, parachute troops were distributed in a number of "oil spots;" there were heavy losses and no decisive successes. No further paratroopers were available and the decision was made to land the troop carriers of the 5th Mountain Division wherever an airfield was in German hands, even though it was still under enemy fire.
This was taking a great risk, but the plan succeeded from this point onward, the island was captured and the other "oil spots" liberated. At one time, the whole operation was within a hair's breadth of disaster because the airheads, which were too weak and too far apart, were being whittled down. After the decision to attack one point had been carried out and had succeeded, the remaining "oil spots" were useful since they prevented the enemy from moving his forces about freely. The advantages and dangers connected with this method are clear.
The unavoidable inference from the Crete operation is that commanders of airborne troops should land with the very first units so that clear directions for the battle can be given from the outset. The over-all command, however, must direct operations from the jump-off base and influence the outcome by making a timely decision as to where a point of main effort should be built up, and by proper commitment of reserves. For this purpose an efficient communication system and rapid reporting of the situation are necessary.
Since the actual fighting in airborne operations takes place on the ground and in general is conducted in close touch with other ground operations, it is advisable to have both airborne and ground operations under the same command. In the German airborne operations in Crete, the Luftwaffe was in command and neither the ground force commanders in Greece nor the OKH (Army High Command) had anything to do with the preparations; this is a mistake.
In airborne operations the air forces are responsible for keeping the air open for the approach and supply of the landing formations. They also aid in the operation by reconnaissance and by commitment of their tactical formations in preparing the landing and in supporting the troops which have landed. In this they must receive their orders from the command of the ground forces.
[Field Marshal Kesselring's comment on command for airborne operations: I do not agree with the statement about the conduct of airborne operations. These operations must be considered from the viewpoint of the Armed Forces High Command (OKW). The commander in chief of a theater, for example the Eastern Theater or the Southern Theater, is also a joint forces commander with a joint staff. He is responsible for all airborne operations which are launched within his theater. Hence, the commander of the airborne operation must also be subordinate to him. This commander will generally be an officer of the Air Force whose staff must be supplemented, according to the task assigned him, by Army and Navy officers as well as airborne officers. In some special cases and invariably in those cases where there is no direct connection with the ground and sea fronts, the OKW will plan the operation and conduct it directly.
The situation and the mission would probably be the decisive factors in making a decision about the chain of command. If the mission involves supporting a ground attack by means of an airborne operation directly behind the attack front, the army group will be given the over-all command, will assign missions, and will intervene whenever necessary for the purpose of air-ground coordination. As soon as the attacking ground troops establish an effective link-up with the airborne unit, the airborne troops will be brought into the normal chain of command of the attacking ground forces. Unit of command takes precedence over all other considerations. Until that time the airborne troops are commanded by their own unit commanders.
The highest ranking officer in the landing area commands at the airhead and is himself subordinate to the commander of the airborne operation-in the above case to the army group commander-who works in close coordination with the Air Force commander. In all other cases where, as in Holland, Crete, Oslo, there are no direct connections with operations of the Army or the Navy, a special headquarters, preferably commanded by an Air officer and staffed with Air Force personnel, should be placed in charge of the operations. In appropriate cases, it will be the Air Force commander concerned, especially if the tactical air support units for the airborne operation have to taken from his sector of the fighting front. This commander's responsibilities include not merely the landing of the first echelon but also the considerably harder problem of directing the following waves and modifying their landing orders in accordance with the development of the situation at the airhead. They also involve the preparatory bombing attack; protection by reconnaissance planes, bombers, and close-support aircraft aimed, I might say, at supporting the ground troops with high and low altitude attacks carried out by the extended arm of a flying artillery; the air transport of supplies; and finally the evacuation by air of casualties, glider pilots, and other specialists. The shortest possible chain of command is decisive for success.]
Mention has already been made of the fact that control of the air is an essential prerequisite for airborne operations. If that control is widespread and based upon maintaining the initiative in air combat, the air support of the airborne force will present few problems. Airborne operations based upon temporary and local air superiority are also possible, but they make strenuous demands upon the attacker's air force. Immediately before an operation, the enemy's forward fighter fields must be rendered useless, and all antiaircraft installations along the route selected for the flight must be neutralized. Enemy radar and communications facilities in the area should also be put out of action, and any enemy reserves near the projected airhead must be subjected to intensive bombardment. Such activity must begin so late that the enemy will have no time to bring in additional troops or to repair the damage.
Each airborne formation will require a fighter escort. From the point of view of air tactics, it will therefore be desirable to keep the number of formations or waves to a minimum. The primary mission of the escort will be to protect the troop-carrier aircraft against enemy fighter planes, especially during the landing and deployment of the troops for ground action. The neutralizing tactics already mentioned will have to be continued during and after the landing to insure the sage arrival of supplies and reinforcements. The troops on the ground will continue to require air support to take the place of artillery that would normally be supporting them.
Throughout World War II the German parachute troops had the benefit of close cooperation on the part of the Luftwaffe reconnaissance. The main problem was to see to it that the parachute troops received good aerial photographs and, if possible, stereoscopic pictures of the area they were to attack so that they could familiarize themselves in advance with the terrain. It proved to be advisable to distribute stereoscopic equipment down to battalion level and to send members of the parachute units to the aerial photography school of the Luftwaffe for special training in the use and interpretation of stereoscopic pictures. In this way, it was possible to offset to a certain degree the lack of terrain reconnaissance prior to an airborne attack.
Finally, the air forces support the airborne operation by attacking the enemy's ground forces. During the war all German airborne operations took place beyond the range of German artillery, and only in the case of the Ardennes offensive were parachute troops to be supported by longrange artillery bombardment. This plan was never put into operation because the radio equipment of the forward observer assigned to the parachute troops failed to function after the jump. Ground strafing and preparatory bombing of the landing area proved to be the best solution everywhere. Air attacks upon enemy reserves being rushed toward the airhead can be of decisive importance because of the extra time gained for the troops which have been landed. Opinions are divided, however regarding the value of direct air support of the troop fighting on the ground after their landing. On Crete, formations of the Luftwaffe's Von Richthofen Corps solved this problem in exemplary fashion.
Other experiences, however, would seem to indicate that it is impossible to support airborne troops, once they are locked in battle, by delivering accurate fire from the air or well-placed bombs. Lack of training and inadequate skill in airground cooperation may have disastrous effects. Systematic training, in which well-functioning radio communication from the ground to the air and coordination between formations on the ground and in the air are emphasized, should achieve results just as satisfactory as those achieved between armored formations and air forces. It goes without saying that cooperation from the artillery, in so far as airborne operations are conducted within its range, is worth striving for, both in preparation of the landing and in support of the troops after they have landed. Attention may be drawn to the Allied airborne operation north of Wesel in March 1945 where British and American artillery support is said to have been extremely effective.
When airborne operations are effected on a beach, naval artillery takes the place of Army artillery. An increase in range made possible by the development of rockets will result in further possibilities for support.
When troops landed by air are joined by forces advancing on the ground, the airborne operations are conducted against islands and coast lines, junction with amphibious forces has the same effect. In World War II, accordingly, airborne operations were always conducted in coordination with ground or amphibious forces. How soon this junction with ground or amphibious forces will be effected depends upon the number of troops and volume of supplies, including weapons and equipment, ammunition, rations, and fuel, which can be moved up by air. This again depends upon the air transport available and upon control of the air to insure undisturbed operation of the airlift required for this purpose.
If such relief cannot be provided in time, the troops landed will be lost. So far, no way has been devised of fetching them back by air. In the German airborne operations of World War II, supplying troops by air over long periods of time was impossible, not only because control of the air could not be maintained, but also because of a lack of transport planes. In German doctrine, the guiding principle was that as much airlift was needed to resupply a unit which had been landed by air with ammunition and weapons (excluding rations) for a single day of hard fighting as had been necessary for the transport of the unit to the drop point.
While this fighting does not take place at all times and be all elements at the same time, consideration must be given to the fact that in addition to supplies it will be necessary to bring up more troops to follow up initial successes and give impetus to the fighting. Eventually, the troops will need to be supplied with additional rations and, if they break out of their airheads, with fuel. In this field, too, postwar technical achievements offer new possibilities. During the war the Germans believed that junction of an airborne formation with ground troops had to be effected within two to three days after landing. On the basis of conditions prevailing in those days, these deadlines consistently proved to be accurate in practice.