British Sky Tours

                  

 

 

 

***  AIRBORNE PART THREE  ***

 

 Anyone taking our Normandy sky tour finds it helpful to have an idea of the scale of Operation Overlord. Their Finest Hour, Map Table and The Special Relationship are worth a glance to understand some of the events before America's entry into the Second World War. Many visitors to our website probably know much of what is set out below. Please grant us your forbearance. We try to ensure that those less familiar with the background to D Day, particularly the young, start their tour with a sound conception of what was at stake thereby making their time with us all the more worthwhile and enjoyable.

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For some time we have felt the website lacked enough detail on two topics - airborne forces, and the role of the French Resistance during the Battle of Normandy including the politics among the main resistance groups. We're still working on the latter but hope our readers find this page and its photos explain some of the basics about airborne forces. There is a vast amount of information on the Internet and several good sites are linked to ours. Many excellent books have been written about airborne forces, the best always by those who took part. Therefore the material on our site provides most detail on the early parachute operations which are less familiar to our regular readership before offering a critique on the better known operations and some thoughts on future operations. We've also tried to bring alive what it's like to take part in a mass parachute landing.

This photo of a C 119 shows how the wartime American parachutes - still used in Korea - opened canopy first. Two airborne operations took place in Korea, both carried out by the 187th Regimental Combat Team. The first was in October 1950 during the advance to the Yalu River, intended to cut off the escaping North Korean leadership while rescuing American prisoners. On Easter Sunday 1951 over 120 C 119s and C 54s dropped 3500 Americans and a 12 strong Indian medical team near Munsan-ni in North Korea. This was part of an operation to trap the Chinese forces driving their spring offensive between the Han and Imjin Rivers - later during the same battle 800 Gloucesters held a hill against the Chinese 63 Army for over three days. Only one company escaped and reached the 29 Brigade lines but the Chinese lost 10,000 from an original 27,000 and the 63 Army was withdrawn from the battlefield.   

Those of us who served with airborne forces during the 1950s used exactly the same equipment as our seniors employed on D Day. Most of our officers and NCOs were veterans of D Day, Holland and the Rhine Crossing. One sapper in my squadron was a German Fallschirmjaeger veteran of Crete who still wore his Luftwaffe issue leather belt! Our weapons, equipment, uniforms and rations had 1944 stamped prominently on them. Our parachutes were the wartime X type although we jumped ' American ' style with a reserve parachute - our veteran leadership were quick to dismiss this trans-Atlantic ' softness ' and stressed that reserve parachutes had no place on combat jumps. This was nonsense but we kept our mouths shut.

Helicopters were still in their infancy and employed for small passenger numbers such as medical evacuation. The big change during the dozen years after 1945 was that aircraft performances greatly improved, so much that an airborne force no longer required gliders to deliver whole platoons, artillery, vehicles and light tanks onto the battlefield. Heavy drop parachutes had been perfected with platforms to carry bulky equipment. Moreover, the aircraft that we jumped from had become more spacious - the C 47 Dakota of wartime fame carried 19 paratroops, the early 1950s Hastings carried 36 paratroops, the later Beverley carried the same number in her tail boom and 70 paratroops in total. Once above Netheravon on a very hot day those of us riding in the tail boom were told to climb down - wearing our parachutes and loaded with 80 pounds weight kit bags - into the freight bay. I can still hear 40 plus paratroops similarly loaded and sweating, lined up along either side of the freight bay, baa-baaing like sheep as they waited for us all to scramble down and join the twin steaming lines waiting to jump. Once through the door, never had the summer sky felt so cool.

An American officer gazing at a Beverley for the first time remarked, ' Well, she swallows a fantastic variety of loads, but can she fly? ' The aircraft was equipped with a piece of equipment known as the ' elephant's foot ' to stop it sitting down as a heavy load boarded. Its wings owed much to the Hamilcar glider. The photo shows how the X type parachute let the rigging lines pay out first before the canopy streamed. The last break-tie snapped on the bag as the parachute blossomed. This gave a much softer deployment. Strops and static lines plus deployment bags can be seen flying beyond the aircraft door in the slipstream.

The Argosy was a graceful aircraft and carried 40 paratroops with a rear door and ramp for heavy loads. Paratroops exited through the doors or from a large aperture through the rear deck. The RAF also operated a much larger freighter called the Belfast for heavy loads and long distance flights. During the 1960s the C 130 gradually replaced all three aircraft.

The era of mass parachute attack, certainly in Vietnam, had ended with France's 1954 disaster at Dien Bien Phu. The French plan was for a mass drop into the enemy's back yard among the High Country along the Laos border. An airhead would be established and the Viet Minh Army led by General Vo Nguyen Giap drawn into the waiting firepower. Giap surrounded the airhead, brought up flak and artillery to the shock of the French generals, then strangled the life out of Dien Bien Phu. The surviving paras surrendered on the 8 May 1954 and were marched north, some in chains. France sued for peace. One of the survivors was Marcel Bigeard, a battalion commander in those days, later the most respected Para General in France.

The last time a British parachute assault took place was 1956 when 3 Parachute Battalion captured the airfield at Port Said. The French 2 Colonial Parachute Regiment jumped onto a tiny DZ close to the Suez Canal during the British/French attack on the Canal Zone. Both operations were successful but the political fall-out with the Eisenhower administration brought the intervention to a swift end. Since then the French and the Belgians have made parachute interventions in their former colonies in Africa. During their 1965 war with India the Pakistan Army parachute battalion launched a slightly reckless operation dropping small parties to sabotage the Indian airfields on the Punjab Plain. Fortunately my personal friends were quickly captured and returned unharmed after a few weeks as POWs. The Russians have maintained strong airborne forces but these have not attempted airborne operations.

I never jumped from a C 47 until serving in Vietnam. They really were perfect jump aircraft. Comfortable and steady in the air with a big door. We used them for free-fall training and operations. We once took a Huey up to 11,500 feet for a jump, partly to see if it would go that high. The Vietnamese regularly practised battalion mass drops and their senior airborne officers regarded this as a much less complex and costly means of vertical envelopment than helicopters. Although there were parachute operations - including the US 503 Parachute Regiment and other elements of the 173 Airborne Brigade jumping near the Cambodian border in 1967 - the helicopter soon dominated the battlefield. By 1969 the 173rd was an airmobile brigade that knew how to mount parachute operations but all insertions were made with helicopters. N Company 75th Rangers constantly inserted patrols into the mountains inland from LZ English, the 173rd Airborne Brigade base at Bong Son on the coast.

The 503 Parachute Infantry heading for the paddies along the Cambodian border in 1967 and the right to wear combat jump wings.

America fought the second Vietnam War with helicopters and the ultimate expression of such grand tactics was the airmobile division. Two fought much of the war - the First Air Cavalry Division in the Central Highlands, DMZ and then Cambodian border and the 101 Airborne Division based near Hue fought in the mountains both sides of the Laos border. These formations went into battle by helicopter - some 450 helicopters were on the divisional TO&E - with small scouting helicopters, gunships, troop carriers, heavy lift, and medical evacuation choppers. This gave incredible tactical mobility but the infantry's job is to seize and hold ground. You can't hold ground with helicopters and while insertion benefits from surprise - extraction is a another story. At least two repeats of Dien Bien Phu were narrowly avoided: Ia Drang on a small scale and Khe Sanh on a big scale before in February 1971 - which I witnessed - the South Vietnamese inserted their Airborne and Marine Divisions onto the Ho Chi Minh Trails through Laos. Instead of keeping mobile the South Vietnamese set up fire bases. This gave the North Vietnamese fixed targets and they soon strangled the firebases one by one. After weeks of bitter fighting the South Vietnamese needed all the US air support available to extract their beleaguered troops from Laos. The battle bought them a year but cost many of the best officers and soldiers in their strategic reserve.

Colonel John Waddy predicted twenty years ago that airmobile forces eventually would resemble a combination of airborne forces and an air force armed with helicopters. Second World War fighter bombers such as the Spitfire, Mustang and Typhoon would be replaced by hunter-copters and dog-fights would take place to clear the way for sky trains of troop carrier-copters. Others would provide air-strikes and direct fire support. Airborne commandos would ambush enemy armour and launch raids on headquarters. John would have returned the Parachute Regiment to the Army Air Corps - where it started - and merged the Armoured Corps and Army Air Corps. Some of his tactical ideas came about in Iraq but as in Vietnam and Laos, ground fire proved the dangerous threat to airmobile forces.

Since withdrawal from Vietnam the US Army has kept the 101st Airborne and 1st Air Cavalry Divisions as airmobile forces with the 82 Airborne Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade as parachute assault formations. This is a very powerful and balanced airborne force. Airmobile forces have fantastic tactical mobility but require huge resources to move strategically - normally by sea!

During late October 1983 the 75th US Rangers made a combat jump onto Salines airfield on Grenada. In March 1988 a brigade task force made up of two battalions from the 504th Infantry Regiment and 3rd Battalion (Airborne) 505th Infantry conducted a parachute insertion and airlanding operation into Honduras. The deployment was described a joint training exercise, but the paratroopers jumped combat ready. This deployment of US paratroopers to the Honduran countryside caused the Sandinistas to withdraw back into Nicaragua. Operation Golden Pheasant prepared the 82nd Airborne Division for future combat in this unstable world.

A year later the US 82 Airborne Division made its first combat jump in over 40 years when the 2nd battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment secured Torrijos Airport with a night assault during the invasion of Panama. The jump was made within hours after the 75th Ranger Regiment conducted two separate combat jumps. M551 Sheridan tanks were dropped by parachute - the only time this capability has been employed on a combat assault. On the 19 October 2001 during the opening moves of intervention in Afghanistan 3rd Battalion and a small Command and Control Element from the Regimental Headquarters of the 75th Ranger Regiment jumped near Kandahar to secure an airfield. There was a great deal of Special Forces activity - Green Berets on tribal ponies calling in B 52and B1 strikes on the Taleban and Saudi Arabians plus various hangers-on had a strategic impact out of all proportion to their tactical numbers and showed absolutely the way airborne forces should operate in hostile territory. We should be doing more such operations and raising a new force of North West Frontier Scouts although this time perhaps based on both sides of the Durand Line. We should certainly raise a force in Swat Valley and wipe out the Taliban. Further south the Wazirs and Mahsuds are regarded as the dregs of the North West Frontier by all the other tribes and we British could learn a lot from our forefathers, not least Winston Churchill who served on the North West Frontier and whose reports for the Daily Telegraph give lively accounts of numerous skirmishes.

The British and French have kept parachute forces but the US 82 Airborne Division is the only one left within the armies of the NATO nations. It's task is to ' Go anywhere at no warning ' and the division operates company, battalion and brigade sized packages. One company is always on 2 hours readiness. Packages are constructed for the job in hand. If a battalion has to move fast another battalion packs their equipment. The 173rd Airborne Brigade provides another quick reaction force. On the 26 March 2003 the 173rd Airborne Brigade made a combat jump into Northern Iraq to seize Bashur airfield.

Photos below are courtesy of the US Army and US Air Force and the author's collection. During the early 1980s while serving in North America I spent a week with the 82 Airborne Division as guest of its Commander, General Sandy Meloy, and his Deputy Commander for Operations, General Dick Shultes and Deputy Commander for Logistics, General Leroy Suddath. We went into all the options for deploying airborne forces and beefing up their firepower and tactical mobility without loosing strategic mobility. The Rapid Deployment Force had just been activated and its first Commander, General PX Kelley USMC, with whom I became friends in Vietnam, when asked how the force was getting along, replied, ' That at that moment it was neither rapid nor deployable.'  

173 rd Airborne Brigade troopers in clean fatigue - no baggage - and right photo loaded with as much gear as possible on their way to make a combat jump onto Bashur airfield in north-eastern Iraq. After nearly 36 years a new generation of the 173rd earn the right to wear combat jump wings.

Right below the sticks are jumping from both doors. Ten minutes before jump time the order is given to stand up, hook up. Each man clips his strop onto the cable running down the aircraft - shown below - slides in the safety pin then each man checks the man in front. The stick then calls off from the rear - twenty okay, nineteen okay..... Two minutes before jumping a red light comes on by the door. The first men ' stand in the door ' ready to jump when the green light comes on over the exit point. Whereupon the whole stick shuffles forward until all have jumped.

Today's airborne infantry still jump loaded with 100 pounds or more of weapons, ammunition, equipment. The troops themselves weigh more and some American paratroops can tip the scales at near enough 400 pounds when wearing their main and reserve parachutes as well. The old kitbags used during World War Two and by my generation have given way to ruck-sacks which are at least easier and more comfortable to porter off the drop-zone.

Parachute training school resembles a disciplined fun-fair with all manner of slides and rides. Nothing beats that first leap from a big aircraft and one's legs snatched by the blasting slipstream before riding solid wind. A gentle tug at the shoulders warns of the opening canopy. Stretching towards the horizon, float two scattered lines of khaki mushrooms. Beyond, the aircraft flies level with oneself, nothing is higher.

Modern parachutes have much slower descent rates than wartime canopies but once on the ground today's paratroops have to move whatever, wherever required. As a young paratrooper I often jumped loaded with a 100 pound weight kit bag - filled with everything from machine gun ammunition through plastic explosive and wire cutters to shovels! The kit bag - see photos on previous page - held by a pair of snaphooks at waist height, carefully released once the main parachute canopy deploys, swings on the end of a long rope and lands first. Its weight gone, the canopy tends to take in a breath, slow, and give its burden a soft landing. 

Cargo pallets going over the tail-gate over Afghanistan and a C 17 releasing flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles. All Weather Delivery System - AWADS - allows men, equipment or supplies to be delivered in bad weather only within a few yards of the destination on the ground. Container Delivery System - CDS - refines this capability so that a single aircraft can drop many tons of supplies onto several DZs. Foul weather nowadays can help airborne operations.

Two kinds of military training jumps - static line from 1000 feet and High Altitude Low Opening - HALO - from 12,000 feet. These jump heights change dramatically under combat conditions. A mass descent could jump from below 500 feet to reduce time in air when paratroops are vulnerable to ground fire. HALO jump heights can reach over 35,000 feet to disguise the aircraft's purpose. 

A third method - High Altitude High Opening - HAHO - from 12,000 feet. This allows a parachutist to jump many miles from the target and steer the open parachute before landing thus concealing the DZ and target. Modern parachutes come in various shapes - flexible wings are the most flyable - above is the classic round parachute with a British invention, the net skirt around the canopy, which makes the parachute steadier in the air.

 The latest parachute for static line jumps by the US paratroops - ATPS - Advanced Troop Parachute System designed for a very gentle opening and slow descent rate. Over the last four decades the space programme and sport parachuting transformed parachute design and performance. Below are the RAF Falcons display team flying in formation.

Modern techniques allow a student parachutist to jump tandem - this also provides a way of delivering anyone by HALO or HAHO. Modern parachutes can fly amazing distances when opened at high altitude. Some years ago Ted Lewington and the Red Devils team from the Parachute Regiment flew across the Dover Strait and touched down near Cap Gris Nez in France.

AIRBORNE VERSUS ARMOUR

Until recently the 82 Airborne Division had 54 light tanks for reconnaissance. These were Sheridans, veterans of Vietnam, paradrop and LAPES capable, indeed paradropped in Panama and very effective. The 82nd urgently requires a replacement. And that replacement should have tracks, a large calibre gun, rounds against armour and structures. For the moment the division's main anti-tank defence is provided by long range missiles and man-portable missiles - during the Cold War the squad protected its Dragon missile team. Longer range missile teams are deployed at company, support company and brigade level. The division has four brigades supported by strong artillery and a large number of AAA and SAM teams. All are parachute drop capable. Attack helicopters are an integral part of the division. Strong engineer, signals and logistics are built into the divisional TO&E - Table of Organisation and Equipment.

 

Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System - LAPES - a Sheridan light tank delivered onto Sicily Drop Zone at Fort Bragg. The C 130 already climbs away.

 

Left photo shows the Sheridan with its big gun for block house busting - very similar to the D Day mortar and petard tank employed by the Royal Engineers. Right photo shows the Scorpion tank - British - about the same vintage as the Sheridan. The Scorpion is made from aluminium and weighs 8 tons. The chassis would make an excellent start for a modern version - this one has been modified in Belgium with a 90 mm gun. A light body on wide tracks gives the Scorpion a softer footfall than an infantryman. Scorpions could travel over bogs on the Falkland Islands that the Paras found sticky going on foot.

  A great idea that never got off the ground. During the 1980s Ivan Barr's AAI Corporation designed the HSVT(L) with a multi-purpose 75mm high velocity gun that could shoot through the front armour of most heavy tanks - the barrel was longer than HSVT(L). Rather like a knight of old the HSVT(L) could wear its own suit of armour for protection from heavy weapons but take it all off when facing only light weapons. Fully armoured against tough opposition the tank weighed 14 tons. Barr's company designed a two man crew version but the Army wanted a tank commander - rather than a commander/gunner. So a three man version was developed but, of course, weighed 17 tons. The tank could withstand a hit by an 85mm round though used its speed - twice that of the fastest known tank - as the prime defence against big gun tanks. Barr, rightly, pointed out ' How many heavy tanks can take a hit from one of their own kind? '

Above photos show the M 8 Airborne Gun System. Although the M 8 resembles a tank it's really a modern version of the wartime assault guns deployed by the German armoured forces. Fully armoured the M 8 weighs about 20 tons - a little on the heavy side for a C 130 but well within the capability of a C 17. Only four have been built and these grudgingly released to the 82nd Airborne for testing. At least the M 8 has tracks. As a design it's nowhere near as versatile nor as punch-proof as HSVT(L) and my advise is to track down Ivan Barr and AAI.

The largest formation so far attempted with the C 17 - twenty aircraft - capable of delivering over 2000 paratroops onto a drop zone.  The same number of paratroops required over a hundred C 47s during World War Two. Moreover the range of a C 17 is much greater and its cruising speed over three times faster. Above all the C 17 does all this regardless of weather.

 ROUND THE BAR

As the list of US operations shows the days of the parachute assault are by no means over. Whereas airmobile forces cannot make strategic moves without huge support from seapower and airpower. Over twenty years ago I proposed a new type of formation in the RUSI Journal. I strongly urged that the right direction to take was a brigade sized force with airborne armour, four or five parachute battalions backed by strong parachute artillery and missiles plus a whole parachute engineer regiment. One weakness of an airborne force is lack of heavy artillery. This was partly redressed some years ago with the introduction of 105mm guns but an air-portable 155mm gun would give an airborne force much longer reach and far greater hitting power. Medium artillery can break up tank attacks and probe into enemy back areas beyond the reach of the present 105mm guns. Future airborne forces may control RPVs and thereby provide an assault with aerial firepower. Meanwhile, despite the lack of longer range firepower, I'm glad to see that the British 16 Air Assault Brigade closely matches this concept with the addition of a strong assault and attack helicopter force. My plan was that all line infantry brigades should convert into such small airborne divisions. The US Army's new brigade package structure reflects the same idea - smaller though more powerful units allow flexible deployment.

Modern electronics allow small teams of airborne or special forces troops to steer precision guided weapons onto individual targets such as armoured forces, strong points, communications and aircraft on the ground. Today an airborne force can alter the tactical situation and bring about a dramatic shift in the strategic balance. Russia's intervention in Georgia was a gamble that NATO wouldn't react with more than words and resulted with comparatively weak and green forces left dangerously exposed at the end of poor roads - not to mention a tunnel that's an easy target for special forces - on the wrong side of the Caucasus Mountains. A perfect target for an airborne coup de main. Not surprisingly, the Russian general, didn't want to stay there very long.     

The recurring dilemma for deploying airborne forces is that first class troops are always in constant demand. This is compounded by the inadequate size of both the US and British Armies. Lack of reserves for the latter remains shameful. So instead of being held back for long range strikes - even within an operational theatre - both the US and British airborne forces are serving very courageously on classic line infantry operations. There simply are not enough line battalions to do otherwise.

Britain's politicians have an appalling record for short-sighted and lousy judgement on international affairs. Harold Wilson's Labour government in the 1960s withdrew from East of Suez - a move completed without a murmur by Ted Heath's Conservative government in the early 1970s. The aircraft carrier force was being paid off and scrapped when in 1982 the Argentine Junta saved the Royal Navy from further massive cuts by a Defence Secretary who was unfit for the job. Since the end of the Cold War there have been two large wars in the Gulf. The first under John Major's Conservative government took place before the so-called ' peace bonus ' had eaten into our armed forces. Despite previous Labour policy Tony Blair took Britain into two wars East of Suez and both show no signs of ending - Afghanistan looks distinctly hotter. While sending our forces to these wars the Blair government only grudgingly parted with sums of money that were too small in peacetime. Under Gordon Brown's leadership - if one can call it such - this attitude has worsened. Suicidal cuts to the Royal Navy and repeated shrinking of the RAF are clear evidence that neither government nor opposition in Britain has a clue how to defend the country and our interests overseas. I'm not sure whether many British politicians are aware that we live on an island and that 95% of our trade comes and goes in ships. 

Personally I would advocate what is done in neutral Switzerland - all important decisions have long been removed from politicians - taxes, treaties, strength of the armed forces, all require approval by the people in regular popular votes. And people vote.

Why are strategic intervention forces so important?  Allied operations such as D Day and the huge effort to create airborne forces show the price paid when history goes wrong and tyrants rule on the Globe. Far too much of the World's precious raw materials and energy are vulnerable to corrupt one party, one person regimes. Our great democracies are engaged in this struggle until disregard for human rights becomes impossible. Strong forces are not a favour to others but our own self-interest. Oppressed peoples cannot gain their human rights when the only help on offer is weasel words. Sea power and air power are required and with sufficient strength. Wherever democracy flourishes, so do peace and prosperity.

 

AIRBORNE ONE

AIRBORNE TWO

 

The strategic role of airborne forces is closely tied to the amphibious and intervention forces of the US Navy and Marine Corps, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. Anyone interested in such matters will find lots of discussion about naval forces through the page link below. This page leads to more pages - we're adding steadily - and we hope that our readers find them both helpful and enjoyable.

WORLD NEWS ONE

 

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