Sky Soldiers – History’s First Airborne Units

The first wartime air drop in history took place on April 9, 1940 in Denmark.

The first wartime air drop in history took place on April 9, 1940 in Denmark.

“During the years between the World Wars, armies around the world began organizing their own specially designated paratroop units.”

FEW HAVE PROBABLY heard of Gleb Kotelnikov — the genius behind the first modern backpack parachute.

In 1911, the 39-year-old Russian actor turned inventor set out to create a more perfect chute after watching a stunt pilot fall to his death from an airplane at a St. Petersburg aerobatic display. Traumatized by the calamity, he soon devoted his life to designing the life-saving devices. In fact, much of his work would go on to inform the future development of parachute technology.

While parachutes had been conceived as far back as the 15th Century, with one model being successfully tested in 1617, these original iterations were conceived long before the advent of the airplane. Such designs would prove inadequate when deployed by a wearer who was travelling at high speeds when jumping. Even 19th Century parachutes were useless in such instances. Kotelnikov’s invention changed all that — his backpack parachute was designed to deploy successfully, even the when the user pulled the rip chord after leaping from a moving cockpit.

Within three years of the breakthrough, parachutes like his would prove to be invaluable for pilots, as well as balloon and zeppelin crews.

Had the First World War continued into 1919, the Allies were considering dropping soldiers behind enemy lines by parachute.

Parachute Troopers?

It soon became evident that parachutes would be useful for more than just saving air crew. During the First World War, some military visionaries saw them as a way of also breaking the bloody deadlock of trench warfare.

As early as 1917, Winston Churchill supposedly proposed forming entire regiments of infantry that could be dropped by aircraft behind enemy lines, thus ending the harrowing stalemate on the Western Front.

He wasn’t the only one with the idea. In fact, the head of the U.S. Army Air Service in the First World War, Billy Mitchell, planned to equip elements of the American 1st Infantry Division with parachutes and drop them from converted bombers near Metz, France as part of a larger offensive against the German lines. Planners envisioned that these ‘sky soldiers’ would be carried aloft on the wings of dozens, even hundreds of aircraft. When the target area was reached, the soldiers would simply slide off the wings at which point their chutes would deploy and they’d drift to the ground ready for battle.

The operation, which would have been the first airborne assault in history was slated for February of 1919. The war ended before the plan could be put into action.

Allied commanders envisioned squads of airborne infantry leaping from the wings of bombers. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The First Airborne Drop

During the years between the World Wars, armies around the world began organizing their own specially designated paratroop units. In the 1930s, Russia invested itself heavily in the concept.

In 1933, the Soviets undertook the first large-scale airborne infantry operation in history — the peacetime trial involved 62 paratroopers. Three years later, the Red Army staged an even larger exercise with more than 1,000 men. Moscow even experimented with dropping armoured units from transport planes (sometimes without parachutes).

A experimental American airborne unit of the 1930s.

Other countries watched the proceedings with curiosity. During the 1930s, powers like Japan, Germany and Italy were following Russia’s lead and pioneering their own airborne forces. In a few short years, many of these units would be making history’s first wartime drops. France also formed a number of parachute units, including a company of 200 women paratroopers that were trained to serve as frontline nurses. While in the late 1930s, war in Europe was far from certain, one thing was clear: If a conflict did break out between world powers, paratroopers would be in the thick of the action.

German airborne seize an airport in Norway in 1940.

The First Combat Jumps

Germany was the first nation to drop infantry into combat. History’s first wartime jumps came during the 1940 invasions of Norway and Denmark.

Before dawn on April 9, German Fallschirmjäger troops leapt from Junkers Ju-52 transport planes onto the Aalborg Airport in Denmark. Others seized nearby bridges. Subsequent missions saw German paratroops capture a fort on the Danish island of Masnedo as well as the Storstrom Bridge, which links Masnedo with another island. More German airborne assaults would follow in the invasion of Norway. The Fallschirmjäger faced its first opposed drop while assaulting the Sola airfield Stavanger.

German paratroopers would play key roles in the invasions of France and Holland, and were earmarked for the planned assault on Great Britain as well, but heavy casualties sustained in the massive airborne operation on Crete convinced Hitler to abandon similar gambits in the future. Fallschirmjäger troops would fight the rest of the war as conventional infantry.

But Germany wasn’t the only Axis power to deploy paratroops in the war.

Japanese paratroopers.

Japan dropped marine paratroopers, known as Rikusentai on Dutch defenders at the Battle of Manado in Indonesia in January of 1942. Other jumps would follow in the Japanese invasion of Timor, as well as the fight for Sumatra in February 1942.

While Germany suspended large-scale airborne operations in 1941, Japanese army paratroopers, known as the Teishin Shudan, made an assault late in the war against some American airfields in the Philippines.

On Dec. 6, 1944, 750 Japanese commandos attacked U.S. bases on Leyte. Although more than half were killed by anti-aircraft fire while still aboard their transports, about 300 managed to survive the drop, only to cut down by U.S. troops, but not before inflicting considerable damage on the American base.

Another early airborne operation occurred in the 1941 war between Peru and Ecuador. The little-known regional conflict was entirely isolated from the larger Second World War. On July 27, a unit of Peruvian paratroopers descended onto an enemy port city. It was the first ever airborne assault in the Western Hemisphere.

The Soviets were the first Allied power to use airborne forces in combat in World War Two.

First Allied Drops

The Soviets were the first Allied power to undertake a wartime parachute drop. More than 7,000 Soviet paratroopers from the 4th Airborne Corps hit the silk on Feb. 23, 1942 near the Axis occupied city of Vyazma. Part of the wider Rzhev-Vyazma Operation, the mission was a failure.

Four days later, the British 1st Airborne Division had its first taste of combat during Operation Biting. On Feb. 27, about 120 airborne commandos landed at Bruneval, in France to capture German radar equipment. The plan called for the troops to be inserted by parachute and then picked up by warships waiting off the coast. The raiders suffered two dead and six wounded, but managed to escape with the top-secret hardware. Although only a minor triumph, it was the perfect tonic for the war-weary British public and demonstrated how effective paratroops could be in any future invasion of France.

C-47 carry the U.S. 503d Parachute Regiment over a New Guinea drop zone during the Battle of Lae, 1943.

By year’s end, the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment would complete America’s first ever combat mission in history. The operation was ambitious to say the least. It involved more than 500 paratroopers being airlifted in 39 C-47s more than 1,600 miles from the U.K. to target areas in North Africa. Only 10 of the planes made it to the drop zone – a pair of Axis airfields. Some of the planes got separated from the formation and were forced to divert to Gibraltar, others accidentally scattered paratroops over miles of desert. A handful force-landed on a dry lake bed, their paratroopers having to march overland to their objective. It was an inauspicious start for America’s parachute infantry. A week later, a smaller, yet more successful drop was conducted along the Tunisian border.

U.S. airborne troops prepare to embark for the invasion of North Africa.

An unprecedented 20,000 Allied airborne and glider troops were parachuted into France on D-Day. Three months later, the British, Americans and Polish dropped a staggering 41,000 paratroopers into Holland. On March 24, 1945 the Allies conduced Operation Varsity over Germany. It was the largest single airborne drop in history, with 16,000 troops jumping onto one landing zone.

Post War Paradrops

While the advent of the helicopter diminished the need for parachute drops, several have still been undertaken, even in the 21st Century. MilitaryHistoryNow.com has the full story here. Here are the highlights.

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7 comments for “Sky Soldiers – History’s First Airborne Units

  1. 11 March, 2013 at 12:32 am

    Reblogged this on Newbattleatwar and commented:
    Interesting article on the development of Parachute units at a time when the Government is wanting to do away with Para training.

  2. Don MacCuish
    27 April, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    I have read the story about Mitchell in so many articles and books that it is crazy. BUT, no one has ever provided any sort of evidence to document such an operation. In fact, Mitchell wrote three books. ONly in his memoirs of WWI did Mitchell mention this and it was but a sentence or two long. A proper citation is warranted.

  3. Richard Galli
    20 May, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    In WW1 the Italians parachuted scouts behind the Austrian lines & in 1918 dropped several tons of supplies via parachute at Vittorio Veneto

  4. Ray Tucker
    9 March, 2017 at 12:03 am

    U.S. Army Rangers airborne operation during operation Urgent Fury , 1983 Grenada Invasion.

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