Hitting the Silk – 15 Airborne Operations Carried Out Since World War Two

A French paratrooper watches as reinforcements are dropped on Dien Bien Phu, 1954. (Image: Fair Use)

A French paratrooper watches as reinforcements are dropped onto Dien Bien Phu, 1954. (Image: Fair Use)

“The advent of the helicopter made large-scale airborne operations largely obsolete. Yet, a number of armies still conducted parachute landings in the Post War era.”

AIRBORNE WARFARE REACHED its zenith in 1945 with Operation Varsity — the largest one-day combat parachute drop in military history.

The massive March 24 airlift saw 16,000 British and American paratroopers along with glider-borne infantry descend onto a cluster of landing zones in Wesel, Germany.

The first units began touching down just north of the city at 10 a.m. Within two hours, the entire force was on the ground and in action. The operation coincided with a large-scale Allied crossing of the Rhine. The airborne’s objective was to cut off German units dug in along the eastern bank of the river just a few thousand meters away.

Varsity, which was conducted by the British 6th and U.S. 17th airborne divisions, was a success, albeit a costly one. More than 2,500 Allied paratroopers became casualties in the daylong operation.

The Wesel assault was to be the last major combat drop of the Second World War. And after 1945, the advent of the helicopter and the changing nature of warfare itself, made large-scale airborne operations like it largely obsolete. Yet despite this, a number of armies still conducted parachute landings in the Post War era. Here are some notable examples:

 

Paratroopers of the 187th Regimental Combat Team in Korea. (Image source: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum)

Paratroopers of the 187th Regimental Combat Team in Korea. (Image source: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum)

Korea

The U.S. only mounted two major airborne operations during the Korean War. The first occurred on Oct. 20, 1950 at Sunchon. With UN forces pushing deep into communist territory above the 38th Parallel, the American 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team jumped from C-119 transport aircraft north of Pyongyang. Their objective was to cut off enemy forces retreating towards the Chinese border. Six months later, more than 3,000 paratroopers from the same outfit, along with an Indian army field hospital, jumped 30 miles behind enemy lines to help encircle North Korean and Chinese troops at Munsan. It was the last airborne operation of the conflict.

 

British paras escort a captured Egyptian soldier from the field. 1956. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British paras escort a captured Egyptian soldier from the field. Suez, 1956. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Suez

On Nov. 5, 1956, several hundred British and French paratroopers and commandos landed on key points along the Suez Canal in advance of an Israeli thrust into the Sinai. The invasion followed Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s move to nationalize the strategic waterway. While militarily successful, the operation was a diplomatic and political disaster for Britain, France and Israel.

 

French paratroopers hit the silk over Vietnam, 1954. (Image source: WikiCommons)

French paratroopers hit the silk over Vietnam, 1954. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Vietnam

Without a large army available to pacify its rebellious colonies in Indo China, France’s plan to combat the communist Viet Minh relied heavily on massed airborne assaults into guerrilla held-territory. While the approach yielded some successes, the operation at Dien Bien Phu was an unmitigated disaster. In late 1953, a 10,000-man brigade of French troops parachuted into an enemy dominated valley near Vietnam’s border with China and Laos. The aim was to provoke Viet Minh forces in the area into a decisive war-ending battle. The communist army was surprisingly well equipped however and soon 50,000 insurgents has swooped down on the French perimeter. Reinforcements were dropped in, but it was little help. After suffering nearly 2,000 casualties in a protracted siege, the French finally surrendered on May 7, 1954. The defeat shocked the world and forced Paris to abandon its war in South East Asia.

U.S. Ground forces converge on VC positions near the Cambodian border during Operation Junction City. The three month mission saw American troops parachuted into battle. (image source: WikiCommons)

U.S. Ground forces converge on VC positions near the Cambodian border during Operation Junction City. The three-month mission saw American troops parachuted into battle. (image source: WikiCommons)

America’s only airborne operation in the Vietnam began on Feb. 11, 1967. Dubbed Operation Junction City, the mission represented the largest U.S. Army combat drop since the Second World War. Paratroopers with 173rd Airborne Brigade, 800 in all, jumped into the jungles of South Vietnam along the Cambodian border to seek out and destroy what was described as the Viet Cong’s version of the Pentagon. The landings were supported by 30,000 American and South Vietnamese ground troops. The three-month campaign bagged an estimated 2,700 enemy fighters, but no massive headquarters was ever located. American casualties were pegged at 1,800.

The 1971 war in Bangladesh saw India use airborne forces to cut of retreating Pakistani troops. (Image: fair use)

The 1971 war in Bangladesh saw India use airborne forces to cut of retreating Pakistani troops. (Image: fair use)

India vs. Pakistan

Pakistan mounted a daring airborne operation against a host of targets deep inside India during the War of 1965. More than 200 commandos descended onto three Indian airbases in Punjab: Halwara, Pathankot and Adampur. The mission was an utter failure – almost the entire force was wiped out in the initial attacks or captured on its way back to friendly lines. India fared better in 1971 when it mounted its famous Tangail Airdrop in Bangladesh. More than 1,000 crack paratroopers jumped into enemy territory to seize a vital bridge over the Jamuna River. Its capture cut off the main escape route for a Pakistani brigade falling back in the face of an Indian ground assault. In 1984, Indian paratroops were once again sent into action, this time for a preemptive strike on the Siachen Glacier in Kashmir. New Delhi ordered the assault on the rugged 2,500 sq. km (1,000 sq. mile) territory after its intelligence service learned that the Pakistanis might be planning their own attack.

East Timor

Indonesia’s controversial occupation of East Timor began on Dec. 7, 1975 with an airborne assault on Dili by 640 paratroops. The invasion, which followed the tiny colony’s independence from Portugal, touched off nearly 25 years of brutal repression at the hands of the Indonesian army. As many as 100,000 Timorese were murdered by the occupiers.

Army Rangers over Grenada, 1983 (Image source: U.S. Army)

Army Rangers over Grenada, 1983 (Image source: U.S. Army)

Grenada

America’s Oct. 25, 1983 invasion of Grenada, codenamed Operation Urgent Fury, began with a parachute landing on the island’s main airport at Point Salines by 500 U.S. Army Rangers. The mission was followed by amphibious and helicopter assaults on the island by more than 6,500 U.S. troops. Washington ordered the incursion amid mounting suspicions that a multinational airport construction project underway on Grenada might provide Soviet and Cuban transport aircraft a base for refueling.

 

The U.S. 82nd Airborne Division made its first combat jumps since World War Two during the 1989 Panama invasion. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A U.S. soldier surveys damage following a firefight at a Panamanian airstrip, 1989. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Panama

The 82nd Airborne made its first combat jump since the Second World War during the Dec. 20, 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. More than 4,000 paratroops from the famous division, as well as members of the 75th Ranger Regiment, descended onto a series of targets across the small Latin American country during the initial hours of Operation Just Cause. Targets included Omar Torrijos International Airport and an airstrip at Rio Hato. Sheridan tanks were also dropped by parachute during the invasion – a first for the U.S. military. [1]

 

U.S. paratroopers jump from an air force C-17. (image source: U.S. Air Force photo/A1C James Richardson)

U.S. paratroopers jump from an air force C-17. (image source: U.S. Air Force photo/A1C James Richardson)

21st Century Drops

Over the past 15 years, a number of powers have mounted full-scale airborne operations. Here are some details:

(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Jan. 29, 2015)

SOURCES
http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/airborne-jumps.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airborne_forces#Post_World_War_II
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/nov/06/afghanistan.terrorism8

5 comments for “Hitting the Silk – 15 Airborne Operations Carried Out Since World War Two

  1. Alex E
    30 January, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Good list!

    Also, in 1964, 300 Belgian paratroops were dropped over the airfield at Stanleyville, Congo as part of a hostage rescue operation called Dragon Rouge.

    In 1978, 700 French and Belgian paratroops were dropped into Kolwezi, Congo, on another rescue mission (Operation Leopard/Red Bean)

    • admin
      30 January, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      Great additions. Thanks so much for your input.

  2. Arthasastra
    31 January, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    The iconic Jump on Kolwezi by the French Legion is missing !!!
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Kolwezi

  3. Eric Udouj
    18 July, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Agree that the Congo jumps were missing – as was the Israeli drop on Mitla Pass in 1956. But there was also the Dutch airborne operations in Indonesia in 1948 and 49 to include Operation Kraai (the capture of Yogyakarta). But the one operation that was not on here and should have been was South Africa’s jump at Cassinga, Angola on 4 May 1978. The one jump that did not happen was in Haiti – when elements of the 82d were flying towards that nation and the military dictatorship quickly took the terms the US was offering after feed of their loadup was shown to the Junta. For a very good read on Grenada – http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/grenada/urgent_fury.pdf.

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