“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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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. 
21st Century Drops
Over the past 15 years, a number of powers have mounted full-scale airborne operations. Here are some details:
- U.S. Army Rangers jumped onto Kandahar airfield on Oct. 19, 2001 as part of the wider invasion of Afghanistan. The drop was heralded as a major triumph by the Pentagon, who released dramatic footage of operation to the news media within hours. The ‘assault’ was later revealed to have taken place after the airport had already been declared safe by ground forces.
- Elements of the American 75 Ranger Regiment dropped onto an airfield in Northern Iraq during the opening phase of the controversial 2003 invasion. Days later, 15 C-17 Globemaster III transport planes dropped more than 950 members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade onto an Iraqi airfield.
- Pakistani paratroops took part in series of major jumps during a 2009 campaign against Taliban insurgents.
- As recently as January or 2013, French airborne forces were dropped into Mali, near the city of Timbuktu, as part of Operation Serval – an international effort to drive Islamic insurgents from the North African country. Video of the drop is available here – (see 3:32).
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Jan. 29, 2015)