On the morning of 20 May 1941, 15,000 German paratroopers landed on the island of Crete. It was the first battle in World War II where German fallshirmjaeger troops were used en masse. The Germans were able to take the island after 11 days of stiff resistance by Allied troops, but they suffered heavy casualties. Adolf Hitler forbade the use of large airborne operations for the remainder of the conflict. On the other hand, Allied leaders were impressed by the use of large scale airborne operations and would use them in later Allied campaigns.
The idea of airborne operations dates back to the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin envisioned using soldiers that could be dropped behind enemy lines to “deal mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them.” With the advent of airplanes, the use of airborne soldiers became a more viable strategy. During World War I, Winston Churchill proposed the creation of airborne forces to assault behind German lines on the Western Front. Brigadier Gen. Billy Mitchell suggested using soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division dropped behind German lines outside of Metz. The operation was planned for February 1919, but the war ended before the operation could take place.
The first true paratroop drop took place in Italy after the war in 1927. In a few short years, two airborne divisions were organized by the Italian military. The Soviet Union also began experimenting with the idea of airborne forces with plans to drop not only soldiers, but light tanks and artillery as well. By 1936, many nations had adopted organizing airborne forces. Germany, Argentina, Peru, Japan, Poland, and France all developed airborne units. France also recruited 200 nurses who would be used to parachute into natural disaster areas during peacetime to provide medical aid to those affected.
In World War II, Germany used airborne forces during the invasion of Norway and Denmark, and used airborne commandos during the Battle of France. Japan deployed airborne troops during the Dutch East Indies campaign. The Allies used airborne forces throughout the European, Mediterranean, and Pacific theaters. After the war, airborne operations were still used in combat, although not on the same magnitude of the airborne drops in World War II. In recent years most airborne drops are performed by special operation forces, with American Ranger and Special Forces units parachuting into Afghanistan in 2001.
Look for more information regarding German airborne troops in World at War issue #47 with the article “The Rise of Wehrmacht Airborne Forces and the Battle of Crete” and join the conversation on Facebook!