The implementation of aircraft in warfare has seen a wide assortment of missions. While not as glamorous as aerial dogfighting or strategic bombing, the transport aircraft provides a necessary and vital role of militaries around the globe. World War II saw the widespread use of transports to deliver airborne troops, supplies, and personnel over long distances. On the Eastern Front, the Luftwaffe transport aircraft were instrumental in supporting Axis troops trapped at Stalingrad. While the German Sixth Army eventually surrendered to the Soviets, the vital supplies delivered via air transport helped prolong German resistance.
The first documented use of transport aircraft in a military application occurred during World War I. Serbian pilots transported wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the island of Corfu. This was also the first aerial medevac operation in military history. In 1923, the Royal Air Force (RAF) conducted the first air troop operation, flying 280 Sikh troops from their base in northern Iraq to the city of Kirkuk. The RAF would also conduct the first long-range air evacuation in 1929 during the Kabul Airlift. Over 580 people were rescued during the airlift, flying them from Afghanistan to India.
The Luftwaffe and Italian Air Force were used during the Spanish Civil War to transport Nationalist troops from Morocco to Spain in the first long-range combat airlift. In World War II, the US Air Transport Command participated in the largest airlift of the conflict. Over 500,000 tons of material was flown from India to China, over what became known as the Hump (Himalayan Mountain range). Transport aircraft were also important for large-scale airborne operations, such as the assault on Crete and the Allied push into the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden. Following the war, the largest airlift in history was launched by the Western Allies to thwart the Soviet blockade of Berlin. The Berlin Airlift lasted from June 1948 to May 1949. Nearly 9,000 tons of goods were flown into the city daily by the transport crews.
Today airlift operations remain an important part of military operations. Following the Cold War, the US military underwent a transition in its structure. Shifting from the large, heavy mechanized forces that were necessary for a conflict with the Soviet Union, the US put greater focus on lighter armored vehicles (such as the Stryker family of combat vehicles) that could be rapidly deployed anywhere on the globe.
Look for more information regarding German airlift operations on the Eastern Front in the upcoming World at War issue #49 with the article “Luftwaffe Airlift Capability, 1939-1945” and join the conversation on Facebook!