“It must be realized that, in the transport of men and equipment by air, what is only a possibility to-day may be the accepted method to-morrow” : MTP No.50 Part I –Defence Against Airborne Troops
Prior to the outbreak of War, only Germany and the U.S.S.R . had invested in airborne troop tactics. This was to prove highly successful for the Germans in the early stages of the War, with the use of airborne troops in the Low Countries. Those operations also had a marked and lasting effect on the British. As Peter Fleming wrote in his book, Operation Sea lion, the notion “that a horde of highly trained parachute troops, many of them wearing various disguises of one kind or another, might be deposited by an air-fleet of limitless dimensions at any moment on any corner of the Kingdom” was very real. Churchill noted in a letter to Roosevelt on May 15th that Britain expected to be attacked by “parachute and airborne troops in the near future”. The Home Guard Training Manual envisaged a seaborne invasion backed up with parachute troops and air transporters landing troops at several thousand every half hour.
‘Airborne Troops’ was the term given to any force transported by air, either parachute troops, air landing troops or both.
Parachute troops could be carried in aircraft or gliders and were released by parachute i.e. without the need to land the transporter.
Air landing troops were carried in aircraft or gliders which required a reasonable landing ground to discharge their troops. Both aircraft and gliders normally carried 12 men with their equipment and they were better equipped than parachute troops, with light artillery, motor-cycles etc,. all able to be transported by aircraft or glider. The normal tow for one aircraft was two gliders and the normal transport arrangement was a shuttle service of aircraft. It was also possible to land light armoured fighting vehicles – a light type of machine gun carrier was used in the operations in Crete, carried in a JU 52. Light tanks, either Pz KW1 or Pz KW2, or three Czech tanks S1 could be carried in a JU 90 specially adapted but in 1941 it was considered Germany only had 30 such aircraft.
Operations by Airborne troops were off two types:
Major operations: The employment of large numbers of airborne troops at one point for the capture of an objective of the first importance. Attacks in conjunction with seaborne or land forces would be deployed against the flanks or rear of defended localities
Minor operations: The employment of airborne troops in small numbers against headquarters, dumps, convoys, etc., and for sabotage and fifth column activities. Minor operations only required a small number of troops and consequently only parachute troops would be normally employed.
The tactics expected to be employed by German airborne troops in major operations (based upon the German use of airborne troops to seize Dutch airfields and later, during May 1941, the attack on Crete) were in four stages:
A thorough photographic reconnaissance of the area in which the operation was to take place.
An intense aerial bombardment of the defences covering the area in which it was intended to land. Also aerial attacks against fighter aerodromes to secure local air supremacy.
The descent of parachute troops to seize a landing ground
Landing of air landing troops in the area captured by the parachute troops.
Above: Left - Parachute troops, showing special type of steel helmet and overall worn over the uniform. Middle and right - parachute
troops, Crete 1941.
The best defence against airborne troops was mobility. Parachute troops carried a knife, automatic pistol, four grenades and usually every forth man had a machine pistol. Other equipment, e.g. light and heavy machine guns, food etc., was dropped in containers. During the first five minutes of landing, parachute troops would be concentrating on finding their containers and during this period could not produce any volume of fire. Equally, air landing troops were just as vulnerable during the first few minutes as they had to leave their air transport, collect and reorganize themselves and until they had done so they could not take offensive action. Airborne troops, once landed, only had limited mobility and to obtain greater mobility would require the capture of enemy vehicles.
Above: German Troop-Carrier Aircraft - Ju. 52 and Ju. 90
Due to equipment and manpower shortages in the summer of 1940, there was little in the way of mobile reserves. Local reserves held by 55th Division (front line Division in Suffolk in 1940), would only be deployed to block the enemy’s probable line of advance and were not capable of a counter attack role. Battalions were instructed to detail Emergency Platoons to provide relief to Vulnerable Points and to deal with airborne troops. In most cases, transport would not be allocated until required. However some battalions did have sufficient Carriers and motor cycles to provide a local mobile reserve. In the Lowestfot area arrangements were made by the 2/8th Lancs for a mobile reserve; the Carrier platoon (consisting of seven Carriers, seven Bren Guns and two anti-tank rifles) was to act as a mobile reserve against either seaborne or airborne troops. The Carriers were to move to harbour on “Stand To” at Whitton Farm and Colville Lodge in order to attack any enemy forces that gained a footing in the defended perimeter. In addition the Motor Cycle platoon was detailed as a mobile reserve to deal specifically with airborne troops landed within the defended perimeter.
Defence against airborne troops in 1940 was therefore largely static. The principal role of the Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) was containing and immobilizing airborne troops by manning road control posts within their area. Searchlight detachments also had a similar secondary role to their principal duty. Vehicles and local petrol supplies would also be immobilized to prevent their use by the enemy. Holding battalions and other similar units were given a static role of defending Vulnerable Points such as aerodromes and RDF Stations. Obstacles against enemy transport aircraft, such as anti-landing trenches were constructed.
As it was impossible to predict where an airborne landing may occur, every defended post should be provided with all round protection so that fire could be directed in any direction. It was also important that defence works were carefully camouflaged – any defence work identified by enemy reconnaissance would be probably be neutralized during the preliminary aerial offensive. Depth to the defence was added in 1941 by 15th Division when sufficient resources allowed a rear line of defended localities to be constructed in the rear of the coastal defences to provide a greater degree of security against airborne landings. Additional posts to fill in gaps between existing defences were to be constructed; concealment was of the greatest importance and the new posts were to be constructed in the first instance to take only two men and a light machine gun and be carefully camouflaged.
Some very specific means were devised for dealing with parachute troops – for example, 1st Liverpool Scottish Operational Instruction No 12, 27th May 1940, notes that enemy parachutists rally on their commander on landing who fires a very light – if parachutists land, similar very lights were to be fired to confuse parachutists and make them run in different directions. It also noted that should parachutists land in gorse covered heath, the gorse was to be set on fire.
By 1941, front line battalions had sufficient resources to maintain a mobile anti-paratroop column. For example, 9th Cameronians War Diary notes that the column would consist of one platoon with motor transport and one carrier section. Warning of parachute troops would come from Higher Command, police or Home Guard.
The mobile column of 10th Cameronians consisted of one officer, one sergeant and three sections armed with one 2” mortar, three lmg’s, three Thompson sub-machine guns, and rifle grenades. Transport consisted of four lorries. The column was to be at 15 minutes standby after ‘Stand To’ (between 1 hour before dark to one hour after dawn) and 30 minutes during the rest of the day.
The Defence Scheme of 6th Royal Sussex notes that rifle companies would take it in turn to provide the anti-parachute duty. Should “Stand To” be issued the other platoons would insure the positions of the duty platoon would be covered by thinning out the other platoon localities. Should a large force of parachute troops be landed the duty platoon was to act as recce for troops sent to hold the enemy while a lager force was assembled to destroy the enemy.
Rumors were plentiful of German airborne tactics in the early years of the War. For example, it was suspected that parachutists would be dropped through an artificial smoke cloud produced by other low flying aircraft. Considerable use of dummy parachutists was also expected to divert the attention of the defenders. A report, “Information considered useful for defence organization in this country against parachutists” noted that if resistance was expected when landing, the parachutist would carry a grenade in each hand above his head, which was not to be confused with surrendering! This shows the degree that the British feared parachutists in the early days of the invasion threat – surely it would be almost suicidal for any parachutist to land with two live grenades in his hand. Advice was given to recognize parachutists in disguise – this included the obvious of not speaking perfect English or asking for directions to women looking like men in disguise! Other fears were expressed about the pre-war visits of some of the Hitler Youth Movement in the hope of fostering better relations with Germany. There were reports of Hitler Youth visiting east coast ports of Hull, Grimsby and Harwich as well as steel works, and Electric Power Stations. It was feared that the Hitler Youth of those visits may be the parachute troops of today and that some who helped to organize the visits may have pro-Nazi leanings and give assistance to parachute troops.
Reports of parachutists were not uncommon during the summer of 1940 – puffs of AA fire were often mistaken for parachutists for example. Nationally, the War Cabinet discussed reports of 45 parachutes found abandoned in various districts of Scotland, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Yorkshire. In Suffolk, for example, the Halesworth police reported seven enemy parachutists at 2045 hrs on May 22nd. All companies of 1/4th South Lancs were ordered to man road blocks and a platoon from C company moved off at 2215 hrs , arriving at Brimfield at 2220 hrs. Instructions were received to search Holyhill Wood, Big Wood, some park land and Coopers Wood.
By the summer of 1942 any major operation by airborne troops was considered unlikely due to German forces being tied up on the Russian and Mediterranean Fronts. Minor operations, aimed for example at aircraft factories to disrupt aircraft production, were still considered to be a possibility but it was considered that such operations would find it very difficult to carry out effective sabotage.
Operation Sea Lion, P Fleming, Simon and Schuster, 1957
1/4th South Lancs papers, TNA
6th Royal Sussex papers, TNA
1st Liverpool Scottish papers, TNA
9th Cameronians papers, TNA
10th Cameronians papers, TNA
The Home Guar Training Manual, Major J Langdon-Davies, John Murray & The Pilot Press, 5th ed 1942
MTP No.50, Airborne Troops: Part I – Defence Against Airborne Troops, WO, August 1941
The German Army in Pictures, WO, 1941