Britain’s Airborne Forces Of WWII, Uniforms and Equipment

From his first days as Prime Minister, Churchill was determined to fight on and to take the battle to the enemy. He encouraged the formation of airborne and shipborne commando forces, starting a development process that produced airborne forces for mass drops in direct support of conventional forces. Very Highly Recommended

NAME:  Britain's Airborne Forces Of WWII, Uniforms and Equipment
FILE: R3319
AUTHOR: Mark Magreehan
PUBLISHER: Frontline Books, Pen and Sword
BINDING: hard back
PRICE: £25.00                                                
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT:   World War II, World War 2, Second World War, WWII, covert operations, 
vertical insertion, gliders, para-drops, Europe, North Africa, Mediterranean, Far East, 
equipment, tactics, engagements

ISBN: 1-62677-946-3

PAGES: 160, high count of images in  B&W and full colour through the body of the 
book on heavy semi-matt paper stock
IMAGE: B3319.jpg
DESCRIPTION: From his first days as Prime Minister, Churchill was determined to 
fight on and to take the battle to the enemy. He encouraged the formation of 
airborne and shipborne commando forces, starting a development process that 
produced airborne forces for mass drops in direct support of conventional forces.  Very Highly Recommended

Britain faced impending German invasion in 1940. Churchill was determined to fight the enemy by whatever means were necessary and for every inch of ground. He immediately demanded the formation of special forces to achieve his objectives. The formation of a resistance army of some 4,000, equipped with well-concealed underground hideouts and supplies of weapons and explosives meant that Britain was prepared, ahead of any invasion force landing, to direct covert forces to observe and harry the enemy from behind their lines. A prudent course of action that no other country had taken before. Having prepared for that eventuality, Churchill urged on the development of forces to fight back until Britain was in a position to land major forces on Occupied Europe to liberate it from the Germans.

The new forces were to have an immediate role but be developed to assist the final stage, as envisaged by Churchill in 1940, of European Liberation. In 1940 the airborne forces and commandos were starting almost from scratch. The concept of commando raids, landed from ships, was as old as the Royal Navy, where Royal Marines and sailors were landed to cut out enemy vessels, or to take key points like forts and signal towers. However, what Churchill envisaged was on a whole new scale and required new equipment.

In 1940, British industry was working flat out to build heavy equipment for the army, to replace what had been left in France at Dunkirk, and to equip the new divisions being hurriedly recruited and trained to face a potential threat of invasion. This meant that the new special forces had to compete for equipment and other resources, adding to the challenge of new types of equipment.

The Soviet Union was first to develop airborne forces in the 1920s and rapidly built a sizeable force, although many of their troops had to slide off the wings of transport aircraft without parachutes, hoping the snow would break their fall, rather than their bones. Germans took note of these developments, while covertly training in Soviet territory before Hitler announced major German re-armament and disregard for the conditions of the Peace Treaty signed after the defeat of Germany in WWI. The German force was much smaller, part of the Luftwaffe, but much better trained and equipped. It also neatly dovetailed into the concept of Blitz Krieg that included close air support as flying artillery.

The British had largely ignored the concept of airborne forces before 1940 but were very fast learners. Much of the early equipment was copied from the German airborne forces and included assault gliders. The challenge was that Britain intended the use of much larger scale forces that would operate closely with ground forces in a war of movement, where the paratroopers and glider troops would seize a series of critical points and be rapidly relieved by fast moving ground forces with heavy equipment. That was a nice concept but airborne forces were essentially Light Infantry, lacking heavier support weapons and vehicles. Until the conventional land forces arrived, they would be facing heavily armed enemy troops and be significantly out-gunned.

As Britain worked to manufacture new arms and equipment, supplies were also bought in the US and shipped past the U-Boat attempt to blockade. It still meant that the airborne forces largely had to adapt what was available, rather than obtain equipment specifically designed to meet their needs. Progressively equipment tailored to airborne needs began to reach them and increase their capabilities.

In general it all worked remarkably well, with the exception of Arnheim where British airborne forces had to make the best of inadequate numbers of gliders and transport aircraft, land much further from the target bridge, face a heavy battle-hardened SS Panzer group equipped with the best heavy weapons and hold very much longer than intended. That they almost succeeded against the heaviest of odds says much for the training, determination and capable leadership.

The author, a forth generation soldier and former paratrooper, provides a very clear and well researched text that is supported by a significant number of excellent B&W and full colour images, including many rare images.

His work shows how the British airborne forces rapidly developed from copying the Germans to improving their capability from their own experience. It was not a pain free process but a hard slog. Although attempts were made to land armour in the heavier gliders, the staple vehicle was a Willis Jeep with a number of machine guns added and, where available, radio communications. The armour, designed specifically for glider landings was produced in small numbers, and never achieved a significant capability. Anti-tank arms were seriously short in supply and performance. Mostly they comprised anti-tank rifles dating from WWI and the PIAT launcher which was an unlovely weapon that, in skilled and determined hands, could achieve good results. A spring mortar projector, it was light and easy to carry, if limited in range and potentially dangerous to the user. Initially it was deadly when early training exercises on Salisbury Plain saw PIAT bombs exploding as they launched. The defect was that the designer assumed the main use would be by Defence Volunteers facing a German invasion, rather than being dropped in to paratroopers on the ground, along with all other further supplies. The result was that the first shock, arming the bomb, was given when the container hit the ground, rather than when the PIAT launched its projectile. The second detonating shock was taking place as the projectile launched, rather than when it hit the target. Some simple changes removed that danger but it was still a tricky weapon to use in battle. The solution, arriving after WWII, was recoilless rifles and other light artillery pieces, although a major improvement was made as bazooka rocket launchers became available later in WWII.

The excellent illustrations show how much airborne equipment was commonly used also by light infantry in land forces.