The short history of paratroops leaves many areas inadequately covered by historians. This book reviews one specialist unit within the British Parachute Forces. This account is illuminating because it not only provides a very welcome history of the unit, but sheds light on some of their specialist missions – Highly Recommended.
NAME: First In, The Airborne Pathfinders, A History of the 21st Independent Parachute Company, 1942-1946 FILE: R2520 AUTHOR: Ron Kent PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword, Frontline BINDING: hard back PAGES: 218 PRICE: £19.99 GENRE: Non Fiction SUBJECT: WWII, World War 2, World War II, Second World War, RAF, Glider Regiment, paratroops, light infantry, DC-3, C-47, Drop Zone, advanced party, special missions ISBN: 978-1-84832-946-1 IMAGE: B2520jpg BUYNOW: http://tinyurl.com/lseaaby LINKS: DESCRIPTION: The short history of paratroops leaves many areas inadequately covered by historians. This book reviews one specialist unit within the British Parachute Forces. This account is illuminating because it not only provides a very welcome history of the unit, but sheds light on some of their specialist missions - Highly Recommended. The parachute, in its current form, dates from WWI, where it was mainly restricted to observers in captive observation balloons. Some use was made of this escape system by German flyers, but the British considered that its issue to fighter pilots would only encourage them to avoid a fight and bail out, condemning hundreds to a terrible death, trapped in burning aircraft. Exactly who thought of using the parachute to vertically insert troops will probably never be agreed. The Soviets certainly trained large numbers of airborne troops but many were expected to jump off the wings of low flying aircraft without a parachute in the hope that the snow would break their fall. Germany established an elite force within the Luftwaffe to operate as light infantry, delivered by glider and parachute, making spectacular use of them during the invasion of neutral Belgium and Holland where they were used to take out enemy forts and seize bridges ahead of the advance of ground troops. Britain did not take paratroops seriously until 1940 when there was a desperate search, under strong orders from Churchill, to find ways of making life difficult for the Germans until Britain was strong enough with its allies to land regular troops in Europe in the numbers required to defeat the Germans. By any measure, the parachute, as we know it today, is little more than 100 years old. Its use to vertically insert troops is little more than 90 years old, and British use for paratroops is little more than 75 years old. Glider delivery of troops is not much more than 80 years old. As a result, the organization of units and the development of tactics for the deployment of parachute and glider troops developed very quickly from the late 1930s. Although the parachute continues in use today, even after the advent of helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft, the glider was very short lived. Whether the glider returns to service remains to be seen but some military specialists have argued for its use in Special Forces operations as a very stealthy aircraft with no infrared emissions, minimal radar signature, silence and flexibility for some special missions. It can be argued that it is already in service in the form of one-man switch-blade platforms that can be used by special units for some Hi Lo missions to enable the user to make pin-point silent landings after dropping for more than 20,000 ft. Given the rapid development of airborne troops in the pre-helicopter age, the size of paratroop forces and their successes is amazing. That some of the more specialist units have received little notice is therefore perhaps unsurprising. Initially, very highly trained troops were employed by the Germans in small numbers to attack bridges and Belgian fortresses. They made use mainly of assault gliders that were unique to the Luftwaffe at the time. Their novelty assured surprise. No one had expected a vertical insertion of small numbers of demolition troops on fortifications that consequently had no defence against that form of attack. As a result, accuracy of delivery was not an issue. Very extensive training had addressed the issue and the relatively small number of gliders and paratroops involved removed the issues of the size of landing grounds and location relative to the targets. The Germans landed literally on top of the target and started using explosives to kill enemy soldiers inside the fortresses and destroy the structures. Several British officers had studied the German attacks in Belgium and saw significant opportunities for a British airborne force. They might have faced strong opposition from traditional soldiers, but it was an idea made to appeal to Churchill and the pugnacious spirit in Britain following the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk. Parachute silk might have been more difficult to find, but assault gliders were made of wood and canvass in reasonably plentiful supply and requiring skills that were already known to the aircraft industry and many craftsmen and women who could be assigned easily to the job of building gliders. The British enthusiastically embraced the idea of building large airborne formations and very rapidly overtook the German lead in this area of warfare. After the attacks on Belgium, the Luftwaffe used airborne troops in large numbers to attack Crete, where they could achieve air superiority but, thereafter, and partly due to the very high losses in the Crete invasion, the Luftwaffe was to use its airborne forces as ground troops. The British however started to develop some very ambitious plans, including designing tanks and guns that could be delivered by assault and transport gliders, and selecting obsolescent bombers to be used as glider tugs to tow the gliders, large and small, from the British and North African airfields to the landing grounds in Axis and occupied Europe. The availability of the DC-3 Dakota/C-47 also provided the idea transport aircraft to carry large numbers of paratroopers, while modified bombers and other transport aircraft were impressed to allow for very large airborne units. All of this activity did present some challenges. Once very large numbers of men and equipment were assigned to airborne forces it presented all sorts of difficulties in training and logistics. To meet these challenges, the use of very large airborne attack forces meant that they were trained more basically to land together in relatively large landing grounds, but it still left the need for highly trained special units to mark landing grounds for the main force and tackle missions that had very special requirements. The author has described very ably how and why 21st Independent Parachute Company became one of these special units and the missions given to them, from marking landing grounds to hunting down Gestapo and SS officers who were attempting to disguise themselves as ordinary German soldiers and flee. The illustration by photo-plate section includes rare images. By reading this book many will suddenly find answers to questions from reading about the main airborne force units. Without pathfinders to mark and hold designated landing zones for the main force, the huge airborne operations in Sicily, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany would not have been possible and the result would have been very much higher casualties in land force frontal attack. Arnheim is often held up as a failure and caution for the use of airborne troops, but even here there were significant achievements and many were due to the services of pathfinders. The only problem that was difficult to resolve for large drops and glider landings was finding adequate areas of flat ground near to the target to accept large gliders in large numbers. Arnheim is an example of suitable landing grounds for gliders being some distance from the target, the size of force needed being too large to fit into a single wave of assault and paratroop aircraft, and very poor communications unable to ensure that the latest situation was known and that men and supplies were not dropped onto landing grounds retaken by the enemy. Much has been made of the fact that the SS Panzer Division refitting at Arnheim had not been identified and only reserve units were thought to be in the area. It did not help, but the basic reasons making victory unlikely were logistics and surprise. The first wave did reach their objectives and did hold them longer than called for. The landings failed overall because of the failure to land everyone in the first phase and for the 'Garden' ground forces to make faster progress to relieve the paratroops. Also, the glider was a one way trip and after delivering its cargo, it just cluttered the landing zone for later waves of gliders. It may have been less of an issue for paratroops, but even they required enough space to permit safe landings. The US had been appraised of the British experiences and embraced airborne forces and mass drops/ landings with as much enthusiasm. Although it came too late for practical employment, the US developed systems that allowed a tug aircraft to overfly a landing zone and snatch a glider from the ground, cleaning up the LZ and allowing the glider to be checked and sent back with another load. It was not until the Berlin Airlift that this technique was used with some regularity and by then the helicopter was starting to provide the maturity to carry out many of the tasks and clamshell door transports were being built to operate from small rough airstrips and paradrop cargoes of supply pallets, guns and vehicles, including armoured vehicles. More recently, the tilt-rotor has come of age and offers potential for much further development.