Dropping By Night

 

The dropping of parachutists by night was, in theory, the ideal method of deployment, and most of the previous drops of the War had taken place at night. The obvious advantage of darkness is that the landings cannot be observed from miles around, as they can be in daylight, and so the enemy's task of determining the strength of the drop and understanding what their objectives are, not to mention hampering their attempts to achieve them, are all greatly complicated by a night drop.

 

The airborne landings that took place in Sicily, in July 1943, were the first to truly highlight the perils posed by a large-scale deployment at night. Here, the Navy mistook some of the aircraft for German bombers and shot several down, whilst high winds and navigational difficulties resulted in the parachutists being widely scattered and the majority of the gliders were ditched in the Mediterranean at the loss of over three hundred men drowned. It is no coincidence, therefore, that after the poor results of both the British and the American drops in Normandy, none of the remaining Airborne operations of the War were attempted at night.

 

The next drop, involving the 2nd Parachute Brigade in Southern France, took place at first light, whilst those by the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, the 2nd Parachute Brigade in Greece and, in March 1945, the 6th Airborne Division at Wesel, were all undertaken in broad daylight. A drop in daylight makes navigation far easier for the aircrews, and it is a huge advantage for the troops on the ground as regards forming up. It must be pointed out, however, that such a drop is only feasible with the near complete air superiority that the Allies enjoyed at this stage in the War. The consequences of just a single squadron of enemy fighters getting in between the slow and unarmoured transport aircraft was too terrible to contemplate.

 

 

Paratroopers vs. Glider Troops

 

The glider lifts in Normandy had been a great success. They had suffered few casualties in the drop, certainly in comparison to the paratroopers, and as complete platoons travelled together in a single glider they were therefore intact and ready for action from the moment that they landed. During the War there had been a debate as to how best deploy Airborne troops, either by parachute or glider. The truth of the matter is that both methods compliment the other and they both have their advantages and hazards. The two major operations of the War in which the 6th Airborne Division was involved demonstrate these in extremes.

 

In Normandy, the merits of the gliders and weaknesses of the paratroopers has already been more than adequately described. In March 1945, the 6th Airborne Division crossed the River Rhine and landed in Germany as part of Operation Varsity. During this daylight drop, both parachutists and gliders came under heavy fire from the ground whilst they were still in the air. The paratroopers suffered considerable casualties on the drop, but nowhere near as many as the 6th Airlanding Brigade, whose battalions suffered more fatalities in just a few hours than they had during the entire three months that they had been fighting in Normandy.

 

In the instance of an opposed drop, once a paratrooper has left his aircraft he becomes a single target and it is difficult for the enemy to achieve significant casualties. Glider troops, with a platoon of twenty-eight men in each craft, require only a direct hit from flak or a quick burst of machine-gun fire for the entire unit to be lost.