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Winston Churchill began the process that brought about the birth of the British Airborne movement when he issued his famous instruction to General Sir Hastings Ismay, his Chief of Staff in the War Cabinet Secretariat, on the 22nd June 1940:
"We ought to have a corps of at least 5,000 parachute troops, including a proportion of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, together with some trustworthy people from Norway and France. I see more difficulty in selecting and employing Danes, Dutch and Belgians. I hear something is being done already to form such a corps but only, I believe, on a very small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these forces, who can none the less play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defence. Pray let me have a note from the War Office on the subject."
Two days later, Churchill's memorandum had been put into effect and the foundations were laid of what was to become the Army Air Corps. The 500 soldiers who formed its nucleus were the first paratroopers that the British Army had ever possessed. Yet they were far from being pioneers of the craft, other nations had been experimenting with this new method of warfare for some years.
The idea of using parachutes to drop soldiers into enemy territory was first suggested in 1918 during the final acts of the Great War, when Brigadier General Mitchell proposed dropping elements of the 1st US Infantry Division behind the German lines at Metz. Given the lack of development in parachute technology and the limited aircraft of the era, being few in number and possessing insufficient power to carry substantial loads, it is to be wondered how such an operation could ever have been practical. In the event, fortunately for those who would have been involved, the Armistice was declared before serious planning could begin.
In the years that followed, technological strides in aviation led to the development of larger and more capable aircraft, and it was during the 1920's that the concept of parachute infantry was rekindled. Italy was the first country to begin serious trials, and they carried out the world's first drop of airborne troops in November 1927. Within a few years Italy had raised several parachute battalions, later followed by two airborne divisions which were to fight with distinction, albeit only on the ground, during the Second World War. Despite these developments, Italy did not attempt a single airborne operation, and their vision of its use never extended beyond the scope of opportunistic raids by a small force.
The Russians were the true pioneers of the airborne craft, although in the event of war they too found little use for airborne operations, and the two landings which they undertook both failed with the complete loss of the units involved. Nevertheless, it was Russia who in the pre-war years had the foresight to appreciate the larger capabilities of the airborne soldier, and they did much to establish the template for all that was to follow. They envisioned tactical strikes behind enemy lines by thousands of parachutists, reinforced by glider-borne artillery and vehicles. The culmination of their strides in airborne development came in September 1935, with an exercise near Kiev that involved the landing of 1,200 parachutists, 150 machine-guns and 18 light artillery pieces, seizing bridges across the River Dnepr some 25 miles behind the imaginary front line. Foreign observers were invited to view the spectacle; General Wavell represented British interests and upon his return he wrote, "If I had not witnessed the descents I could not have believed such an operation possible." Awestruck though he may have been by the spectacle of a mass airborne landing, Wavell was otherwise unimpressed. He had doubts about the tactical merits of such strikes behind enemy lines, and concluded a lecture on the subject to his staff with the words, "I advise you when you go home to forget all about it." The War Office, nevertheless, took an interest in this new method of warfare and began further research, but, with a limited budget and seemingly more urgent priorities elsewhere, their investigation never developed beyond a passive curiosity about the theory of an airborne deployment.
Other countries reacted very differently. Germany had also sent representatives to Kiev and they were greatly impressed with what they had seen. Unlike the victors of the Great War of 1914-1918, Germany had sought to learn the lessons of this conflict and find solutions to the problems that had thwarted their success, and they were, therefore, very open-minded to new forms of warfare, such as Blitzkrieg, and so they resolved to produce their own airborne force along very similar lines. Russia may have invented the airborne assault, but it was Germany who first put it into practice, and in so doing shocked the world with its effectiveness.
The origins of Germany's first unit of parachutists, or Fallschirmjäger, can be traced back to 1935, however it was not until the following year that the training of such units began in earnest with the formation of an airborne division, Flieger Division 7. This Division took part in the campaign against Poland in September 1939, but only in a supporting capacity on the ground. Its first airborne operation was undertaken during the following year, when a blatant Anglo-French interest in the occupation of Norway prompted Germany to invade both it and Denmark as an Allied expeditionary force was sailing for the former.
The first airborne assault in history took place in Norway on the 9th April 1940, when the 3rd Kompanie, 1st Battalion The 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment landed at Sola airfield, near Stavanger. The paratroopers quickly overcame the minimal defences around the airfield and held it until reinforcements were flown to them. Other company-sized detachments of the Battalion were dropped at other airfields across the country on the same day, though with varying degrees of success. The Allied landings in Norway, although doomed from the outset by their haphazard preparations, suffered greatly as a result of the capture of these airfields as they were immediately occupied by the Luftwaffe who constantly harried their every endeavour. After a series of short-lived landings and withdrawals along the west coast of Norway, the frustrated Allies returned home with little to their credit.
Despite this baptism of fire for the airborne forces movement, it was the spectacularly successful mass use of paratroopers in Holland and Belgium, on the 10th May, that made the world take notice. In all, 2,500 paratroopers were dropped in small concentrations, capturing key airfields and bridges across both countries. Despite determined resistance in places, the German airborne troops won their first great victory in Holland, and by the end of the first day the Dutch air force had been all but eradicated. The capture of the bridges had also thrown the planned defensive measures of the Dutch into disarray, and, by the same token, their acquisition made a significant contribution to the smooth and rapid advance of the German armies on the ground.
The most famous action of this day was the capture of the Eben Emael fort at Liége in Belgium; the linchpin of the Allied defensive line and believed to be the most potent fortress in the world. This enormous structure, sited in an area crucial to any German attack, had been designed to frustrate the progress of an entire army for weeks, and, with its large guns and a garrison of 1,200 men, it was hailed as impregnable. On the 10th May, just 85 German paratroopers landed on the roof of the fort in gliders, and, after only a few hours, using specially designed explosives and flame-throwers, they had destroyed almost all of the guns at little cost to themselves. On the following day, having barely been able to fire a shot, the demoralised garrison surrendered.
Until May 1940, paratroopers had only been a theoretical weapon whose effectiveness on the battlefield had never been tested and was not widely believed. The spectacular success of the airborne landings across Western Europe had proved beyond any doubt that even small groups of highly trained parachutists were capable of having a tremendous impact upon any offensive; hindering the enemy's capability to resist before the battle-proper had even begun. The Allies, with their fortress systems, low state of mechanisation and disregard of armoured warfare, had intended to fight a style of warfare that had ended in 1918. Their shock was considerable and almost immediately the modernisation process began; accordingly the major world powers accelerated their plans to raise their own formations of airborne soldiers, and in June 1940, Britain began to lay the foundations of its own Parachute Regiment.