So it was that the Second World War drew to a close without a single major airborne operation either achieving its object or having done so with a satisfactory number of casualties.

 

The argument has been raised that the airborne adventure was, in its bluntest terms, a very fine way of wasting some of the best men that the British and American armies possessed. Whether as a consequence of blunder or the raison d'etre of the Airborne Forces, "hazardous duty", heavy losses had been sustained for what could be interpreted as comparatively negligible gains. Operations in Sicily were a shambles and had seen units decimated before they had hit the ground; Normandy had been a great success but a scattered drop had resulted in heavy losses which very nearly prejudiced the entire operation; casualties on the Rhine Crossing made many wonder whether the entire operation itself was worth the effort; and Arnhem had all but written off one of the finest divisions in the British Army.

 

The question must be raised, therefore, was it wrong for the Allies to invest so much of their resources in airborne warfare? The British practice of stripping infantry regiments of volunteers for the Parachute Regiment had robbed these units, who most probably saw far more action than their airborne counterparts did, of their keenest and most capable officers and men. Would they not have made a greater contribution to the War effort had they stayed with their former units? Or could the airborne divisions have followed the German model and been retained as an elite infantry reserve; ground-based formations with a more robust war establishment than was possible for an airborne unit, taking their place in the vanguard of a perilous assault where the virtues of training, discipline and the will to fight would count for much, or else thrown into the line during an emergency, such as the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, to hold their ground where a lesser formation would have failed?

 

Even the most determined advocates of airborne warfare must concede that there are merits in these arguments; the tactical achievements of the airborne forces and the losses they sustained make a compelling case. Yet it cannot be argued that the principles of the airborne assault were unsound; to strike without warning and to seize pivotal objectives to fix the battlefield decidedly against the enemy's favour before they have fully realised that a battle is upon them. Used correctly, a small number of men can have a devastating impact on a battlefield involving thousands, and, for such a force, nothing less than the very finest officers and men can be satisfactory. Often landing in darkness on unfamiliar terrain, surrounded by enemies, lightly-equipped by necessity of their deployment and having to fight in isolation for days against heavy odds; it could never have been any other way.

 

Airborne operations went awry, not because the very concept was unwise, rather the air plan had consistently failed them. Sicily and Normandy had scattered men miles from their objectives; Arnhem had landed them intact but so far from their objectives that they were put at a severe disadvantage in the face of heavy opposition; and the Rhine Crossing had cruelly exposed them to heavy fire when they were at their most vulnerable. Had the air forces had been able, through better technology or practice, to land the troops accurately and intact, close to their objectives but not close enough to be decimated by their defences, it is hard to see how all of the above operations should not have been carried through to more satisfactory conclusions.

 

Even after four years of airborne warfare, in which there had been much theory and experimentation, the movement was neither old nor experienced enough for anyone to have developed the definitive doctrine on how this new weapon should be used to optimum effect. Yet these proud pioneers did much to establish the foundations of modern tactical warfare, where the strategic positioning of troops by helicopters is common practice, and a direct descendent of the pattern established by the Airborne Forces during the Second World War.