Περί Ελαφρού Πεζικού, Μέρος Στ’

Το κείμενο που ακολουθεί αποτελεί το τρίτο μέρος της μελέτης του Marc DeVore σχετικά με τις αερομεταφερόμενες δυνάμεις και τη μεταπολεμική τους εξέλιξη.

Στο πρώτο μέρος της μελέτης, ο DeVore εξέθεσε τη βασική του θέση, ότι οι αερομεταφερόμενες δυνάμεις ήταν μια προπολεμική σύλληψη που τόσο ο Β΄ΠΠ όσο και η μεταγενέστερη εμπειρία απέδειξαν ότι ήταν λανθασμένη. Παρ΄όλα αυτά, οι δυνάμεις αυτές δεν εξαλείφθησαν ή μειώθησαν κατά αντίστοιχο τρόπο, εξ αιτίας της ισχύος που τα στελέχη τους είχαν εξασφαλίσει εντός των αμυντικών οργανισμών των αντιστοίχων χωρών.

Στο τρίτο μέρος που ακολουθεί, ο DeVore εξετάζει ένα ακόμη από τα τρία συγκεκριμένα παραδείγματα που χρησιμποιεί για να υποστηρίξει τη θέση του, αυτό των Βρετανικών αερομεταφερόμενων δυνάμεων.

Θα ακολουθήσει, πριν από το τελευταίο, τρίτο παράδειγμα αερομεταφερόμενων δυνάμεων, ένα άρθρο-αντίλογος σχετικά με τη μεταπολεμική εξέλιξη και το ρόλο των βρετανικών αερομεταφερόμενων δυνάμεων, από το περιοδικό Infinity.

Institutions and the Evolution of Postwar Airborne Forces

Marc DeVore

Security Studies Program Working Paper
June 2004
MIT Center for International Studies

The United Kingdom:  Rationally Reduced

 If the Soviet Union’s paratroop forces  constitute an extreme case of organizational  autonomy, the United Kingdom’s airborne forces lie at the opposite end  of the spectrum. Possessed of little  organizational autonomy within the  British Army, the United Kingdom’s  airborne forces were neither as innovative  nor as persistent after the war as the  Soviet VDV. In fact, once World War II  ended and they had lost the patronage  of Prime Minister Winston Churchill,  British airborne forces’ institutional  weaknesses militated against their  continued existence as a major military  entity. As a consequence, three airborne  divisions rapidly shrunk until  only a single operational paratroop  battalion was left.

WWII-vintage British paratroopers.

Unlike the Soviet Union, which set about developing airborne forces in the early-1930s, the United  Kingdom was one of the last great powers to develop paratroop units. In fact, the United Kingdom’s armed  forces evinced little interest in parachute assaults until Germany’s successful use of airborne forces in the  battles for Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium prompted Prime Minister Churchill to order the creation  of the United Kingdom’s first paratroop units.86 Accordingly, Churchill drafted a memorandum to the Military  Wing of the War Cabinet Secretariat on June 22, 1940, proclaiming that, “We should have a corps of at  least five thousand parachute troops.”87

Acting on Churchill’s instructions, the armed forces assigned Army Major John Rock and Royal Air  Force Squadron (RAF) Leader L.A. Strange to the task of developing parachuting equipment and training  procedures. At first, Rock and Strange had little to work with, their command having neither men nor aircraft  at its disposal.88 Yet, somehow, scrounging for men and equipment, they managed to acquire six obsolete  Whitley bombers and American designed Irvin parachutes from the RAF, and Number 2 Commando and  captured German jump gear from the Army.

From these meager beginnings, the United Kingdom set about constructing airborne forces. To begin  with, the efforts of Rock, Strange and others like them to put the Prime Minister’s order of June 22nd into  practice ran up against administrative foot dragging and stonewalling from both the Air Ministry and the War  Office. As such, although 2 Commando had been assigned to the Airborne Forces training school since July  of 1940, it did not formally become an airborne unit until the 21st of November. And even then, its designation  as a “Special Air Service Battalion” robbed it of the administrative clout or organizational security that  came with incorporation as a regiment.89

Denied even a modicum of autonomy and starved for resources, the United Kingdom’s airborne forces  mustered less than one active battalion a year after Churchill wrote his famous memorandum. Things might  have continued to evolve at this glacial pace had Germany not overwhelmed Crete with a massive airborne  assault in May of 1941.90 Indeed, Churchill took a much more proactive role in Britain’s development of  15  WWII-vintage British paratroopers.  airborne forces after the German conquest of the Mediterranean island. On 27 May, days after the Battle of  Crete, Churchill wrote the Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces complaining that the United Kingdom needed a  German-style airborne division and that obstructionism on the part of the Air Ministry and the War Office  must cease.91

The United Kingdom’s nascent airborne force received a needed boost from Churchill’s intervention on  their behalf. Soon after this occurred, the 11th Special Air Service battalion acquired regimental status as the  1st battalion of the Parachute Regiment and volunteers were solicited to form two additional Parachute Regiment  battalions. Later, in September 1941, the decision was taken to eventually combine these three battalions  in an airborne brigade, with the perspective of forming still larger airborne units.92

While these measures entailed a marked increase in the size of the United Kingdom’s paratroop units,  they did little to boost the organizational autonomy or importance of these forces. And although the United  Kingdom eventually produced three airborne divisions, the institutional strength of these forces was limited  by the fact that only a single Parachute Regiment existed. Within the British Army, divisions are ephemeral  creations formed for specific purposes and disbanded once these are accomplished.93 By way of contrast,  regiments have permanent administrative existences, each possessing its own peacetime training facilities and  many boasting histories dating back to the seventeenth century.94

In this context, the existence of three airborne divisions is a feeble metric for judging the autonomy of  paratroop forces within the United Kingdom’s armed forces.95 Rather, the fact that all of these divisions were  formed from supernumerary battalions of a single regiment points to their institutional weakness.96 As such,  although the United Kingdom eventually formed 24 parachute battalions, these tactical formations all depended  on an administrative unit whose peacetime size would theoretically not exceed three battalions and  their associated clerical and technical staffs.97

No greater contrast exists than that between the organizational formats of the United Kingdom’s Parachute  Regiment and that of the Soviet VDV. Whereas the VDV was a service within a service and possessed  independent channels of recruitment, officer training facilities and an autonomous position under the Minister  of Defense, the British Parachute Regiment was, in organizational terms, a regiment like any other. In this  context, Parachute Regiment officers matriculated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and other  Officer Candidate Training (OCT) courses along with those assigned to every other regiment. And, rather  than possessing an autonomous position within the Ministry of Defense, British paratroop units were regularly  subordinated to field commanders.

During the Second World War, this weak institutional structure did not negatively impact British airborne  forces as it might have done. Because mobilization for total war and United States Lend-Lease assistance  provided the British armed forces with ample manpower and materiel, the airborne forces were never  really starved for resources. They received more than enough British manufactured Sten submachine guns  and P.I.A.T. antitank missile launchers—weapons that were not specific to airborne units, but which suited  them handily—and were flown to their destinations in United States produced C-47 transports.

With Churchill’s patronage, the United Kingdom’s airborne forces also procured specialized airborne  equipment. One such device, the “Gammon Bomb,” provided British paratroopers with a close-range antitank  weapon sufficiently small and cheap for every paratrooper to carry at least one.98 Even more remarkably,  British airborne forces received limited numbers of light Tetrarch tanks during World War II.99 Weighing a  mere 8 tons, these tanks could be delivered to targets by the largest World War II-era gliders, as seven in fact  were on D-Day in 1944.100

Armed and equipped in this fashion, the United Kingdom’s paratroops undertook eight distinct airborne  operations, during which they performed comparably to other states’ airborne forces. Neither as successful as  Germany’s paratroops nor as unfortunate as the Soviet VDV, Britain’s airborne soldiers boasted a record akin  16  to those of their American allies or Japanese adversaries. As Table V illustrates, besides a couple decisive  victories and a single unmitigated disaster, British airborne endeavors were mostly bloody and inconclusive  affairs.101

In spite of a wartime record comparable to those of foreign airborne units, the United Kingdom’s  paratroop forces endured deeper and more persistent cuts than those of any other major power. Within  months of conducting their final and most successful parachute assault—a battalion size combat jump to seize  Japanese cannons and bunkers guarding the Rangoon River Delta in May 1945—the United Kingdom’s  airborne forces were rocked by a series of drastic force reductions. To begin with, the British 1st Airborne  Division was dissolved in November of 1945. And in the next three years Britain’s remaining airborne  divisions and brigades were whittled down to almost nothing, such that only a single parachute brigade  remained by February 1948.102

Even once these cutbacks were made, the residual 16th Parachute Brigade lacked the funding and institutional  clout to rectify problems plaguing wartime airborne operations. To begin with, the United Kingdom’s  airborne forces were unable to influence how the RAF designed its transports and managed its aircraft fleet.  As a consequence, RAF transports lacked rear-loading freight doors for dropping oversized cargoes, such as  artillery pieces or vehicles—a capacity that the United States, Soviet Union and France all possessed in one  way or another.103

Furthermore, the United Kingdom’s parachute brigade experienced difficulty convincing the RAF to fly  training flights and by the mid-1950s British paratroopers were, on average, jumped only once a year. Understandably,  these forces were not as prepared for combat as their French and American counterparts, who  jumped respectively once a month and once every three months.104

This low priority accorded the United Kingdom’s 16th Parachute Brigade became obvious in 1956 during  Operation Musketeer, when British and French paratroopers leapt into the Suez Canal zone. In every respect,  French paratroops proved better armed and trained than their British colleagues throughout this assault.  Whereas “sticks” of seventeen French paratroopers emptied their aircraft in ten seconds—ensuring they were  spread over no more than half a mile—British paratroops exited their transports at a leisurely pace. Requiring  twenty seconds for fifteen to jump from a transport, the United Kingdom’s airborne forces were hopelessly  scattered over miles of desert terrain.

Besides being more dispersed than the French, British paratroops were also less well armed and  equipped. In fact, while French paratroops jumped with specially designed rifles and submachine guns slung

Table V

British World War II Airborne Operations

Indecisive Operations or  Failures                 Pyrrhic Successes                                       Successes

                      Arnhem                                                Tragino Aqueduct                                         Bruneval

                                                                                             Operation Torch                                     Rangoon River



                   The Rhine

across their chests, British paratroopers parachuted unarmed, with their weapons arriving in separate canisters.  Needless to say, the first minutes on the ground were a harrowing experience for these men. Equipped  with only knives or pistols, they scrambled to locate and dig rifles out of weapons containers. Under such  conditions, one British paratrooper was reduced to throwing a weapon container at an Egyptian soldier  attacking him with a knife.105

In addition to their inferior training and weapons, the British 16th Parachute Brigade also suffered from a  dearth of heavy equipment. The aforementioned deficiencies affecting RAF transport aircraft meant that the  only vehicles that could be dropped near the Suez Canal were small World War II jeeps. Because of this,  British paratroopers were compelled to leave their new Austin Champ vehicles behind and comb Cyprus for  outmoded jeeps and their trailers. Once this was accomplished, they set about searching warehouses for the  obsolete World War II “dropping beam” devices needed to parachute these jeeps, one of which they actually  commandeered from a museum.106

In short, during the Suez operation British paratroops were found wanting in every regard save individual  courage. Under-trained and saddled with old equipment, the British 16th Parachute Brigade was less  skilled and no better armed than their predecessors had been at Normandy. Had it not been for Egyptian  incompetence and French savoir-faire, the airborne assault on the Suez Canal could have turned out to be a  disaster reminiscent of Arnhem. As one author so aptly put it, “What had atrophied were the unglamorous  skills of the planner and logistician.”107

While Suez highlighted the neglect of British airborne forces, it in no way constituted their nadir. For  the next 21 years the 16th Parachute Brigade lingered on, demonstrating little inventiveness and accomplishing  nothing in terms of revitalizing Britain’s parachute assault capabilities. Finally, on March 31, 1977, the 16th  Parachute Brigade was dissolved, killed by the menace of improved air defenses and the rest of the Army’s  competing demands for resources. Henceforth, Britain would maintain only a single parachute battalion in  the airborne role, with two others serving as regular infantry units in the Army.108

For all intents and purposes, the dissolution of the 16th Parachute Brigade marked the end of Britain’s  parachute assault capability. In effect, since 1977 the United Kingdom’s vestigial airborne forces have been  smaller and less capable than those of small states such as Belgium, Yugoslavia and Portugal, and infinitesimal  compared those of great powers such as China, Japan or France.109 Although British airborne forces  recovered some of their luster during the Falklands War, where two of the United Kingdom’s three remaining  parachute battalions fought as ordinary infantry, neither the resources nor the attention devoted to maintaining  a parachute assault capability have increased.

In this context, the resurrection of an airborne brigade—the 5th Airborne Brigade—consequent to the  Falklands War was more symbolic than real.110 The actual number of parachute battalions within the British  Army has not increased and two-thirds of the 5th Airborne Brigade is composed of non-parachute trained  infantry battalions.111 As such, while there is once again a parachute brigade on the United Kingdom’s order  of battle, only a single battalion is capable of filling the parachute role at any point in time and there are  doubts as to whether the United Kingdom would use even this small force. As Brigadier D. Chaundler,  commander of the 5th Airborne Brigade, confessed, “I cannot envisage mounting a parachute assault in  anything but a low threat scenario. A parachute stream of aircraft is a slow-moving and large target. Thus, it  is very vulnerable.”112

Given the gradual elimination of the United Kingdom’s paratroop forces, the question arises as to why  British airborne divisions, which performed better than the Soviet VDV and similarly to the other great  powers’ airborne forces during World War II, fared so much worse in the post-war budgetary battles? As has  already been alluded to, the answer to this question lies in the comparatively low degree of organizational  autonomy accorded British airborne forces during the war.  18

In effect, British paratroop forces lacked the institutional strength to defend anything like their World  War II force structure. With 24 parachute battalions and three air landing brigades tied to a permanent  administrative structure designed for a regiment, the United Kingdom’s airborne forces were acutely vulnerable  to the attacks of critics and the competing claims of other parts of the armed forces. Furthermore,  Churchill’s electoral defeat at the end of the war robbed the airborne forces of a steadfast ally who might have  supported them in the post-war budget battles.

Under these circumstances, the United Kingdom’s paratroop forces were unable to justify the continuing  validity of the parachute assault mission. The bloody nature of Second World War airborne operations  combined with the evolving threat of ground based air defenses, everywhere militated against the existence of  large airborne forces. In the United Kingdom, institutional weaknesses and lack of organization made it  impossible for airborne advocates to deny this reality, as their Soviet homologues so successfully did. This  made it easier for Britain to devalue and gradually abandon its parachute assault capabilities, and shift resources  to other, more promising military assets.113 In this context, the pitiful performance of British paratroopers  at Suez finds its antipode in the revolutionary use of 22 helicopters to deploy 45 Commando, Royal  Marines during the same operation.114 As was borne out in this case, a lack of institutions can be a godsend  when it comes to scrapping a failed innovation.


86 While the United Kingdom did not possess and was not in the process of developing airborne military units, the Air Ministry had set up a training school for secret agents who would be parachuted behind enemy lines. Ferguson, 3.

87 Ibid.

88 Rock was the commander of the paratroop project. Strange was the officer commanding the base where this project  was being undertaken.

89 This unit, the 11th SAS Battalion, bears no relationship to the SAS that was later founded by David Stirling and Jock  Lewis in North Africa in 1941. The term SAS originally connoted a parachute-trained ad hoc unit. Steve Crawford, The  SAS Encyclopedia (Miami: Lewis, 1996), 8-9.

90 Hitler and Churchill drew opposite conclusions from the German assault on Crete. Whereas Hitler concluded, after the Germans had suffered appalling casualties in their offensive, that airborne forces had no future in warfare, the ultimate German victory on Crete convinced Churchill as to the utility of possessing airborne forces.

91 Hilton, 126.

92 Ferguson, 6-7.

93 In fact, none of the British divisions that served in World War I can really be said to have an administrative existence stretching to the Second World War. Formations that garnered considerable fame during the former conflict—such as the 36th “Ulster” Division—were dissolved after its conclusion. Other divisions, which persisted in name during the interwar period, underwent radical changes as to their battalion-level composition.  38

94 One good, but concise description of the British regimental system is that, “The British infantry regiment – e.g., The  King’s Own Scottish Borderers – had a ‘tribal’ but not a tactical identity. It had a continuous history, usually stretching  back at least 250 years; an administrative depot which supplied men and services for the numbered battalions. Its individual battalions served – usually separately – alongside battalions of other regiments within the tactical brigades.”  Martin Brayley, The British Army, 1939-45 (I): North-West Europe (London: Osprey, 2001), 18.

95 Historically, one of the reasons divisions never acquired strong identities in the United Kingdom was the long tenure of  the Cardwell System, whereby the battalions of a regiment rotated between overseas and home postings. Two  byproducts of this system were that the battalion-level composition of British divisions in peacetime constantly changed  and that battalions’ administrative links to regimental depots remained strong. Michael Howard has criticized this  system for its stultifying military inventiveness. As he argues, the Cardwell reforms “may be an obstacle to full professional  efficiency; but it is perhaps a barrier to much else as well.” See Michael Howard, “Soldiers in Politics,” Encounter  (London: Encounter, September 1962).

96 Within the United Kingdom’s military system, there are several ways that a higher level of institutional strength could  have been granted the airborne forces. One of these would have involved creating multiple parachute regiments, rather  than many battalions of a single regiment. A second method for increasing the administrative clout of airborne forces  would have been to convert existing infantry regiments to the parachute role. This was the solution ultimately pursued with respect to armored warfare. Finally, the airborne role could have been assigned to an autonomous organization within a service other than the Army (i.e. the Air Force). This last approach bore fruit in the areas of airfield defense and amphibious raids with the RAF Regiment and Royal Marine Commandos respectively. See William Fowler, The Royal Marines, 1956-84 (London: Osprey, 1984), 5-6. And http://www.rafregt.com .

97 In theory, British regiments consisted of three battalions apiece. One battalion would be assigned to field service  somewhere in the empire. One would be assigned to home or (post-1945) European service. The final battalion would  be a depot and training regiment, responsible for training new recruits.

98 The Gammon Bomb was invented by Captain Arthur Gammon of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, in 1941. It  was basically a stockinet bag filled with plastic explosives. See Ferguson, 29.

99 Tetrarch tanks were not originally designed for the airborne role. In fact, this tank began life in 1938 as a private  venture on the part of Vickers. It was then taken over by the War Office for small-scale production in July 1940. By this  time, however, the deficiencies inherent in light tanks were becoming clear to the British armed forces. As such, the War  Office shipped most Tetrarchs produced to the Soviet Union in 1942, where they saw action in the Caucasus. Only the  United Kingdom’s decision to create airborne divisions led to the continued manufacture of the Tetrarch. See A17  Tetrarch Light Tank http://www.angelfire.com/ab5/WWTanks/England/Tanks/Tetrarch/Tetrarch.html.

100 Ogorkiewicz, 52.  101 The criteria used for judging pyrrhic successes in this table are the same as those employed in Table I (page 19). The metric for judging an operation to be indecisive is that some objectives are taken and others not, and that the airborne operation does not contribute appreciably the success of a broader campaign. See Ferguson 5-34. And Sergent, Histoire  mondiale des parachutistes, 336-37.

102 Ferguson, 34.

103 Robert Jackson, Suez: The Forgotten Invasion (Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 1996), 82.

104 Ibid.  39

105 Peter Tsouras, Changing Orders: The Evolution of the World’s Armies, 1945 to the Present (London: Arms and  Armour, 1994), 104.

106 Ferguson, 36.

107 Tsouras, 93.

108 Ferguson, 41.

109 Belgium, Yugoslavia, Portugal and Japan have all maintained parachute brigades throughout the last 30 years. France’s airborne forces have fluctuated in size between a division and an over-strength brigade between 1962 and  present. Similarly, China’s airborne forces have varied in size between three brigades and three divisions. See The Military Balance, 2000-2001; and Jean-Pierre Husson, Encyclopedie des forces speciales du monde (2) (Paris: Histoire et  Collections, 2001), 70-71, 271-72. Also see, You ji, The Armed Forces of China (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999), 143-44.

110 The 1982 Falklands War was a major publicity victory for Britain’s paratroop forces. Popular clamor after the war led  to the recreation of an airborne brigade, although this did not entail an expansion of Britain’s parachute qualified forces.

111 In addition to being comprised mostly of non-paratroops, the 5th Airborne Brigade’s first commander was not a career  airborne officer. Rather, Brigadier Tony Jeapes was a former commander of the 22nd SAS Regiment and British  counterinsurgency campaign in Oman. See Ferguson, 45.

112 “Parachute Assault,” 414.

113 Some may argue that the decline of British paratroop forces was the result of an overall decline in national resources.  While appealing, this argument fails to account for several facts: 1) the largest cuts in the United Kingdom’s airborne  forces occurred at a time when national service provided abundant manpower and defense spending constituted six  percent of Britain’s GDP; 2) countries with smaller defense budgets than the United Kingdom, such as France and  Poland, maintained larger airborne forces throughout the Cold War.

114 W.A. Willcocks, “Airmobility and the Armoured Experience,” The British Army and the Operational Level of War  (Camberley, England: Staff College, 1989), 114.


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