Airborne operations include inserting specialized infantry and paratroopers into a hot zone through parachuting. Paratroopers typically only have a few supplies, as their mission is to create conditions for leading battalions to move in after airborne forces establish their landing zone (LZ) or a beachhead.
Originating in 1927, the first paratrooper exercise took place in Italy, and paratroopers took part in extensive combat during the Second World War. Critical and successful airborne operations, such as Operation Neptune and Varsity, paved the way for future Allied victories in WWII and set the example of tactically sound paratrooper movements.
Nevertheless, catastrophic airborne operations have caused a delay in overall war plans and ultimately caused primary objective failures, leading to the combat ineffectiveness of elite paratroopers in modern history.
Battle of Arnhem
The Battle of Arnhem was part of Operation Market Garden, the Allied objective to create a foothold in the then German-occupied Netherlands. The primary goal included conducting a bridgehead Nederrijn, the Lower Rhine River.
Planning the operation, Field Marshal Montgomery incorporated the 82nd and 101st US Airborne Divisions to capture key crossings at Nijmegen. Simultaneously, the British 1st Airborne Division and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were tasked with conducting the capture of the three bridges at Nederrijn.
Pre-battle, allied intelligence suggested that the combined paratroopers would meet minimal resistance, and with that, the seizure of Nederrijn would lead to the domino effect of ending the war. On September 17th, 1944, the allied paratroopers conducted the operation.
American paratroopers successfully landed at Son, Veghel, Nijmegen, and other locations, while the British and Poles landed West of Arnhem. Despite the initial shock and surprise element to Germany, the German garrison quickly mounted a tangible defense, which only grew with reinforcements while the airborne groups were spread thin.
After nearly nine days of fighting and disastrous logistical and intelligence coordination, none of the primary objectives were achieved. Over 6,500 British airborne POWs were taken captive by the German army. The 101st US Airborne suffered such a high casualty rate the division was pulled from the front after fighting in the Netherlands for 72 days.
Battle of Crete
Coming off the backdrop of the Battle of Mainland Greece, German forces expected minimal resistance from the remaining British and Greek troops in Crete. Before the proposed seizure of the isle, the high command of the Nazi Party was in the final stages of Operation Barbarossa. German generals assured Hitler that his airborne units would take minimal casualties and be redirected to the Eastern Front once the capture was complete—a gross miscalculation.
Most Allied troops evacuated to Crete after Germany’s lightning campaigns in Yugoslavia and mainland Greece to prepare defenses. At the same time, they waited for the inevitable evacuation to Egypt. British intelligence also became aware of the impending landing by Germany towards Crete, which gave them time to dig in. The German airborne landing occurred on May 20th, 1941, and unbeknownst to the paratroopers, some of the fiercest resistance didn’t come from allied forces but from Cretan civilians.
Along with the allied defenses, Cretan civilians took up arms with their home appliances, such as kitchen knives and gardening tools, and butchered German paratroopers as they descended onto the isle. The humiliation faced by Cretan civilians would lead to Germany enacting brutal reprisal massacres throughout the occupation.
Ultimately, Germany secured their key objectives and forced the allies to withdraw at a heavy price. Hitler was forced to divert even more elite paratroopers and Luftwaffe from Barbarossa to Crete to subdue the isle. Many of these elite German forces were meant to be used for primary objectives, such as the capture of Moscow, and with the upcoming insurgency, the battle was ultimately pyrrhic.
Battle of Hostomel
The Battle of Hostomel was the first significant military engagement of Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine. Wanting to secure the Hostomel airport to allow for supporting troops to descend, Moscow sought a quick capture of the capital of Kyiv to force a capitulation of Ukraine.
The operation involved Russia’s elite paratroopers, known as the VDV. The process was precarious as the Kremlin went directly for a decapitation strike without degrading the Ukrainian military. In Putin’s mind, he assumed Ukraine’s leadership would flee, creating a domino effect of Ukraine’s Armed Forces (ZSU) to demoralize and capitulate afterward.
Hostomel airport was ideal for the VDV, as the airfield had a defensible terrain, and mechanized forces could maneuver around the roadways. Approximately 300 airborne were used in the early stages of the operation as Russia assumed there would be little resistance as many ZSU units were dealing with the invasion elsewhere in the East and South.
On February 24th, 2022, the VDV conducted the assault on Hostomel. In the early stages of the assault, Russian intelligence (FSB) had miscalculated, and the ZSU put up heavy resistance. Reinforcements of the VDV meant to be transported by IL-76s did not arrive, which could be assessed in fears of being shot down as the initial assault saw at least six downed.
Taking the initiative, Ukraine counterattacked with multiple air assault brigades and elements of their special forces (SSO). The VDV failed to take cover or fortify defensive positions, which would allow Hostomel to become a killing field.
By the end of the assault, most of the VDV that took part in the operation were decimated, with some survivors fleeing into the woods without leadership as their officers were also liquidated. The Battle of Hostomel was decisive for the early tempo of the war and a significant morale booster for Ukraine. Destroying much of Russia’s elite troops sent shockwaves in Moscow and the West, which also underestimated Ukrainian valor.
Overall, paratroopers are the backbone of successful offensive operations, but without proper planning, airborne forces could quickly find themselves in a costly quagmire that could affect operational tempo.