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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Victory By Error

This is Steven Petrick posting.

In World War II the United States expended the resources to create five "airborne" divisions, and created enough separate airborne elements for at least another two divisions. Three of these divisions (and a large slice of the separate elements) conducted operations in the European theater (17th, 82nd, 101st), one division (and a smaller slice of the separate elements) were committed to the Pacific theater (11th). One division (13th) and a smaller slice of the separate elements never saw action. Even with this tremendous investment in airborne forces, there were never enough transports (C-47s etc.) to lift all of them at one time (many planned operations by the 11th division in the Pacific were cancelled due to the lack of transports).

Yet all of it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of German airborne operations.

The United States Army was impressed by the accomplishments of the Germans, particularly the seizure of Crete by airborne forces alone.

What we were unaware of was how close the Germans had come to failing on Crete, and how much their success was due less to the capabilities of the German airborne division (supplemented by the 5th Mountain division), than to the failures at all levels of the commanders of the forces of the United Kingdom on Crete.

Had we known how badly the German paratroopers were chewed up on Crete, we might not have continued building our own Airborne force.

This, however, would have had possibly disastrous consequences.

While the first American Airborne operations in North Africa were pure farce (almost laughable except for the lives lost), and Sicily was its own private nightmare for airborne operations, without the ability to jump in troops at a critical moment the Germans might have succeeded in destroying the landing at Salerno. The failure of Salerno would have seen the British held further south of Rome than historically, and have called into question the concept of a major landing in Europe.

Even if "Operation Overlord" went forward, without the airborne divisions landing behind Utah beach, the Germans would have been far less confused and could have focused on the initial landings more effectively.

Yet, we only had all of those airborne assets because we drew the wrong lessons, out of lack of knowledge, about what happened on Crete.