One Way Ticket: A Tribute To The World War II Workhorse Of The Air - The U.S. Army Air Force’s Troop Carrier
The point of the spear for the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 came not from the sea, but from the sky. In the early morning hours of the sixth of June, the first elements of the strike set foot on occupied European soil. Comprised of paratroopers from the British 6th Airborne, along with the U.S. 82nd and 101st, they were charged with securing beach exits for the incoming seaborne forces, keeping the German units in the area distracted, and generally causing confusion and disarray behind Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, a task they performed admirably despite intense anti-aircraft fire enroute to their drop zones, the ensuing misdrops, and no small share of their own confusion once they reached the ground.
Theirs is a story of innovation, esprit de corps, and the ability of determined men to overcome their situation by making the best use of what they had, when they had it, where they were. This is not, however, their story alone. Rather, this is the story of how they came to be in Normandy in the first place. This is also the story of the men who flew the C-47s – the drop ships – and their evolution from an uncertain tactical premise to an invaluable cog in the Allied machine. In equal parts, this is the story of the U.S. Army Air Force’s Troop Carrier Command.
As with countless other innovations that made the ultimate victory possible, Troop Carrier Command only came about after the onset of hostilities, and the later American entrance in 1941. Unlike its sister commands – strategic (bombers), tactical (pursuit), and transport (freight) – military brass were uncertain as to whether or not there was or would be a need at all.
After all, the prevailing attitudes of the time saw paratroopers and their means of conveyance as more of a novelty than a legitimate means of fighting battles. Befitting this conservative pre-war view, paratroops and troop carriers alike were moved to a back burner while more traditional methods were given precedence in time and funds.
Operation Torch, set for November 7th of 1942, provided the baptism by fire for both. A joint British-American offensive, the plan focused on forcing a landing in Vichy-held Algeria and Morocco, hopefully securing the cooperation of the French authorities there, and expanding into Tunisia to strike at the rear of the Afrika Korps. Three major assaults were planned and delegated; General George Patton’s Western force, to Casablanca; Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson’s Eastern force, to Algiers; and Major General Lloyd Fredendall’s Central force, to Oran. The entire operation was placed under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower.
Of the three task forces, only Fredendall’s included airborne elements. The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, a green unit, was flown direct from England for the offensive. In an indicator of the hurdles future operations would bring, the 509th was dropped haphazardly. Scattered in the general vicinity of their target, with several drop ships forced to land in a nearby dry lakebed, they nonetheless effected the capture of two airfields at Tafarquay and Youk-Les-Bains.
The operation was a success, if a halting one. Despite the less than stellar execution, Torch was just the break the airborne needed to be taken seriously. The drop also highlighted the need for better planning and training, along with objectives less broad in scope.
Among the issues brought up afterwards were the inherent hazards of the long-range precision air drop. For instance, the pilots at the controls of the C-47s were required to fly most of the preceding night in order to reach their drop zones. Once there, the troop carriers would theoretically home in on a British picket ship serving as a rallying beacon, make any final adjustments, and carry on to the drop. Instead, navigation errors were made by inexperienced crews, formations mixed up over Spain, and the picket ship was later found to have broadcast on the wrong channel. These issues were addressed for later drops in the theatre, resulting in a much higher success rate.
Troop Carrier Command made a reappearance the following year for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, which ran from the 9th through the 14th of July, 1943. Now operating from newly captured fields in North Africa, the troop carriers would be making a much shorter flight to and from the drop. It seems at first that the brass have learned from Torch, and that perhaps some of the prior mistakes can be avoided.
Unfortunately, Husky introduced new problems. A major setback for the operation was flak – anti-aircraft fire – that rattled the transports enroute. Whereas ground fire over Algeria was light and sporadic, the gunners along the route of Sicily were more accurate and more numerous. In a cruel twist of fate not discovered until after the fact, much of the flak happened to come from confused gunners on Allied ships of the invasion fleet. In the end, twenty five aircraft went down; twenty three shot down by Americans, two by the British.
Further complicating matters, the lingering remains of a Mediterranean gale were just blowing out as the C-47s came through. Fighting turbulence and poor visibility while trying to avoid be killed by friendly fire, the crews pressed on to their drops.
Again, the parachutists were scattered haphazardly over the target. A few days into the offensive General Matthew Ridgeway, commander of all airborne units involved, could not account for almost half of the men under his command. Like Torch, mistakes were made. But against the odds, the drop was a success, so much so that George Patton, commanding American ground forces for the operation, commented on the effectiveness of the airborne in keeping the Germans occupied and buying precious time for the other elements. In the end, Patton concluded the assault by air potentially shortened the overall invasion time by as much as two days.
With North Africa, Sicily, and Italy taken by early 1944, the Allied command put their sights on the next offensive: the invasion of Northwestern Europe. Using England as a staging area, thousands of troops, tanks, and aircraft waited in marshalling yards all across Britain. Unlike previous offensives in southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the move will have to be made against an entrenched enemy and a stretch of fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall; miles of beach obstacles, machine gun and artillery bunkers, and barbed wire. The men who planned the operations quickly realized the value of paratroopers that could bypass the defenses, and the airborne was given a starring role
In preparation for what would become Operation Neptune, C-47s flew countless practice missions over the English countryside, working to improve navigation, formation flying, and coordination. Naturally, there were gaps in the training. Most flights took place during daylight hours, in relatively smooth conditions, and without the threat of flak. For the new Troop Carriers, their mission was simple enough.
Fortunately, some crucial changes were implemented since the first airborne operations. Airborne planners became a permanent part of the Allied staff. Pilots were now given more instruction in flying formations at night, in bad weather, and in closer proximity than previously dictated. Pathfinders are another development; rather than have aircrews attempt to drop paratroopers over a darkened landscape, specially trained units that have been trained to ahead of the main force and set up lighted beacons to guide the drop ships.
Unfortunately, complications arose when the formations passed over the French coast and into clouds and German anti-air defenses. Aircrews trained to fly close by following the wingtip and tail lights of their flights were either in zero visibility or breaking formation to avoid the ground fire. In a major oversight, not one of the plans for Neptune made any kind of allowance for making the assault in poor weather.
As might be expected, the effects bordered on disastrous. Between poor visibility, bad navigation, and flak, pilots lost track of their flights and the pathfinders’ beacons and became disoriented. The formation work so thoroughly practiced over England was forgotten. While some pushed on to their designated objectives, most broke formation and flew evasively. By the time pilots believed themselves to have reached their drop zone, many were in fact miles off course. The paratroopers, unaware of the snowballing errors, jumped at the green light. Less than fifty percent landed where they should.
In the aftermath of Neptune, the mistakes made by Troop Carrier Command can’t overshadow the success of the invasion. Despite the problems during and after the drop, the airborne managed to overcome. Still, the mistakes remain fresh in the minds of planners. A few weeks after the 101st returned to England, the airborne and the transport crews are assembled for a visit by Eisenhower, now the top Allied commander in the theatre. After a short speech, Eisenhower orders the paratroopers to make a left-face, and the Troop Carriers to turn and face them. He orders the pilots to look at the men their carelessness very nearly killed, and ends with the expectation that they will do better in the next operation.
The next operation came in September. This time it was Market-Garden—the invasion of Holland. Market is the airborne element (including British paratroops) and Garden is the ground element. The drop will be the largest ever undertaken, and is planned for daylight. The offensive is the brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He plans to drop airborne deep in country to secure bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen. While this is going on his ground forces will push in and link up with the airborne.
Things go wrong from the start. Despite the vastly improved performance of the Troop Carrier pilots, the parachutists landed and immediately come under fire. German resistance proved tougher than anticipated. This held true for the Garden element as well. Through poor supply lines, high enemy strength, and bad tactics, the ground offensive bogged down. In hindsight, the failure of intelligence services to take into account the two panzer divisions refitting the Arnhem area is a key point to understanding the operational shortcomings.
In the end, the three-day operation is stretched to more than double its original schedule. Paratroopers with supplies for two days go unrelieved for seven. Yet, they hold. Attempts at resupply prove disastrous, as pilots are instructed to ignore signals from the ground. Doing so causes several drops into German-held positions. The armor eventually gets through, however, and the bridges are captured intact. Again, lessons are learned. The airborne is a highly effective asset, but must be supported.
Operation Varsity, planned for March 25, 1945, was the last planned airborne offensive and, at last, a smashing success. With the crossing of the Rhine River the objective, the drop was undertaken by the British 6th AB and the U.S. 17th airborne divisions. The drop zone was small (only six miles from the front line) the enemy resistance weak, and the objectives completed in a matter of hours. So successful was Varsity, in fact, that the operation was later taught at West Point as a demonstration of a well-executed airborne assault.
The concept of paratrooper operations remained an option past the end of the Second World War, and even well into the present day. Troop Carrier Command was somewhat shorter lived. Though several TC units were reactivated for service in Korea, the end of the conflict saw the transportation of paratroopers gradually transfer onto the less-specialized Military Air Transport Service, the branch of the U.S. Air Force dedicated to moving all cargo by air, be it passenger, freight, or paratrooper. By the start of the conflict in Viet Nam, Troop Carrier Command was gone altogether, as was MATS (since reorganized into Military Airlift Command). Despite the comparatively brief existence, the Troop Carriers left their indelible mark on the history of airborne warfare.