Airborne in Europe, Part Two
The story begins with Part One.
101st Airborne Division
Switching an existing division to airborne status brought with it many bureaucratic tangles; for the next division, the Army decided to start from scratch. On the same day the 82nd switched designations to become an Airborne Division, a completely new division, the 101st Airborne, was activated in Louisiana. Lee, now a major general, wrangled the post as the new division’s first commander. In his first address to his troopers, he told them their division, “has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny.”
[use this photo:]
Troopers of the 101st look over a wrecked Waco glider near Nijmegen. Gliders were thought much safer than parachuting.
Despite the lack of history, the division did not begin without experience. Several smaller, existing units formed its cadre starting with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. After intense training, the division shipped out for England in August 1943, spending almost a further year in training before jumping into combat for the first time in Normandy. Maxwell Taylor now commanded the division, Lee having suffered a heart attack in February.
For the rest of the war, the 101st’s campaigns mirrored those of the 82nd, climaxing with the epic stand at Bastogne in the Ardennes. Unlike the 82nd, the 101st was slated for the invasion of Japan and undergoing new training when the Japanese surrendered.
17th Airborne Division
Like the 101st, the 17th Airborne Division was organized from scratch, around a veteran cadre provided by the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The division formed in April 1943 under the command of Maj. Gen. William Miley, the original commander of the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion. The division’s 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment jumped into Southern France with the First Allied Airborne Task Force, but the rest of the 17th Airborne did not move to Europe until August 1944 and was not included in Operation Market-Garden, the massive airborne landing in the Netherlands. When troops of the 17th did finally see combat, they did so as infantry, having been rushed to the front from their bases in England to help stem the German advance during the Battle of the Bulge. The 17th arrived later than the two veteran divisions, but saw intense action in January 1945 along Dead Man’s Ridge and in the Houffalize Gap.
Planes and gliders prepare to take the 17th Airborne into Operation Varsity.
Withdrawn from the Ardennes, the 17th took part in the last major Allied airborne assault of the war, Operation Varsity. Together with the British 6th Airborne Division, the 17th seized bridges over the Weser River to help speed the Allied advance into Germany. With the crossings secure, the division also fought in the Ruhr Pocket before the German surrender.
13th Airborne Division
Formed in August 1943, the 13th Airborne Division didn’t embark for Europe until early 1945. By the time they landed, the German Army was already in full retreat. Planned airborne operations were repeatedly cancelled as ground troops overran their objectives. Slated for the invasion of Japan, the division had not departed Europe when the Japanese gave up as well, and the 13th Airborne went home without having seen combat.
Get Off Your Ass
With the Vichy French island of Martinique in the Caribbean holding itself aloof from the Allied cause and, supposedly, re-supplying Axis submarines, the Americans laid plans to invade. A new parachute battalion, the 551st, would spearhead the invasion followed by a glider battalion. Amphibious landings would be made by a provisional Marine brigade and the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
Individual troopers trained at the Parachute Replacement School at Fort Benning, then secretly transferred to the Panama Canal Zone where the battalion was activated in November 1942. In the Canal Zone they underwent intense jungle warfare training, spurred by the repeated shouts of their commander, Lt. Col. Wood Joerg, to “Get off your ass!” Joerg’s mantra became the battalion’s slogan, usually abbreviated GOYA.
Invasion seemed imminent in May 1943, when the battalion was alerted for action. But by July Martinique’s Vichy French governor had come over to the Allied side, and the paratroopers stood down, returning to Fort Bragg in August. After nearly a year of further training, they deployed to Italy in June 1944 and finally made a combat jump, dropping into southern France in August 1944. The battalion saw action through the late summer and early fall, but that winter it would be thrown into the crucible.
Troopers of the 551st get off their asses and to the front in the Ardennes.
One of many airborne units summoned to help fill the gaps ripped in Allied lines by the German Ardennes offensive, the 551st spearheaded the 82nd Airborne Division’s counter-attack. Casualties mounted, and by the morning of 7 January 1945 Joreg’s initial 643 men were down to about 250 when James Gavin of the 82nd ordered him to capture the village of Rochelinval. The GOYAs had no artillery support and no winter camouflage, and Joerg protested that the attack was suicidal. Gavin insisted, and the troopers went forward over half a mile of open ground. Alerted German mowed them down, but the Americans made it into their positions and took the village at bayonet point. Only 110 were left, and Gavin received permission to disperse the battalion’s survivors as replacements across his own division’s depleted units.
The First Jump
The former 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion went through several re-numberings before becoming the 2nd Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment in November 1942 – a “regiment” with no other battalions. The first American airborne unit sent overseas, the battalion trained alongside the British 1st Airborne Division before boarding transports for the first combat drop of American paratroopers. Thirty-nine C-47’s flew from England to Algeria, where only 10 of them managed to find the drop zone; most of the others delivered their troops by landing on a dry lake bed. A second jump a week later went somewhat better, but it was not a good start for U.S. airborne operations.
The battalion fought in Tunisia and jumped at Salerno in September 1943, missing its drop zone and incurring heavy casualties. Finally designated a battalion in December 1943, the 509th landed at Anzio from landing craft two months later and fought there as an independent unit. In August 1944 the 509th jumped into Southern France as part of the First Allied Airborne Task Force, and like other small parachute units it rushed to the Ardennes to help stop the German offensive.
Like the 551st, the 509th suffered enormous casualties – in the case of the 509th, a ferocious encounter at Sadzot against a battle group of SS troops and German paratroopers. With less than 100 men fit for duty, the 509th was also disbanded and its men assigned to the 82nd Airborne as individual replacements.
Invaders of Martinique
Inspired by the German 22nd Air-Landing Division’s operations in the Netherlands, the U.S. Army set up its own similar unit in the Panama Canal Zone for the assault on Martinique. After the 551st’s paratroopers captured an airfield, the 550th Airborne Infantry Battalion would land there from aircraft. Training and testing showed that the concept lacked flexibility, and after the Martinique assault was cancelled the 550th went to Fort Bragg for re-training as a glider battalion.
The 550th landed in Southern France with the First Allied Airborne Task Force in August 1944, and fought there until departing for England in November. Rushed to the Ardennes, the 550th fought under command of 17th Airborne Division and, like the other independent battalions, saw heavy action and immense casualties. In February 1945 the battalion became part of the 17th Airborne, as the 3rd Battalion of that division’s 194th Glider Infantry Regiment.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold fears ocean waves.