First Allied Airborne Army
|First Allied Airborne Army|
Badge of the First Allied Airborne Army.
|Active||2 August 1944 – 20 May 1945|
|Disbanded||20 May 1945|
|Engagements||World War II|
|Lieutenant-General||Lewis H. Brereton|
|General||Richard Nelson Gale|
The First Allied Airborne Army was an Allied formation formed on 2 August 1944 by the order of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. The formation was part of the Allied Expeditionary Force and controlled all Allied airborne forces in Western Europe from August 1944 to May 1945. These included the U.S. IX Troop Carrier Command, the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, which controlled the 17th, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and a number of independent airborne units, all British airborne forces including the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions plus the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade.
From the time of its creation until the end of World War II, the formation commanded the Allied airborne forces that participated in the Allied advance through North-West Europe, including Operation Market-Garden in September 1944, repelling the German counter-offensive launched during the Battle of the Bulge between December 1944 and January 1945, and Operation Varsity in March 1945. The formation was then officially deactivated on 20 May 1945, with the British units under its command returning to the United Kingdom and the American units being renamed as First Airborne Army and taking over command of the American Sector of Occupation in Berlin.
The First Allied Airborne Army was activated on the 2nd of August 1944, by order of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Eisenhower believed that a single agency was required to coordinate all airborne and troop carrier units and which would have the authority to direct the operations they would participate in, as well as command attached army, naval and air force units. Planning for the creation of First Allied Airborne Army had begun several weeks before the beginning of Operation Overlord, with a sub-section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force recommending as early as 20 May 1944 that all British and American airborne forces be unified under a single formation; troop carrier units, however, would still remain independent and under the control of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force under this first recommendation. This recommendation was then sent to 12th Army Group, 21st Army Group and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, but was criticized and opposed by the Chief of Staff of 12th Army Group, Major-General Leven C. Allen. Allen argued that the larger number of American airborne troops, the differences in equipment and staff between British and American formations, and the fact that the available transport aircraft only had the capacity to carry the total number of American airborne troops and not British as well, all meant that there was no need for a unified command for both American and British airborne forces. However, the 21st Army Group and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force both agreed to the recommendation, only suggesting a few minor changes to be made, and on 17 June Major-General H.R. Bull, the Assistant Chief-of-Staff, Operations and Plans (G-3) of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, recommended that a combined airborne troops headquarter be created, albeit one that still did not control troop carrier units.
Eisenhower had been thinking of creating an organization that would control both airborne forces and troop carrier units, based on the model of a modified corps headquarters and commanded by a high-ranking officer of the United States Army Air Forces. Creating such an organization, however, was complicated by the position of the Royal Air Force, which was an independent organization unlike the United States Army Air Forces. Senior British airborne commanders were apprehensive about having an Air Force officer command soldiers, in case the RAF could then use this at a later date as precedent to command British airborne troops. Further problems were created by officers of the AEAF, who complained of the administrative problems which would be created by assigning RAF units to the proposed combined headquarters, and by the personal objections of Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander-in-chief of the AEAF, who argued that the original recommendation should be followed – that of a command that unified American and British airborne forces but left troop carrier units under the command of the AEAF. Despite this opposition, Eisenhower remained convinced for the need of a single unified command that would control both airborne forces and troop carrier units, and outlined his proposal in messages to General of the Army George Marshall and General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold asking for the assignment of an Air Corps officer as commander of the unified headquarters. Marshall, however, asked for further clarification of the role of the commander, asking whether he would simply function as a corps commander of the airborne divisions or command all air and ground troops, and who would command the airborne forces once they had landed and gone into action. After much discussion the three men agreed that an Air Force commander would control all airborne forces until the situation on the ground permitted normal logistical support for the forces involved, when control would revert to a ground commander.
Having solved the problems of what the commander of the unified headquarters would control, and when, the search then began for qualified personnel who could serve at the headquarters. The United States Department of War indicated that some personnel from the Airborne Center at Camp Mackall would be available for the new headquarters, and Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Second Airborne Brigade, from the United Kingdom would be disbanded and its personnel transferred to the new headquarters. In addition, the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe would allocate ten officers and fifty enlisted men. After discussion between Eisenhower, Arnold and Marshall, it was decided that the first commanding officer of the formation was to be USAAF Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton, who currently commanded the USAAF Ninth Air Force. Brereton learnt of his appointment on 17 July when in conference with the commanding officer of the USAAF, General Carl Spaatz, and was initially unconvinced of the merits of a combined headquarters, suggesting instead that American airborne forces be placed under the command of the Ninth Air Force, a suggestion which was denied by Eisenhower. Having agreed to the appointment, Brereton recommended that the combined headquarters was renamed 'First Allied Airborne Army', which was approved by Eisenhower on 16 August after a brief period of opposition by Major-General Bull, who argued that such a name would be inaccurate, as he believed there was no intention of using the organization as an Army. The new organization was then assigned operational control over a number of airborne and troop carrier units. These were the IX Troop Carrier Command; XVIII Corps (Airborne), which controlled 82nd Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division, 17th Airborne Division and a number of independent airborne units; British I Airborne Corps which included 1st Airborne Division and 6th Airborne Division, as well as 1st Special Air Service Brigade and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade; and finally RAF troop carrier units, the number of which would vary depending on the time and the operation being conducted. As commander of First Allied Airborne Army, Brereton was directly responsible to the Supreme Commander Allied (Expeditionary) Force, General Eisenhower, for a number of functions. There were a large number of these functions, but among them Brereton was responsible for the supervision of training and allocation of facilities, the development of new airborne equipment, consultation with the commander-in-chief of the AEAF and the commander of Allied naval forces in the Allied Expedition Force to coordinate airborne operations, and the execution of such operations.
On 2 August 1944, First Allied Airborne Army was officially activated by the orders of General Eisenhower, and in less than two weeks it was assigned its first operation. During August 1944, American forces under General Omar Bradley had launched an operation designed to allow Allied forces to break out of Normandy after several months of slow progress against heavy German resistance, which was codenamed Operation Cobra. The operation had been a success, despite a fierce German counter-attack on 7 August codenamed Operation Lüttich, and a number of German divisions had become trapped between the four towns of Trun, Argentan, Vimoutiers and Chambois near Falaise in France in what had been labelled the Falaise Pocket. On 13 August, airborne forces under the command of First Allied Airborne Army were moved to airfields in Northern France in readiness to participate in Operation Transfigure, whose objective was to block the retreat of these German forces. Planning for the operation went to an extremely advanced stage, and was to have involved 1st Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division, Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division, a British infantry division which had been retrained as an air-transportable division capable of being landed alongside airborne forces, and a number of support units. The planners for Transfigure envisioned the airborne divisions and brigade landing near Rambouillet and capturing an airstrip, after which the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division could be flown in to aid in the establishment of an airhead which Allied armour could use as a forward base to advance towards Paris.
The operation was cancelled before it could begin, however, when Allied forces captured Dreux, the town which had been the planned dropping point for the airborne forces; General Eisenhower's fears that such an airborne operation would create a heavy burden on the limited ground transport available to the Allied forces also contributed to the decision to cancel the operation. Several more airborne operations were planned for First Allied Airborne Army in late August and early September, after the cancellation of Transfigure. Operation Boxer was concerned with the capture of Boulogne by the same forces as Transfigure was to have used, and Operation Linnet was to have used the Transfigure forces, with the addition of the 82nd Airborne Division, on 3 September to capture Tournai and create a bridgehead over the River Escaut, which would cut off a large number of retreating German formations in a similar manner to Transfigure. Both operations were cancelled, however, due to the rapid movement of Allied ground forces as they advanced through France and towards Belgium, as such a rapid advance did not allow First Allied Airborne Army enough time to plan an operation and deploy its forces before its objectives were overrun by ground forces. This situation changed, however, by the middle of September, as Allied forces came into contact with the German frontier and the Siegfried Line and encountered considerable German resistance, with German forces beginning to set up organized defensive positions and the Allied advance slowing.
Operation Market Garden
The genesis for Operation Market-Garden was a smaller operation planned by the staff of the 1st Airborne Division, code-named Operation Comet which was to be launched on 2 September 1944. Comet envisioned using the 1st Airborne Division, along with the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, to secure several bridges over the River Rhine to aid the Allied advance into the North German Plain. The divisional headquarters for the 1st Airborne Division, along the 1st Airlanding Brigade and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were to land at Nijmegen, 1st Parachute Brigade was to land at Arnhem, and 4th Parachute Brigade was to land at Grave. The driving force behind the creation of Comet was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who disagreed with the 'broad front' strategy favoured by Eisenhower, in which all Allied armies in North-West Europe advanced simultaneously. Montgomery, however, believed that a single thrust should be launched against the German forces whilst they were still organizing their defences, and Comet was based on this principle; Allied forces under Montgomery's overal command would be able to move through the Netherlands over the river crossings captured by the airborne forces, outflank the Siegfried Line and enter the North German Plain, ultimately heading for Berlin.
Battle of the Bulge
With the ultimate failure of Operation Market-Garden, the Allied advance came to a halt to be replaced by several months of almost static combat against defending German forces, with no Allied airborne operations being planned or executed. This period was broken, however, when a major offensive was launched by the Germans on the orders of Adolf Hitler; on 16 December 1944 Operation "Watch on the Rhine began, with three German armies attacking through the Ardennes, hundreds of thousands of German troops and tanks breaking through Allied line on the American sector. The operation took the Allied forces completely by surprise, and several units under the command of First Allied Airborne Army became involved in the Allied attempt to first halt, and then repel the offensive; these units were principally the 101st Airborne Division, 82nd Airborne Division and the 6th Airborne Division.
With the end of the participation of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions in repelling the German counter-attack in the Ardennes between December 1944 and January 1945, the airborne forces under the command of First Allied Airborne Army would not participate in another airborne operation until March. By March 1945, the Allied armies had advanced into Germany and had reached the River Rhine. The Rhine was a formidable natural obstacle to the Allied advance, but if breached would allow the Allies to access the North German Plain and ultimately advance on Berlin and other major cities in Northern Germany. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British 21st Army Group devised a plan to allow the forces under his command to breach the Rhine, which he entitled Operation Plunder. Plunder envisioned the British Second Army, under Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey and the U.S. Ninth Army under Lieutenant General William Simpson crossing the Rhine at Rees, Wesel, and an area south of the Lippe Canal. To ensure that the operation was a success, Montgomery insisted that an airborne component was inserted into the plans for the operation to support the amphibious assaults that would take place, which was code-named Operation Varsity. Three airborne divisions were initially chosen to take part in Varsity: the British 6th Airborne Division, the US 13th Airborne Division and the US 17th Airborne Division, all of which were assigned to US XVIII Airborne Corps. One of these airborne formations, the British 6th Airborne Division, was a veteran division; it had taken part in Operation Overlord and the assault on Normandy. However, the 17th Airborne Division had only been activated in April 1943 and had arrived in Britain in August 1944, too late to participate in Operation Overlord. The division had also been absent from Operation Market-Garden, and the only action it had seen was during the Ardennes campaign; it was therefore an inexperienced formation which had never taken part in a combat drop. The 13th Airborne Division had been activated in August 1943 and was sent to France in 1945 but the formation itself had never seen action, although one of its Regiments, the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment had seen action in Italy, Southern France, as well as in the Ardennes.
The planning for Operation Varsity initially involved all three airborne divisions, all of which were to be dropped behind German lines in support of 21st Army Group as it conducted its amphibious assaults to breach the Rhine. However, during the earliest stages of planning Varsity, it became apparent that the 13th Airborne Division would be unable to participate in the operation, as there were only enough combat transport aircraft in the area to effectively transport two divisions. The plan for the operation was therefore altered to accommodate the two remaining airborne divisions, the British 6th Airborne and the US 17th Airborne Division. The two airborne divisions would be dropped behind German lines, with their objective to land around Wesel and disrupt enemy defences in order to aid the advance of the British Second Army towards Wesel. To achieve this, both divisions would be dropped near the town of Hamminkeln, and were tasked with a number of objectives: they were to seize the Diersfordter Wald, a forest that overlooked the Rhine and had a road linking several towns together; several bridges over a smaller waterway, the River IJssel, were to be seized to facilitate the advance; and the town of Hamminkeln was to be captured. Operation Varsity would be the largest single-drop airborne operation conducted during the conflict; more significantly, it would also go against previous airborne strategy by having the airborne troops drop after the initial amphibious landings, in order to minimize risks to the airborne troops after the experiences of Operation Market-Garden. Unlike Market-Garden, the airborne forces would only be dropped a relatively short distance behind German lines, thereby ensuring that reinforcements would be able to link up with them within a short period. This avoided risking the same type of disaster that had befallen the British 1st Airborne Division when it had been isolated and practically annihilated by German infantry and armour at Arnhem. It was also decided by General Brereton that the two airborne divisions would be dropped simultaneously in a single "lift", instead of being dropped several hours apart. Supply drops for the airborne forces would also be made as soon as possible to ensure adequate supplies were available to the airborne troops as they fought.
Several airborne operations were planned for the divisions under the control of First Allied Airborne Army after the end of Operation Varsity. The first was Operation Arena, which envisioned landing between six and ten divisions into what was termed a 'strategic airhead' in the Kassel region of Northern Germany in order to deny a large swathe of territory to the German defenders and give the Allied armies a staging area for further advances into Germany. The 13th was chosen to participate, along with the US 17th, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, as well as the British 6th Airborne Division and the 1st Airborne Division. A preliminary date for 1 May was set for the operation once all of the required airborne and air-landed infantry divisions had been located and supplied, but it was ultimately cancelled on 26 March due to the rapid movement of Allied ground forces negating the requirement for the operation. Operation Choker II which was to be an airborne landing on the east bank of the Rhine near Worms, Germany, and during which the division was only hours from taking off before the operation was cancelled due to Allied ground forces overrunning the proposed landing areas. Operation Effective was designed to deny the Alps area from the Germans to prevent the creation of a last-ditch stronghold, but was cancelled when intelligence indicated such a stronghold did not exist.
- First Allied Airborne Army
- XVIII Airborne Corps
- I Airborne Corps
- IX Troop Carrier Command
- No. 38 Group RAF
- No. 46 Group RAF
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- Huston, p. 76
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- The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Museum, File 74 – Summary of Ground Forces Participation in Operation "Varsity", p. 1
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- Ministry of Information, p. 138
- Huston pp. 216–217
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