Churchill's Spearhead: The Development of Britain's Airborne Forces during World War II, John Greenacre

Churchill's Spearhead: The Development of Britain's Airborne Forces during World War II, John Greenacre

The exploits of the British parachute and glider borne troops during the Second World War are very well known, from the minor raids early in the war to the successes on D-Day and during the crossing of the Rhine and perhaps most famously the failure at Arnhem. Less well known is the story behind the airborne forces, starting with their creation, which came as late as 1940. Greenacre's book aims to fill this gap, providing an analytic study of the main strands that came together on the famous battlefields, from the initial reasons behind the creation of the airborne forces to the development of an understanding of the possible uses for them and the tactics required for a successful airborne attack.

The War Office had been interested in airborne forces since paratroopers leapt into public view during a Soviet military exercise in 1935, but no practical work was done to develop the same capability in Britain until 1940. The initial impetus to this development came during the German campaigns in Norway, Holland and Belgium, where small numbers of paratroopers achieved successes out of all proportion to the number of men involved. This attracted Churchill's interest, and on 22 June 1940 he ordered the formation of Britain's own airborne capability.

The resulting airborne forces, initially parachute troops, but eventually including glider borne forces, spent long periods of time in training. Between June 1940 and Operation Torch in November 1942 they were only used twice. There was a gap of eleven months between their use on Sicily and D-Day, and their next major deployment after D-Day was at Arnhem. As Greenacre makes clear the time between these battles was just as important as the battles themselves. These were the periods in which the equipment was selected and if possible produced - a particular problem for the crucial delivery systems - the transport aircraft needed for paratroopers, the gliders and the aircraft need to tow them. These were also the periods in which the personnel for the new units were chosen and trained and their leaders selected.

Perhaps most importantly these were the periods in which those leaders and the senior officers who would use the airborne forces in combat had a chance to decide how these new forces could be used. Greenacre looks at two main strands of ideas here: first on the physical deployment of airborne forces - how far ahead of the land forces they could go, how they would need to operate once on the ground and how that would modify the Army's normal methods of command; and second the more fundamental question of what tasks airborne forces could be expected to perform, starting from the spectacular coups of the German invasion of the west in 1940 and moving on to a firmer understanding of the possible uses of the increasingly sizable airborne divisions.

This is a very useful contribution to the literature on airborne forces, providing a thoughtful and well researched look at the story behind the dramatic airborne operations on D-Day or at Arnhem, giving us a much better understanding of the reasons behind their success or failure.

1 - Introduction
2 - Politics and Policy
3 - Equipment and Technology
4 - Personnel and Training
5 - Command and Control
6 - Concept and Doctrine
7 - Conclusion

Author: John Greenacre
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 249
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2010

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