54th Troop Carrier Wing C-47s dropping troops at Nadzab, Papau, New Guinea
Though the roots of the modern Air Mobility Command are to be found in the Air Transport Command of World War II, it was the Troop Carrier squadrons, groups and wings who made military airlift into a weapon. Throughout the world between 1942 and 1945 US Army Air Forces troop carrier crews proved again and again that they were combat crews in every sense of the word, and by the time the war was over they had established the role of combat airlift in the modern military services.
Prior to Pearl Harbor no provisions had been made for the development of troop carrier aviation beyond the mission of providing transportation and support for the developing Army airborne forces. Some thought had been given to the development of "airlanding" forces, but when Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war the development of the troop carrier mission was still in infancy. Only one troop carrier group was in existence, the 50th Air Transport Wing, and its mission was more to provide an air link between the Army's North American air bases than for combat. The wing was equipped with the militarized version of the Douglas DC-3, which bore several designations within the US Army, of which the C-47 was the most common.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor there was no air transportation organization in the Philippines. On the first day of the war the senior US Army air officer in the Philippines, Lt. General George H. Brett, mobilized the fledgling Philippines Air Lines and put the chief pilot, a retired US Navy enlisted pilot by the name of Paul I. Gunn in charge of organizing an air transportation squadron. Now a US Army captain, Gunn, who became known as "Pappy" in Australia, supervised the operations of his own Beechcraft transports and a handful of other airplanes and pilots that were in the islands. Gunn and his men flew missions throughout the islands carrying dispatches, transporting personnel and moving crucial items of cargo between Luzon and the southern islands. On Christmas Eve, 1941 Gunn was ordered to fly to a load of passengers to the Philippines and to remain there with his airplane though he continued to fly north to the Philippines when possible. Shortly after his arrival in Australia Gunn was made commander of a newly organized troop carrier squadron that consisted of a handful of a pilots, a few mechanics and a menagerie of airplanes which included Gunn's Beechcraft, a couple of already war weary B-17s, some Lockheed C-60 transports and a few DC-3s. The first transport airplanes and crews to join the squadron were a pair of LB-30 "Liberator" bombers that had been repossessed from England and equipped for transport duties. Gunn also found some C-53s, a version of the DC-3 that had been built for paratroop use, on a ship that had been diverted to Australia from the Philippines.
Pappy Gunn remained in command of the new transport squadron for several weeks, though he divided his duties between transport missions and working with the newly arrived 3rd Attack Group as a pilot and airplane conversion expert. Eventually Pappy would move to Headquarters, 5th Air Force, and go on to fame as the brains behind the conversion of the B-25 into a low-altitude attack airplane, while his squadron would formed the nucleus of the first USAAF troop carrier squadron to see combat after it was organized as the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron in February, 1942. Two weeks later a second squadron, the 22nd TCS, was organized in Australia. The two squadrons were followed later in the year by the 6th TCS, as the three made up the 374th Troop Carrier Group.
In mid-1942 the Japanese landed a large force at Buna, a point on the northwestern coast of New Guinea's Papaun Peninsula. When the Japanese landed, an Australian force was on their way north to take Buna, but were still short of the objective. Within four days after the Japanese landings, they met up with the Australians in the Kokoda Pass in the rugged Owen-Stanley mountains. As the fight continued, 21st TCS aircrews flew supplies into the Kokoda airstrip, often landing without knowing which side held the field. Finally, the superior Japanese forces pushed the Australians back along the Kokoda Track toward Port Moresby. During their fighting retreat the Australians were kept supplied by the American troop carrier crews. Soon the C-47 had a new nickname; the Aussies began calling them "Biscuit Bombers." The Australian retreat continued southward until the Japanese advance was finally halted some 30 miles north of the Allied stronghold at Port Moresby.
As the battle along the Kokoda Track was underway, Lt. General George C. Kenney arrived in Australia to take command of the US Army Air Forces. An innovative officer, Kenney arrived with plans in his head to use the airplane - including transports - as an offensive weapon to turn the tide of war in the Southwest Pacific Theater. Kenney believed that troop carrier airplanes could be used to airlift conventional infantry forces. In September, 1942 he convinced General MacArthur to allow him to airlift elements of the 126th Infantry to New Guinea from Australia. Using every airplane that resembled a transport in the theater, the 21st and 22nd squadrons did such an effective job on the lift that Kenney was given permission to airlift the entire 128th Infantry. They arrived as the "advance element" of the 126th, which had gone by sea, arrived at Port Moresby.
In October, 1942 Kenney mounted Operation "Hatrack," an airlifted attack into the region south of Buna, in preparation for a campaign to drive the Japanese off of the Lae Peninsula. In advance of the movement of the troops, Australian officers landed on the coast in light planes and directed native workers in the construction of landing strips by cutting the tall Kunia grass which covered the coastal plains. As soon as the strips were suitable for landings, C-47s began arriving with troops. The entire operation was dependent on airlift, first to move the troops into the forward airfields then to keep them supplied. Throughout the battle for "Bloody Buna," which lasted from November, 1942 until early January, Fifth Air Force troop carrier transports kept the troops supplied.
In late January, 1943 the Fifth Air Force troop carrier squadrons had what is possibly their finest hour during the defense of the Australian outpost at Wau. An Australian commando force had occupied the outpost in early and were kept supplied by C-47s from that time on. Wau featured a 3,000 foot runway on the side of a hill, which gave the strip a 12% grade. In early January a Japanese force from Lae moved on Wau. To repulse the attack, an airlift of reinforcements into Wau was mounted. Fortunately, the troop carrier crews were familiar with the uneven runway at Wau, while almost a year of combat flying had given them the ability to handle their transports "like fighters." Strong thunderstorms on January 29 should have interrupted the airlift of reinforcements, but the C-47 crews managed to avoid those that built up over the mountains the following day. Even while Japanese troops were on the perimeter of the landing strip, the C-47s continued to arrive with reinforcements, some of whom ran off the airplanes firing their weapons! Thanks to the C-47s, Wau held and the Japanese retreated back to Lae.
In mid-1943 General Kenney began making plans for an attack to take the Japanese airfield at Nadzab northwest of Lae, and to use it as a base for airlanded troops who would move south along the Lae Peninsula from the Japanese rear. But first he wanted to establish a forward base near Lae. A site was selected near an existing airstrip at Marlinan, into which supplies for the construction of the new airfield could be airlifted aboard C-47s. To facilitate the movement of the construction materials between the two airfields, the C-47 crews came up with the idea of sawing the GI two and a half ton trucks into two halves and reassembling them after delivery! By early September the new base at Tsili-Tsili was operational, while the 503rd Parachute Infantry had arrived in New Guinea. On the morning of 5 September 84 C-47s of the 54th Troop Carrier Wing (which included the 374th, 317th and 375th groups) took off from Port Moresby. In advance of the airborne attack a formation of B-25 strafers hit the airfield at Nadzab in a strafing/parafragmentation bomb attack. A flight of A-20s laid down a smokescreen. Within minutes after the men of the 503rd jumped, the startled and confused Japanese surrendered the airfield. Later in the day C-47s began landing with Australian infantrymen who had been prepositioned at Tsili-Tsili. Other airborne operations would take place at Hollandia and in the Philippines.
While the Fifth Air Force troop carrier squadrons were establishing a brand new military role for American transports, their counterparts in the China-Burma-India theater of war were making their own marks. The CBI is best known for the massive Air Transport Command airlift of supplies to China over the Himalayan Hump, but the troop carrier and, later, combat cargo squadrons in the theater were involved in even more massive - and militarily important - operations. The first transports in the theater were DC-3s flown by airline reservists assigned to the 1st Ferrying Group. They were soon joined by US Army transports and crews and put to work airlifting supplies to China and supporting combat operations in Burma. The 1st FG was responsible for airlift duties in the CBI until December, 1942 when it and the China Airlift transferred to the control of the Air Transport Command. Shortly after the transfer the 1st and 2nd Troop Carrier Squadrons arrived in India for combat airlift operations in a theater where the future was still very much in doubt. The two squadrons, sometimes assisted by 1st FG airplanes and crews who had been impressed for specific operations, supported Chinese and British troops operating in the Naga Hills inside Burma. Troop carrier and ATC transports played a major role in meeting Japanese thrusts into India. In early 1944 Japanese troops cut off a large British force in the Arakan Valley. Supplies airdropped to the British by USAAF troop carrier transports were the primary salvation of the situation.
On March 5, 1944 British Brigadier Orde Wingate launched a gliderborne attack into Japanese territory. Prior to the operation, troop carrier strength in the theater had been reinforced by the arrival of a squadron that came as part of Colonel Phil Cochoran's air commando group. Because of their previous training in glider operations the air commando C-47 crews were given responsibility for the glider tows while the veteran troop carrier squadrons were responsible for airlift. The assault was planned for three LZs inside Burma, but reconnassiance photos revealed that one, Piccadilly, had been blocked by fallen trees. When the first glider pilots landed on Broadway, they quickly discovered that the field was pockmarked with buffalo wallows. Other gliders piled onto those that were damaged in the first landings until word got to the circling formations of the problem. Even though only 32 of 67 gliders dispatched landed safely, they brought in 539 men, 3 mules and almost 67,000 pounds of supplies and equipment - including bulldozers. Within 24 hours a 5,000 foot landing strip had been constructed and C-47s were landing with reinforcements and additional supplies. On the second day of the operation twelve gliders landed at Chowringrhee, and another airstrip was soon constructed.
On March 10 Japanese forces began attacking near Imphal, inside India, thus precipitating a major emergency. An airlift of reinforcements into Imphal was mounted, and ATC transports were pulled off the China airlift to beef up the transport force. The 64th Troop Carrier Group was ordered to the CBI from its base in the Mediterranean to boost the CBI forces during the lull prior to the D-Day invasion of Europe. The British 5 Division was airlifted into Imphal while a British paratroop brigade undertook a rear-guard action. Japanese fighters intercepted the transports; a 64th TCG C-47 was credited with the destruction of a Zero after the enemy plane collided with the transport, then crashed. The emergency continued into June, and placed an extremely heavy burden on the CBI troop carrier forces. Requirements in Europe forced the withdrawal of the 64th group transports, but the withdrawal of more than 25,000 non-combat administrative types from Imphal reduced the burden. The activation of the 3rd Combat Cargo Group in India brought new transport strength to the region.
While the British forces were operating in southern Burma and battling the Japanese in the Arakan Valley east of Imphal, a unique American unit was making their way across northern Burma. Though their objective had not been revealed to the men of the 5307th Composite Group, they were on their way to retake the airfield at Myitkyina. Throughout their trek the "Marauders" were resupplied entirely by air. Though exhausted and understrength, and with their commander, BGen. Frank Merrill, incapacitated from a heart attack, the Marauders and Chinese troops of the 150th Regiment managed to take the airfield in attack that caught the Japanese completely by surprise. By that evening transports and gliderborne forces were landing on the airstrip. But things began to go sour. First, a confusion in logistics brought in antiaircraft forces when reinforcements were more necessary. Then the morale of the Marauders broke when they realized their mission was not over. Finally, the green troops of the 150th Chinese regiment panicked. Instead of an easy victory, the Allied commander in the CBI, General Joe Stillwell, found himself in for a long seige. Fortunately, the monsoon was not as bad as expected while the skill of the troop carrier and combat cargo pilots was better than anticipated. A steady flow of transports into the Myitkynia airstrip kept the Allied troops supplied until the Japanese garrison in the city finally fell in August, 1944. Historians of the CBI campaigns credit airlift to move troops into battle and keep them supplied as the most important contribution of Allied aviation units to the war in that theater.
While troop carrier operations in the Pacific and CBI largely involved troop movements and resupply of units in the field, in Europe the most visible use was in support of airborne operations. It was not until the invasion of North Africa that USAAF troop carrier squadrons became involved in the war in the ETO, though a few Ferrying Command C-47s had been involved in support of the British in North Africa since early 1942. Operation TORCH, the invasion of North Africa, took place in November, 1942, when American troops landed at Casablanca and elsewhere along the North African coast. TORCH called for the use of the 503rd Parachute Infantry, who were to be airlifted to the beachhead by C-47s from the 60th TCG. The 64th TCG was assigned to airlift British troops of the 3 Battalion to Africa. General George Patton had asked for airborne operation in his sector but Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower rejected the proposal. The 62nd TCG was assigned to support the invasion in a logistical capacity. A second airlift wing, the 52nd TCW, would eventually become part of the Twelfth Air Force when it arrived in North Africa with its 61st, 313th, 314th and 316th troop carrier groups.
The term "strategic airlift" had yet to be coined, but the movement of the 503rd from England to Africa definitely fit the definition. The flight from the 503rd base at Cornwall to the North African coast was long - twelve hours in the cramped cockpits and cargo compartments of the C-47s, airplanes that been designed for local airline service in the United States. Most of the flight was at night, and the formations became scattered as formation lights burned out. The inexperienced crews were unable to maintain contact with their leaders as the formation neared deteriorating weather. A secret homing device that was supposed to provide a beacon for the arriving transports was destroyed by the agent who was responsible for its operation when he failed to get the word that the C-47s were planning to land in Africa instead of dropping their troops from the air. Thinking the airborne operation was still on a "war plan," the agent assumed something had gone wrong when the formation failed to appear at the specified time. A last homing device, a radio aboard one of the ships in the invasion force, mistakenly broadcast on 460 kilocycles instead of the 440 kilocycles the C-47 crews had been briefed to expect.
Prior to their departure from England, the airborne force had been told that a French airfield in Oran was secure for landings. General Mark Clark had gone into North Africa from a submarine in advance of the invasion and reported that the French would not fight, or if they did, the resistance would be token. The C-47s arrived over North Africa expecting no opposition, but were instead met by French fighters and flak. Many of the transports landed on a dry lake bed at Sebkra d’Oran when they realized the supposedly "secure" field wasn’t. Some of the transports were drawn off course by a beacon in Spanish Morocco. Most discovered the error and proceeded on to Oran, but a few landed in the neutral country and the crews and paratroopers were interned. The airplane carrying the task force commander, Col. William C. Bentley, developed engine trouble and was forced to land in French territory; the crew and troops were taken prisoner.
Some of the C-47s were attacked by French fighters. Three transports were shot down and two airmen killed, along with three paratroopers. Fifteen troopers were wounded. The French fighters were attacked in turn by Spitfires and were all shot down. While most of the paratroopers were landed at Tafaroui airfield by late on the afternoon of D-Day, November 7, 1942, C-47s were scattered all along the North African coast. Airlift operations in North Africa had gotten off to a bad start!
The 64th TCG left England for Gibraltar on the afternoon of November 8 with two company groups of the British 3 Paratroop Battalion aboard. Early on the morning of November 11, 34 of the original 39 planes arrived at Algiers, where they were greeted by Allied antiaircraft fire. Two men were wounded by the "friendly fire," a problem that would plague troop carrier crews throughout the Mediterranean campaigns. On November 12 the 64th took-off from Algiers and dropped 312 British troops onto the Duzerville aerodrome some six miles southeast of Bone’ where they were to link up with commandos who had landed at dawn. That evening the German Luftwaffe bombed Bone’ but the next day the C-47s returned to land with antiaircraft guns and gasoline.
The Paratrooper Task Force, made up of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Paratroop Regiment and the 60th TCG, attacked Youks-les-Bains airfield near the Tunisian border. With little intelligence of the situation, the task force took off on the morning of November 15, first with an escort of Royal Air Force Spitfires, then by Hurricanes. In spite of poor visibilities that forced the pilots to go onto instruments, at 0945 the formation successfully dropped 350 troops. The French offered little resistance and negotiated a "transfer" of the airfield to American control. The next day the 64th TCG carried out a similar operation with British paratroops ninety miles from Tunis. The 64th transports dropped 384 British paratroopers over Souk-el-Arba airfield.
By late November the Allied were pushing toward Tunis. On the afternoon of November 28 a flight of 44 transports from the 62nd and 64th groups took off from Maison Blanche with 530 British paratroops from 1 Parachute Brigade. With American P-38s and British Spitfires and Hurricanes as escorts, the formation dropped their troops with no losses. The British paratroops met heavy resistance and found their objective at Oudan still heavily defended by strong German forces equipped with armor. While smaller airborne operations continued, the drop near Oudna turned out to be the last major airborne operation of the North African Campaign.
Even though their services as paratroop transports were temporarily no longer needed, the troop carrier crews remained very active in the war in North Africa. Just as their peers had done in New Guinea, the Allied ground commanders quickly learned that airlift provided a heretofore unprecedented mobility. Because the British were terribly short of their own transports, the Americans took up the slack for their allies. As they had in New Guinea, troop carrier aircraft turned out to be a vital means of air evacuation of wounded in North Africa. Airplanes bringing supplies to forward airfields were quickly loaded with casualties and turned around as air evac flights for their back-haul flight to their rear area bases.
Airlift was also used in North Africa to move men and equipment over long distances from one part of the battlefield to another. After their initial combat in Oran, the US 1st Ranger Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. William O. Darby, was airlifted from their base at Arzew to a new combat operation in Tunisia. The airlift required 32 Troop Carrier Command C-47s. Darby’s Rangers left Arzew where they had been resting and training, and landed at Youks les Bains airfield near Tebessa, then moved east to join Major General Lloyd Fredendall’s II Army Corps just in time for the battle of Kasserine Pass.
Though no one had planned it that way, the North African air campaign turned out to be heavily dependent upon airlift. No one had foreseen that the air forces would become highly mobile, just as Fifth Air Force was in New Guinea, or that they would be operating as far to the east as they ultimately did. All of the equipment and support personnel for the Twelfth Air Force came ashore at either Oran or Casablanca, then had to be moved much further inland as the war moved away from the coast into the desert. Because the ground forces required so much material, the air elements had to depend on their own resources to have their needs met. Due to the lack of adequate surface transportation, the heavy bombers would often take-off with their bomb bays filled with the last bombs on their base at Biskra. The bomber commanders depended on the troop carrier transports to replenish the supply before the next mission.
Though the Americans were defeated at Kasserine Pass, the subsequent victory at El Guettar paved the way for the ultimate defeat of the German and Italian forces in Tunisia, and the destruction of German General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps.. With North Africa free of the enemy, the Allies turned their attention toward southern Europe, which lay just across the Mediterranean from North Africa. A second troop carrier wing, the 52nd, arrived in North Africa with its four groups and began training for airborne operations. The Allies invaded Pantellerai, an island in the middle of the Mediterranean about half-way between Tunisia and Sicily. Sicily was the objective for Operation HUSKY, the first Allied invasion of European soil.
HUSKY was planned to include large-scale airborne operations. Troop Carrier Command, which had been established under the Northwest African Air Forces with the 51st and 52nd wings, was given responsibility for airlifting the airborne units and towing gliders, then transporting equipment and supplies to the beachhead on Sicily and evacuating wounded. Prior to the invasion, the troop carrier crews were given extensive training. Nevertheless, the airborne operations over Sicily were a disaster.
The air assault of Sicily was the first large-scale airborne operation undertaken by the Allies in World War II. Two missions were scheduled for the early morning hours of July 10, 1943. LADBROKE was to be a glider landing near Syracuse to seize a bridge across the canal south of the city in preparation for an advance by Field Marshall Montgomery’s British Eighth Army. HUSKY Number 1 was a paratroop drop near Farello to capture high ground and a road junction six miles east of Gela in preparation for an advance by the American 1st Division. Both missions were planned with complicated dog-leg courses running east form Tunisia to Malta, then northward to Sicily. Because of the necessity for complete radio silence, the courses were conceived partly to allow the pilots to maintain visual contact with landmarks on the islands and partly to avoid friendly naval vessels who were under orders to fire at any aircraft that came in their vicinity.
The LADBROKE force got under way at approximately 1800 (6:00PM) on 9 July as 133 towplanes began taking off from their Tunisian bases. All but 28 of the glider-towing transports were C-47s from the 51st wing, now returned to combat duty for the invasion after a stint with the Air Services Command. Though the glider pilots were British, all of the gliders but eight were American-made WACOs. The eight were British-built Horsas. Inside the gliders rode 1,600 gliderborne troops from the British 1 Airborne Division.
After takeoff, the tow planes encountered strong winds. Most of the transports and their tows drifted south of their route and missed their check point on Malta. The error was discovered and corrections allowed the formation to get back on course as they approached Cape Passero. As they neared the Cape, the formation climbed to their release altitudes - 1,500 feet for the WACOs and 500 feet for the Horsas. Some airplanes encountered flak and the pilots swung wide, thus getting off course. Poor visibility over the landing zones caused many of the tow planes to have to make multiple passes to line up properly for their drops, causing congestion in the skies around the release area. Many of the British pilots were inexperienced, with only a modicum of training. Very few were more than barely familiar with the American-built WACO gliders they were flying. Several of the pilots turned the wrong way after their release and away from their intended landing zones. Of 133 gliders released, only twelve landed even close to the LZ; at least 47 gliders came down in the sea. Many of the glider troops drowned without reaching the beach. Most of those who did were scattered throughout the southeastern part of the island.
Yet, in spite of the sorry state of the assault, the eight officers and 65 enlisted men who landed close to the landing zone managed to take and hold the canal bridge until advance elements of the Eighth Army reached it. The glider troops held the bridge while British infantry and armor moved across it. Though LADBROKE was a miserable failure in terms of troops placed on target, the mission was a success because the few men who were in the right place managed to accomplish their assigned mission.
The HUSKY No. 1 paratroop operation was very much a parallel to the glider missions. A formation of 226 C-47s from the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing took with 2,781 paratroops from the 82nd Airborne Division and 891 parapacks. Like their sister wing towing the gliders, the 52nd missed the Malta checkpoint. A combination of high winds and a difficult route caused the drop planes to arrive in virtually complete darkness that hid the checkpoints from view. Fires and smokes from early missions by heavy bombers obscured the drop zones. The deadly combination led to a widely scattered drop, with paratroopers spread all over the area. In spite of the failure of the troop carrier crews to put their troops on the drop zones, enough landed close enough to their primary objective that they were able to secure the high ground and road junction, then hold the position. Other 82nd troopers captured the town of Marina di Ragusa and soon made contact with the U.S. 45th Division. The drop accomplished an even more important mission - the paratroop drop thoroughly confused the Italians and caused them to panic and withdraw inland as much as ten miles.
A third airborne mission on July 11 - HUSKY No. 2 - was a mission into disaster. In addition to navigating the complicated course of the previous mission, the 52nd TCW C-47 crews also faced the prospect of overflying 35 miles of a battlefield occupied by jittery ground troops, everyone of whom was scared to death of enemy air attack. Prior to reaching the beach, the drop formation had to fly over scores of Allied naval vessels operating just off-shore. Like the men on the beach, the sailors were equally fearful that the Germans would attack from the air. Plans for a safety corridor through the Allied fleet were made, but as is so often the case, "someone" failed to get the word and the ship’s crews were not aware of the approaching friendly formation. Furthermore, the Germans had retaken the Gela/Ferallo airport where the troopers were supposed to land. As the formation approached Sicily, naval gunners aboard the Allied naval vessels and merchant ships opened up on the friendly planes with everything they had. As the C-47s came over the beaches, shore batteries opened up. Some of the fire was "friendly" and some was German, but it really didn’t matter who was firing because both sides were shooting at the American planes! Over the drop zone some of the pilots felt it would be murderous to drop their troops into such a hell and turned away from the drop zone. The planes that dropped were so scattered from the intense fire that troopers were scattered all along the coast. Some of the transports remained under fire until they were more than 20 miles out to sea. Losses from the friendly fire were heavy. Twenty-three transports failed to return from the mission; those that made it back to their bases in Tunisia were badly damaged. One C-47 came back with more than 1,000 holes from flak in the wings and fuselage. Seven troop carrier crewmen were killed, thirty were wounded and 53 were reported missing. Losses among the paratroops were 81 killed, 132 wounded and sixteen missing.
Two night later a fourth mission with British troops encountered the same confusion and friendly fire that plagued the earlier drops. Out of 124 transports, eleven were shot down, fifty were damaged and 27 returned without dropping all of their troops. In spite of the disaster, the British troops were placed close enough to their target that they managed to seize the objective, a bridge across the Simeto River, and hold it until ground forces arrived to relieve them the next day.
Even though the drops were a disaster, with as many as 25 airplanes shot down by friendly fire - 42 transports were lost in all - the paratroop operations at Sicily were an overall success. General George Patton declared that the actions of the 82nd Airborne Division had speeded his advance by 48 hours. Field Marshall Montgomery was even more optimistic - he believed that his advance had been expedited by as much as a week due to the airborne operations in advance of his troops. Yet, even though the paratroop missions were militarily successful, more than 60 percent of the troops landed off of their intended drop zones.
The confusion of North Africa and the disasters at Sicily led to a loss of confidence on the part of the young paratroopers in the troop carrier crews. Though the crews must bear some share of the blame, the navigational errors that caused many troops to be dropped miles from their objectives were largely due to unforecasted weather conditions, particularly the high winds at altitude. While experienced navigators should have been able to confirm their positions with celestial navigation, the transport crews were anything but experienced. Other problems were beyond the control of the troop carrier crews. The friendly fire was due to a distinct lack of communications between the Army and the Navy, a problem that has long plagued the U.S. military and was prevalent as recently as the 1982 invasion of Grenada.
HUSKY was the first time American troop carrier crews had worked with gliders in combat. Glider warfare in World War II can only be given mixed reviews. In the earliest days of the war the Germans were quite successful in their glider assaults, but only because the opposing side was caught completely by surprise and had constructed no defenses against them. The glider was a weapon that found a use only because of the lack of heavy equipment airdrop capabilities in the 1940’s. Theoretically, a glider could deliver equipment too large for airdrop onto a landing zone too short for powered aircraft. But in actual combat operations, most glider assaults left most of the powerless airplanes destroyed beyond repair. Glider-borne troops suffered very heavy casualties during the landings.
After Sicily fell into Allied hands, the next objective was the Italian mainland. During the planning for the invasion, General Matthew Ridgeway, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, tried in vain to find a place where his paratroopers could be used in the invasion. The most likely objective appeared to be the Volturno River, but the planned drop there was canceled when the Navy learned that sandbars at the mouth of the river ruled out the location as a beachhead. Though the invasion of Italy saw no airborne participation, German counterattacks led General Mark Clark to request a drop to prevent his men from being pushed into the sea. Clark called for a parachute assault on Avellino, a German supply center near the mountains, to cut off the enemy supply routes through the mountains. On the evening of September 13 the 64th TCG took off from Agrigento on Sicily with the troopers of the 504th Regimental Combat Team, the same unit that had encountered "friendly fire" during HUSKY. This time all antiaircraft guns at Salerno were instructed not to fire at all after 9:00 PM until they were advised to do so.
The first wave dropped on target, using a flaming T-marker made of gasoline-soaked sand as an aiming point. Dropping from 800 feet, the pilots put all of their troops within 200 yards of the IP. The second wave was not so fortunate. They were greeted by German antiaircraft fire that filled the skies with flak. At the same time, weather conditions had worsened. Consequently, the troops were scattered. The third wave dropped with more accuracy. Within 15 hours of the urgent appeal from General Clark, 1,300 troopers were on the ground at Salerno. Two nights later the 505th RCT jumped behind American lines to reinforce the assault force. Thanks to the airborne intervention, the invasion force was able to move forward and the beachhead was successfully established.
Once the troops were ashore and airfields were established, troop carrier transports began arriving with supplies from North Africa and England, thus providing a communications link between the Twelfth Air Force bases as they were established on the Italian peninsula. There was little requirement for airlift support for the ground forces because the fighting was so slow and the ground units were so close to the sea, where supplies could be landed by boat. With the declining need for airlift in the area, much of the airlift in the region was withdrawn to England to train with the troops of the 82nd and newly arrived 101st Airborne Divisions in preparation for the invasion of the European continent.
The 52nd TCW and its four groups moved north to England to join the massive Troop Carrier Command that was being assembled to support OVERLORD, the amphibious landings on the coast of Normandy. The 51st TCW remained in the Mediterranean with the 60th and 64th groups, and continued supporting Allied operations in Southern Europe. Airlift operations in the theater included airdropping supplies to partisan groups in Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece. In April, 1944, the 64th TCG was ordered to move to India to support the upcoming invasion of Burma from the air. For three months the 64th flew in the CBI, airlifting men and equipment across the Himalayan Hump into the Imphal Valley in Burma. A 64th TCG pilot, Capt. Hal Scrugham, was credited with the destruction of a Japanese Zero which struck the tail of his C-47 and went on to crash into the ground while the transport continued to fly. In June, 1944, the group returned to its base at Comiso in Sicily. The war in the Mediterranean was far from over in the summer of 1944, but the attention of the world was turning elsewhere, toward France and the beaches of Normandy.
In December, 1943 elements of the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing left the United States for Greenham Common, England. While the wing and its groups, the 435th, 436th, 437th and 438th, were in the process of moving overseas, the 52nd wing left Sicily for Cottesmore, England. A third wing, the 50th TCW, was already in England, having arrived in October, 1943 to ultimately end up at Exeter. The 50th arrived with no groups assigned but was joined by the 439th, 440th, 441st and 442nd in early 1944. The three wings and their respective groups constituted the Ninth Troop Carrier Command, the troop carrier element of the Ninth Air Force, which moved to England to become the tactical air force. In late winter of 1944, while Eighth Air Force bombers, B-17s and B-24s, were engaged in the largest bombing campaign of the war, the Troop Carrier Command was busy training with the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and their British counterparts for D-Day.
The plan for OVERLORD included several airborne operations, both American and British. For the first time, American glider troops would see combat in Europe; no less than six gliderborne operations were planned for the invasion. In preparation for the event, troop carrier strength in England had been built up to more than 1,200 C-47s and more than 1,400 gliders, including 1,100 WACOS and 300 Horsas. While troop carrier strength for the invasion was impressive, it was not enough.
The original date for the invasion was set for June 5, 1944, but bad weather over the English Channel caused General Eisenhower to delay the mission for 24 hours. Late in the evening of June 5 the first of a massive armada of troop carrier planes, mostly C-47s, began lifting off from fields in England. The first flights carried specially trained "pathfinder" paratroops carrying equipment designed to guide the drop planes to their intended drop zones. Other aircraft dropped dummy paratroops away from the main invasion beaches to confuse the Germans. The pathfinder force arrived over the beaches after an uneventful flight across the Channel, but after they made landfall they ran into problems. The lead C-47 ran into a bank of low-lying coastal cloud and disappeared from the view of the pilots in the rest of the formation. The interruption completely destroyed the formational integrity that had been drilled into the heads of the pilots during training, and which were so important to airborne tactics in World War II. Some pilots elected to climb above the clouds while others tried to go below them and others tried to stay in formation. The disorder caused the formation to break up and the force scattered. Then, to compound the problem, German flak came up to meet they low-flying C-47s as they crossed the coast. Very few of the pathfinders were dropped anywhere close to where they were supposed to be.
At 0130 the planes carrying the 101st Airborne Division arrived over Normandy and began dropping their troops. In part because of the failure of the pathfinders to find their objectives, the drops around St. Mere Eglise were scattered, an occurrence that seemed to characterize World War II paratroop operations in Europe. Unknown to the young paratroopers, the drop zones were not the smooth pastures they had been briefed that they would be landing on. Military intelligence had failed to detect that the "pastures" were actually swampy lowlands that the Germans had flooded in anticipation of just such an event. Many of the paratroopers drew up their legs for a parachute landing fall only to discover that they were on a water jump! The 82nd Airborne Division drops were just as confused and scattered as those of the 101st. In many cases troops from the two divisions landed on the same drop zones. Instead of integral units, the initial paratroop force on the ground in Normandy turned out to be an ad hoc force of men who assembled as best they could as individual paratroopers found each other in the dark. Very few groups even resembled a military unit, but were made up of men from different squads, platoons, companies - even different divisions!
Once the Germans realized that an attack was underway, they opened up on the low-flying transports with everything they had - antiaircraft guns, machine guns, rifles and pistols. A hail of fire greeted the low-flying troop carrier planes. Many of the transports were hit by ground fire and large numbers were shot down. After dropping their paratroops, the plan called for the C-47s to return to England to pick-up gliders, Those that could, did. But many transports returned to their bases too shot-up for a second mission and many failed to return at all. Several landed back in England with wounded, both crewmen and paratroopers, aboard. The glider pilots and their passengers watched as their powered squadron mates came back to their bases one by one, with no appearance of formational integrity. They could see from the blue exhaust flames, or lack of them, that many of the transports were flying on only one engine. Some came back without having drooped their troops for various reasons. No less than twelve paratroopers came back to England because they slipped on vomit and became hopelessly entangled in the static lines of their buddies who had jumped before them!
As had happened in Sicily, the initial paratroop operations on D-Day were only moderately successful. Once again the drop formations had become disorganized and scattered, and troops were dropped all along the beaches. Ground fire had taken a heavy toll among the troop carriers, while many of the young paratroopers were shot as they hung in their parachutes even before their feet touched the ground. The glider forces were going to encounter conditions that were just as bad - maybe even worse!
When the glider pilots landed in Normandy, they had a quick lesson in reality. They had been briefed that the "hedgerows’" on and around the fields that had been picked for landing zones would be easy to break through. But the hedgerows turned out to be towering tangles of plants and packed dirt that had been there for centuries, and their consistency was that of concrete. Many - if not most - of the gliders were destroyed in the landings and several of their occupants were killed by the impact. One of the casualties was the assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Brig. Gen. Don Pratt, along with his aide, Lt. John Butler. Gen. Pratt had been scheduled to come ashore with the seaborne element of the 101st, but had switched to a glider landing to boost the morale of the glider troops. The glider pilot, Lt. Col. Mike Murphy, the ranking glider pilot in the ETO, miraculously escaped the crash. Yet, even though only six gliders landed intact on the right LZ, the glider missions were considered militarily successful!
Even though both the airborne and glider operations had been costly in both equipment and loss of life, they were overall successful. Though the paratroopers were widely scattered, their presence on the beachhead caused mass confusion among the Germans and greatly increased the effectiveness of the invasion forces on Utah Beach. Other troop carrier crews brought in British paratroops and glidermen in operations that met with similar success. Though the paratroop operations on both the American and British beaches were carried out in the early morning hours of darkness, glider landings continued throughout the day as flights brought in units with jeeps, artillery and communications equipment and other items too large for airdrop from the C-47s.
Once the Allies had established a beachhead in Normandy, the next step was to break through the German defenses and begin an advance into the French interior. For several weeks the Allied Command concentrated on building up the strength of the troops on the beaches in preparation for the breakout, and since supplies could come in from the sea, the troop carrier crews enjoyed a temporary lull to recuperate from the horrors of D-Day. But the pilots and crewmen knew their rest was short-lived, and that they would be very busy once the armies started moving.
Some six weeks after the landing in Normandy, the Allies launched a second front when Allied troops landed on the Mediterranean beaches in the south of France. Operation DRAGOON was aimed at the area around Cannes, the region known as the "Gold Coast." Troop carrier crews from the 51st wing took off from Italian bases in 400 C-47s, with each either laden with paratroopers or towing a glider. Though the drops were marginally successful, the crews encountered the same kind of bad luck that had plagued other airborne operations. The transports carrying the pathfinder force arrived over a beach that was enshrouded by fog. Only one element managed to put their troops anywhere close to where they were supposed to be. The lead pilot recognized hilltops sticking through the fog from the sand-table model he had studied and dropped in relation to them. All of the troops dropped by his element landed within half a mile of their intended drop zone. Other elements dropped entirely by guesswork - scattering troops across vineyards, the beaches and rooftops. One serial landed right in the middle of downtown Saint- Tropez! Some of the drops were tragic - the heavily burdened troopers drifted out over the sea and were drowned.
The first glider mission took off from Italian bases at 0500 loaded with artillery for the British paratroops. As the flights approached Corsica, the pilots received word that the mission had been canceled because of the fog over the beaches. The planes towing the large Horsas turned around to return to their bases in Italy, but the American-flown WACOs continued. The tow-planes circled over the beaches for an hour waiting for the fog to lift. At 0930 the 33 WACOS were released; they came down with little loss. That afternoon the 35 Horsas returned to the beaches in advance of a paratroop mission involving 41 planes. The paratroops were followed by an armada of 332 WACO gliders carrying a complete infantry battalion of the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese-American unit, along with artillery and support troops. The approach of the gliders was characterized by confusion. The formation was delayed initially when the lead glider developed a vibration and the tow-plane returned to Italy, followed by the rest of the formation. It was not until the glider pilot cut his airplane away to land in the ocean that the mistake was realized. Then, after returning to their course, the pilots discovered a haze layer over the beaches at 800 feet. The haze, which was made of smoke from the bombing and artillery fire, was enough to cause the formation to drift just enough off course that they were out of the corridor through which they were supposed to fly. Naval gunners opened fire on the formation, but the damage was fortunately slight. The glider landings were successful, and once the troops were on the ground, they met only minimal resistance.
Within weeks of his arrival in Normandy, General George S. Patton led his Third Army out of the beachhead to exploit the advantage gained by the Allied breakout at Avaranches. The Third Army mounted a spectacular driving advance that placed its tanks well beyond the trucks that constituted their supply. Fuel and ammunition was flown to France to support Patton’s advance. When possible, the C-47s and other transports landed on captured German airfields, but as often as not they delivered their loads by airdrop to the fast-moving columns. Fuel was the most needed commodity delivered by the transports. Rigging crews in England prepared bundles made up of 5-gallon Jerry cans of gasoline for the Third Army. Supporting Patton’s forces placed a heavy load on the Ninth Troop Carrier Command; to reinforce them, several Eighth Air Force B-24 groups were detached for airlift duty. For the bomber crews, the "trucking" missions were a drastic change from the high level bombing missions they were used too. The drop missions required the bombers to fly low and slow over parts of France that were still occupied by the Germans, some of whom were very heavily armed. For some of the veteran Liberator crewmen, the resupply missions brought back memories of the daring low-level raid the year before on the oil fields at Ploesti, Rumania.
Like Patton, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery also felt that the best way to defeat the Germans was to pour all available supplies and resources into a single advance along a narrow front. Quite naturally, he believed that advance should be under his command. Montgomery had tried to convince Eisenhower of the wisdom of this tactic but without much success. (Patton more or less ignored Ike and kept moving forward until the C-47s and trucks that had been his lifeline were taken away!) While Patton’s Third Army was rapidly advancing through France, Montgomery was working on a "bold plan." He proposed an airborne attack in the vicinity of Arnhem in Holland to secure a bridgehead across the Rhine. Under Montgomery’s plan, while the paratroops were attacking the bridges, his 21st Army Group would drive toward Arnhem, then use them to cross the Rhine. General Eisenhower was under pressure from Generals Marshall and Arnold to make more imaginative use of his airborne resources so he approved Montgomery’s Operations MARKET and GARDEN.
Operation MARKET was the airborne phase of the dual plan, while GARDEN was an armored attack toward the objective, which was almost seventy miles forward of the Allied lines. MARKET was the responsibility of the newly created 1st Allied Airborne Army which consisted of the American 82nd, 101st and 17th Airborne Divisions, along with the British Airborne Corps and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade. More than 35,000 airborne troops would take place in MARKET. For airlift, the 1st Allied Airborne Army included the Ninth Troop Carrier Command and two RAF troop carrier wings, nearly all of which were equipped with C-47s.
On September 17, 1944 MARKET/GARDEN was launched. Unlike previous operations, MARKET went off as planned, in spite of intense ground fire that greeted the transports as soon as they entered German territory. After several weeks of combat flying, the troop carrier pilots were veterans. They held their course throughout the low-level flight across German territory in spite of heavy ground fire. Most of the C-47s that were shot down over Holland were lost because the pilots were concentrating on putting their troops on the drop zones. One C-47 was hit as the airplane approached the drop zone and set on fire, but the pilot kept the airplane steady on course until the troopers could jump right over the DZ. The airplane crashed almost immediately; there were no parachutes from the crew. Thanks to the courage and dedication of the troop carrier pilots, 80% of the paratroopers in the 101st area of operations landed on the drop zones. The airplanes carrying the 82nd encountered heavy flak that damaged 118 airplanes and brought down ten before they dropped their troops. In spite of the heavy opposition, all troops were dropped as ordered and came down on the drop zones. In Holland, instead of criticism, the troop carrier pilots produced praise for their bravery from the paratroopers who had ridden with them into a version of hell.
After the paratroops were on the ground, a huge armada of more than 600 gliders arrived over Arnhem with 500 vehicles and 330 pieces of artillery. More than 2,000 transports were involved in the initial paratroop and glider operations. Instead of co-pilots, an airborne soldier occupied the right seat in the American gliders, a concession to the need to get as many troops into Holland as was physically possible. The Americans landed near Nijmegen while the British landed near Arnhem. More drops with reinforcements were to follow the initial assault. Once they were on the ground, both the American and British paratroopers quickly seized their objectives while the element of surprise was in their favor. But holding the bridges would be a different matter. The British ground advance was not going as quickly as planned. GARDEN was dependent upon a single road through the Dutch Lowlands to move hundreds of tanks, trucks and other vehicles. The road could not handle the traffic and the ground element was soon bogged down as the British 21st Army Group found itself stuck in traffic.
To maintain the airborne force so far ahead of the Allied lines, a massive aerial resupply effort was required. Since the troop carrier transports were tied up with the paratrooper and glider operations, Eighth Air Force B-24s were assigned the resupply mission. The first resupply flight was made up of 135 B-24s loaded with airdrop bundles that had been rigged by the Quartermaster Corps. Many of the bundles fell in the no man’s land between the 82nd positions at Nimjegen and the Germans, but that night the Americans went out after dark and recovered more than 80% of the drop. A reinforcement mission was flown onto the same drop zones on the second day of the mission. Once again the transports and gliders ran a gauntlet of enemy fire as they flew through 70 miles of enemy territory. Several gliders were shot down while others were released prematurely after they became uncontrollable in the slipstream left by the transports. Most of the gliders reached the drop zones. Once they were on the ground, the glider pilots were organized into infantry units to relieve the paratroopers so they could attack the Nimjegan bridge. Fortunately, casualties were light among the glider pilots, with only ten wounded and two killed. Glider and paratroop reinforcement missions continued over Holland for the next several days, until the slowly advancing ground forces finally reach the area.
MARKET/GARDEN was successful in that the objectives were captured. British tanks managed to cross the Rhine, but when they got to the other side they encountered superior German forces and had to withdraw. Montgomery’s "bold" (some say foolish) plan had managed to drive a very thin wedge some sixty miles ahead of the Allied lines, but there was no way to exploit the advantage due to the congested single road leading through the swampy lowlands to Arnhem. MARKET/GARDEN was costly for the Troop Carrier Command and the Army Air Forces. Sixty-eight transports, gliders and fighters were lost over Arnhem on D-Day alone.
After MARKET/GARDEN, the Ninth Troop Carrier Command resumed the mission of airlifting supplies to Allied ground forces. Airborne operations had ceased, and the airborne divisions were held in reserve. In mid-December the Germans launched fierce attacks against inexperienced American troops in the Ardennes. The German goal was to split the Allied front and force the British into a trap, as they had done at Dunkirk in 1940. The 101st Airborne Division was ordered into the battle as reinforcements. Using trucks instead of airplanes for transport, the Screaming Eagles moved into the Belgian town of Bastogne. Unknown to the Americans, Bastogne was a German objective, and on December 22, 1944 the men of the 101st realized that they were surrounded. A German team went into Bastogne under a flag of truce to offer the Americans surrender terms. With the 101st Division Commander, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, away in Washington, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe was in charge. General McAuliffe replied to the Germans with a single word - "Nuts!" His next action was to call for an aerial resupply mission to keep his troops in the war.
On the morning of December 23, two teams of Airborne Pathfinders jumped into Bastogne to set-up drop zones. Ninety minutes after the arrival of the Pathfinders, a formation of 16 cargo-carrying C-47s arrived over Bastogne, the first of 241 transports that would drop over the town that afternoon. By 4:00 PM 1,400 bundles containing 144 tons of supplies had been delivered to the men of the 101st. Recovery of the bundles was more than 95% and by nightfall the airborne artillerymen were firing shells that had been dropped in earlier in the day. The drops continued on Christmas Eve, and by nightfall the Troop Carrier Command had delivered more than 300 tons of packages to the kids on the ground at Bastogne. Supplies that could not dropped were delivered by glider. Intense enemy fire made the supply missions extremely hazardous. Eight transports were shot down over Bastogne during the first two days of drops.
Christmas Day dawned with low ceilings and snow that kept the transports on the ground at their bases in England and France. But the men of the 101st had enough supplies from the preceding two days to last until the weather broke. The day after Christmas was clear and cold - perfect weather for flying - and the airdrops and airstrikes at Bastogne resumed. By this time the Germans were beginning to run low of supplies, especially fuel, forcing them to begin breaking off their attacks and starting a retreat. At the same time, General George Patton’s Third Army was beginning to break through the German lines from its lead positions thirty miles from Bastogne. The Battle of the Bulge was essentially over, though fighting continued in the region for several days. Bastogne had held, thanks largely to the efforts of the Ninth Troop Carrier Command, who kept the 101st supplied during the battle. At least 17 C-47s were lost over Bastogne.
The Battle of the Bulge was the final German offensive of World War II. But there was still one more major obstacle to be crossed on the way to Berlin, and one more large-scale airborne operation. Field Marshall Montgomery had adapted an elaborate style, now that there were plenty of resources at his disposal. For his crossing of the Rhine, Montgomery planned an operation on the scale of a major amphibious landing, complete with a massive aerial bombing and artillery barrage, followed by an airborne operation before his troops hit the boats to cross the river. Transports from three American wings joined with RAF transports to airlift the American 17th Airborne Division and the British 6th to the drop zones in Germany on March 24, 1945. In terms of transports, the Rhine crossing was larger than the D-Day drops; 1,602 troop carrier transports and 1,326 gliders were used to airlift the two divisions.
For the first time in Europe, Curtis C-46s were used to drop paratroopers as 72 of the larger transports joined the C-47s that had been the mainstay of troop carrier operations. It turned out that the larger C-46 was improperly designed for combat operations as 22 airplanes were shot down that day. The airplane fuel system was designed in such a way that, when a bullet pierced a fuel tank, the fuel would run into the fuselage and pool. A single tracer bullet could turn a C-46 into a flaming inferno. Once the transports crossed the Rhine and entered German airspace, the flak came up like a huge wall. Throughout the ingress to the drop zones, during the drops and as they were returning to friendly airspace, the transports were under fire. Casualties were greatest among the C-46s, which General Matthew Ridgeway, commander of the XVIIIth Airborne Corps, labeled as deathtraps. General Ridgeway issued orders that his men would never again be dropped by C-46s.
As it turned out, Ridgeway’s order was a mute point. Within six weeks after the Rhine crossing, German surrendered. Airborne and troop carrier assets in Europe returned to the United States in preparation to move to the Pacific for massive airborne operations in the invasion of Japan. Fortunately for all, the ushering in of the Atomic Age brought World War II to an end without the first American soldier setting foot on the Japanese home islands.
The troop carrier role in Europe was considerably different from that of the Pacific. In New Guinea the airplane was used to provide mobility to ground forces, and thus gave the Allies an edge that shortened the war with Japan by several months. Europe saw several large-scale airborne operations in support of huge ground armies, while the Pacific War saw the paratroops used more as they had been intended - to seize airfields and other objectives in the enemy’s rear and establish an airhead for an aerial invasion. Troop carrier operations in Europe often involved supply of fast-moving armored columns; tanks had played very small roles in the Pacific. The rapid mobility provided to light infantry forces in the Pacific was non-existent in Europe.
Even though the airborne operations in Europe had been plagued with problems, by the time the war ended the early criticism of the troop carrier crews by the paratroopers had turned to praise. The Troop Carrier Command had literally saved the 101st at Bastogne. Timely air evacuation of casualties saved many lives, while routine transport operations made the entire military establishment fully aware of the value of the transport airplane. After the war ended, General Eisenhower was quoted as referring to the C-47 as one of the most important weapons of the war. He was certainly not referring to the routine airline-type transport operations of the Air Transport Command when he made that statement.
The Troop Carrier Story (Slide Show)
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Troop Carrier Operations in the ETO
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