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“Some Succeeded and Some Failed” Airborne Quartermaster Field Operations

By LT. COL. ROBERT C. McKECHNIE, QM-USAR
Quartermaster Review September-October 1950

What can you conceive more silly and extravagant than to suppose a man racking his brains, and studying night and day how to fly?—WILLIAM LAW. 1728.

TODAY in Japan, Quartermaster troops are operating an air supply organization to provide Airborne supplies for our ground troops in Korea. This organization is packaging supplies for parachute and free drop and supervising the loading and lashing of critical cargoes for air-landed supplies.

The Quartermaster Corps has been assigned the mission, in coordination with the Air Force, of providing all air resupply support for the Army. The history of the development of Airborne logistics provides an interesting story leading to the development of Airborne doctrine of supply.

In 1935 the Russians were off to a head start on Airborne warfare and made the world’s first spectacular use of parachutists. Despite this early entrance upon the Airborne stage the USSR made little use of Airborne troops in World War II. Their activities were principally concerned with the dropping of supplies and individuals for guerrilla activities. However, their prewar example inspired enthusiasm among the Germans, French, and British. The British organized parachute forces in 1936 and used them continually in their maneuvers. The French organized a parachute battalion in 1938 but inactivated it in 1939. It was left to the Germans to develop and use paratroopers and glider-borne soldiers in mass operations. Their first use was in the sweep across Holland and Belgium, where paratroopers were used to seize key bridges and the powerful Belgian fortress Eben Emael. Their successful tactical use enabled the panzer divisions to sweep across the low countries, and made the conquest of France relatively easy.

The invasion of Norway saw an even larger use of paratroopers. The invasion was a combined air and sea attack. The British warships wreaked havoc on the German amphibious forces, but the German Airborne troops were successful in establishing several airheads. As soon as these were established, thousands of German soldiers and their supplies were transported by air. As a direct consequence, Norway fell.

In 1941 the Germans planned to seize the island of Crete by another combined air and sea attack. The vaunted British sea power intercepted the German convoy. Almost half of the German amphibious forces were lost, and the rest were driven back. However, the Germans had established complete air superiority, and landed gliders and paratroopers at four separate points. The British and their Greek allies valiantly fought and annihilated three of the four air-landed forces. At the fourth and successful German point of attack, an airfield was seized and an Air-transported Mountain Division was landed. Seven days later the Germans held all of Western Crete. Ammunition, food, blood plasma, and other supplies were brought in by air. From the seized airfield, the Germans supported a new amphibious attack, and soon Crete was theirs.

The American General Staff had been closely watching the daring use of Airborne soldiers by Germans. In September 1940 the United States activated its first parachute battalion. Within a short time Airborne enthusiasts decided that the Airborne soldier provided the tactical commander with a new method of attaining surprise that could very easily revolutionize modern warfare. By the summer of 1944 we had formed five Airborne Divisions and six Airborne Regiments. By the end of World War II we had used our Airborne troops in fourteen major offensives. However, while the tactical doctrine of Airborne warfare developed and became broader in scope and boldness, comparatively little planning or thought was given to logistical support. Tactical plans were prepared on the premise that the ground forces would join up with the Airborne forces in from three to five days.

Inevitably plans misfired. In September 1944, to secure the area around the port of Antwerp, General Montgomery was given command of Operation MARKET GARDEN. The tactical plan envisioned establishing a bridgehead across the Rhine near Arnhem, Holland. The British Second Army was to be the spearhead of the ground attack. An Airborne Corps consisting of the British First and the American 82nd and 101st Divisions was to seize key bridges and other points to facilitate the advance of the Second Army.

‘The success of the Airborne Divisions was in direct ratio to the distance they were dropped from our lines and the time required for the ground forces to join up. By D+1 the British Guards Armored Division had passed through the 101st Division area. By D+2 contact had been established with the 82nd Division. The ground troops and the 101st and 82nd Divisions continued advancing towards Arnhem.

The British First Airborne, after an initial success, was soon in dire need of reinforcements and supplies. Some supply planning had been done, and essential supplies were being air-dropped. however, more than 50 per cent of these supplies fell into enemy hands. The weather conspired with the logistical mistakes ammunition was low; medical supplies were exhausted; little air supply was available; comparatively little had been planned.

On D+8 British armor finally broke through. Only 2,500 men were left-we had lost almost an entire division. Our lines had been carried well out to defend Antwerp, but we had not gained our objective-the Rhine bridgehead.

Within ten years the tactical doctrine of Airborne operations has developed so dramatically that these early activities are like the horseless carriage of 1900 as compared with the sleek, high-powered automobile of today. We have now begun to think in terms of landing Airborne corps and armies in the heart of enemy territory.

In the early summer of 1943, General George C. Marshall, anticipating a demand for accelerated Airborne operations, compared the utilization of air power and Airborne troops to the conventional employment of sea power and seaborne troops. Since these combinations give the offensive troops the choice of time and position, he stressed the fact that the employment of either required the massing of great numbers of troops, supplies, and – air power. In employing the air power-Airborne combination, he visualized striking deep within the heart of enemy-held territory, using three or four hundred thousand troops to totally defeat the enemy within a broad area. He explained that the Airborne soldier would land with the minimum quantity of weapons, ammunition, and equipment necessary to begin his attack, and that from then on he would be almost entirely dependent upon his supply line. Severed from his source of supply, he could not last long against a strong enemy. He emphasized the tremendous logistical implications of such an Airborne attack.

The Berlin Airlift proved that it was possible to transport vast tonnages of supplies and equipment successfully by air. However, relatively little logistical planning had been done to determine the concept of operation and type of organizations necessary to effectively support Airborne logistical operations under combat conditions. Whereas gross cargo tonnage was the important factor in the Berlin Airlift, an army doesn’t begin to lift by tonnage; the demand is for type equipment.

Recently, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General J. Lawton Collins stated:

“We in the Army must place increasing emphasis upon transportation by air, and more of our personnel and equipment must be prepared to move by that means. For I am convinced that if war ever comes again, Airborne operations will play a far more vital part than ever before.”

Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin, – in his book Airborne Warfare, made the following interesting comments concerning Airborne logistical support:

“Of particular historical interest are the many airheads established by the German Army in their war with Russia in 1941-1945. Some succeeded and some failed where they failed, it was because of lack of proper aircraft and equipment, and service forces to aid the combat division within the airheads.

In final analysis, an Airborne invasion will succeed or fail depending upon the adequacy of the supply program supporting it. This is acutely true at present when so little has been done to develop Airborne service units and special equipment for them. The Army that solves these problems will be the Army that wins. Such an Army should be able to move to any area on the globe on short notice, and, what is more important, fight to a winning decision when it gets there.”

Logistical planning must envision air supply, not only for Airborne operations but for hard-pressed, isolated, or advanced Ground Force units. In the European theater, continuous requests were received for air supply. To cope with the problem, an organization called “Combined Air Transport Operations” was formed. This unit, called CATOR, operated upon the theater commander’s level and determined approval and relative priority for all air supply requests. Under their direction Quartermaster troops handled the packaging of supplies put them into parachute containers, and loaded the supplies on the aircraft. The Air Force delivered them.

In Burma and India practically all supply was Airborne. Quartermaster battalions were converted into air supply units. Supplies were parachuted to MerriII’s Marauders; cargo was landed in China, and both landed and dropped onto the Ledo Road.

An interesting comparison of cost factors has been made from a study of the China-Burma-India operations. Based upon 80 per cent use of British equipment (which materially reduced the cost factor), the following ton costs were estimated:

$49.61 PER TON-air cargo landed

94.07 PER TON-air cargo free-dropped

1,909.65 PER TON-air cargo parachute-dropped

It can thus be seen that, from the standpoint of material consumption and dollar cost, it is most economical to air-land cargo at the earliest practicable moment.

Operation SWARMER at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, during April and May 1950, highlighted many of the inefficiencies and shortcomings of improvised supplied by parachute-dropped and air-landed supplies. Supplies were mounted from Greenville, South Carolina Air Base (Port Able) and at Maxton Field, North Carolina (Port Baker). Both fields were commanded by an improvised organization fashioned from a Transportation Corps Port Headquarters. A Quartermaster Air Supply and Packaging Detachment was stationed at Greenville, South Carolina. The Airborne troops captured Camp Mackall Air Field and Pope Field at Fort Bragg. Both captured fields were used as airheads for cargo-landed supplies. At the airhead, no Army Command organization had over-all control of Army operations.

At the departure field, the Transportation Corps Port organizations did an excellent job. Every unanticipated situation was soon mastered. Untrained men ingeniously solved difficult technical problems. However the deficiencies of provisional organizations were soon apparent.

Improvisation, no matter how well accomplished, is not a substitute for an organization that is structurally designed, planned, man-powered, and equipped to do a technical and difficult job. An over-all concept of operation must be determined to provide the several organizations to perform the services necessary to complete the logistical picture. Such a plan must provide organizations with capacities in balance with each other so that a complete integrated relationship is provided. The command organization for Army operations at both the departure field and airhead can be relatively small. It should operate in the task force commander’s name, maintain coordination and liaison with the Air Force, and direct the Army supply operations, the troop loading and unloading, and the antiaircraft defense. It was the consensus of opinion of a number of responsible officers that an organization somewhat similar to a Type B Logistical Command Headquarters is desirable at departure fields and at airheads. The command should be Branch Immaterial, assisted by a small operational and Technical Service staff. The officers from disinterested services were emphatic in their belief that no one Technical Service should exercise over-all command. They believe that it is not a Quartermaster, Transportation, Engineer, or any other service’s responsibility to control these important logistical centers, but a function that transcends any one service’s interest.

In March of this year the Chief of Staff of the Army directed that the responsibility for crating, packaging, cargo-loading, and lashing in the airplane of airlift cargo, the packing of air-drop cargo, and the repacking of cargo parachutes, be assigned to the Quartermaster Corps. The Parachute Maintenance Company, which was formerly Infantry and organic to the Airborne Division, has been reassigned as a Quartermaster Corps organization. Its mission and capabilities are described elsewhere in this issue by Major Thomas Cross of the 11th Airborne Division.

Upon the assignment of the crating, packaging, and loading of air-lift and air-dropped cargo to the Quartermaster Corps, a study was begun to plan a T/O&E organization to operate at departure air fields. General Gavin, at a conference in the OQMG, stated:

“I think it would be without precedent in military history for the Army to attempt Airborne operations and be dependent for its logistical support upon another agency which is, in a large measure, disinterested in accomplishing this mission. We need logistical support.”

A T/O&E, designed to accomplish this logistical support, was built upon the premise that such an organization must be capable of performing the following functions:

a. Receiving, packaging, preparing, and storing all classes of supplies for delivery by air transport.

b. Accumulating, segregating, and distributing all classes of supplies from designated packing areas to aircraft take-off points.

c. Constructing, packing, and inspecting various types of improvised aerial containers and harnesses.

d. Packing, maintaining, and inspecting all types of standard aerial containers, harnesses, and canopies.

e. Constructing, repairing, and operating various types of improvised aircraft loading equipment.

f. Loading, lashing cargo, and unloading cargo airplanes and gliders on the ground, and operating standard loading equipment in conjunction therewith.

g. Unloading or jettisoning air cargo from aircraft in flight.

h. Executing and supervising the routing and processing of packaging slips, local manifests, statistical records, and general records in connection with the above operations.

This key organization has been designated T/O&E 10-407,”Quartermaster Airborne Air Supply and Packaging Company.” It contains a Depot Operations Section which will maintain stock control over a small stock level of all fast-moving supplies of all Technical Services. Past experience has indicated that the most essential supplies, which comprise 80 per cent of an airlift total, are subsistence, gasoline, and ammunition. The remaining 20 per cent are miscellaneous supplies of which the most important are blood plasma and other medical items.

The Depot Operations Section will operate in conjunction with the Maintenance & Packaging Section. This latter section will be manned by jump-qualified personnel. The Maintenance & Packaging Section will pack and supervise the packing of air cargo containers and will supervise the loading and lashing of cargo for air-landed supplies. They will receive the necessary supply manifests and instructions from the Depot Operations Section. Packers and riggers are capable of repairing parachutes and devising aerial containers for unusual or bulky cargo. They will pack parachutes and attach them to the containers. When necessary, they will act as ejectors, ejecting the dropped cargo in flight.

Another T/O&E is being designed which has been designated T/O&E 10-417, “Quartermaster Depot Parachute Repair Company.” This is a non-divisional organization, which will perform field and depot (formerly called base) maintenance on personnel and cargo parachutes, aerial containers, and other related items of Quartermaster air-type equipment.

It is believed that these two new organizations and a Branch Immaterial Headquarters, together with the Quartermaster Parachute Maintenance Company of the Airborne Division, are adequate to provide logistical support for Airborne operations. Standard Quartermaster and other Technical Service T/O&E organizations, after receiving special additional training, will be adequate to provide the supplemental supply support necessary.