Thursday, March 10, 2016

American Paratroopers Fighting in Berlin

It seems to me this is highly improbable.  On May 7-8 1945, some 60,000 airborne troopers were deployed in the ETO as follows: - XVIII Airborne Corps (Ridgeway) at Hagenow, Germany – 82nd Airborne Division (Gavin) at Ludwigslust, Germany - 101st Airborne Division (Taylor) at Berchtesgarden. - 17th Airborne Division (Miley) near Essen in the Ruhr. - 13th Airborne Division. Standby at Auxerre, France - 501 PIR (Ballard) and 508 PIR (Linquest) both at bases in France for possible POW camp jumps.

Except for the emergency air resupply missions to the 101st at Bastogne. Lewis Brereton's big and expensive FAAA had achieved nothing of consequence since MARKET-GARDEN, in September. There had been no para- troop operations; in the Bulge and thereafter. the four parachute divisions had been committed to ground action. The opening of Antwerp as a supply port in November had eliminated the need for using FAAA's fourteen-hundred-odd air transports for carting gasoline and ammo to the continent. The FAAA staff and its vast aerial resources were going to waste. FAAA, however, continued to generate plans. Most of these were designed to support Montgomery. Bradley or Patch in crossing the Rhine River into Germany, but one-ECLIPSE (formerly TALISMAN)-was an American drop on Berlin. should the Third Reich suddenly collapse. Just prior to the Bulge. the airborne plans for crossing the Rhine had been reduced to three, in this order of priority: VARSITY (in support of Montgomery’s crossing at Wesel); CHOKER II (in support of Patch's Seventh Army crossing at Worms); NAPLES II (in support of Bradley’s crossing at Cologne).

On the evening of March 7.  when Bradley telephoned Eisenhower to first report the capture of the Remagen bridge, Eisenhower was at dinner at his new headquarters in Rheims. His guests for the evening were most of the principal airborne commanders: Ridgway, Doc Eaton, Gavin, Taylor and Gerry Chapman, commander of the newly arrived 13th Airborne Division. Eisenhower had summoned them to discuss future proposed airborne operations: CHOKER II, ECLIPSE, and a brand-new, huge and spectacular operation called ARENA." 

In their war memoirs. Gavin and Taylor both vividly recalled Bradley's mid- dinner phone call announcing the capture of the Remagen bridge, and the excitement it created. Ridgway, however, did not mention the incident in his memoir.  Perhaps it was a moment he did not care to remember.  If XVIII Airborne Corps had not been pulled out for VARSITY, against his wishes, it would have been his forces-not Millikin’s-which captured the Remagen bridge, and Ridgway and XVIII Airborne Corps would have had the great privilege of exploiting the bridgehead with Joe Collins and VII Corps. Moreover, having been present when Eisenhower authorized Bradley to exploit the bridgehead, Ridgway knew that the whole course of the war was going to change, that the real push would now come in the center and that Montgomery's Rhine crossing-and VARSITY-would become an over staged side-show. " 

When the excitement had died down, the talk at Eisenhower’s dinner re- turned to a discussion of future airborne operations, with the focus on ARENA.  Conceived by FAAA’s fecund planning staff, it fulfilled George Marshall and Hap Arnold's long-standing desire for a big and decisive strategic airborne operation deep in enemy territory.  During  Max  Taylor's  visit to Washington  in  December, Marshall had once again urged such an operation. According to Taylor, Marshal had “damned without stint” Montgomery’s MARKET-GARDEN and had been "emphatic in speaking about the 'timidity’ of our [airborne] planning." Marshall's idea of “proper airborne operations," Taylor reported, was still “to seize an air head and then pour in large quantities of troops." Now that the Allied armies were drawing up to the Rhine and Germany appeared to be tottering toward collapse, FAAA believed that the opportunity (and good flying weather) had finally arrived when a strategic airborne operation could be mounted. " 

Breathtaking in size and scope, the plan for ARENA abandoned the conservative, newly adopted "one-lift" doctrine. Initially a force of four to six Allied airborne divisions, brought in by multiple lifts, would seize an airhead about a hundred miles east of the Rhine in an area of high ground lying between Paderborn and Kassel. In that area there were three well-organized and comparatively undamaged German airfields and numerous outlying land- ing strips. These would be utilized to fly in four or five more regular infantry divisions, making a total FAAA force of about ten divisions.
The airborne army thus assembled deep inside Germany might be given several principal missions depending on the battlefront situation. It could at- tack westward toward the Ruhr, helping Montgomery and Bradley trap the German armies.  Or it could more or less stand pat, denying the German armies retreating from the Ruhr a place to make a last-ditch stand, while providing the armies of Patton and Patch a friendly enclave toward which to advance. Conceivably, so vast an Allied army landing so deep inside Germany could of itself cause the complete collapse of the Third Reich. 

Ridgway had first learned about ARENA three days before, on March 3, in a meeting with Floyd Parks and Eisenhower's G-3, Harold R.  (Pink) Bull. At that time, Parks had sketched a rough outline of the plan and had told Ridgway and Bull that Brereton intended to lay the whole thing out for Eisenhower within a few days. Ridgway had been astounded-and not a little put out. Brereton had promised to keep him abreast of FAAA planning; he had told Parks that he, Ridgway, should have been thoroughly briefed on ARENA before Brereton took such a plan to Eisenhower. 

Digging further into the plan over the next few days, Ridgway learned more details, FAAA intended, if possible, to utilize all six Allied airborne divisions (the American 13th, 17th, 82nd and 101st, and the British 1st and 6th) in the assault phase. These would be followed into the airhead by four regular divisions: Walter Robertson's 2nd, Alex Bolling's 84th, Tony McAuliffe's 103rd and one other (as yet undesignated). There would be three corps:  XVIII Airborne, I British Airborne and one other for the regular infantry divisions. Maximum FAAA airlift would be utilized with all aircraft making two round trips a day from bases in France and Belgium. In addition, masses of Eighth Air Force heavy bombers would help fly in supplies at the rate of three hundred tons per division per day-that is, building to a total of three thousand tons per day. 

Despite his initial pique, Ridgway, like all airborne officers who were briefed on ARENA, was electrified by its scope and daring and fully endorsed it. However, he had several major reservations. Chief among these was the use of British airborne forces.  By then he knew that Dempsey intended to hang on to Bois's 6th Airborne Division for the encirclement of the Ruhr, and he was certain that Montgomery (hard-pressed for troops) would not willingly release it.  The British had not pushed hard for the restaffing of the 1st Airborne Division after Arnhem. Ridgway doubted it could be fleshed out and trained in time by May 1, the date originally proposed for ARENA.  In view of these factors, he suggested that ARENA be carried out strictly with American troops-with the airborne assault composed of the four American divisions organized into a single corps-his XVIII Airborne. However, Brereton vetoed this proposal, intending to do his utmost to bring the British 1st and 6th divisions (as well as Gale's 1 British Airborne Corps) into the operations. 

When Eisenhower was first apprised of ARENA, he, too, was enthusiastic. Perhaps recalling his long-standing promises to Marshall and Arnold, he commented that he "would dearly love to have one big airborne operation before the war ended” and thought ARENA “would really be fun to do."  But he insisted that it be international in makeup-that the British airborne forces be used. He cabled the British high command in London requesting transfer of the British 6th Airborne Division to ARENA and a crash program to get the British 1st Airborne Division ready in time. He cabled Marshall in Washington to ask if it was possible to pry a regular infantry division from Mark Clark in Italy to serve as the fourth regular airlanded infantry division. Thus it transpired that while Ridgway and XVIII Airborne Corps were fine- tuning the VARSITY plan, they were simultaneously working up detailed plans not only for CHOKER II but for ARENA as well. None of these plans was ever "final," but for several weeks the best solution seemed to be to scale CHOKER II down and assigned to Gerry Chapman’s 13th Division and carry out ARENA with the 17th, 82nd and 101st divisions plus whatever British airborne troops London could-or would-make available. In any event, in the face of the challenge and promise of ARENA, VARSITY became increasingly insignificant, and Ridgway, more than ever, must have been disappointed at being saddled with it.

[source: Blair, "Ridgeway's Paratroopers" (NY: Doubleday, 1985)]

General James Gavin’s “On to Berlin" as a start.  He related therein that he was tasked with formulating the airborne infantry portion of a plan to create an air-head in Berlin, based on Templehoff airdrome.  The idea was to emulate certain operations of a similar nature carried out in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  That is, an initial paradrop was designed to secure for a short time an airfield or even merely a long flat stretch of land capable of landing aircraft. This would be followed by as massive a reinforcement in terms of troops, artillery, fuel and ammunition as time and air transport allowed, and thence to be supported by a column of columns of ground troops which would join up with the paras.

Gavin believed the entire operation to be Top secret. A Soviet officer later disabused him of the notion, however, as the Soviets, the officer indicated, had penetrated the planning almost from its inception. It is interesting that during this time, General Eisenhower had told Stalin through his military representatives in Moscow that as far as he was concerned, Berlin was no longer a target of any importance, and consequently he had no plans to move on that city.  I am not sure that Stalin was amused when he was so told, but it is a fact that upon hearing this claim, he authorized two Red Army commanders to push On To Berlin, Right Now.

It Would have committed western Allied troops to a useless "race" with the Soviets over a city no longer of importance other than for propaganda purposes, (and which also was clearly to be within the Soviet area of responsibility once hostilities had ended); would have led to ridiculous casualties among the forces committed, and may even have prolonged the war. This was one planned operation about which the Allied High Command should feel relieved did not go forward. 

The 101st never "almost jumped on Berlin"!  By spring 1945, the XVIII Corps and 82nd were in ground role in northern Germany and greeted D-Day in Lubeck area. Meanwhile, the 101st was in a similar role in Bavaria -- hence unavailable for ANY jump mission.  Late war missions in the ETO would have fallen to the 17th and 13th; 13th had two drops seriously planned, both in SW Germany, but Patton's guys and then the French overran the objectives sooner than expected and the missions were scrubbed.  A joint Brit-US-POLISH Airborne Operation west of Berlin (area of Letzlinger Heide -- a Cold War Soviet training area) was considered, but called off because the Soviets would view it as cheating -- THEY wanted Berlin as their own, for revenge/glory -- and as a first step to the Western Allies turning against the USSR (as Nazi propaganda said).

The idea sprang from General Brereton's First Airborne Army staff, and was seen as involving the US 13th and 17th, the British 6th and remnants of the 1st, the Polish Airborne Brigade, AND at least one US conventional Infantry Division that would be airlanded in follow-up phases.  British were against it; the Poles wanted to jump into Berlin itself.  Other factors were the prospect of having to deal with/supply/feed tens of thousands of German POW's and civilians -- and Brereton's bright idea of diverting the 8th Air Force heavies to cargo drops was not greeted happily.  In short, an Airborne Operations against Berlin was never more than a pipedream.


'Almost' is an arguable term, but in early March of 1945 the 82nd airborne and the 101st airborne divisions were being held in army reserve for Operation Eclipse.  This was a contingency plan in case the Nazi government fell -- they would be parachuted into Berlin to secure the city. The divisions were not happy being held in reserve for a contingency, and on March 13 Eisenhower came up with a plan that had both divisions parachuting into Kassel to form an airhead, into which another 3-4 other divisions would be flown.  Omar Bradley came up with a long list of objections, however, and the plan was shelved. Chapter 43 of Bradley's autobiography “A General's Life" has an account.

The history of the 101st, Rendezvous With Destiny, makes a four-line reference to ECLIPSE, in a paragraph on its “...broad training program…on a six-week schedule…for readiness for ...a mission...ECLIPSE".  This training began on 5 March, so would not have ended until late April.  No further mention is made of it or planning for it, and the Division was instead shipped out to the Ruhr as groundlings on 1 April. Other books consulted -- Ridgway's Paratroopers by Clay Blair, Airborne Album, and the official USAF Historical Series No 97: Airborne Operations in WWII, European Theater, make no mention of ECLIPSE, yet they all refer to Operation CHOKER II (13th, Worms-Mainz, on or about 22 March), EFFECTIVE (13th, south of Stuttgart in support of Seventh Army advance, for 22 April) (both scrubbed due to ground armies making unexpected headway) and ARENA (Brereton's piece de resistance with all possible [4 to 6] US and Brit Airborne Divisions, the Polish Brigade filling out the decimated British 1st Airborne, and the US 2nd, 84th, 103rd and one TBD Infantry Divisions airlanded, all 8th AF dedicated to support, in Kassel area, on or about 1 May). I'll doubt that ECLIPSE was ever taken seriously below the SHAEF/FAA level.

In September 1944 Eisenhower stated that his main target was Berlin. As  late as in March 1945 there were plans for the 101st Airborne Division to seize Gatow airfield, and to my knowledge the 82nd was to seize Tempelhof and a British airborne brigade the Heinkel works (all in Berlin of course). On 31 March Eisenhower made suddenly public that Berlin was only a geographic item, his aim was the destruction of the enemy. Montgomery seemed surprised and called that a terrible error. It seems that Churchill was of the same opinion. Mid-April Eisenhower ordered the 13th Airborne Division from the US to Europe; their task seemed to be the German Alps. On 21 April, Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, General Walter Bedell-Smith, said in a press conference that although there was no certainty about the National Redout, it was the main problem just now, and eventually the help of the Soviets was needed to seize it. 3 days later, Bradley said that the Alpine Redoubt required at least a further month of fighting, if not a whole year.

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