Churchill’s Spearhead – The Development of Britain’s Airborne Forces During World War II
By Dr John Greenacre
Published by Pen and Sword (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk)
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The British airborne forces played a significant and very important role during the Second World War. The main principle of airborne forces was developed during the 1930s by Germany and the USSR. The importance and significance of airborne forces was initially very desultory in the UK and the senior echelons of the British Armed Forces considered them unnecessary and wasteful of strategic resources.
It was the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who really conceived the development of British Airborne Forces. His suggestions and directives on this were carefully sidestepped by the armed forces and his initial demands were subject to major dilution. He demanded 5,000 airborne soldiers and the commands suggested that they could develop a unit of no more than 500.
Not only were Churchill’s plans subjected to resistance but there was major infighting between the Army and the Royal Air Force. These detailed and complex political manoeuvrings are well documented in the book. Dr Greenacre has done an excellent task of discussing the various points of view and how the various government offices kept “passing the buck” amongst themselves. Given the careful consideration of the political machinery by Dr Greenacre it is amazing that Britain ever established the elite and successful airborne units that it eventually had.
After considering the politics of airborne forces the book moves on to consider the equipment and technology needed to support such warfare. Topics considered include the development of parachutes and the personal equipment required by the soldiers as well as the capital equipment such as appropriate aircraft, vehicles etc. The early trials found that most of the RAF’s aircraft and the army’s equipment were not well suited for airborne troops. The initial method of dispatching paratroopers was via holes in the floor of bomber aircraft. Clearly these modes of operation were unsuited to large scale operations. Dr Greenacre gives a splendid treatment of these difficulties and how they were overcome.
The training and selection of men was a vital component to the establishment of large scale airborne formations. The careful selection and training methods of the paratroops and glider forces is given a superb and detailed treatment. The doctrine of this branch developed over a very short period of time. The initial view of the high command was such that ‘we don’t need airborne forces’ and this changed to the realisation that ‘airborne forces are a critical and vital component’. The doctrine of these elite forces therefore was developed over a very condensed period and it is vital to their attitudes, esprit de corps and tactics. The book discusses this very carefully and documents the evolution of the airborne concept and doctrine.
The final chapter is devoted to summarising the role that airborne forces played in World War 2 as they had become a vital component of Britain’s fighting forces. They also showed that Combined Operations could be mounted and be strategically successful and that the various components of the military can work in harmony. This is an excellent text and if you are interested in the paratroops or glider forces then this book is highly commended.