Airborne Operations

On 2 August 1944, First Allied Airborne Army was officially activated by the orders of General Eisenhower, and in less than two weeks it was assigned its first operation. During August 1944, American forces under General Omar Bradley had launched an operation designed to allow Allied forces to break out of Normandy after several months of slow progress against heavy German resistance, which was codenamed Operation Cobra. The operation had been a success, despite a fierce German counter-attack on 7 August codenamed Operation L├╝ttich, and a number of German divisions had become trapped between the four towns of Trun, Argentan, Vimoutiers and Chambois near Falaise in France in what had been labelled the Falaise Pocket. On 13 August, airborne forces under the command of First Allied Airborne Army were moved to airfields in Northern France in readiness to participate in Operation Transfigure, whose objective was to block the retreat of these German forces. Planning for the operation went to an extremely advanced stage, and was to have involved 1st Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division, Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, 52nd (Lowland) Division, a British infantry division which had been retrained as an air-transportable division capable of being landed alongside airborne forces, and a number of support units (Click here to see how airborne units were organized). The planners for Transfigure envisioned the airborne divisions and brigade landing near Rambouillet and capturing an airstrip, after which the 52nd (Lowland) Division could be flown in to aid in the establishment of an airhead which Allied armour could use as a forward base to advance towards Paris.

The operation was cancelled before it could begin, however, when Allied forces captured Dreux, the town which had been the planned dropping point for the airborne forces; General Eisenhower’s fears that such an airborne operation would create a heavy burden on the limited ground transport available to the Allied forces also contributed to the decision to cancel the operation. Several more airborne operations were planned for First Allied Airborne Army in late August and early September, after the cancellation of Transfigure. Operation Boxer was concerned with the capture of Boulogne by the same forces as Transfigure was to have used, and Operation Linnet was to have used the Transfigure forces, with the addition of the 82nd Airborne Division, on 3 September to capture Tournai and create a bridgehead over the River Escaut, which would cut off a large number of retreating German formations in a similar manner to Transfigure. Both operations were cancelled, however, due to the rapid movement of Allied ground forces as they advanced through France and towards Belgium, as such a rapid advance did not allow First Allied Airborne Army enough time to plan an operation and deploy its forces before its objectives were overrun by ground forces. This situation changed, however, by the middle of September, as Allied forces came into contact with the German frontier and the Siegfried Line and encountered considerable German resistance, with German forces beginning to set up organized defensive positions and the Allied advance slowing.

Cancelled operations

Several airborne operations were planned for the divisions under the control of First Allied Airborne Army after the end of Operation Varsity. The first was Operation Arena, which envisioned landing between six and ten divisions into what was termed a ‘strategic airhead’ in the Kassel region of Northern Germany in order to deny a large swathe of territory to the German defenders and give the Allied armies a staging area for further advances into Germany. The 13th was chosen to participate, along with the US 17th, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, as well as the British 6th Airborne Division and the 1st Airborne Division. A preliminary date for 1 May was set for the operation once all of the required airborne and air-landed infantry divisions had been located and supplied, but it was ultimately cancelled on 26 March due to the rapid movement of Allied ground forces negating the requirement for the operation. Operation Choker II which was to be an airborne landing on the east bank of the Rhine near Worms, Germany, and during which the division was only hours from taking off before the operation was cancelled due to Allied ground forces overrunning the proposed landing areas. Operation Effective was designed to deny the Alps area from the Germans to prevent the creation of a last-ditch stronghold, but was cancelled when intelligence indicated such a stronghold did not exist.