Allied Airborne Command Structure

Airborne forces are military units, usually light infantry, set up to be moved by aircraft and “dropped” into battle. Thus, they can be placed behind enemy lines, and have the capability to deploy almost anywhere with little warning. The formations are limited only by the number and size of their aircraft, so given enough capacity a huge force can appear “out of nowhere” in minutes, an action referred to as vertical envelopment.

Allied planners were unaware of the heavy losses the Germans had suffered in the Battle of Crete. Ironically, the battle that ended Germany’s paratrooper operations had the opposite effect on the Allies. Convinced of the effectiveness of airborne assaults, the Allies hurried to train and organize their own airborne units. The British established No.1 Parachute Training School at RAF Ringway near Manchester, which trained all 60,000 European paratroopers recruited by the Allies during World War II.

A fundamental decision was whether to create small airborne units to be used in specific coup-de-main type operations, or to organize entire airborne divisions for larger operations. Many of the early, successful airborne operations were small, carried out by a few units, such as seizing a bridge. The Allies eventually formed two British and five American airborne divisions: the British 1st Airborne Division and 6th Airborne Division, and the US 11th Airborne Division, 13th Airborne Division, 17th Airborne Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and 101st Airborne Division. By 1944, the British divisions were grouped into the 1st Airborne Corps under General Frederick Browning, while US divisions in the European Theatre (the 17th, 82nd, and 101st) were organized into the XVIII Airborne Corps under US Major General Matthew Ridgway. Both corps fell under the First Allied Airborne Army under US Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton.

To read how the British Airborne Units were specifically organized from Divisions down to Squads.

To read how the U.S. Airborne Units were specifically organized from Divisions down to Squads.