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Little Groups of Ineffective Paratroopers: Band of Brothers “Day of Days”

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

After re-watching the Band of Brothers episode “Day of Days”, I have renewed admiration for the paratroopers scattered throughout Normandy on D-Day. Lost and without contact with their higher headquarters, the airborne soldiers found ways to help beat the Axis powers.

According to legend--and the miniseries--the paratroopers of the 101st (and probably the 82nd, but they didn’t make it in Band of Brothers) took it upon themselves to “seize the initiative”. Thanks to their intensive preparation (Thanks Lt. Sobel!), paratroopers, literally scattered to the four winds, joined up with any fellow soldiers they could find to fend off the German counter-attack. Whoever held the highest rank took charge, and Little Groups of Paratroopers (acronym alert, LGOPs!) headed off into the night to seize bridges, attack German patrols, and generally wreak havoc behind enemy lines.

For the soldiers of Easy Company--as shown in the episode “Day of Days”--this meant that Lieutenant Winters and the few men he could round up ambushed a German convoy. The next day, he, Lieutenant Buck Compton--a UCLA graduate, which explains the skill, bravery and all around greatness of this soldier--and the remaining scraps of Easy Company attacked and destroyed a German artillery battery.

After D-Day, the legend of LGOPs spread through the active-duty Army...at least the airborne part. As I was told many times in vaguely doctrinal terms, the chaos of so many soldiers taking down so many objectives bewildered the Germans and kept their focus off the impending beach invasion.

If only.

In our 2011 prediction audit, I claimed that leaving the Army didn’t really free me (Michael C) to speak my mind the way I thought I would. Well, today I will take on a topic sacred in my previous battalion, the 2nd of the 503rd, (which remains the greatest combat force to ever walk the earth): the efficacy of airborne operations.

Specifically, the effectiveness of “Little Groups of Paratroopers” or LGOPs.

As a former paratrooper, I had ample time to ponder the wisdom and effectiveness of jumping into combat out of an airplane, especially as we waited hours at a time for our C-130s to arrive. Mostly, I asked fellow officers what a modern airborne operation would look like. If they didn’t discuss the utter boredom of the 173rd jumping into Iraq (a topic I also won’t touch here), they described the Battle of Normandy. Specifically, a bunch of lost paratroopers wandering around France. You know, LGOPs.

But the idea of lost paratroopers stalking enemy territory for trouble makes no sense according to the principles of warfare. Army doctrine names nine principles of warfare: objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise and simplicity (variously written as some anagram of MOOSEMUS).

On the one hand, LGOPs fit some of the principles of warfare. They surprise the enemy. Small unit leaders with knowledge of the larger operation--as happened on D-day--can also apply the commander’s will across a broad swath of terrain.

On the much larger other hand, LGOPs don’t simplify the plan, they drastically complicate it. By spreading out the force--in a haphazard way--many objectives don’t get seized. During Normandy, unity of command evaporated. Many of the LGOPs, before they formed up, lacked any type of security, vulnerable to German armor or heavy weapons. It was also near impossible to maneuver or plan an offensive with troops spread so far apart. LGOPs make little sense according to the principles of war.

Or look at it from the perspective of Robert Leonhard’s “physics of battle” as he describes in The Art of Maneuver. He applies inertia, speed, mass, force, momentum and acceleration to warfare. LGOPs make even less sense using this model. A unit of light infantrymen spread across miles or kilometers lacks any momentum, acceleration or power. Indeed, a massed German quick reaction force, of armor or mounted infantrymen, could have obliterated the spread out and defenseless (to armor) airborne soldiers. Thankfully, Hitler specifically decided against this course of action, and LGOPs went down in military lore as the greatest invention since the reflector belt.

More than anything else, LGOPs cannot mass effectively at the decisive point, a basic military strategy advocated by Clausewitz to Sun Tzu to modern doctrine, like Leonhard or the Army’s principles of war. So no matter what or whose system you use, LGOPs fail the doctrinal test.

One other simple reason, though, should encourage the U.S. military to forget LGOPs: we can’t stand the losses. Nowadays, the US military immediately evacuates every injured soldier. In an airborne invasion of an active war zone, the U.S. Army can expect to lose hundreds or thousands of soldiers on the initial jump. Not wounded either. Dead. Frankly, I cannot envision a scenario where the America needs to start sending thousands of men to die in hours, but hasn’t first started carpet bombing or slinging nuclear weapons. And airborne operations make even less sense since the invention of helicopters, another topic for another day.

The generals in World War II knew this problem as well as any one. That’s why in the course of series and the war, Easy Company parachuted into battle exactly twice. They spend the rest of the series maneuvering, defending and fighting like regular light infantry. It’s just more effective.

nine comments

Then the reciprocal of “mass” is “economy of force”. We try to divert as much to the decisive operation as we can, and as little force as possible to supporting efforts.

However, if those supporting efforts are deception, then LGOPs make for a great economy of force effort, while waiting for the main force to arrive.

I see economy of force as using just as much force as needed to do the job, but not any more. It is an ideal construct.

I guess when it comes to LGOPs, the question is, was devoting three entire divisions to a deception effort, along with the resources of hundreds of airplanes, really worth it? And I don’t think they were supposed to be deception, they had legitimate targets to hold. However, the operation went to hell, and they just did what they could, and justified it afterwards.

So I would take focused combat operations delivered near precisely by helicopters over scattered LGOPs any day of the week.

Cummings, I’m disappointed that you didn’t mention “The Airborne Illusion”, my favorite intellectual takedown of Airborne operations. I love sharing that paper with 82nd bubbas and watching them rapidly transition through the five stages of grief.


I guess when it comes to LGOPs, the question is, was devoting three entire divisions to a deception effort, along with the resources of hundreds of airplanes, really worth it? And I don’t think they were supposed to be deception, they had legitimate targets to hold. However, the operation went to hell, and they just did what they could, and justified it afterwards.

Regarding the “three divisions,” while it is not my intention to disparage the performance of the 82nd or the 101st—I have enough sense to try and avoid paratroopers’ bad side—the goals of Operation Tonga were accomplished at least somewhat as planned despite the fact that the Brits were also ended up scattered after the drop.

Mr. Stahlke, I was actually looking for the link but couldn’t find it. We are going to run that in the next “On V Update to Old Ideas”. And the credit for discovery should really go to Mr. Stafford.

I don’t think it wise to dismiss the effectiveness of paratroops paratrooping onto or near an objective based on Normandy. That op was a complete disaster mainly because the transport pilots were terrible and it was a night op. The transport crews had been given no real training (IIRC) in what they were called upon to do, night formation flying involving night navigation over hostile areas. They had been mostly doing what transport pilots do, flying around individually delivering things, when they were called upon to do things transport pilots didn’t do. The paratroopers and glider troops weren’t supposed to end up scattered everywhere. But they were because the aircraft crews didn’t really know what they were doing.

Things go slightly better in the ETO after that sometimes. The invasion of Southern France drops went well enough I read. Market Garden and the Rhine crossing, not so much.

I checked WIKI and there have been a lot of parachute ops since WWII. Some of them have been very successful. The Rhodesian Fireforce ops were some. The Indian Army apparently made a good one in ’71 and Suez too.

I am not a paratroop enthusiast. My always a civilian opinion is regular infantry units can probably be trained up when the time comes and do just as good. But the concept itself can’t be thrown out without looking at all the ops that have occurred. It might come in handy sometimes, maybe even gliders too.

@Carl – Please read the paper Stahlke links to above. I spent a good chunk of time re-reading (we first passed it around during our ROTC days after all attending airborne training) it yesterday, and it really does show how the airborne has instituted itself as an elite force, despite results.

Which doesn’t mean I think we need to throw out the airborne with the bath water. The Army should maintain an airborne capability, specifically for special operations troops like SF and Rangers. However, do we need 12.5 percent of our ground combat power to be airborne capable? That’s higher than at any time in our Army history since the introduction of airborne. And as high as the Russian army maintained during its ridiculous airborne fascination. Out of its 48 conventional brigades, the Army needs about 1 or 2 airborne, and an airborne Ranger battalion. That’s even high in my opinion.

Instead the Army should focus on helicopter operations. They are cheaper, more accurate, more flexible, safer and generally more effective.

(BTW, my wife and I are working through some DVDs on Netflix, then we have Combat! in the queue.)

Out of its 48 conventional brigades, the Army needs about 1 or 2 airborne, and an airborne Ranger battalion. That’s even high in my opinion.

If you loose hundreds or thousands of those on an initial jump you better hope you don’t need to make a second.

Michael C:

I did read the paper, unfortunately just after I posted my comment. My comment was actually a reaction to what you posted.

The paper was very good. The only thing I would have liked to see was more coverage of the various foreign post war drops.

The paper referred to an old article called The Horse Cavalry in the Twentieth Century by Katzenbach. I tried to find that online but could not. Do know where I can find it?

Agree about the Airborne existing mainly because it is cool and impressive to say Airborne. Interesting that what may have been the most successful of all post-war parachute ops, the Fireforce ops, were conducted by troops who I don’t believe were designated as airborne.

An example of the cool factor, the whole airborne thing is just martial cool I think, being a powerful driver of policy is 1 vs. 2 seat tactical aircraft. That has perhaps an even more decisive and delaterious (sic) effect on what may happen in a war. The F-22 and F-35 are both single seat aircraft and there are no plans at all to my knowledge to make 2 seat versions.

Both those airplanes have complex systems and missions, yet they only have one seat. No matter what the geeks say about super computer systems, it is easier to run things with two people. You can’t monitor the systems and fly the airplane at the same time. Attention has to be divided. With two guys, one can give full attention to flying and the other full attention to the displays. Not to mention that one guy can only look out the front or the back. He can’t do both at once. Two people can. And two man crews are much, much safer. Just try to get insurance for an airliner with a one man crew.

All of this has been true for decades and yet the newest jets are single seaters. The reason for that is pretty obvious, fighter pilots just don’t like to share the glory or be teased about driving a family model. This is a prime example of war fighting effectiveness taking a back seat to what is cool. At least the Chinese and Russians are infected with the same disease so there won’t be such a great disadvantage.

I will be very interested in what you think of Combat!