Operation Colossus - Background


The German military was one of the pioneers of the use of airborne formations, conducting several successful airborne operations during the Battle of France in 1940, including the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael. Impressed by the success of German airborne operations, the Allied governments decided to form their own airborne formations. This decision would eventually lead to the creation of two British airborne divisions, as well as a number of smaller units. The British airborne establishment began development on 22 June 1940, when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, directed the War Office in a memorandum to investigate the possibility of creating a corps of 5,000 parachute troops. Despite the Prime Minister's desire to have 5,000 airborne troops within a short period, a number of problems were rapidly encountered by the War Office. Very few gliders existed in Britain in 1940, and these were too light for military purposes, and there was also a shortage of suitable transport aircraft to tow gliders and carry paratroopers. On 10 August, Churchill was informed that although 3,500 volunteers had been selected to train as airborne troops, only 500 could currently begin training due to limitations in equipment and aircraft. The War Office stated in a memorandum to the Prime Minister in December 1940 that 500 parachute troops could probably be trained and be ready for operations by the spring of 1941, but this figure was purely arbitrary; the actual number that could be trained and prepared by that period would rely entirely on the creation of a training establishment and the provision of required equipment.

A training establishment for parachute troops was set up at RAF Ringway near Manchester on 21 June 1940 and named the Central Landing Establishment, and the initial 500 volunteers began training for airborne operations. The Royal Air Force provided a number of Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bombers for conversion into transport aircraft for paratroopers. A number of military gliders were also designed, starting with the General Aircraft Hotspur, but gliders were not used by the British until Operation Freshman in 1942. Organizational plans were also being laid down, with the War Office calling for two parachute brigades to be operational by 1943. However, the immediate development of any further airborne formations, as well as the initial 500 volunteers already training, was hampered by three problems. With the threat of invasion in 1940, many War Office officials and senior British Army officers did not believe that sufficient men could be spared from the effort to rebuild the Army after the Battle of France to create an effective airborne force; many believed that such a force would only have a nuisance raiding value and would not affect the conflict in any useful way. There were also material problems; all three of the armed services were expanding and rebuilding, particularly the Army, and British industry had not yet been organized to a sufficient war footing to support all three services as well as the fledgling airborne force. Finally, the airborne forces lacked a single, coherent policy, with no clear idea as to how they should be organized, or whether they should come under the command of the Army or the RAF; inter–organizational rivalry between the War Office and the Air Ministry, in charge of the RAF, was a major factor in delaying the further expansion of British airborne forces.

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