Proposals to bring troops unexpectedly into battle by aerial transport were made in World War I and the Soviet Union formed a sizable corps of parachute troops during the interwar period. However, the first airborne troops used in combat were the German Fallschirmjäger (literally, “parachute light infantry”) during the 1940 invasions of Norway and the Low Countries. Made up of rigorously trained volunteers, these troops entered battle by jumping at low altitude from transport aircraft, wearing parachutes deployed automatically by a cord (or static line) attached to the aircraft, or by assault glider. Each method had advantages and disadvantages. Large numbers of paratroops could be quickly dropped on or near an objective and could land on rough terrain but were inevitably dispersed by wind and the interval between jumpers; they landed as individuals rather than in formed units and carried only pistols and submachine guns (heavier weapons and reserve ammunition were parachuted separately). Gliders, however, could release their tows some distance from an objective, arriving swiftly and silently to deliver their troops in formed units with machine guns, mortars, and light antitank weapons; but they required a reasonably smooth landing surface and demanded great piloting skill. These tactics enjoyed considerable initial success most spectacularly in the German capture of Crete (May 1941), the only battle fought and won entirely by airborne troops. They set the pattern for subsequent developments. The Fallschirmjäger’s basic kit helmet with chin strap, camouflaged smock, and baggy trousers with large pockets bloused into high leather jump boots distinguishes airborne troops to this day.American and British airborne units were formed with carefully selected volunteers in 1941-1942 and were used with considerable success, though often with high casualties, in World War II notably in the Normandy invasion and in crossing the Rhine. As parachutes improved, paratroops routinely jumped carrying all personal weapons and ammunition; by 1944, British and American gliders could carry jeeps and light field howitzers. The paratroops ethos was defined during World War II, and by war’s end, the term paratrooper a volunteer who jumped from airplanes was synonymous with elite. Parachute units were the cream of the French forces during the Indochina War and the Algerian War; the Soviet Union organized a large, elite airborne establishment during the Cold War.
Helicopters and methods for extracting extremely heavy loads from the ramps of transport aircraft by parachute rendered assault gliders obsolete in the 1950s, and helicopter assault operations largely supplanted mass parachute assaults in the 1960s. The U.S. Army pressed these developments to the limit in Vietnam, fielding whole helicopter-mobile divisions; significantly, however, infantry in these units were generally parachute trained.
Specialist units began to exploit skydiving techniques such as HALO (high altitude, low opening), using manually deployed, steerable parachutes to insert small patrols and raiding parties precisely and silently behind enemy lines. Although the distinction between airborne troops and line infantry has been blurred by the helicopter, parachute infantry units are universally regarded as a corps d’élite and are fielded by every major military establishment. In addition, the speed, range, and carrying capacity of jet and turbojet transports continue to give parachute operations strategic relevance for mass operations far from home on short notice.