Aviation Firsts: Billy Mitchell’s Plan for an Airborne Assault in 1919
The use of troops parachuted behind enemy lines en masse was first suggested during the First World War by Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell commander of the US Army’s air corps inFrance. In October 1918, Mitchell had suggested that 12,000 men of the US 1st Infantry Division could be outfitted with parachutes and dropped behind the German line near Metz. While General John Pershing was skeptical he order that operational plans be drawn up. Mitchell explained his idea:
"We could equip each man with a parachute, so that when we desired to make a rear attack on the enemy, we could carry these men over the lines and drop them off in parachutes behind the enemy position."
This force was to attack the enemy’s rear in conjunction with a larger conventional offensive. Mitchell envisioned the operation as a new strategic role for the air corps however, in order to lift an entire division he would have needed sixty squadrons of the huge Handley Page Type 0 twin engine (see image #2) and four engine Handley Page V/1500 (see image #3) heavy bombers. Mitchell’s operations officer Major Lewis Brereton was tasked with planning the drop. The Type 0 was to carry 10 paratroops and two machine guns while the heavier V/1500 was to carry 20 men. One of the first major problems with the plan was that there would not be sufficient aircraft available until the spring/summer of 1919. Additionally producing enough parachutes for 12,000 men, 4,000 machine guns and thousands of tons of supplies was an insurmountable task.
While the plan seriously considered it was quickly abandoned because of the sheer complexity and huge cost of the operation. The feasibility of training so many men
how to parachute was also extremely ambitious and the operational problems with resupply and communication that would have arisen were so great that even during the Second World War similar
operations struggled. Several weeks later the war came to an end and any possibility of a parachute drop of troops behind enemy lines ended.
Mitchell did not abandon the idea however, during the 1920s he led a limited efforts at McCook Field in Ohio to develop new ideas and improved parachutes. However, the US Army Air Service never seriously considered the idea as practical. It was not until the mid-1930s when Russia demonstrated mass drops in exercises and the German Luftwaffe proved the concept in the summer of 1940.
Image One Source
Image Two Source
Image Three Source
Wings of War, P. Harclerode, (2005)
Sky Men, R. Kershaw, (2010)