Subtitled “Airborne Warfare 1918-1945, this fat 650 page tome details the growth and use of airborne troops by every nation and their use in detail. Want to know all about the Russian use of airborne troops in 1941? It’s in there!
I suppose the general lesson is that these kind of operations – mass air landings take a lot of resources and tend to have disappointing results. So even if the original smaller scale drops seem to work, the translation up to dropping a brigade or division tends to fail.
The downside of having these forces at all is that you spend the time to make some elite infantry, then you have them sit about waiting to fight, drop them off with limited heavy weapons behind enemy lines and have them ground to powder. Losses tend to be high even for successful operations – 30-50 percent. Failed ones, such as the British 1st AB Division near Arnhem in 1944 are even worse, since airborne units are dedicated enough to fight and take losses longer than your average unit.
Almost every nation followed a similar trajectory of early small-scale use, followed by some big operations and then retrenchment for the rest of the war. The Germans did virtually no operations after Crete. The Russians did a lot of drops early in the war and trailed off later. The Allies in Europe ramped up to Market-Garden and then trailed off. Their final drop, Varsity, was an almost comically limited operation, Montgomery dropped a bunch of paratroopers just over the Rhine, within sight of his lines. They still took a pounding, and you can’t help but wonder if they would have done just as well crossing in rubber rafts as dropping down.
Probably the best use in the war of airborne and air supported operations was the Chindits in Burma. These troops were landed in the far rear to interrupt the Japanese supply lines so they did not have the usual problems of being surrounded and continually attacked by reserves that drops nearer a front line usually had. They were supported by air and lived off the land, and kept continual pressure on the Japanese. They were so useful that they were kept out there until disease and exhaustion wrecked the units about as severely as sustained combat would have.
Smaller scale operations, like we have Special Forces do today, seem like the best use. These tend to be fast, so that the units get out before mass reaction can be made or the units exhausted. The operations where large numbers of troops were expected to hold a front for long periods were much less successful and had a high cost for everyone.