World War II: Specialized Units

82nd Airborn
Figure 1.--The 82nd Airborn is one of the legendary units of World War II. American airborn units came into being after the U.S. Arny noted the sucess of German Fallschirmjäger (1940). Here we see an 82nd Airborn soldier training in Louisiana during 1942. Many white Americans at the time unless they lived in the South or the big industrial cities of the North were unfamiliar with black people. The 82nd Airborn played a major role in the European Theater from Sicily (1943), most notably in Normandy (1944), and the Bulge (1944), to the invasion of Germany (1945). After securing the Ruhr, the Division had just crossed the Elbe and took the surrender of the German 21st Army when the NAZIs surrendered.

A variety of different specialized units appeared during World War II. Probably the most innovative were airborn assault units (paratroops and gliders). They were introduced by the Germans--Fallschirmjäger. They were most notably used in their Western Offensive (1940). They proved successful, the greatest achievement was taking the Belgian fort at Ebon-Emal. While the performance of the Luftwaffe and Panzers was the key factors in the German success, the world was starteled by the new airborn soldiers. The German paratroops were used in the conquest of Crete (1941), although at great cost. This prevented Hitler from using them again. America and Britain after the appearance of the German paratroops, decided to create their own airborn troops. They played a major role in both the invasion of Sicity and D-Day and used as infantry played a key role in blunting the German Bulge offensive. Another important specialized unit was the commandos. Commandos were used in both the European and Pacific theater. American Army Rangers took Pont-du-Hoc on D-Day (1944). American and British commandos played an important role in Burma. Montain (ski) units were organized by the Americans and Germans. Finnish ski soldiers played an important role in the Winter war (1939-41). An American Mountain Division played an important role in Italy (1944). Red Army units of course led two massive winter offensives against the Germans. Ski troops were involved, but I do not know if they had actual mountain divisions. Another specialized group was air attack squadrons. The best know were the Japanese Kmakazis organized to attack U.S. Navy ships after the distruction of the Imperial Fleet at the the Battel of Leyte Gulf (1944). There were also submarine commandos. The Japanese deployed midget submarines at Pearl Harbor (1941). The Italians achieved some success against the British with 'manned' tprpdoes. Several countries organized marine units. The best known is the U.S. Marine Corps which played a central role in the Central Pacific campaign. The British and Japanese also had marine units.

Air Attack Squadrons

Another specialized group was air attack squadrons. The best know were the Japanese Kmakazis organized to attack U.S. Navy ships after the distruction of the Imperial Fleet at the the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944). The Kamakazis were one of the few options available to the Japanese in the last year of the War. The Imperial Fleet was destroyed and their air force hoplessly outclassed. The Japanse strategy became to make the invasion of Japan so costly that the Americans would be willing to make peace without occupying the country. The Germans at the end of the War also organized an air attack unit. It was not a suicide unit as that was alien to German military culture. It was, however, close to it. They were organized to ram Allied bombers, but then with their fighter disabled to bail out. Some of the pilots did survive the ramming and suceeded in bailing out. As all of this took place imn the skies over the Reich, they were noy lost to the war effort.

Airborn

A variety of different specialized units appeared during World War II. Probably the most innovative were airborn assault units (paratroops and gliders). Airborn units (the Fallschirmjäger) were introduced by the Germans. They were most notably used in their Western Offensive (May 1940). They proved successful, the greatest achievement was taking the Belgian fort at Ebon-Emal (1940). While the performance of the Luftwaffe and Panzers was the key factors in the German success, the world was starteled by the new airborn soldiers. The German parattroops were used in the conquest of Crete (1941), although at great cost. If the Germans had used their airborn to assault Malta it could have significantly affected the North African campaign. The losses on Crete horrified Hitler and he never used them again in an aerial assault. The Germans were unable to used their airborn units once the Allies won air superority. America and Britain, after the appearance of the German paratroops, decided to create their own airborn troops. The units became some of the most storied in the European campaign. They played a major role in both the invasion of Sicily (July 1943) and D-Day (June 1944). The Germans continued using the paratroops as infantry, but no longer conducted air drops. German paratroops played a key role in the fighting around the Arnhem Bridge which stopped the Allied Market Garden offensive (October 1944). The Anericans used airborn units as infantry and they played a key role in blunting the German Bulge offensive (December 1944). The last important air drop in Europe occurred to support the crossing of the Rhine (March 1945). The Japanese also had paratroop units which they used in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese like the Germans were unable to use their airborn units once the Allies won air superority. America used paratroop units effectively in the Pacific during the New Guinea campign (1943). There was also a difficuklt parachute drop on Correidor.

Commandos

Another important specialized unit was the commandos. Commandos were used in both the European and Pacific theater. American Army Rangers took Pont-du-Hoc on D-Day (1944). The unit was D (Dog) Company. They would go on to play an important role in the Hürtgen Forest, and sent to a quite sector to recuperate, the dound themselves on the poibt of of the spear in the Ardennes. [O'Donnell] American and British commandos played an important role in Burma.

Construction Units

Military contruction was a very important aspect of World War II. The Japanese lost Guadacanal in large measure because they took too long to build the airstrip there. The Japanese tended to use Korean and other slave labor for their construction projects. They committed terrible attrocities working POWs and local slave laborers relentlessly without providing proper food or medical care. The best known construction unit was probanly the American Navy Seabees. They did an amazing job landing after the Marines, they often had landing strips operational before islands were actually secured. The Germans used Organization Todt and youths in the Reich Labor Service. Organization Todt and other German military inits relied on slave labor for much of their construction efforts. The largest construction project of the War was Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Despite the huge resources devoted, it suceeded in slowing up the Allied invasion force for only about 6 hours.

Killing Squads

The Axis powers (Germany, Japan, but not Italy) as well as the Soviet Union engaged in massive killing operations of both POWs and Civiliams. The German SS organized specialized para-military killing units--the Einsatzgruppen. They began as police squads to arrest individuals in newly acquired territories. They became murderous para-military units indiscriminately killing men, women, and children, mostly Jews. The Einsatzgruppen were first deployed in Austria (1938). They were most notiriously deployed in Operation Barbarossa to murder political commisars in the Red Army, Communist functionaries, and Jews (1941). Most of the Einsatzgruppen were Jews who they murdered in horrific actons during the summer of 1941 before the NAZI killing operations were industrialized in the death camps. Here the SSTotenkopfverbände (Death's Head Units--SS-TV) were created to run the camps. They were a unit of the SS Wirtschafts und Verwaltungshauptamt (WVHA). While the Einsatzgruppen and SS-TV operating the death camps mostly targeted Jews, given the development of Generalplan Ost, the killing would hav been eventually extended to Slavs and Balts as well had the Whermacht suceeded in destroying the Red Army as planned. The Japanese conducted horrendos killing operations in China. These operations seem to have been condicted by regular units of the Imperial Army and not by specially consituted killing squads as was the case with the Germans. Another Axis power, Romania, was involved in extensive killing operations targetting Jews. The Soviets also conducted killing operations. The Soviets used NKVD umits in killing actions as well as horific deportations in which many of the deportees perished. There were also dedicated killing operations. The Soviets used NKVD units for actions like the killing of Polish Army officers such as discovered in the Katyn Forrest. .

Marines

The marines originated as infantry units aboard ships. Many countries with navies deployed marines board ships. They had two purposes, control the sailors and engage in naval combat. Sailors through the 18th century were a roudy lot. The well-disciplined abd armed marines were there to control them and to support the captain's authority. And they were an important part of naval combat. In the days of sail, naval compbat often involved boarding the enemy ships. Marines were deployed in the rigging to target sailors and especially officers on the ememy ships. This was how Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgur. In the 20th century, the U.S. Marines reinvented themselves as amphibious landing troops. Several countries organized similar marine units. The best known is the U.S. Marine Corps. The U.S. Marines played a key part in the American offensive on the Western Front during World War I. This was primarily because the U.S. Army was so unprepared for the War. The largely green First Marine Division launched the first American offensive of the War when they landed on Guadalcanal in the Solomons (August 1942). This was months before the Japanese thought an American offensive possible. The Marines went on to play a primary role in the American Central Pacific campaign. The British and Japanese also had marine units. Thdey were elite fighting frces, but neither playdd such an important part in the War.

Mountain (Ski) Units

Montain (ski) units were organized by the Americans and Germans. Finnish ski soldiers played an important role in the Winter war (1939-41). An American Mountain Division played an important role in Italy (1944). Red Army units of course led two massive winter offensives against the Germans. Ski troops were involved, but I do not know if they had actual mountain divisions.

Rangers

The U.S. Army Rangers were the American version of the British Comandos. They were a World war II innovation, although there were historical roots. The U.S. Army Rangers actually predate the United States as an independent country. Capt. Benjamin Church and Maj. Robert Rogers both formed Ranger units while America was still English colonies. to fight during the King Phillips War and the French and Indian War (1756-63). Maj. Robert Rogers wrote the 19 standing orders that are still in use today. There were specialized units in subsequent U.S. wars. The idea, however, had been dicarded by the ime of World war I. Impressed by the British Comandosx, U.S. Army commanders decided to form a Ranger force. It would play an important part in the U.S. Army operations in the European theater. After Pearl Harbor as American forces began arriving in Britain, commanders noted the British Comandos. Gen. Lician K. Truscott decied that the United States should have its own commando force and because of the American historical experience decided to call them rangers. He chose Maj. William O. Darby to head the first Ranger Battalion. The unit was established un Northern Ireland where many of the first Americans to reach Britain were garisoned. One historian writes, "[Top Sergeant] Burns then assumed his familiar belligerent stance and said ... 'I have a letterv herecfrom higher H.Q. whichvstates that all men all men of excellent physical condition among the troops stationed here in North Ireland may apply for service in a new tyoe of combat unit to be formed along the lines of the British Commandis. It also says that this outfit requires a high type of soldier with excellent character who is mot adverse to seeing dangerous action. All volunteers must be athletically inclined, have good wind and abd stamina, be good swimmers and menbtally adapted for making quick decisions in the face of undoreseen circumstances.'" [Altieri] The Rangers would be subjected to greling training in Scotland. They would gonon to play key roles in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. A separate, but related operation in the CBI, Merrils Maurauders would ppt an imporant role in Burma.

Submarine Commandos

There were also submarine commandos. These were men who manned the midget submarines. The Japanese deployed midget submarines at Pearl Harbor (1941). The Italians achieved some success with manned torpdoes. Neither had a major impact on the War. The U.S. Submarine Service, however, played a central role in the Pacific War.

Sources

Altieri, James. The Spearheaders: A Personal History of Darby's Rangers (2014), 344p.

O'Donnell, Patrick K. Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc--The Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day's Toughest Missionand Led the Way Across Europe (2012), 288p.






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Created: 12:01 AM 4/24/2009
Last updated: 3:37 AM 10/24/2014