Airborne Landing to Air Assault: A History of Military Parachuting by Nikolaos Theotokis

Published by Pen & Sword Books LTD, available from Casemate Publishers

Nikolaos Theotokis’ Airborne Landing to Air Assault traces the evolution of military parachuting from a novelty akin to aerial barnstorming, through the use of the parachutes by pilots escaping damaged aircraft to vertical envelopment as an accepted practice for delivering combat power to the battlefield. Theotokis delivers a comprehensive study that looks how a variety of countries solved the problems presented by aerial delivery of troops and material into combat. He begins his examination of the origins of parachuting just prior to the start of the First World War, making the reasonable argument that practical military parachuting requires jumping from a motorized aircraft and crediting United States Army captain Albert Berry with being the first soldier to do so. From this beginning, Theotokis analyses the use of the parachute throughout the wars of the twentieth century through to the present day.

Despite the book’s scope, the author devotes the lion’s share of his effort to parachuting during the Second World War. This only makes sense as every major combatant fielded airborne forces, and these units went on to gain near legendary status of elite combat forces in almost every theater of the conflict. Theotokis begins by examining the development of airborne organizations and doctrine by what he terms “the four pioneer nations” (the Soviet Union, Italy, France, and the United States) during the interwar period, before turning to a more thorough discussion of German and British attempts to establish their own parachute capabilities. Both Germany and Britain receive their own chapters discussing how they raised and equipped their airborne formations as well as their early combat performances. Theotokis does mention the British effort to raise a specialized Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR), but does not go into detail, with no discussion of the selection and training of glider pilots. This is understandable, given the book’s focus on military parachuting, however the author missed an opportunity to address the fact that the GPR underwent selection and training as rigorous in its own way as that of their counterparts in the parachute brigades.

The heart of the book is the author’s descriptions of Allied parachute operations in the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation. He follows the chronological deployment of British and American airborne forces in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Northwest Europe, providing brief but detailed descriptions of major combat operations. Of particular interest is Theotokis’ description of the 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry’s assault on the bridges across the Caen Canal and Orne River as part of the initial assault of the Normandy Invasion, 6 June 1944. He effectively illustrates how well-trained glider forces can achieve relative superiority over an enemy force through surprise and delivering an intact force onto the objective to mass combat power at the critical point. Without belaboring the point, Theotokis shows that glider-borne forces played a critical role as part of airborne formations during the initial hours of the D-Day operation.

Theotokis pays equal attention to the Pacific theater, recounting the combined operations of Brigadier Orde Wingate’s Special Force (the Chindits) transported by American gliders behind Japanese lines in Burma, and resupplied and supported by air for the duration of their operations. He pays equal attention to American parachute operations in New Guinea and the Philippines. Additional chapters on World War Two cover the use of parachute troops by special operations, the role of the parachute as a safety device for pilots and combat aircrews, and the development of airborne forces by other, smaller nations such Finland, Serbia, and Portugal among others.

The remainder of the book deals with airborne operations in the post-War Two era. This section of the book covers well-known conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam but pays equal attention to less often covered conflicts such as Indo-Pakistan Conflict and a variety of contingency and counterinsurgency operations in Africa, the Middle East, and in the Pacific region. Theotokis provides a comprehensive survey of the role of airborne and airmobile forces around the globe through the second half of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, however the breadth of the coverage makes it difficult for him to provide deep analysis of the causes of each crisis; tactics, techniques, and procedures of the combatants; or the personalities of commanders and their troops. Rather, he provides precise descriptions of the combat actions with little broader context.

Theotokis’ best writing is found in the chapters on the development of early parachute formations prior to and in the beginning of World War Two. His treatment of the establishment of parachute units at a time when most people had never stepped foot on an airplane gets to the heart of the discussion of why these forces became elite units. Arriving to battle via parachute or glider was a new unknown challenge requiring a special daring, and Theotokis describes how this spirit contributed to a reputation for toughness and bravery that airborne soldiers subsequently earned in combat.

The book contains a decent collection of black and white photographs that primarily focus on World War Two, with some illustrations of post-war operations. An excellent bibliography and endnotes compliment the text; however, the book suffers from a lack of maps. While the scope of the book precludes including detailed maps of every combat action covered, a section of maps that provided at least a basic orientation to each conflict area would aid the reader tremendously. Readers who wish to understand the terrain are advised to keep an atlas close by.

Airborne Landing to Air Assault succeeds in its goal to provide an history of military parachuting, and Nikolaos Theotokis is the right author to deliver such a history. He is both a former Greek paratrooper and an experienced conflict journalist. He combines his practical knowledge and his skill as a writer to present a professional survey of world-wide military airborne operations over the last one hundred years. Airborne Landing to Air Assault is worth reading for anyone with an interest in the history of combat paratroopers.

Book review by Ben Powers


Readability- four stars

Historical Accuracy- five stars

Historical Value- four stars

Details- five stars

Overall Rating – four and a half stars

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