Fallschirmjägers – Paratroopers – Green Devils

The Fallschirmjäger were the paratrooper (German:Fallschirmjäger) branch of the German Luftwaffe before and during World War II. They played an important role during World War II, when, together with the Gebirgsjäger they were perceived as the elite infantry units of the German military. After World War II, they were reconstituted as parts of postwar armed forces of both West and East Germany, mainly as special ops troops. They were the first German paratroopers to be committed in large-scale airborne operations and came to be known as the “green devils” by the Allied forces they fought against. Throughout World War II the Fallschirmjäger commander was Kurt Student.

German Luftwaffe “Fallschirmjäger” Paratrooper’s badge issued in 1936.

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Pre-War History

During the interwar years the rapid development of aircraft and aviation technology drew the attention of imaginative military planners. The idea of inserting a large body of troops inside enemy territory was first proposed during World War I by commander of the U.S. Air Corps in France—Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. However the Allied High Command was forced to abandon the idea as it was wholly unprepared for such an undertaking, both logistically and in materiel. Among the first to recognize the potential of airborne forces were Italy and the Soviet Union. The first effective means of supporting massed infantry airborne operations came with the development of the static-line parachute in Italy in the 1920s, whereby parachutes are attached to the inside of the aircraft and deployed automatically upon departure. This technique allowed the jumps to occur at lower altitudes, limiting exposure to enemy fire, and providing a tighter drop zone grouping than individually deployed rip-cord type parachutes. The word Fallschirmjäger is from the German Fallschirm “parachute” and Jäger “hunter”, the elite light infantry of the Prussian army.

The Soviets were the first to demonstrate the military possibilities of airborne infantry in the 1930s with a series of maneuvers held in 1935 and 1936. Though somewhat crude the Soviet paratroopers had to exit their slow-moving Tupolev TB-3 transporters through a hatch in the roof and then position themselves along the wings and jump together, the exercise managed to land 1,000 troops through air-drops followed by another 2,500 soldiers with heavy equipment delivered via air landings. The gathered forces proceeded to carry out conventional infantry attacks with the support of heavy machine guns and light artillery. Among the foreign observers present was Hermann Göring.

Impressed, the ambitious Göring became personally committed to the creation of Germany’s airborne arm in the 1930s. As the Prussian Prime Minister of the Interior, he had ordered the formation of a specialist police unit in 1933, the Polizeiabteilung Wecke, devoted to protecting Nazi party officials. The organization of this unit was entrusted to Polizeimajor Walther Wecke of the Prussian Police Force, who had assembled a special detachment of 14 officers and 400 men within just two days. On 17 July, the detachment was officially renamed Landespolizeigruppe Wecke. On 22 December 1933, the unit was again retitled, becoming the Landespolizeigruppe General Göring. The unit carried out conventional police duties for the next two years under the command of Göring’s ministerial adjutant Friedrich Jakoby, but it was Göring’s intention to ultimately produce a unit that would match the Reichswehr.

In March–April 1935, Göring transformed the Landespolizei General Göring into Germany’s first dedicated airborne regiment, giving it the military designation Regiment General Göring (RGG) on 1 April 1935 after Hitler introduced conscription on 16 March 1935. The unit was incorporated into the newly formed Luftwaffe on October 1 of the same year and training commenced at Altengrabow. Göring also ordered that a group of volunteers be drawn for parachute training. These volunteers would form a core Fallschirmschützen Bataillon (“parachute soldiers battalion”), a cadre for future Fallschirmtruppe (“parachute troops”). In January 1936, 600 men and officers formed the 1st Jäger Battalion/RGG, commanded by Bruno Bräuer, and the 15th Engineer Company/RGG and were transferred to training area Döberitz for jump training while the rest of the regiment was sent to Altengrabow. Germany’s parachute arm was officially inaugurated on 29 January 1936 with an Order of the Day calling for recruits for parachute training at the Stendal Parachute Training School located 96 km (60 mi) west of Berlin. The school was activated several months after the first parachute units were established in January 1936 and was open to active and reserve Luftwaffe personnel. NCOs, officers and other ranks of the Luftwaffe were required to successfully complete six jumps in order to receive the Luftwaffe Parachutist’s Badge instituted on 5 November 1936.

Formation

The 1st Parachute Division was formed pre-war in 1938. The division existed as a fighting unit until the German surrender in Italy of 2 May 1945, one week before the end of World War II in Europe. The 2nd Parachute Division was formed in early 1943 and fought in Ukraine in late 1943. In 1944, the division fought in western France. In one engagement, the 6th Regiment fought against paratroopers of the United States 101st Airborne Division in the Battle of Carentan and around Saint Lo. The majority of the division was then cut off and surrounded in Brest during the German retreat from France, resulting in the Battle for Brest, that lasted until September 1944.

The 3rd and 4th Fallschirmjäger divisions were formed in late 1943. The 4th also contained Italian paratroopers from the 184th Airborne Division Nembo. The 3rd fought during the Normandy Campaign; it was destroyed in the Falaise Pocket in August 1944. It was then reformed and took part the Battle of Arnhem, surrendering to US troops in April 1945. The 4th fought exclusively on the Italian front including the Battle of Anzio, Rome and on the Gothic Line. It surrendered to Allied forces in April 1945.

The 5th, 6th and 7th Fallschirmjäger were formed in 1944 in France and fought on the western front as regular infantry. The 5th was destroyed in the Ruhr Pocket in April 1945, the 6th and 7th surrendered at the war’s end in May. These units were among the last to be raised that were at least partially trained as or composed of paratroopers in the German Army during the Second World War, as by late 1944 there were no available personnel left to train potential recruits.

The 8th, 9th and 10th were Fallschirmjäger by name only, as they were rush formed in 1945 from a disparate collection of Luftwaffe units, including ground crews. Under-trained and mostly ill-prepared for combat, they fought on the rapidly collapsing Eastern Front, including within Germany. The 8th fought in the Netherlands before being destroyed in the Ruhr Pocket. The 9th fought in the Battle of the Seelow Heights and in the Battle of Berlin before being destroyed in April 1945, the 10th surrendered to Soviet forces in May 1945.

A Fallschirmjäger mortar crew firing the 8 cm Granatwerfer 42 “Stummelwerfer”.

World War II

1940

During the German invasion of Poland in 1939 the Fallschirmjäger were sent to occupy several airfields between the Vistula and Bug rivers.

The first opposed airborne attacks occurred during the Norwegian Campaign, first during the initial invasion when Fallschirmjäger captured the defended air base of Sola, near Stavanger. The Fallschirmjäger also had their first defeat in Norway, when a company was dropped on the village and railroad junction of Dombås on 14 April 1940 and was destroyed by the Norwegian Army in a five-day battle.

On 10 May 1940, the Fallschirmjäger performed a successful raid on the most powerful fortification in the world known as Eben Emael. Eben Emael consisted of multiple gun emplacements and was manned by 1,200 Belgian troops. There are few better representations by elite troops and everything was cutting edge from tactics to method of deployment. The Fallschirmjäger attacked the artillery casements and pillboxes with flame throwers, demolition charges, and hollow charge grenades. The mission was accomplished by Sturmgruppe Granit (Assault Group Granite), which consisted of only 85 soldiers. Despite being at both a numerical and firepower disadvantage it took the Fallschirmjäger only hours to take control of the fort. The training and courage of the Fallschirmjäger became evident.

Burning German Junkers Ju 52s at Ypenburg, Netherlands in 1940.

During the invasion of the Netherlands over 2,000 troops of the 7th Air Division were deployed, while approximately 12,000 troops of the 22nd Airlanding Division also participated. The Fallschirmjäger successfully captured bridges at Moerdijk and Dordrecht. The Fallschirmjäger suffered heavy casualties while taking Dordrecht. The German paratroopers also captured airfields at Valkenburg, Ockenburg, Waalhaven, and Ypenburg. Yet, the Germans failed to capture Hague and force the Dutch to surrender. The performance of the Fallschirmjäger in the Netherlands was mixed as far as efficiency was concerned. The 22nd Airlanding Division was forced to land many of its aircraft on exposed motorways because the 7th Air Division had failed to secure designated airfields. Most aircraft ended up being shot up by Dutch infantry and artillery fire. The Fallschirmjäger did cause considerable disruption behind Dutch lines.

Fallschirmjäger landing on Crete in 1941.

1941

The German invasion of Crete, in May 1941, stands as possibly the defining moment for the Fallschirmjäger during World War Two. The German airborne forces would perform its last strategic parachute and glider performance of the war. The Fallschirmjäger captured a critical bridge that crossed the canal in the Isthmus of Corinth so German forces could pursue Allied forces further in the Greek mainland. The operation did not go smoothly due to heavy enemy ground fire. Demolition charges were also accidentally detonated, due to carelessness, leading to damage to the bridge and heavy casualties. One group of paratroopers were accidentally dropped into the sea where they all drowned. The Fallschirmjäger did manage to capture British anti aircraft positions which forced the surrender of the local town. 12,000 Commonwealth and Greek troops were also captured. The Fallschirmjäger suffered 63 killed and 174 wounded. The Fallschirmjäger would suffer further heavy losses during the Battle of Crete especially during Operation Merkur which would be the end of large scale airborne and glider operations for the Fallschirmjäger. The Germans used 22,000 airborne soldiers, but in only nine days 3,250 of them were killed or missing with another 3,400 wounded. It was said that Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler was horrified at these losses incurred and that he would no longer sanction large scale airborne operations.

Fallschirmjäger paratroopers at Kondomari, Crete confronting Cretan Greek villagers.

During the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Parachute Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the Luftlande-Sturmregiment (Airlanding Assault Regiment) were assigned to the Army Group North’s 18th Army where they would conduct operations in the Leningrad area. The Fallschirmjäger were specifically deployed to the east of Leningrad on the River Neva to confront a Red Army effort to relieve the city. In October 1941, the German paratroopers were involved in heavy fighting against the Soviets and were successful in holding off Soviet attacks.

Late 1941 into 1942

From late October 1941 until 4 July 1942, the 22nd Airlanding Division participated in the Siege of Sevastopol. The Fallschirmjäger overran most of the Soviet 79th Naval Infantry Brigade during combat operations. The Soviet unit tried counterattacking on 10 June, but was repulsed. The Soviet formation was effectively destroyed, with the support of the Luftwaffe, which used anti-personnel bombs against Soviet infantry caught in the open.

The 2nd Parachute Regiment, an Assault Regiment Battalion, and Antitank and Machine Gun Battalions were sent to conduct operations in the Ukraine. They would be assigned to Army Group South. This force would be known as Kampfgruppe Sturm commanded by Oberst Alfred Sturm. The Fallschirmjäger suffered heavy casualties while defending a sector along the River Mius around the town of Charzysk during the winter of 1941 and into early 1942.

Fallschirmjäger of the PK XI Flying Corps carrying a MG 42 machine gun in the Soviet Union in 1942.

1942

In July 1942, the Ramcke Parachute Brigade was deployed to North Africa to assist the Axis war effort there. In late October the Brigade participated in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. The Brigade successfully captured a British supply column with provided it with some trucks and much needed supplies.

Between November and December 1942, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 5th Parachute Regiment were flown into Tunisia to protect its airfields and take up defensive positions around the city of Koch during the Allied Operation Torch. It was followed closely by the 11th Parachute Pioneer Battalion under the command of Major Rudolf Witzig. It had the strength of 716 men. It took up defensive positions west of Tunis where it had a series of battles with the advance guard of the Allied spearhead. Parts of the unit has received special training in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. This intelligence led to the last parachute drop in North Africa. The operation ended up a major failure do to mostly inexperienced and poorly trained pilots. The Fallschirmjäger were dropped too far from their targets. The paras never made it to their targets because many were captured by British patrols as they landed.

On 26 December 1942, the men of Parachute Company of the Brandenburg Regiment were transported by gliders in an operation to destroy bridges and supply routes used by the British.  It too was a disaster. Some of the gliders were shot down while flying over enemy lines while others were destroyed while approaching their targets. Most of the paras were killed in the operation.

1943

In March 1943, the Fallschirmjäger of the 3rd Battalion of the 4th Regiment, 7th Airborne Division defended a hill at Lushi on the Eastern Front. They were reinforced by paras from 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Regiment. Between 20-27 March these two battalions held off two complete Soviet divisions.

In May 1943, what was left of Fallschirmjäger units in North Africa had been captured by Allied forces. The Fallschirmjäger commanders were flown out of North Africa and managed to escape captivity.

On 12 September 1943, the Fallschirmjäger conducted a successful rescue mission of Italian Prime minister Benito Mussolini at the Gran Sasso. It is known as the Gran Sasso raid. The operation received wide acclaim despite there being very little enemy resistance during the operation. Only two enemy soldiers died during the operation. The primary unit responsible for the success of the mission was Fallschirmjäger Lehr Batallion. It was considered elite of the elite and named for security reasons 1./FJR7. It was under the command of Major Harald Mors. General Kurt Student played a major role in the planning of the operation. The operation ended up being controversial due to Waffen SS legend Otto Skorzeny also participating in the operation. Skorzeny and his participating 26 Waffen SS troops managed to take much of the credit for the success of the operation despite the fact the 82 Fallschirmjäger soldiers played a more significant role during the operation.[70] Skorzeny received a promotion to Sturmbannführer, the award of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and fame that led to his “most dangerous man in Europe” image.

German paratroopers prepare to be flown to the Greek island of Leros in 1943.

During 26 September 1943 to 16 November 1943, the Fallschirmjäger participated in the Battle of Leros.

In October 1943, the Fallschirmjäger 22nd Airlanding Division participated in the Battle of Kos.

In November 1943, the 2nd Parachute Division was ordered to the Eastern Front where it took up position near the Russian held town of Zhitomir. The Red Army was to seize a communication centre there and destroy the entire German Southern wing. The Red Army’s primary aim was also to take Kiev. By December, the Red Army had massed a large force northeast of the city. The Fallschirmjäger managed to assist other German forces in plugging the gaps created by the Soviet advance.

On 15 December 1943, the 2nd Parachute Division was airlifted to Kirovograd and put on the front at Klinzy. It was supported by the 11th Panzer Division and the 286th Self Propelled Artillery Brigade. The Fallschirmjäger participated in fierce fighting around Novgorodka. By 23 December, the paratroopers stabilized the front but suffered heavy casualties.

1944

During 17 January – 18 May 1944, the Fallschirmjäger participated in the Battle of Monte Cassino. Allied Forces’ aim was a breakthrough to Rome. At the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Winter Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido-Gari, Liri and Garigliano valleys and some of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Together, these features formed the Gustav Line. Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia, dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys. Lying in a protected historic zone, it had been left unoccupied by the Germans. They had manned some positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey’s walls.

Repeated pinpoint artillery attacks on Allied assault troops caused their leaders to conclude the abbey was being used by the Germans as an observation post, at the least. Fears escalated along with casualties and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, it was marked for destruction. On 15 February, American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage. The raid failed to achieve its objective, as the Fallschirmjäger occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the ruins.

Between 17 January and 18 May, Monte Cassino and the Gustav defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops, the last involving twenty divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front. The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost. The capture of Monte Cassino resulted in 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses being far fewer, estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded.

In early January 1944, the Red Army conducted a new offensive against the 2nd Parachute Division. The Fallschirmjäger suffered heavy casualties. The 2nd Battalion of the 5th Regiment was destroyed. By 6 January 1944, The 7th, 5th, and 2nd Regiments had been forced to retreat from Novgorodka due to the efforts of the Red Army. The Paras dug in around Kirovograd. In March, the Red Army once again resumed operations against the 2nd Parachute Division. By the last week of the month the Red Army had forced the paras across the River Bug where they would establish defensive positions on the opposite bank. By May, the Red Army forced the Fallschirmjäger back to the River Dniester. The Fallschirmjäger had been decimated by the fighting and by the end of the month; the division was transferred back to Germany for refitting.

On 3 July 1944, the 2nd Parachute Corps battled the U.S. 1st Army at Coutances-Marigny-St. Lo. The Fallschirmjäger utilized the terrain of the so-called Bocage and the hedgerows to their advantage to negate American superiority in both firepower and quantity of troops. The Fallschirmjäger inflicted heavy casualties on American forces due mostly to tactical superiority and the terrain preventing the Americans from utilizing their armored forces.

On 11 July 1944 the 1st Battalion, 9th Parachute Regiment executed a successful attack on the U.S. 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment. Initially, the Americans would suffer the loss of their outposts mostly due to German artillery and mortar fire. The Americans held due to their artillery and air support, and the paras eventually were forced to retreat.

On 11 July 1944, the 3rd Parachute Division suffered heavy casualties while attempting to prevent American forces from capturing the city of St. Lo. The German 12th Parachute Gun Brigade, 3rd Parachute Reconnaissance Company, and 3rd Engineer Battalion all suffered heavy casualties mostly due to outstanding American artillery fire. The Paras would hold out until 27 July due to their great effort. German forces managed to inflict 11,000 casualties on its American opponents.

On 25 July 1944, the 21st Parachute Pioneer Battalion was positioned on the road between Dunaburg and Kovno in Lithuania. The Red Army attacked the Battalion the following day. The Battalion would be encircled and eventually destroyed. The unit would be disbanded and sent to other Fallschirmjäger units.

On 25 July 1944, the 2nd Parachute Division was involved in the defense of Brest against the American 7th Corps. American forces suffered 4,000 casualties in its effort to invest the port. Other elements of the 2nd Parachute Division were destroyed by American armored forces while on their way to assist the 5th Parachute Division at St. Malo. American forces captured Brest on 20 September 1944. What was left of the 2nd Parachute Corps was sent to Cologne after Falaise for rest and refitting. Heydte’s 6th Parachute Regiment went to Guestrow-Mecklenburg to form the foundation of a new regiment.

In September 1944, the 1st Parachute Corps fought in the Allied Offensive in Italy known as Operation Olive.

In September 1944, the 4th Parachute Division was defending positions at the Futa and 2 Giogo Passes when the U.S. 91st and 85th divisions mounted an attack. This was followed by six days of intense fighting. American forces succeeded in capturing the 2nd Giogo Pass, Monticelli Ridge, and Monte Altuzzo, in Italy, mostly due to the overwhelming firepower of American forces.

On 21 September 1944, British and Canadian forces were successful in overcoming defensive positions manned by the 1st Parachute Corps to capture Rimini.

On 13 October 1944, Axis forces which included the 4th Parachute Division manage to halt an Allied 2nd Corps’ advance south of Bologna, Italy.

1945

In April 1945, the 9th Parachute Division would be destroyed while trying to contain a Russian bridgehead on the west bank of the River Oder. What remained of the unit would be destroyed while trying to defend Berlin from the Red Army.

In April 1945, the 10th Parachute Division would be destroyed by the Red Army in Austria despite putting up a heroic effort. The division’s artillery battalion was destroyed in Feldbach by the Red Army. What remained of the unit would be destroyed north of Bruenn.

On 15 April 1945, 760 Allied bombers pounded the positions of 1st Parachute Corps and other Axis units in the Argenta Gap, Italy. The paratroopers continued to fight but by 18 April, the Axis forces wavered to the massive Allied ground and aerial onslaught.

In May 1945, the remaining paratroopers of the 1st and 4th Parachute Divisions surrendered in Italy along with the remaining Axis Forces. The Allied Forces had succeeded in driving Axis forces into the open where massive air support inflicted heavy casualties and material losses. The Axis campaign in Italy had ended in defeat.

List of Units

After mid-1944, Fallschirmjäger were no longer trained as paratroops due to Nazi Germany’s deteriorating strategic situation and fought as infantrymen. Near the end of the war, the series of new Fallschirmjäger divisions extended to thirteen on paper; the last three divisions to be created (11th, 20th and 21st) were never fully formed and saw no combat.

The elite 1st Parachute Division was formed pre-war in 1938. The division survived until the German surrender in Italy of 2 May 1945, one week before the End of World War II in Europe. The 2nd Parachute Division was formed in early 1943 and fought in Ukraine in late 1943. In 1944, the division fought in western France. In one engagement, the 6th Regiment fought against paratroopers of the United States 101st Airborne Division in the Battle of Carentan and around Saint Lo. The majority of the division was then cut off and surrounded in Brest during the German retreat from France, resulting in the Battle for Brest, that lasted till September 1944.

The 3rd and 4th Fallschirmjäger divisions were formed in late 1943, around a core of veterans from the 1st and 2nd. The 4th also contained Italian paratroopers from the 184th Airborne Division Nembo. Still receiving the first rate equipment and training of the earlier units, the 3rd and 4th divisions carved out an impressive battle record on, respectively, the Western Front and in Italy. The 3rd fought during the Normandy Campaign but was cut off and near destroyed in the Falaise Pocket in August 1944. It was then reformed and saw action during the Battle of Arnhem, eventually surrendering to US troops in April 1945. The 4th fought exclusively on the Italian front including the Battle of Anzio, Rome and on the Gothic Line. It surrendered to Allied forces in April 1945.

The 5th, 6th and 7th Fallschirmjäger were formed in 1944 in France and fought on the western front as regular infantry. The 5th was the last division to receive near full Fallschirmjäger training. Lacking the intensive training of the earlier units, the 6th and 7th had an overall mixed combat performance. The 5th was largely captured in the Ruhr Pocket in April 1945, the 6th and 7th surrendered at the wars end in May.

The 8th, 9th and 10th were Fallschirmjäger by name only, as they were rush formed in 1945 from a disparate collection of Luftwaffe units, including ground crews. Under-trained and mostly ill-prepared for combat, they fought on the rapididly collapsing Eastern Front, including within Germany. The 8th fought in the Netherlands before being destroyed in the Ruhr Pocket. The 9th fought in the Battle of the Seelow Heights and in the Battle of Berlin before being destroyed in April 1945, the 10th survived until their surrender to Soviet forces in May 1945.

Army and Corps
  • 1st Parachute Army
  • 1st Parachute Corps
  • 2nd Parachute Corps
Divisions
  • 1st Parachute Division
  • 2nd Parachute Division
  • 3rd Parachute Division
  • 4th Parachute Division
  • 5th Parachute Division
  • 6th Parachute Division
  • 7th Parachute Division
  • 8th Parachute Division
  • 9th Parachute Division
  • 10th Parachute Division
  • 11th Parachute Division
  • 20th Parachute Division
  • 21st Parachute Division
Independent Regiments and Brigades
  • Ramcke Parachute Brigade
  • Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment
  • Fallschirmjäger-Regiment Hübner, subordinated to the 8. Fallschirmjäger Division.
Other Fallschirmjäger Units
Waffen-SS
  • 500th SS Parachute Battalion
  • 600th SS Parachute Battalion
Army
  • Brandenburger Regiment
  • 22nd Air Landing Division
  • 91st Air Landing Division
Execution of rebellious Cretan Greek male civilians in Kondomari, Crete by Fallschirmjäger paratroopers in 1941.

War Crimes

During the German invasion of Crete, the Allied forces and Cretan irregulars inflicted heavy losses on the Wehrmacht. A reprisal was ordered to send a message to the Cretan population to not resist German occupation of the island. A select group of Fallschirmjäger were chosen carry out the civilian reprisal which was composed of four trucks full of German paratroopers from the III Battalion of Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment 1 commanded by Oberleutnant Horst Trebes. On 2 June 1941, the paratroopers arrived at the village of Kondomari and rounded up the male villagers and chose their victims. Between twenty-three to sixty men were killed in a firing squad while the women and children of the village watched as witnesses to the mass murder which came to be known as the Massacre of Kondomari. As a further reprisal against the Cretans the following day, the 1st Air Landing Assault Regiment of the Fallschirmjäger killed one hundred eighty inhabitants in the village of Kandanos and razed the village to the ground.

Postwar Influence

The World War II-era German Fallschirmjäger, Brandenburgers, and especially the 22nd Airlanding Division glider borne paras laid the foundation for modern day Air Assault operations which is the primary role of the present day United States 101st Airborne Division.

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