Unit History: Airborne Forces Development Centre
The idea of "Sky Soldiers" is by no means a recent thought; Benjamin Franklin envisioned a time when soldiers would be delivered from the sky, with a crude, rudimentary understanding of parachutes:
"Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, so that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?" -Benjamin Franklin, 1784
The first modern consideration of the use of what we now call a paratroop force dates back to 1918. Towards the end of World War I, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell suggested dropping elements of the United States 1st Infantry Division behind German lines near Metz. The operation was planned for February 1919 but the war ended before such an attack could be seriously planned. Mitchell conceived that US troops could be rapidly trained to utilise parachutes and drop from converted bombers and land near Metz thus causing disruption behind the enemy’s lines in sychronistaion with a planned infantry offensive.
The first true paratroop drop was carried out by Italy in November 1927. Within a few years several battalions had been raised and were eventually formed into the two elite Folgore and Nembo divisions. Although these would later fight with distinction in World War II, the divisions were never used in a parachute drop. Men drawn from the Italian parachute forces were dropped in a special forces operation in North Africa in 1943 in an attempt to destroy the aircraft of the USAAF based there while they are still on the ground.
At about the same time the Soviet Union was also experimenting with the idea, planning to eventually drop entire units complete with vehicles including light tanks. To train enough experienced jumpers, parachute clubs were set up all over Russia with the aim of being able to transfer skilled members (or at least the men) into the armed forces if needed. Planning and organization progressed to the point that Corps-size drops were demonstrated to foreign observers, including the British Military Attache Archibald Wavell, in the Kiev military district maneuvers of 1935. By the late 1930s, the USSR possessed the largest Airborne forces in the world, but development stagnated prior to WW2 as a result of the Great Purge.
One of the observing parties, Germany, was particularly interested. In 1936, Major F W Immans was ordered to set up a parachute school at Stendal (Borstel), and was allocated a number of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft to train on. The military had already purchased large numbers of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft which were now modified (slightly) for use as paratroop transports in addition to their other duties. The first training class was known as "Ausbildungskommando Immans", They commenced the first course on May 3rd, 1936.
Other nations, including Japan, France and Poland also organized airborne units around this time.