The British Air Landing Battalion, circa 1943 to 1945
Of all the many units deployed by the British Army during the Second World War (and there were many), the Air Landing Battalion is to me the most ambiguous. The truth is that none of the six Air Landing Battalions deployed by either 1st or 6th Airborne Divisions ever saw combat in the exact format prescribed by the War Establishment. Airborne forces regularly had to alter their organisation to meet the circumstance of the next operation, and it happens that the Air Landing troops were among the most active in so doing.
The Air Landing Battalion, circa 1943 to 1945
Battalion Headquarters (5 Officers, 30 men)
Support Company (11 Officers, 187 men), comprised of;
Company HQ (1 Officer, 5 men)
Signal Platoon (1 Officer, 36 men)
Mortar Platoon (1 Officer, 24 men)
Reconnaissance Platoon (5 Officers, 31 men)
Pioneer Platoon (1 Officer, 14 men)
Transport Platoon (1 Officer, 25 men)
Administrative Platoon (1 Officer, 52 men)
Four Rifle Companies (6 Officers, 121 men), each comprised of;
Company HQ (2 Officers, 29 men)
Four Rifle Platoons, each comprised of;
Platoon HQ (1 Officer, 2 men)
Three Rifle Sections, each comprised of 7 men
Anti-aircraft & Anti-tank Company (6 Officers, 117 men)
Company HQ (2 Officers, 11 men)
Two Anti-aircraft Platoons, each (1 Officer, 26 men)
Two Anti-tank Platoons, each (1 Officer, 27 men)
Total Strength of 864 all ranks (47 Officers and 817 men)
Points of note
The Air Landing Battalion packed a far heavier punch than its counterpart the Parachute Battalion, the use of gliders allowing anti-tank guns and Jeeps to be brought in with the troops.
The elements of the Battalion
Battalion Headquarters - served the same function as in the Parachute Battalion with the addition of a Loading Officer. His task was to divide the elements of the Battalion among the gliders in such a way as to ensure that the loss of a particular ship would not wipe out an entire sub-unit such as a Mortar or Anti-tank Platoon. Anywhere from two to four Universal Carriers are also mentioned for some units in Market Garden, either deployed by Battalion HQ or with the Mortar Group.
Signals Platoon - as always responsible for maintaining communications throughout the Battalion and with other units.
Mortar Platoon - the original Mortar Platoon served four 3-inch weapons, additional to those found in the Rifle Companies. Sometime during 1944, the Battalion heavily reorganised its mortar firepower. The twelve 3-inch tubes were concentrated into a Mortar Group, split into two Platoons of six each. In at least one unit the first Platoon of the Group was Jeep borne, while the second was equipped with hand carts.
Reconnaissance Platoon - the Recce Platoon was intended to operate principally using motorcycles and combinations. Increasingly though, Jeeps became the preferred transport, allowing the addition of Vickers machine guns to increase firepower. The presumed organisation was for a HQ with two Officers and three Sections, each with a Subaltern and eight men. The Signal Platoon provided a number of men to operate the Platoon radio equipment. 1st Air Landing Brigade appears to have deleted the Reconnaissance Platoons from its three Battalions for the operation in Arnhem in September 1944.
Pioneer Platoon - a reduced strength version of the unit found in the Infantry Battalion.
Transport Platoon - interestingly, the Air Landing Battalion separated out its transport personnel from the administrative. The Transport Platoon formed part of the so called 'Seaborne Tail', whose personnel, while needed to maintain the Battalion at home did not travel with it into combat.
Administrative Platoon - again, the various attached personnel plus clerks and others.
Anti-aircraft Platoon - this is one of the more extreme cases of paper organisations not being reflected in reality. It was intended the British Army would use large numbers of 20-mm cannon which could serve in either the AA or even anti-tank role. The Hispano was the weapon chosen for the Air Landing Battalion.
In fact, the units never took the 20-mm into action. Its use as an anti-tank weapon was already in serious question by 1943, and there were also supply problems. As a result, instead of 20-mm guns, Air Landing Battalions fielded eight Vickers medium machine guns, a far more reliable and useful asset. They were initially deployed as a single Platoon, before being renamed a Group and split into two Platoons of four guns each.
Anti-tank Platoon - the Anti-tank Platoons, of which there were two, each served four 6-pdr guns towed by Jeeps. The airborne gun was lightened and reduced in dimensions to allow it to fit into the confines of a glider. In keeping with the other fire support units, the two Platoons were paired into an Anti-tank Group in 1944, still serving a total of eight guns.
The Rifle Company - the Rifle Companies were subject to the same amendments from the authorised establishments as the support platoons detailed above.
Each Company fielded four Rifle Platoons, to allow for casualties incurred during landings. Officially, Platoon HQ consisted of an Officer, Sergeant, batman, and a two man team for the 2-inch mortar. The Officer and batman carried Stens, the Sergeant and one mortarman rifles, the mortar gunner a pistol. There were then two seven man Rifle Sections, and one smaller five man Rifle Section. Each Section was commanded by a Corporal, and had a Bren gun. The smaller five man Section was issued with two sniper rifles, perhaps in an attempt to offset its reduced strength. Each Section commander had a Sten, the Bren gunner a pistol, all other rifles.
The Rifle Platoon was carried into action in a single Horsa glider, which could seat twenty five men plus two pilots. Later versions of the Horsa could add two more men using a ‘pigtail’ harness in lieu of a seat. Where available, this allowed a Platoon to take two extra riflemen from the Battalion’s first reinforcements, who could make up the deficiencies of the third Rifle Section. One attached medic or signaller would take the spare seat.
Company HQ initially had quite a powerful fire support element, in the shape of two 3-inch mortars and a pair of Bren guns mounted on sustained fire tripods. The mortars were withdrawn with the formation of the Mortar Group mentioned previously, the fate of the Bren guns is less certain.
There are endless unanswered questions concerning the Air Landing Battalion. It underwent numerous transformations, especially with support weapons. Also, the necessity of dividing personnel and equipment up among gliders in such as way as to ensure that key elements would not be lost in a crash complicated organisation even further.
Realistically speaking, it is impossible to offer anything more than a broad description of the Air Landing Battalion. It was a unique unit and seemed to undergo a metamorphosis prior to each new deployment. I would imagine the actual mixture of individual weapons varied just as much within its Rifle Platoons as in the Parachute Battalion. It would be nice to offer something a little more concrete, but hopefully the organisation outlined above will offer some help. For anyone resolute enough to delve even further into the subject, copies of 'When Dragons flew' and 'Off at last' offer several examples of the variations found in unit organisation.
The British Army
The British Infantry Battalion
British Divisional Organisations