Firepower From The Sky: Guns Of
World War II Paratroopers
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino
World War II was the first conflict in which parachute troops were used. Germany, Great Britain, Japan and the United States all employed paratroopers to one extent or the other. The first truly large-scale assault by paras in WWII was by Germany. That was when their Fallschirmjäger dropped from tri-motor JU-52’s over the island of Crete in May 1941. The last big parachute drop was made by British and American troops during the push to cross the Rhine in March 1945. The Soviets actually pioneered dropping soldiers from airplanes, but no specific details as to their arms or missions have turned up in my research — yet.
Jumping from airplanes meant paratroopers could not carry much in the way of heavy weaponry. So each country’s military organizations developed their own doctrines about what arms these elite fighting men would carry when they dropped into combat. As we will see shortly, some standard infantry weapons were altered specifically for airborne units. Others were exactly the same as those carried by conventional infantrymen.
Let’s take rifles first. With some minor exceptions, rank and file paratroopers regardless of nationality carried the same full-size rifle with which their country’s infantry were armed. In the case of Germany it was the K98k. For the United States the rifle was the M1 Garand and the Brits had their No. 4 Mk1. Those rifles were chambered for 8x57mm, .30-06 and .303 British respectively. Of the three, only the M1 can be disassembled without at least a screwdriver. That led American airborne doctrine to decree the M1 be packed in a jump bag in three component parts and reassembled after landing, although many paratroopers chose to jump with their M1’s assembled and ready for use.
When the 82nd and 101st US airborne divisions were dropped into Normandy on June 6, 1944, some paratroopers carried US Model 1903 or US Model 1903A3/A4 bolt-action rifles. If scoped A4 versions, they were issued to designated snipers. However, most of the bolt actions sent with Americans on the Normandy night jump were there because no suitable grenade launcher was yet available for the semi-auto M1 Garand.
As far as my research has shown, only Japan altered their standard infantry rifle into a specialized version for paratroopers. That was the Type 99 7.7mm of which a takedown model was developed. The two halves were connected by means of a simple tapered pin. German paratroopers also had the select-fire 8mm FG42, which is so rare today samples cost tens of thousands of dollars. FG42’s are perhaps the only WWII rifle I’ve never laid eyes on.
American, British and German parachute troops carried more submachine guns
into combat than standard infantry units. These were four of the most common:
the US M1 Thompson and M3 “Grease Gun” (left, top to bottom) both in .45 ACP;
the German MP40 and British MkII STEN gun (right, top to bottom) are both in 9mm.
The standard rifle for British paratroopers was the No. 4 Mk1 (top) but Duke
has read — but is unable to fully verify — that Polish paratroopers fighting
for the Allies were issued No. 5 “Jungle Carbines” (bottom).
As far as Duke has been able to discern, only the United States issued a specific
carbine to parachute units. At top is standard M1 .30 Carbine. At bottom is the
M1A1 folding-stock version made for paratroops.
The definition of carbine is “a short rifle.” You might think that carbines would be considered ideal for troops worrying about every extra pound of equipment. That said, only the United States developed a special paratrooper carbine. It was nothing more than a standard M1 .30 Carbine barreled action dropped into a heavy wire, skeleton-type folding stock with pistol grip. As such it was designated M1A1 (Model One, Alteration One). With stocks folded, M1A1’s measure 26 inches long (36 inches with stocks extended). Weight is a mere 5-1/2 pounds. Their cartridge was the small .30 Carbine, which propelled a 110-grain bullet at about 1,980 fps. Its lack of stopping power was somewhat compensated by 15-round magazines.
Here are a couple of “maybes” in regards to WWII paratroopers and carbines. In my research I’ve seen references to German airborne troops being issued with G33/40 8x57mm carbines. Those were slightly lighter and shorter versions of the basic Mauser Model 98 but were developed for Gebirgstruppen (mountain troops). But I can’t confirm G33/40’s were ever issued to Fallschirmjäger units. The same applies to British .303 No. 5’s (often called “Jungle Carbines”). I’ve read the Brits gave them to Polish paratroopers fighting with the Allies, but again I can’t verify it.
With American, British and German airborne troops, submachine guns were very popular. Airborne units had to drop their full-size machine guns in canisters because they were too heavy to be carried by one paratrooper. Therefore, they tried to make up for any initial shortage of firepower by issuing far more SMG’s than were given to infantry formations. The Germans favored their MP38/MP40 9mm designs. These were full-auto only, made of all metal or synthetic materials (no wood) with 32-round magazines. At about 8 pounds, they were also light by contemporary SMG standards.
At the other end of the weight spectrum were American Thompson SMG’s. They weighed from 11 to 13 pounds (loaded) depending upon the exact model and magazine capacity. Early versions were the Model 1928 and Model 1928A1. However, by 1944 most in use were the M1 and M1A1 versions, easily discernible from each other by the rear sight. The A1 model had steel “wings” on either side of the rear sight, whereas the earlier M1 version had only the rear sight sitting atop the frame. All Thompson SMG’s were select fire types with a wooden buttstock and either a horizontal or vertical wooden foregrip.
American paratroopers were likely to have .45 ACP handguns to accompany
their Thompsons and Grease Guns. They included the (A) S&W Model 1917
revolver and (B) Model 1911 as well as the (C) Colt Model 1917 revolver
and (D) Model 1911A1.
Imperial Japanese Army paratroopers carried either Type 14 pistols (above)
or Type 94’s (below), along with Type 91 hand grenades. Officers often carried
swords. For an issue pistol, the Imperial Japanese Navy paratroopers only
had Type 94’s.
Arguably the best SMG for airborne troops was the British STEN Mk II 9mm. It could be disassembled into three parts in seconds and weighed only 6 pounds. It was crudely made, without the slightest hint of aesthetic consideration, but was accurate enough for an SMG. Plus, it could be manufactured in enormous numbers and its cost per unit was a fraction of comparable American or German SMG’s.
When the American paratroopers dropped into Normandy, some were carrying a brand-new SMG — the .45 ACP M3 “Grease Gun.” Its design and method of manufacture was obviously inspired by the British STEN Mk II, although the M3 was 2 pounds heavier and lacked the STEN’s quick-takedown features.
Among WWII combat troops of all nations, paratroopers likely felt the need for handguns most. That’s because when they landed, even if things went perfectly, they were completely helpless until they could get their shoulder-fired weapon ready. When things didn’t go perfectly — say when the paratrooper ended up hanging in a tree or tangled in their parachute harness — the only object perhaps more precious than a handgun was a sharp knife with which they could cut themselves free.
In Gene Eric Salecker’s Blossoming Silk Against the Rising Sun, the author details at least two instances of 11th Airborne Division paratroopers saving themselves during their 1945 drop onto Corregidor. Both were still in their harnesses when charged by Japanese soldiers with bayoneted rifles. In both cases the paratroopers used their Model 1911A1 .45’s to kill their assailants.
If issued a handgun, most American paratroopers would have carried the aforementioned 1911A1 or possibly retread Model 1917 .45 revolvers by Smith & Wesson or Colt. If they weren’t officially issued a handgun, American paratroopers were fairly crafty about acquiring them otherwise. WWII oral histories speak of many civilian pistols and revolvers shipped (illegally) by family members to their airborne sons and brothers.
For D-Day, American paratroopers were heavily weighted with
equipment, which often included the Thompson M1 SMG.
By 1943 German Fallschirmjägers were issued the select-fire FG42,
although they never dropped with one. Note this trooper also has
the bandolier holding eight 20-round magazines around his neck.
Photo: Rock Island Auctions
Also in Salecker’s book I found out about Japanese Imperial Army and Imperial Navy airborne troops, the latter being part of the Special Naval Landing Forces. Their doctrine called for each paratrooper to jump armed with only handguns and grenades, with shoulder fired weapons simultaneously dropped in padded canisters. Japanese paratroopers were supposed to fight their way to the canisters and retrieve their heavier weapons. For pistols, the Japanese issued both the Type 14 and Type 94 chambered in 8mm Nambu. The airborne rikusentai (SNLF troops) were only given Type 94’s, according to Salecker.
Although the handguns most often identified with the British were revolvers, they did acquire some 9mm pistols for special units such as commandos and paratroopers. Those were Browning Model 1935 Hi-Powers, but not ones made in Belgium by FN. Instead, a Canadian firm, the John Inglis Company, reverse engineered Browning’s P35 design. The 13-round magazine capacity was likely a great comfort to many British airborne troops. To the best of my knowledge, of all the weapons I’ve mentioned, only the Browning Model 1935’s are still in use by military organizations.
Of course, Germany likewise used 9mm pistols and readers could be excused for thinking that Fallschirmjägers carried both P38’s and P08’s (Lugers). But although the P38 was adopted to replace the Luger as far as the German Army was concerned, German paratroop units were part of the Luftwaffe, which kept the Luger as their standard handgun until the end of the war.
WWII proved massive assaults by parachutists were not practical and the world probably will never see such tactics again. Instead, highly trained special forces-types are the paratroopers of the 21st century, and they carry specialized weapons far different from those carried by airborne forces in the 1940’s.
Looking For More?