The story of how Soviet Russia first got the idea for parachute troops has not been told. Some observers have expressed surprise that this advanced military technique should first have been developed in an industrially backward nation. Why was it that with the exception of the German army, no other Western power appears to have appreciated the significance of this development until the success of Hitler's parachute troops showed how effective this new weapon could be?
Actually the early development of the parachute troop idea in Russia was a byproduct of quite another purpose the awakening of interest on the part of the youth in the Soviet Air Force. And it was activity in the United States that first planted the germ of the parachute troop idea in the mind of a Soviet military pilot. That man was my friend and colleague Sergei Mienov.
Although the Russians made good use of parachutes during the first World War, they had failed, in the midst of other problems, to develop this technique. Russian pilots were not well trained in parachute use and the manufacture of the 'chutes themselves had not progressed beyond the World War stage. There had been a number of serious accidents in our Air Force; the death rate among students, pilots and observers was higher in Russia than in other countries. Jakob Alksnis, the Chief of the Soviet Air Force, decided to send an observer to the United States to survey the work that Americans had done in the field of parachutes He selected Serge Mienov, a young, energetic captain in the Air Force.
Mienov stopped off in Paris on the way to the United States. We spent a few hours together. He was a little dubious as to how he would be received in America. How much would he be permitted to see? And even if the Americans would be cordial, was there much he could learn?
"Still," he said, "if there's anything new in parachuting, the Americans will have it."
He spent almost a year in the United States. On his way back to Russia he passed a few days in Paris. He was full of enthusiasm for what he had seen in the development of air technique. Although Russia was not yet officially recognized, Mienov had been courteously received. He had visited airplane factories, airdromes and training schools. He praised highly the quality of American parachutes and the instruction American pilots received in their use. He had made his first parachute jump here.
"But you know," he said, as we were seated in a Paris cafe, "I saw some things which were not so good. In order to make a living some Americans have to resort to pretty ingenious methods. Imagine, at a county fair I saw a man making parachute jumps for the amusement of the crowd. Here you have an object almost clinical in its purpose and it is used to give onlookers a thrill! Well, that is capitalist America; happily, in Russia where human energy is distributed by plan, a skilled airman does not have to make his living stunting at a county fair."
We were ready to go on to other topics of conversation, but Mienov stuck to the point, as if something puzzled him. "And yet," he said, "you should have seen the interest of the crowd. Such general excitement must have some value. It's worth thinking about."
When Mienov submitted the report of his US observations to Air Chief Alksnis, he mentioned the wide interest which parachute jumping could arouse. He suggested that the interest of the Soviet population, and particularly the young, could be turned toward the development of air power by this type of propaganda. Alksnis passed the comment on to the Politburo. Stalin agreed that it was a good idea. The wheels of the bureaucracy started to grind. Articles appeared in the Soviet press describing parachute jumping in glowing phrases. Parachute clubs were formed. Parachuters were given nationwide publicity. Youths lost in the anonymity of the mass discovered that they could get into the spotlight by participating in the new pastime that was open to all. Girls, as well as boys, joined the clubs.
The radio and the newspapers told of the exploits of the parachuters. Parachuting became for Russia what football and baseball are to the United States. Jumps were made under varying conditions at night, in winter, with military equipment, in companies. There were competitions in delayed yanking of the ripcord. Naturally there were accidents but they were lost sight of in the wave of enthusiasm that swept Soviet youth for the new sport. The radio would announce that Ivan Petrov, son of peasants who had come to Moscow to work, was returning home for a visit. He would not come by railroad or on foot, but he would drop at his father's door from the skies. Ivan's parachute jump to the village below was enough to keep the peasants talking for weeks on end.
The result was that thousands of young Soviet citizens became expert parachuters. Many of them developed a real interest in the airplane and were taken into the air force. This had been the chief reason for the propaganda campaign. Others in the course of their compulsory military service in the Red Army (a two-year period which begins at 18) joined the infantry. Generals discovered that in addition to the regular air arm that was attached to each division there were thousands in the infantry ranks who had had experience as parachute jumpers. It occurred to the military leaders to separate these parachute jumpers into detachments for special training. Thus the first parachute troops were born.
The Red strategists believed that revolution in the west was no longer possible by the spontaneous action of the workers. Revolution there would come, as it had come in Russia, through war. When it came, Soviet parachute troops dropping from the skies into the workers' centers behind the lines would organize the workers to fight in the rear of the capitalist armies. The parachute troops had, therefore, a very lofty mission; they formed a sort of elite in the army ranks.
In 1935 as senior officer of the Red Army reserve, I was recalled for periodic three months' training in General Staff work. Army maneuvers in which I assisted were conducted in the Western Ukraine. Military observers from a number of Western Powers were on hand. General Jonah Yakir was in charge of maneuvers which were attended by Marshals Voroshilov, Tukachevsky and a number of high ranking Soviet officers. From a platform built on top of a high outlook we watched the armies engaged in simulated battle.
The first use of parachute troops to capture a landing field for the landing of troop transports was deeply impressive. The entire operation took a matter of minutes. A whole brigade of 3,500 men with light tanks and artillery descended from the skies. All the foreign observers expressed their admiration at the development of this new tactic. It was clear to all that here was something of the greatest importance to military strategy. I am certain that no military observer failed to point out its significance to his government. Apparently the British and French High Commands ignored the development as a new-fangled gadget without real importance. Only the Reichswehr generals appreciated its meaning.
Hitler wasted no time in building a parachute army of his own. Applying German efficiency and organization technique to the idea taken from the Russians, he went far beyond the Soviet achievement in this field. Meanwhile, in his purge of the Red Army, Stalin liquidated the Soviet innovations along with the army leadership. The result was that the first attempt on the part of the Russians to use the parachute troops in the Finnish war was not successful. Instead of being welcomed by Finnish workers waiting to break the bonds of capitalism, the Soviet parachute troops, dropped behind the Finnish lines, were shot down by indignant Finns ready to defend themselves against the army of Soviet totalitarianism. The Germans, more skillful and better organized for this sort of war, had better luck. Everyone learned the deadly effectiveness of parachute troops during Hitler's campaign against Poland, the Low Countries and France.
But Americans did not know when they read the headlines telling of this new type of warfare that the idea of parachute troops had its origin in the mind of a Soviet airman, watching the response of the crowd to a parachute stunter at an American fair.
This article was originally published in the March, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 3, pp 142-143, 202-203.
Byline to Alexander Barmine.
The original article includes 3 photos.
Photos credited to Wide World, European, International.