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The Germans were the first nation to airborne troops in combat, using them decisively in 1939 and 1940. The British were not far behind, developing their own airborne forces in 1940. They initially used their airborne troops as raiders.
“Churchill’s Shadow Raiders: The Race to Develop Radar, WWII’s Invisible Secret Weapon,” by Damien Lewis examines the first two combat operations by British paratroopers, Operations Colossus and Biting. It combines these stories with a look at the “Wizard War” – the battle between Britain and Germany for electronics superiority.
Colossus and Biting were intended to smash vital targets unapproachable to soldiers, except by air. Operation Colossus was a February 1941 landing by paratroopers to destroy an aqueduct delivering water to Southern Italy. Operation Biting, in February 1942, was supposed to appear to be a British attempt to destroy a German radar station. In reality, it was to carry off the radar for intelligence analysis.
Lewis opens by looking at the early history of airborne operations. He moves to the organization of the British Army’s airborne forces, presenting their training, the units formed and the aircraft used for parachute operations. He also examines early discussions of how British airborne troops were to be deployed.
From there he moves to Operation Colossus. After presenting preparation and training for the attack, he describes the action upon landing. Colossus succeeded in destroying the aqueduct, but failed its intended goal of depriving Taranto of water. Reservoirs had enough water to satisfy needs until the aqueduct was repaired. Every paratrooper was captured, and faulty photo intelligence led the British to believe the raid a failure.
The heart of the book is Operation Biting. It was motivated by reports Germans had radar superior to that possessed by Britain. Lewis sets the raid’s context by discussing the radar and electronics used by both sides, and explains why British intelligence disbelieved Germany had effective radar. The raid was mounted to resolve those questions.
Lewis’s description of Operation Biting fills nearly half the book. Complex and challenging, it required much to go right to succeed. Lewis examines the planning of the raid and the resources allocated. He provides a minute-by-minute description of the raid. It succeeded beyond expectations, due to luck and perseverance.
“Churchill’s Shadow Raiders” offers an exciting tale recounting two important early airborne operations. Lewis takes readers inside a critical phase of airborne development, pioneering actions leading to later airborne growth.
“Churchill’s Shadow Raiders: The Race to Develop Radar, WWII’s Invisible Secret Weapon,” by Damien Lewis, Citadel, 2020, 416 pages, $27.00 (hardcover), $13.49 (Kindle)
This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.Published in