Major General Paul Langdon Williams (1894-1968) was a pioneer and preeminent developer of troop carrier aviation in World War II and, thus, laid much of the foundation of modern theater airlift operations. A recognized expert and leader in all aspects of air warfare operations, his assigned duties during that conflict focused on establishing, training, developing doctrines, and providing combat leadership for all U.S. troop carrier forces during the North African and European campaigns. As a result, he led the largest aerial delivery operations in history and commanded more aircraft and personnel in battle than all but a handful of select U.S. Army air forces leaders. In addition, General Williams was a recognized expert in joint air-ground operations and commanded three numbered air forces after WW II.
General William’s early career was varied and successful. He volunteered for service at the very start of the First World War and was selected for pilot training shortly after. Trained too late to see overseas service, he nevertheless was one of the select few pilots retained by the Army Air Service after the war. During the interwar period, General Williams served in virtually every type of flying unit, including observation, training, pursuit, attack, and bombers. On the eve of the war, he was commander of the 27th Bombardment Group at Savannah, Georgia.
Now a colonel, Williams went to Britain to plan and lead bomber operations, but soon found himself in charge of organizing and the leading the theater’s growing troop carrier force. He planned the employment of air transport squadrons in support of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa on November 8, 1942. Immediately after the initial invasion, Williams received command of the 51st Troop Carrier Wing with oversight of all Troop Carrier forces in that theater.
North Africa was Colonel William’s proving ground, and he excelled. In addition to getting his forces organized and properly supplied under chaotic circumstances, he personally led a lighting series of airborne missions to capture forward airfields before Axis forces got to them. Despite the newness of the Troop Carrier concept, all of these missions were successful and helped place allied air units in better positions to conduct offensive and defensive operations. Faced by serious organizational and leadership problems within its air-ground support forces, the 12th Air Force tapped Colonel William’s to get the 12th Air Support Command back on track. In his book, Winged Victory: The Army air forces in World War II (p. 190), Geoffrey Perret records that Williams “believed whole heartedly in ground support,” and established close rapport with the senior Army field commander, who his fighter and bomber squadrons supported. Then, after only three weeks in command, Williams’ creative and aggressive leadership during the Battle of Kasserine Pass allowed 12th ASC units to make fighting withdrawals from their forward air bases and play a vital role in bottling up German offensives. The immediate crisis having passed, now Brigadier General Williams left the 12th ASC and took command of the Northwest African air forces Troop Carrier Command and began preparing for the airborne portion of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.
Husky airborne operations were the real baptism of fire for General Williams and U.S. airborne forces in Europe. High enroute winds, nighttime navigation challenges, friendly fire from un-briefed allied ships, and inadequate aircrew training all undermined the accuracy and initial effectiveness of the drops. But Troop Carrier crews pushed on to deliver most of their troops within the general battle zone and those troops were able to sow confusion and even local defeats on Axis forces. Out of this experience, General Williams led his staff and tactical units through systematic doctrinal study and tactical developments that greatly improved Troop Carrier capabilities and performance for later missions in northern Europe.
Under General Williams’ leadership as commander of the 9th Air Force Troop Carrier Command, British and American theater transport forces became a reliable mainstay of the operations and logistics of the Anglo-American advance from Normandy into Germany. During that campaign, U.S. and British air transports conducted four major airborne invasions in Normandy, Southern France, Holland, and across the Rhine. General Williams flew in all of these operations. The penultimate airborne operation was Varsity, the airborne attack across the Rhine in March, 1945 by the British 1st and the U.S. 17th Airborne Divisions. To put down 16,000 soldiers and their equipment literally in the midst of defending Wehrmacht troops, General Williams directed an operation involving some 1600 transport aircraft, 1,348 gliders, and supply drops by several groups of B-24s. The resulting air armada was over 250 miles long and took over two-and-one-half hours to pass a given point. Conducted in daylight and supported by electronic navigation systems, the troop carriers pressed through poor visibility from battlefield smoke and haze to place most troops exactly on their drop zones and virtually all of the others nearby. Additionally, over 2,000 glider pilots organized themselves into light infantry companies to man roadblocks, direct traffic, guard prisoners, and otherwise free trained infantry to carry on the assault. In a matter of a few hours effective local resistance collapsed in face of the sudden and overwhelming descent of such a strong allied force.
The spectacular airborne operations of the European campaign should not obscure the successful efforts of General Williams and the personnel under his command to develop and exploit Troop Carrier’s inherent capability to provide logistical support to many users. Indeed the great majority of Troop Carrier sorties were logistical in nature, moving vital supplies, personnel, prisoners of war, the sick and injured, and other vital materiel around the theater. As an indication of the scale of these operations, British and American transports were lifting over 2,000 tons of cargo per day from rearward depots into forward battle areas in the latter days of the war. During the Battle of the Bulge emergency, Troop Carrier units shifted 13,400 soldiers and over 2,000 tons of combat supplies of the 17th Airborne Division from England to forward locations in France in a period of four days. They did all this while also conducting supply drops to ground units cut off by the German surprise attack and supporting many other smaller-scale but still vital missions. To achieve this high rate of productivity, General Williams oversaw several operational innovations; including establishment of a centralized, theater-level Combined Air Transport Control Room to allocate lift and sorties among users and flying units, and conducting routine air transport missions as formation and tactical procedures trainers as well.
Following the war General Williams remained the principle Troop Carrier leader in the Air Force as commander of the 3rd and 9th air forces from 1945 into 1947. He then shifted to direction of air defense forces as commander of the 2nd and 10th air forces, before shifting Headquarters Air Force in January 1950. He retired on 30 April 1950 as a major general and died on 3 March 1968.