D-Day part two: Airborne assault
Published 8:28 am Wednesday, June 5, 2019
Read D-Day part one here: Planning
In the late night and early morning hours of June 5-6, 1944, C-47s loaded with American and British paratroopers were flying over the English Channel toward Normandy. Their mission was to protect the left and right flanks of the Allied beaches by preventing German reinforcements from pushing the invading forces back into the Channel.
C-47s containing paratroopers from the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions flew southwest behind Utah Beach. In the east, paratroopers of the British Sixth Airborne Division were preparing to jump behind Sword Beach. They had trained for this moment, to jump into German-controlled “Fortress Europe.” Each man knew his objective, but they learned quickly that military plans rarely last once the operation is underway.
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By the end of the first day, half of the paratroopers dropped into Normandy would be killed, captured or wounded.
The first wave of the Allied airborne assault on Normandy consisted of roughly 300 pathfinders tasked with securing and illuminating the drop zones. They carried special “Eureka” radio transponders that emitted electronic pulses, allowing pilots to calculate their distance to the drop zones. As the planes closed in, pathfinders on the ground would use lanterns to guide them to the landing zones.
As the pathfinders flew over Normandy, low-lying clouds forced the planes to drop to lower altitudes, some as low as 300 feet. Combined with poor visibility and heavy German anti-aircraft fire, many pathfinders were misdropped nowhere near their objectives. Several men lost their equipment in the jumps, further complicating the situation. Others set up at the wrong landing zones.
The confusion of the pathfinders’ situation was only the beginning of the problems facing the Allies.
The main force of paratroopers arrived over Normandy roughly an hour after the pathfinders. Members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, dubbed the “Screaming Eagles” and the “All Americans” respectively, were dropped behind Utah Beach with the task of seizing the causeways connecting the beach to the inland and capturing key points, such as bridges and road junctures, that were of tactical relevance. Later in the day, gliders would land inland with supplies to assist those behind enemy lines.
Like the pathfinders, low clouds, poor visibility and German ground fire caused mass confusion. More than 75 percent of the paratroopers were misdropped. Men gathered at random points trying to fulfill their objectives, with several units consisting of men from different divisions.
But the confusion also had its advantages. The Germans had no idea where the Americans were landing, thus they could not figure out what their objectives were. The disorganization also prevented the Germans from knowing the full strength of the American presence in the area.
Members of the British Sixth Airborne Division had been tasked with capturing and destroying bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River, as well as destroying the Merville Gun Battery near Sword Beach. But like their American counterparts, they too suffered misdrops and equipment losses.
Members of the Ninth Parachute Battalion, tasked with destroying the Merville Gun Battery, lost one-third of their strength after one of their three gliders was forced to make an emergency landing in England. Much of their equipment, including wire cutters and mine detectors, were lost, forcing them to make their way through barbed wire surrounding the battery with their bare hands and use explosives to cut paths through the battery’s minefield, alerting the Germans of their presence. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the attackers successfully destroyed the Merville Battery.
In the meantime, a mixed unit of glider troops attacked bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River, capturing both within 15 minutes. Believing both bridges to be rigged to explode, the British forces acted quickly, completely taking the German defenders by surprise and suffering few casualties in the process. The bridge over the Caen Canal was later named “Pegasus Bridge” after the Pegasus insignia on the Sixth Airborne Division’s unit patch.
The waiting game
By 4 a.m. on June 6, American paratroopers had captured most of the town of Sainte-Mère-Église, a strategic town located at major road junctures that would prove vital to the Allied advance. The attack had not been easy; about a dozen men landed in the church square, making them easy targets for German sentries who were on patrol after a house caught fire from an incendiary bomb. One paratrooper had the misfortune of getting caught on the church steeple, hanging there for over two hours as the fighting raged below him.
Through June 7, members of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment were forced to defend Sainte-Mère-Église from German counterattacks, successfully holding them off despite their low numbers. It was the first town in Normandy to be liberated by the Allies.
As paratroopers gradually gathered at their respective rendezvous points, others fought to open the causeways behind Utah Beach as the sound of heavy naval guns pounding the beach resonated through the air. The amphibious landings were starting and the men behind enemy lines could only hope the attacks would be successful.
If the landings failed, they would be trapped.
Read D-Day part three here: The beaches of Normandy