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***  AIRBORNE PART TWO  ***

 

 Anyone taking our Normandy sky tour finds it helpful to have an idea of the scale of Operation Overlord. Their Finest Hour, Map Table and The Special Relationship are worth a glance to understand some of the events before America's entry into the Second World War. Many visitors to our website probably know much of what is set out below. Please grant us your forbearance. We try to ensure that those less familiar with the background to D Day, particularly the young, start their tour with a sound conception of what was at stake thereby making their time with us all the more worthwhile and enjoyable.

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For some time we have felt the website lacked enough detail on two topics - airborne forces, and the role of the French Resistance during the Battle of Normandy including the politics among the main resistance groups. We're still working on the latter but hope our readers find this page and its photos explain some of the basics about airborne forces. There is a vast amount of information on the Internet and several good sites are linked to ours. Many excellent books have been written about airborne forces, the best always by those who took part. Therefore the material on our site provides most detail on the early parachute operations which are less familiar to our regular readership before offering a critique on the better known operations and some thoughts on future operations. We've also tried to bring alive what it's like to take part in a mass parachute drop.

Shortly before D Day in late May 1944 - King George IV with Queen Elizabeth and the 18 year old Princess Elizabeth ( now of course our Queen ) visiting the 6 Airborne Division. A young sapper officer is explaining the contents of a hand pushed trolley - several others are visible with the troops. Looking on are the division commander, General Windy Gale and Brigadier James Hill, Commander 3rd Parachute Brigade. Right hand photo shows the then Princess Elizabeth, herself an ATS officer, watching the airborne display with Brigadier James Hill.

Airborne operations in French North Africa were part of Operation Torch - the Allied invasion of French North Africa. When the French surrendered in June 1940 the Germans did not occupy the southern half of France. This was governed  from the town of Vichy by General Petain. As part of the arrangement the French remained in charge of their colonies in Africa and Indo-China. American senior diplomat, Robert Murphy, on the spot, master-minded secret talk to bring the local French commanders over to the Allies. Barely two weeks ahead of the landings Eisenhower's deputy, General Mark Clark, landed at night from a British submarine and held talks with General Mast - French - and Robert Murphy where promises were made though broken when the crunch came. Gerard M Devlin gives an excellent account of all this in his excellent history ' Paratrooper!'  

Within three days of landing on the 8 November 1942 the Allied task force under the command of General Eisenhower gained Morocco and most of Algeria and drove eastwards towards the Tunisian frontier. The plan was to take over French North Africa - still under the Vichy Government - before the Germans could react and send troops east from Libya, attack their rear, squeeze them from both directions, until a link up with Montgomery's British Eighth Army advancing from the Libyan Desert. Success would clear the Axis from the whole of North Africa. This would open the Mediterranean as a shipping route and save the Allies one million tons of shipping because convoys for India could use the Suez Canal and no longer have to sail round the Cape of Good Hope. Success would also free ships, men and aircraft for an invasion of the European Continent.

Packing PIAT anti-tank grenades into a weapons container. During 1942 Major J Lander came up with another invention: a canvass bag for weapons that a parachutist could release so that the bag - which became known as a kitbag - dangled on the end of a long rope and hit the ground first. This removed the tedious search for containers after landing, often in the dark, thus making it possible to rally faster. The system is still used though has its drawbacks as anyone will tell you who has jumped with 100 pounds of luggage hooked onto their parachute harness.

Grabbing the Vichy French airfields before the Germans was a key element in success. The most daring operation was a long range assault by the Colonel Edson Raff's Second Battalion of 503 US Parachute Infantry who flew from England to capture two airfields near Oran. Raff was a stickler for training and security. Every man was taught his job until he knew it in his sleep. A Eureka beacon was smuggled into North Africa. A British warship cruised off the North African coast as another homing beacon. This operation was not only the first for US paratroopers, but it was also the longest of the war. The 39 C-47s that carried them from Cornwall to North Africa flew over eight hours and 1,500 miles - nearly half over Spain. Most of the troop carriers separated from their formation during the long flight. Several dropped their paratroops prematurely in Spanish Morocco while others ran out of fuel and landed in the desert. French fighters shot down several more. The remainder found those already on the ground and dropped their paratroopers - thinking tanks approaching the landed aircraft were hostile - nearly thirty-five miles east of the objectives. The tanks were American.

 

 North Africa was the first time the British flew with the USAAF and jumped from the C 47 - vastly better than any converted bomber, steady in the air with a big wide door. The C 47 is one of the best jump aircraft of all time and superb vision from the open door makes it easy to ' spot ' for free-fall jumps - choose the exit point and direct the pilot so he flies right over it before throttling back for the jumpers. Above is the veteran that belongs to the RAF's Battle of Britain Flight. Right photo shows a Waco glider on display in the Airborne Museum at Saint Mere Eglise. The Waco was the smallest troop glider though would carry a jeep.

The British also despatched 3 Para from Cornwall but landed in Gibraltar before flying on to Maison Blanche airfield a dozen miles east of Algiers. The remainder of 1 Parachute Brigade reached Algiers by sea eleven days later. Meanwhile 3 Para were ordered to capture Bone airfield on the 12 November. Spitfires and Hurricanes would escort to deal with any French or German fighters. They clambered on board US C 47s and after a hairy flight along the coast losing aircraft into the sea jumped onto the airfield. The Germans were nowhere in sight. In fact the German paratroops were on the way from Tunis, saw the British parachutes, and turned around. The airfield was then invaded by local arab looters mostly after the silk parachutes for making luxury underwear!

American paratroopers carried everything in the left hand photo and more - boarding a C 47 weighed down by weapons, ammunition, rations and two parachutes.

Next escorted by P 38s, Spitfires and Hurricanes, the American 503 Parachute Infantry jumped onto the airfields at Tabessa and Youk les Bains on the 15 November. This jump was a success. Jumping with Raff's men that day was John H ' Beaver ' Thompson of the Chicago Tribune. Not only was he the first reporter to jump into action with paratroops but he'd never jumped before - and landed without so much as a scratch. Thompson would make his second combat jump onto Sicily the following year.

 The same day as Raff's men took the two airfields 1 Para set off for an operation further east in Tunisia. They tried to jump onto the Souk El Arba plain on the 16 November with orders to capture the road junction and airfield at Beja and also persuade the French garrison to change sides. Cloud obscured the town and they turned back. The colonel, James Hill, was told to have another go the next day and be less cautious - which after taking a good look at the DZ from his aircraft - his battalion jumped successfully and once more faced an invasion of local looters. On the 29 November Johnnie Frost's 2 Para jumped a dozen miles from Depienne airfield, found it abandoned, and pushed on to Oudna airfield outside Tunis. Eisenhower halted operations on the 1 December because of the appalling weather though leaving 2 Para 50 miles behind the Axis lines. Frost received the news that same day and for the next two fought his way out through running pitched battles against infantry backed by armour and artillery. On the 3 December 180 survivors reached the Allied lines. 

 This modern photo conveys the spectacle of a mass drop better than many wartime pictures. Kitbags are clearly visible dangling below each parachutist. Cameras were not as good and most photos snapped by individual soldiers. Only from D Day onwards were official war correspondents and film crews going into battle with the airborne forces.

The American and British paratroops fought in the line until all Axis resistance in North Africa ceased on the 13 May 1943. Operation Torch caused the Germans to occupy Vichy France, diverting more divisions from other theatres, particularly Russia.

Although these airborne operations were comparatively small - none involved more than a battalion - they earned themselves a fearsome reputation with the other side if not with all their own generals!

Gliders made possible delivery onto the battlefield not only of  whole platoons fully formed and ready to fight but also light artillery and anti-tank guns. Both the Americans and British airborne forces adopted the 75mm pack howitzer shown in the left-hand photo as their artillery support. This one is displayed in the Airborne Museum at Saint Mere Eglise. The right-hand photo shows a British 6 pounder anti-tank gun on display beside the Museum at Arromanches. Eventually a 17 pounder anti-tank gun was developed - several flown into battle on D Day - capable of knocking out the larger German tanks. These heavy weapons were towed by the versatile jeep. A Horsa glider could take a jeep and gun combination. The museums of Normandy are the best place to see airborne equipment used by the Allies.  

Loading a Horsa with a jeep and 17 pounder anti-tank gun required plenty of muscle and buckets of sweat.

Once back on the ground it all felt worthwhile.

Operation Husky - the invasion of Sicily - took place over the 9 to 13 July 1943 when the Allies launched their first large scale airborne operation. For this operation the Allies employed the 82 US Airborne Division and the British 1 Airborne Division, both making an airborne assault as divisions for the first time. The bulk of both divisions arrived by sea shortly before the operation. Nigel Norman, by this time the Air Officer Commanding of 38 Wing, sadly was killed when his aircraft crashed shortly after take off for North Africa.

Halifax bombers as tugs for Hamilcar gliders lined up ready for take-off. Launching a glider force involved careful shunting of tugs and gliders plus laying out all the tow ropes in the correct sequence - otherwise chaos reigned. Several more huge Hamilcar gliders are parked around the airfield perimeter.

Leading the airborne force into battle were the British First Air Landing Brigade and the US 505 Parachute Infantry on the night of 9 July. General Mathew Ridgeway commanding the 82 Airborne worried that the troop carrier aircrews had no training for night flying and his own troops none for night operations. Colonel James Gavin's reinforced 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment took off that evening and flew over Malta then made a dogleg to the left, coming in on Sicily's southwest coast near Gela. This was to avoid Allied naval convoys and the possibility of their anti-aircraft fire. The troop carrier aircraft flew under 500 feet to avoid radar detection. The island of Sicily was meant to come into sight on the right side of the aircraft and the paratroopers were to jump on four drop zones east of Gela.

The 226 aircraft formation flew in an aerial column over 100 miles long. Three aircraft missed the turning point over the island of Malta and returned to North Africa. A thirty-five mile per hour crosswind from west to east caused the long formation to drift off course and make a landfall on the eastern coast of Sicily. Most paratroopers saw land come into sight on the left side of the aircraft, instead of the right as they expected. German antiaircraft fire shot down eight aircraft and severely damaged many others. Twenty-three aircraft dropped their paratroopers in the British zone, almost sixty miles away from the intended drop zone. Another 127 placed their paratroopers several miles outside of the division's sector. According to Gavin's estimation, only about 12 percent landed near their correct drop zones, and these paratroopers still widely scattered by the strong winds. None-the-less, despite its quick reaction, the Hermann Goering Panzer Division struggled to advance on the beaches. After two days the division almost broke through - Field Marshal Kesselring, German Commander in Italy, had given its commander a blistering earful - but recoiled in the face of naval gunfire. Kesselring credited the scattered American paratroops with delaying his counter attack by 48 hours.

On the 11 July General Patton ordered Ridgway to bring in another regimental combat team later that night with little or no planning or co-ordination. The unit to jump was the 504 Parachute Infantry commanded by Colonel Reuben H. Tucker, III. The 504 lacked one of its battalions. On this mission 144 C-47 crews were to drop the paratroopers over an abandoned airfield three miles east of Gela, an operation intended to reinforce Gavin's 505 Parachute Infantry. The pilots believed this would be a "milk run" and vowed to improve on their previous poor performance. The mission started well. All the aircraft made the turn at Malta and continued towards Sicily in formation. The first indication of trouble was that the air armada received random and inaccurate fire from some of the Allied convoys while they were approaching Sicily, but at that stage no aircraft reported damage. After aircraft made landfall and skirted along the beachhead at Sicily, they encountered clouds and climbed to 1,000 feet to avoid them and keep formation.

General Matt' Ridgeway in Sicily - with two stars on his helmet, Generals Boy Browning and Jim Gavin in Holland.

General Ridgway stood the drop zone waiting for the arrival of the 504 Parachute Infantry when friendly anti-aircraft guns suddenly opened fire. Within a minute, it seemed to him that every anti-aircraft weapon afloat and ashore began firing along the entire length of the beachhead. Because of the haste in executing the operation, neither the Allied ships nor the units on the beachhead had received sufficient warnings about the airborne operation. Friendly fire hit sixty of the 144 airplanes; twenty-three crashed into the sea or on Sicily and the anti-aircraft fire damaged thirty-seven beyond immediate repair. The remainder of the aircraft broke formation and dropped paratroopers wherever they could - some inside German lines. The results were disastrous. There were 229 paratrooper and 90 aircrew casualties. Brigadier-general Keerans, Assistant Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division was among the missing. There was no question about the airborne execution of Husky - the delivery by parachute and glider was largely a failure.

The two British airborne deliveries proved hardly less disastrous as the American. The First Airborne Division commanded by Major General ' Hoppy ' Hopkinson went into action on the same night as Ridgeway's men. Although the division included First and Second Parachute Brigades with Fourth Parachute Brigade added Hopkinson decided that the First Airlanding Brigade should lead the airborne assault. Through poor weather and AA fire many gliders, released too far off the island, crashed in the sea. Brigadier ' Pip ' Hicks the brigade commander swam ashore from his own crashed glider flown by George Chatterton - their tow released much too soon. Enough gliders landed on target for the eventual capture of the Ponte Grande but the operation was what the British Army describe as a shambles. Only the courage and training of those landed near enough to the target brought about success. Two days later Gerald Lathbury's First Parachute Brigade took off in good weather to capture by coup de main the Primasole Bridge further north along the eastern coast. Once again poor liaison with the naval task force and an immediately preceding enemy air attack led to the fleet opening fire on the aircraft formation delivering the First Parachute Brigade. Aircraft were shot down and many sticks jumped far away from their drop zones - forty miles off target in one case - thus much of the first 24 hours was spent rallying. Only a fifth of the paratroops had been dropped at the right place and right time. To add more confusion German paratroops had jumped onto the same drop zone - emergency reinforcements for the garrison on the island - and the confusion gave Frost's men in particular some dangerous minutes as they landed. None-the-less the weakly guarded bridge was captured although the real battle commenced after this and the bridge changed hands twice before the seaborne force linked.

As the battle for Sicily raged, in Rome the Fascist Grand Council met on the 24 July and deposed Mussolini who had been dictator since 1922. Despite 21 years as a dictatorship, in fact, Italy was a monarchy. When Mussolini refused to quit, King Victor Emmanuel III told him that in his place he had appointed the 73 year old Marshal Badoglio. Within days secret negotiations opened with the Allies. Clandestine meetings took place in Madrid and Lisbon. The Italians wished to change sides but the German Army in their country was very powerful. The Allies made clear they would invade - though volunteered no details - and the Italians could either fight alongside them or with the Germans. If the latter, Italy would suffer all the damage from Allied air attacks. At one stage  - unaware of the forthcoming Salerno landing - the Italians demanded that airborne troops should land around Rome.

When Eisenhower looked at the plan his reaction was the same as General Ridgeway's - an extremely risky operation relied on the shaky Italians to deliver their rather crucial half of the bargain. Should the plan come off, the prize was enormous. What followed was the the stuff of spy novels. Ridgeway insisted that if the operation went ahead, the two senior diplomats negotiating with the Italians, Robert Murphy and Harold Macmillan - a future Prime Minister of Britain - should go in with the 82nd. When this was put to Eisenhower, he remarked dryly, ' Well, all right. There's nothing in the regulations that says diplomats are not expendable.' Murphy and Macmillan prepared eagerly, both convinced that the operation could reap incalculable political advantages. In fact, the diplomacy fell to Brigadier-General Maxwell-Taylor, artillery commander of the 82nd and Colonel William Gardiner of the USAAF, who landed secretly by ship and were smuggled into Rome by the Italians under the noses of the Germans. After constant moving of the goal posts by the nervous Italians, Maxwell-Taylor sent a code word message to scrub the drop. The decision was so close that 63 aircraft loaded with paratroopers already en route for Rome were swiftly recalled. Yet the secret negotiations and clandestine visit to Rome and the possibility of airborne intervention for a huge strategic prize - Italy changing sides - provide a classic example for the shrewd deployment of an airborne force.        

When the seaborne landings shortly afterwards at Salerno ran into trouble, guided by pathfinders, the 82nd made a text book drop to reinforce the beachhead. All the same a heavy price was paid in pioneers of airborne warfare. Not only were several of the RAF's most experienced parachute dropping and glider tug pilots killed but also John Lander while leading the Pathfinder Company. Lander had done a great deal of work developing methods to mark drop zones and landing zones ahead of the main force's arrival, particularly at night, experimenting with everything from flares to radio beacons.

The failures of Sicily convinced many senior military leaders that such operations were too costly to be of value. Ridgeway was furious that his superbly fit and trained men had been squandered through inadequate training of the aircrews on whom they relied to reach the battlefield. Ridgeway also felt that - with the exception of General Swing - the senior commanders and their airborne advisers did not understand the new weapon in their hands. This assessment included General Eisenhower, Montgomery, Mark Clark and Boy Browning. Montgomery accepted that all had not gone according to plan but expressed his admiration and praise for the speed at which the Ponte Grande and Primasole Bridge were taken. Eisenhower was one of the sceptics. His after action report for General Marshall almost brought about the disbandment of all five US airborne divisions. Never less than even handed, Eisenhower recognised that small groups of paratroopers, although widely scattered through no fault of their own, had performed extremely well at many places and had significantly influenced the overall result. He appointed one of his airborne advisors, Major General Joseph Swing, to investigate the reasons for the debacle. Some argued that nothing larger than a battalion could be dropped in combat and that the five airborne divisions should become air-landing divisions. As the Swing board met in the United States that summer a brilliant airborne operation by the US 503 Parachute Infantry at Nadzab in Australian New Guinea energised the pro-airborne lobby - who won the day. General Swing made several recommendations - most of which were adopted. The USAAF baulked at making their transport groups integral parts of the airborne formations - there simply were not enough transport aircraft. One recommendation was that airborne divisions should not be delivered onto the battlefield in penny packets but as complete formations thereby gaining the most from the shock of surprise. 

General Swing's enquiry followed by a huge divisional exercise kept America's airborne forces on course. Otherwise the D Day plans might have called for individual battalion attacks on such targets as the Merville Battery and the exits from Utah Beach. For anything resembling what eventually took place the Allies would have relied on the two British airborne divisions. There would have been no airborne division in reserve for any targets of opportunity after D Day - such as Holland. Fortunately General Joe Swing kept the American airborne in business. Their contribution proved crucial on D Day and right through Holland, Bastogne and the Rhine Crossing until victory in Europe.

British paratroops and US glider troops heading for Normandy.

There is a great deal of information elsewhere on this website and many others about the 6 British Airborne Division and the 82 and 101 US Airborne Divisions on D Day. We go into considerably more detail during the aerial tour and then on the actual ground in Normandy. What follows is simply to give an understanding of the D Day plan and also what it's like to take part in an airborne drop. A link further below leads to a map and explanation of the situation before D Day. There is a virtual tour giving a taste of an actual aerial and ground tour which has lots of photos of the drop zones, landing zones and assault beaches today.

The British 6 Airborne Division commanded by General Sir Richard ' Windy ' Gale - one of the finest airborne leaders and renowned for an earthy turn of phrase his soldiers never forgot - was tasked with capturing a line of low hills east of the River Orne and blowing six bridges over the River Dives to defend the eastern flank of the seaborne assault. A third task was to capture two bridges over the River Orne and its canal, between Caen and the sea, deny them to counter attacking German armour though hold them intact for Allied armour to break out from the beachhead. This third task was given to a specially trained and strengthened company of glider infantry who would land on the targets - recalling the German capture of Fort Eban Emael four years before.

There were not enough aircraft to deliver all three airborne divisions in a single lift. Consequently the decision was taken to drop mostly parachute troops on the night of D Day with enough supporting artillery, engineers and signals plus enough headquarters staff and in a reversal of Sicily, bring in the main forces of glider troops, artillery and even small tanks on the evening of D Day. For the British this meant that on the night of 5/6 June the pathfinders would jump over three drop zones east of the Orne and one west. Shortly after the glider attack on the Orne bridges a single lift would deliver the 5th Parachute Brigade onto Drop Zone N east of the canal and between two villages, Ranville and Breville, providing immediate support to the small force on the bridges. Meanwhile another formation dropped the 3 rd Parachute Brigade - Ist Canadian Parachute Battalion formed part of the brigade - onto Drop Zone V on higher ground north-east from the canal and Drop Zone K south of Drop Zone N along the same line of low hills. This would allow the Canadians to cover the east flank around the village of Varaville when the 9 Para Battalion attacked the Merville Battery on lower ground nearer the mouth of the River Orne. The 8 Para Battalion landing on Drop Zone K would cover against counter attacks from the Bois de Bavent, a small forest to the east.

1st Special Service Brigade under Lord Shimi Lovatt were to assault onto SWORD BEACH and dash inland to link with the 6 Airborne Division at the bridges. On the evening of D Day the 6 Airlanding Brigade would arrive by glider on Drop Zone N east of the Orne save for the bulk of the 2nd Battalion of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry who would land by glider on Drop Zone W west of the River Orne and reinforce the bridges. At the same time a major supply drop would also take place.   

General ' Windy Gale ' happened to mention a partiality for treacle - Group Captain Surplice presented him with a tin before clambering on board his glider and taking off for Normandy on the night of 5 June 1944. General Maxwell Taylor - by this time commanding the 101 US Airborne Division - made his fifth parachute jump on the night of D Day thus qualifying for his jump wings. Maxwell Taylor eventually became Chief of the Army Staff, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and notwithstanding his secret diplomatic debut at Rome in 1943 - President Kennedy appointed him Ambassador to South Vietnam.

Originally the 82 and 101 US Airborne Divisions were to land as a carpet of airborne troops laid from coast to coast, thereby sealing off the Cotentin Peninsular and port of Cherbourg while securing the west flank of the seaborne invasion. Shortly before D Day intelligence showed that Rommel had strengthened the defences on the Carentan and flooded the Mederet River Valley running down the centre of the peninsular. Fearing both divisions risked being cut off from each other and defeated in detail, the planners decided instead to land the 82 Airborne Division on the east side of the floods near the small town of Saint Mere Eglise. The 101 Airborne Division would land south and east of the town, seize four causeways through flooded countryside between the town and Utah Beach - where the 4 US Infantry Division would make the first seaborne landing on the morning of D Day. The anti-tank guns and artillery for the 82nd Airborne with some of the headquarters would be delivered by glider and supplies by parachute on the evening of D Day followed by the glider infantry regiment on D plus One.

Merville Battery and the Pegasus Bridge. These photos were taken during tours. We fly over the drop zones and visit Saint Mere Eglise and Utah Beach on the Normandy sky tour.

Gliders where they landed on the night of D Day beside Pegasus Bridge. The first news that the bridges had been captured came through a German message intercepted by Bletchley Park. Right hand photo shows the town square of Saint Mere Eglise where American paratroopers of the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment came down on the night of D Day. Private John Steele's parachute caught on the church tower and saved his life because the Germans thought he was dead. When brought down later that night he was deaf from the church bells. Within hours his captors became prisoners and Steele released by his comrades. The curved white roofs resembling parachutes are the Airborne Museum.

The amazing strategic mobility of an airborne force is matched only by extremely poor tactical mobility. On the night of D Day there was heavy cloud and a strong wind. The two American and one British airborne divisions crossed the Channel and jumped or landed by glider shortly after a gale. Once on the ground, widely scattered, many of the paratroops and glider infantry took all night and much of the following day to rally - find their commander and comrades on the ground. Paratroopers and their equipment were lost through landing in flooded river valleys. Company strength forces tackled tasks meant for their whole battalion. The engineers accomplished their tasks with handfuls of men instead of hundreds. Widely scattered, the parachute and troops added to German confusion, misleading them into thinking the British and Americans had landed much larger forces over a considerably wider area. We fly you over many of these drop zones and targets during the tour - though have a look at our virtual tour because, just as the airborne troopers were taught before D Day, you can practise recognising the ground features from the air.

 Winston Churchill admiring Rommel the cat beside Monty's caravan in Normandy. And the tale of the wise owl before the invasion set off.

An inherent lack of heavy weapons and shortage of ammunition and special equipment were another weakness once on the ground. To redress the ammunition shortage the paratroops jumped loaded with mortar bombs and small arms ammunition. A parachute battalion six hundred strong with each man carrying four mortar bombs delivers two-thousand-four hundred rounds onto the drop zone. The first job after landing is to dump your share onto the stock pile as you rally.

A Tetrach light tank just squeezed inside the huge Hamilcar glider - flying ahead of a Horsa in the right photo.

Gliders delivered infantry as formed units and heavy loads onto the battlefield. Light weight artillery, heavy mortars and even small tanks plus the versatile jeep in a variety of roles at least gave limited firepower and tactical mobility. Though all too often gliders carrying these vital loads were lost through broken tow ropes or crashes on landing. On the night of D Day the most senior casualty was the Deputy Commander of the 101 US Airborne Division, Brigadier-General Donald Pratt, killed in a glider crash landing despite being flown by the best pilot in the division. Colonel Murphy's co-pilot also died while Donald Pratt's ADC sitting in a jeep behind - survived. Only hours later the British 6 Air Landing Brigade came in during the daylight with good weather and almost no loss - but the parachute engineers had spent hours clearing two landing strips of poles and wire.

The 6 Air Landing Brigade gliders on LZ N give an idea of the aerial traffic jam as their pilots searched for a clear stretch of grass when landing on the evening of the 6 June 1944. The right photo shows a Provost post beside the road south with the German's detour signs still doing traffic duty.

British glider pilots were under orders to get back across the Channel and report to their units as fast as possible - such were the shortage of pilots and effort demanded for training more. No such logic applied to their passengers. The airborne troops stayed on the battlefield and fought several weeks. Perhaps there was no choice given that the Allies and the Germans were racing each other to bring divisions onto the battlefield - removing the airborne troops would have seriously weakened the Allies during those early days of the battle for Normandy. On the other hand, one still questions why the special company that captured the Orne bridges was not withdrawn still intact, rather than put straight into the fighting.

On the 15 August the First Allied Airborne Task Force consisting of five US parachute battalions and a glider regiment with 2nd British Parachute Brigade, carried what became known as the champagne invasion, landing on the Cote d'Azure. There was slight opposition but they soon linked with the Maquis. 

Another invention was a small motorbike which folded could fit inside a container - popular after the war as the Corgi scooter!

Mass drop over Holland in September 1944 - US paratroops descending and British paratroops landing on a glider LZ.

Gliders often suffered severe damage on landing and the troops sometimes smashed their way out. Here are the first two gliders to land at Arnhem - judging from the big drum of cable on the jeep fender, signallers.

Three months later the same two US Airborne Divisions and the British 1 Airborne Division were dropped as an airborne carpet running northwards into Holland. Their job was to capture the great bridges over the rivers Maas, Waal and Lower Rhine at Grave, Nijmegen and Arnhem. The Americans decided to land as close as possible to their targets rather than take casualties trying to reach their objectives. 

My brother and I watched the air armada flying to Holland and the constant stream of tugs and gliders passed overhead all that fine Sunday morning. Across the North Sea one person who watched the American armada passing over his headquarters was General Kurt Student - who could but admire and envy the Allies possession of ' such overwhelming might ' and moreover wished that he'd owned it only for a day. All the same, even after four years, there were not enough aircraft to deliver all three divisions in one lift and the logical priority was to lay the carpet northwards. This meant the British would have to spread their arrival over three days thus losing the advantages of concentration and surprise. Worried about this denial of hard learnt lessons, General Boy Browning remarked,' I think we might be going a bridge too far.' Because the operation would take place in daylight, concerned about flak defending a local airfield, the RAF insisted on drop zones some eight miles west of the bridge. That specially trained glider infantry company would have solved the problem of how to reach the bridge quickly.

Instead the reconnaissance regiment of the British First Airborne Division would make an eight mile dash from the drop zones west of Arnhem into the town and there capture the great bridge over the Rhine - before the German defenders could react. The essential jeeps never reached Holland on the 17 September 1944. Their gliders' tow ropes broke on the way to Arnhem. Worse, despite air photos taken during a low level pass by a Spitfire, revealing armoured vehicles hidden among the woods near the town, the intelligence staff preferred to rely on Ultra intercepts - which had not yet picked up any unusual traffic - and ignored the warning. Two SS Panzer divisions were resting just outside Arnhem. The intelligence staff believed there were no major units in the country around the town.

Several hours after landing the lightly armed 2 Para Battalion led by the legendary Johnnie Frost reached the bridge by a poorly defended route along the river - and held one end for over four days against ferocious attacks from infantry, tanks and assault guns. The rest of First Airborne Division never reached the bridge though fought another ten days to keep open their drop zones and thereby a foothold on the north bank of the Rhine. Exhausted, out of ammunition, fifteen hundred survivors escaped across the Rhine during the night of the 25 September 1944. The 1st Airborne Division had ceased to exist as a fighting unit and was never reformed. If you want to read more - Colonel John Waddy's guide to the Arnhem Battlefield is a good start. John was badly wounded but lived to tell the tale - thanks to the SS claiming the best surgeons and medical staff - and eventually John became the boss of all Britain's special forces.

The bridge today bears Johnnie Frost's name.

Athens - perhaps first modern airborne/political coup de main - paras jump near Athens to put down a communist putsch with Churchill hot on their heels to clinch the political deal with the Greek Regent, Archbishop Damaskinos on Christmas Eve 1944.  

The Allies eventually formed three British and five US Airborne Divisions.  By September 1944 in the European theatre two British Divisions were grouped in the 1st Airborne Corps under General ' Boy ' Browning while US Divisions in theatre (the 17th, 82nd, and 101st) were organized into the XVIII Corps under General Mathew Ridgeway. Both Corps formed the First Allied Airborne Army under US General Lewis Brereton. The last great airborne operation of World War Two was the Rhine Crossing in March 1945 when one American and one British Airborne divisions landed on the east side of the river several hours after the ground forces had made their assault crossing.

Operation Plunder began at 9 pm on the evening of the 23 March and by the early hours of the morning of 24 March Allied ground forces led by commandos had secured a number of crossings on the eastern bank of the Rhine. During the first hours of the 24 March transport aircraft carrying the two airborne divisions that formed Operation Varsity began to take off from airbases in England and France and headed for the rendezvous over Brussels before turning northeast for the Rhine and dropping zones on its eastern bank. Among the thousands watching from the western bank was Winston Churchill.

The airlift for this force was 1602 aircraft and 1326 gliders. The US 17th Airborne Division consisted of 9,387 personnel flying in 836 C 47 aircraft, 72 C 46 Commando aircraft, and more than 900 of the smaller Waco gliders. The 6th Airborne Division consisted of 7,220 personnel flown by nearly 800 aircraft and over 400 gliders. This immense armada stretched more than 200 miles through the sky and took 2 hours and 37 minutes to pass any given point. This massive sky train was protected by some 2,153 Allied fighters from the US 9th Air Force and the RAF. At 10 am on the 24th, British and American airborne troops began landing on German soil, some 13 hours after the Allied ground assault began.

The German flak gunners were fully alert and a heavy price was paid in paratroop transports and gliders, both by the Americans and British. Smoke and haze also made landing on the right spot more than difficult. The 17 US Airborne were using the larger C 46 for the first which had fuel tanks in the wing roots and burst into flames when hit. The 6th Air Landing Brigade passed directly over flak batteries on the approach to their LZ and suffered more losses in a single day than throughout the entire Normandy campaign. Veteran of Glider Number 6 on D day - which missed the Pegasus Bridge - Titch Raynor by this time was RSM of the Ox and Bucks. Titch sadly recalls the dreadful task of finding and burying nearly a quarter of his battalion on the landing zone. The US 194th Glider Infantry Regiment suffered 12 of its C 47 tugs shot down and 140 damaged by the heavy flak. Despite the losses both American and British landings were accurate and successful. Fighting on the ground was confused and even General Ridgeway commanding XVIII Airborne Corps engaged the opposition at close quarters and suffered a minor splinter wound from a grenade.

From the Rhine the 6th Airborne Division advanced until Rostock on the Baltic - obeying Churchill's orders to ' shake hands with the Russians as far east as you can.'  

In the Far Eastern theatre the Japanese used paratroops and the British Chindits in Burma were experts at airmobile warfare in the jungle twenty years before Vietnam. Perhaps the most courageous operation of all was the jump by the 503 Parachute Infantry onto Topside on Corregidor in the Philippines on the morning of 16 February 1945 with an 18 knot wind sweeping the fanatically defended small island.

Allied airborne forces paid a heavy price for their reputation on the battlefield. All airborne divisions that fought in Europe suffered losses equal to over half their strength in killed, wounded and missing.  

 

AIRBORNE THREE

AIRBORNE

BRITISH DEFENCE STRATEGY

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CHURCHILL COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE

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