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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Tetrach light tank just squeezed inside the huge Hamilcar glider -
flying ahead of a Horsa in the right photo.
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.
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
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
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
Another invention was a small motorbike which folded could fit inside a
container - popular after the war as the Corgi scooter!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
BRITISH DEFENCE STRATEGY
VIRTUAL D DAY TOUR HAS LOTS
OF PHOTOS OF THE LEGENDARY SITES TODAY
D DAY TOUR
THEIR FINEST HOUR
TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH
OUR SKY GUIDES
OUR TOURS PAGE
D DAY MAP TABLE