To get a successfully landing, it is necessary to lock the accesses by which the German reinforcements could reach the beaches : it is thus the objective of the airborne operations : to seize villages, bridges and other nerve centers leading to the assault’s zone.
Two sectors of parachuting
As for the whole operation Neptune, there are two sectors : the American on the West : operations Albany and Boston, the British in the East : operation Tonga.
101st Screaming Eagles and 82nd All American airborne divisions
Concerning American there is 101st Screaming eagles and 82nd All American airborne Divisions. The 101st Screaming eagles commanded by General Maxwell Taylor (which will become after the war special adviser of President Kennedy, then ambassador of the USA), assisted by General Don Pratt, have three parachutists’ regiments (501st, 502nd and 506th). The 82nd All American, commanded by General Matthew Ridgway, assisted by the Generals Gavin and Howell, have also three parachutists’ regiments (505th, 507th, 508th). Every division includes besides an infantry regiment, transported by glider, as well as elements of artillery, and an Engineer battalion.
the 6th airborne division
On the British side, a single division, the 6th, commanded by General Richard Gale, and whose emblem is Pegasus, that’s why the bridge of Bénouville will enter in the history books with the name of Pegasus Bridge (the Bénouville’s bridge steps over the channel from Caen to the sea, Ranville’s bridge, some hundred meters away, and which steps over the Orne, will then be named Horsa Bridge, from the name of the glider having brought the soldiers). It consists in paratrooper brigades (3rd and 5th “Parachute Brigade“, 6th “Airlanding Brigade” and in several divisional units where we also find elements of engineer, artillery, etc…
It’s the same way to proceed : the parachutists at first, then the reinforcements and the heavier elements (artillery, armoured cars) in gliders. The dropping of the paras is made at low height ( less than 100 meters), under the shootings of German Flak (anti-aircraft defense). It’s dark, what makes the men less vulnerable, but does not make easy their location. When planes take off (about 1100, essentially American Dakotas), the General staff dreads heavy losses. Actually, on the West, the operation is not far from becoming a disaster: low clouds, fog, German defenses disrupt the pilots of the Dakotas: for the101st, only 38 of 128 planes transporting the Pathfinders (which have for mission to jump the first ones to mark out the ground, allowing to proceed then to the dropping) will reach their targets. The wave which follows is thus going to disperse : some land in 30 kilometers of their objective, others drown themselves in swamps. The photographs of the emblems of the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division and the All American 82nd Airborne Division come from the site of the french association Foutues Haies 44.
The first wave of gliders arrives…
When the first wave of gliders arrives, at about 4 am, it is no more brilliant : 10 % only settle in the planned place. General Pratt, Assitant Divison Commander, is killed during the too rough landing of his glider. For the 82nd, it is not better: only a small part (in particular the 505th Regiment and the PC of the division) lands at the right place, the rest of the division being scattered up to 40 km of the objective. Around thirty men arrive on Sainte-Mère-Eglise’s square, where rages then a fire: everybody is thus woken and standing, the Germans also: it is the slaughter screened in ” The longest day “, with the famous episode of John Steele, the parachute of which remains hung on the bell tower. He has the presence of mind to play dead, the Germans will take him down two hours later, once the ended fights. Half of the 507th lands in the swamps where the men, hampered by the weight of the equipment which they have on them (up to 45 kilos!) have only few chances to bring out there. Actually, before even to have fight , or almost, half of the division is out of action.
The enemy is everywhere
Nevertheless, paradoxically, the assigned objectives are going to be reached : the scattering of the American soldiers, whom join here and there groups of French Resistance fighters, is going to make the Germans destraught : the enemy is everywhere ! Especially, the determination of the men on the ground is going to turn out decisive. The legend, through, once more ” The longest day “, held the character of the 505th Lieutenant-colonel Benjamin Vandervoort, who, having broken itself his foot in the landing, (colonel Moseley, of the 502nd, broke himself his leg) refuse to be looked after, and requisitions a handcart, pulled by two men who are moreover misled from the 101st, to join lines of defence: such a character only could be interpreted by John Wayne ! (who had nevertheless initially refused the role, Charlton Heston being then anticipated).
Those of 501st, for their part, successfully seize their objective, the lock of La Barquette, on the Douve. With the contribution of the reinforcements of following waves, and the progressive gathering of the scattered elements, the 101st division manages at the end of the day to control all the accesses of Utah beach. At about 5 am, men of 505th, commanded by Lieutenant-colonel Krause, definitively take control of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Finally, by controlling the banks of the Merderet, on which take place violent fights, the 82nd locks too, in its sector, the accesses to Utah beach. All in all, in both divisions, the final toll is heavy : 338 deaths, about 900 wounded men, and, especially, about 2000 missing men.
The Airborne museum, in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, admirably relates this epic. We shall note there particularly the moving sculpture: “The day they came”.
In the East, the British parachutists quickly takes Pegasus Bridge
In the East, in the British sector, things take place fortunately much better. At Pegasus Bridge, a special group of assault made up of 6 gliders settles silently near bridges, which the British want to take intact. For the Germans, it’s a full surprise : the fight is violent, but short (5 minutes), the men of Major John Howard take control of the bridges, which were not mined, at 0:21 am. Begin then a long wait until the arrival of Lord Lovat’s commando squads (they will be there at 1 pm).
The anecdote will hold that the Gondrée house, a café, located close by, so became the first freed French house. Shortly before dawn, the 9th paratrooper Battalion of Lieutenant-colonel Terence Otway (3rd brigade) succeeds, with heavy losses (about 50 %), with 150 men only on 750 planned and without heavy support, to seize the battery of Merville, which controls the beach of Sword, and to destroy, after a hand-to-hand fight, all the pieces of ordnance. They will have to give up the position, which the Germans will reinvest 48 hours later, but, at the time of the landing, the battery is silenced. This feat of arm, with the seizing of the bridges and that of the pointe du Hoc, is considered as one of the biggest exploits of the D-day.
Constantly harassed, the British parachutists (among whom is also a Canadian battalion) push away successfully till the evening the German attacks, including that of the 21th Panzerdivision. The final toll of the day states 650 dead or wounded men, on more than 6200 parachuted or brought by gliders.
The vastest airborne operations of History
These airborne operations (to which it is necessary to add the parachuting of SAS in Brittany ) constitute the vastest never undertaken. Nevertheless, many persons in charge, in particular Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, assistant of Eisenhower for the Air operations, were not really convinced of their legitimacy. The Germans, from their part, after the battle of Crete, had given up it – they certainly succeeded, but with very heavy losses – and did not use any more the paras than as punctual complementary strength; and allied side, Sicily had not contributed to dissipate the doubts. The success of Albany, Boston – in spite, here again, of heavy losses – and especially of Tonga, will finally have forced the decision for the continuation. It is however the last time when we shall use so much gliders, the improvement of the parachuting techniques will eventually condemn them.