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The Airborne attack on D-Day, Normandy, 6th June 1944

Updated on October 18, 2011
Soldiers waiting to embark on a glider to take them to Normandy
Soldiers waiting to embark on a glider to take them to Normandy

The Airborne Attack

During the 5th June, the Allied fleet assembled near the Isle of Wight and Weymouth. A vast array of ships of all sizes carried large companies of soldiers, behind them were ships towing large blocks of concrete for harbours and behind them the warships to bombard the coastal defences with their heavy guns.

That night the force headed for France sailing through a westerly gale. The sound of the wind was sometimes enough to still the noise of the 10,000 aircraft flying overhead to bomb the enemy and allow the Airborne troops to parachute in to enemy territory.

Shortly after midnight British Pathfinders touched down near Caen, establishing dropping zones for the Airborne Division. Minutes afterwards the gliders started to arrive with commandos parachuting out of them. Some of the men ended their lives with that jump.

The British Airborne Division had been tasked with establishing a bridgehead across the river Orne and the Caen canal. This bridgehead halfway between the coast and Caen would protect the side of the eastern seaborne landings.

When the paratroopers jumped they were immediately the target of the enemy on landing. Many of those who landed safely were immediately on the attack to defend themselves. Those who landed in the trees became targets for German snipers.

Success started to arrive for the Allies. An airborne battalion captured the village and chateau of Ranville destroying a German infantry company and 3 tanks. The Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry held out for most of the day against German counter attacks and the crossings over the Orne river were captured.

The next obstacles were the bridges at Bures and Troan. The soldiers were split into two groups and well supplied with explosives they made their way to the bridges. The bridge at Bures was blown up without difficulty unlike the bridge at Troan. The bridge at Troan was knocked out by a brave group of soldiers who drove their jeep, through a hail of German bullets, to the bridge and blew it up, thereafter escaping into the darkness.

The weakness of the German forces was illustrated by incidents such as the following, One battalion, near Ranville was heavily outnumbered facing German armour and guns firing at 70 yards. The Battalions only heavy gun had been smashed on landing and they were suffering many casualties. In the middle of the morning the German armour stopped firing and moved off. It was being sent to cover the attacks from the invasion forces on the Normandy beaches as the defence was so thin in the area.

The battery at Merville
The battery at Merville

The Assault on Merville

The airborne units were tasked with destroying the powerful Merville Battery which threatened the eastern flank of the attacking sea based invasion forces. The guns were a mammoth task. They were housed in concrete gun emplacements which were over six feet thick and surrounded by earthworks and steel doors. The battery was defended by a strong force commanding over twenty machine guns and other weapons. The whole battery was surrounded by barbed wire and minefields.

The Air foce had tried to bomb the guns but even though they had direct hits hey had failed to destroy the guns. If bombs could not do it then it would be unlikely that the naval guns would make any impression. A scattered group of 150 men with few supplies other than a machine fun and some explosives were grouped together in one command by a battalion commander.

The original plan had been for a reconnaissance party to cut through the enemy wire clear three paths throguh the minefield and mark them with tape to show safe routes, This had been done. The second part of the plan had been for three gliders to crash land on top of the guns but the gliders lost their ways and were brought down by enemy gunfire.

As dawn broke the attack troops reached the battery. Following the tapes they made it through the wire to the enemy. There followed a hand to hand battle in which the guns were silenced, Of the 150 paratroopers who went into action, 67 died and another 30 were wounded.

The British Airborne Division had captured its targets and established a bridgehead across the Caen canal and the Orne and had blocked all roads to the east.

The American Airbourne

Two American Airborne divisions were dropped at the western end of the assault coast. The plan to drop them on target went wrong, Many of the Pathfinders failed to find the dropping zones or lit beacons in the wrong places. Glider pilots, under pressure and inexperienced overshot or missed their dropping zones. As a result the paratroopers were scattered over a wide stretch of flooded country and the strength of the two divisions had melted away. There were a large number of small battles often with casualties as the American Airborne strove to reform their battalion. It was a time of confusion and bewilderment. However the Germans were also confused because their commanded had been killed, they had no leadership and paratroopers seemed to be appearing from everywhere and the Germans had no idea how strong the forces were.

The American Airborne Divisions were tasked with seizing the exits of the causeways over the flooded plains behind the beaches, and to establish bridgeheads across the River Douve. However they were not successful. The only clear action was at Saint Mere Eglise, where one regiment landed on target and, after fierce fighting captured the town. At Pouppeville, behind the beaches there was a bitter house to house battle until the enemy surrendered.

The main assault forces were now landing and moving off the beaches thanks to the actions of the Airbourne Divisions.


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