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The British Airborne Assault

Three Allied airborne divisions were allocated to the operations in Normandy: the British 6th Airborne Division, and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. (The fourth airborne division then available in the UK, the British 1st, was held in reserve.) The plan called for the first wave of the airborne assault to precede the seaborne landings during the early hours of D-Day, with the two US divisions being dropped in the area of Sainte Mere-Eglise, behind Utah Beach, to secure crossings over the River Merderet and to hold the River Douve as a barrier against German counter-attacks. 6th Airborne Division would meanwhile be dropped on the eastern flank of the invasion, between the Rivers Orne and Dives. Bridges over the Dives were to be destroyed and the river-line again held to defend against German reinforcements.

6th Airborne Division comprised three brigades, each of three battalions, plus a number of supporting units. Two brigades consisted of paratroopers from The Parachute Regiment and Canadian Parachute Regiment, while the third brigade was made up of glider-borne troops, the most heavily armed infantry units in the British Army.

6th Airborne Division - Major General R N Gale

  • 3 Parachute Brigade - Brigadier S J L Hill
    • 8th (Midland) Parachute Battalion - Lieutenant Colonel A S Pearson
    • 9th (Eastern & Home Counties) Parachute Battalion - Lieutenant Colonel T B H Otway
    • 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion - Lieutenant Colonel G F P Bradbrooke

  • 5 Parachute Brigade - Brigadier J H M Poett
    • 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion - Lieutenant Colonel R G Pine-Coffin
    • 12th Parachute Battalion - Lieutenant Colonel A P Johnston
    • 13th Parachute Battalion - Lieutenant Colonel P J Luard

  • 6 Airlanding Brigade - Brigadier The Hon H K M Kindersley
    • 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment - Lieutenant Colonel R Stevens
    • 2nd Battalion Ox and Bucks Light Infantry - Lieutenant Colonel M W Roberts
    • 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles - Lieutenant Colonel R J H Carson

  • Divisional Troops
    • 22 Independent Parachute Company - Pathfinders
    • 6th Airborne Division Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment - Tetrarch tanks
    • 53rd Airlanding Light Regiment Royal Artillery - pack howitzers
    • 2, 3 and 4 Airlanding Anti-tank Batteries - 6 pounder anti-tank guns
    • 2 Forward Observer Unit - artillery observation
    • 3 and 591 Parachute Squadrons, Royal Engineers
    • 249 Field Company Royal Engineers
    • 286 Field Park Company Royal Engineers
    • 63, 398 and 716 Companies, Royal Army Service Corps
    • 195 Airlanding Field Ambulance
    • 224 and 225 Parachute Field Ambulance
    • 6th Airborne Division Ordnance Field Park
    • 6th Airborne Division Workshop
    • 6th Airborne Division Provost Company - military police

The Plan

To deliver the airborne divisions to Normandy, a huge air transport force was required. The US Army Air Force deployed its IX Troop Carrier Command with Dakota transports, while the Royal Air Force contributed 38 Group and 46 Group. 38 Group, with 248 aircraft, comprised 10 squadrons of Albemarle, Stirling and Halifax bombers converted to tow gliders and drop paratroops, while 46 Group, with 175 aircraft, had 5 squadrons of Dakotas. The Army Air Corps had available 1492 glider pilots in the Glider Pilot Regiment to crew the wooden Horsa and Hamilcar gliders which were the only means of delivering heavy equipment such as anti-tank guns, artillery and vehicles, including Tetrarch light tanks.

However, even with all these aircraft, the three divisions simply could not be flown over in a single lift. In the case of 6th Airborne Division, several waves were planned for D-Day, with some troops coming by sea the following day.

6 June 0020 hours:

  • 22 Independent Parachute Company dropped as pathfinders to mark the drop zones;
  • Coup de Main group from D Company of 2 Ox & Bucks in six Horsa gliders to seize the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne at Benouville;
  • Advance parties of 3 and 5 Parachute Brigades.

6 June 0050 hours:

  • 3 Parachute Brigade, dropped from 108 Dakotas, with equipment in 17 Horsas;
  • 5 Parachute Brigade, dropped from 131 Dakotas and Stirlings.

6 June 0320 hours:

  • Divisional Headquarters, observer teams and an anti-tank battery to be landed in 65 Horsa and four Hamilcar gliders.

6 June 0430 hours:

  • 3 Horsa gliders to land on the coastal battery at Merville.

6 June 2100 hours:

  • HQ 6 Airlanding Brigade, remainder of 2 Ox & Bucks, 1 Royal Ulster Rifles, the Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment and a light artillery battery, delivered in 220 Horsa and 30 Hamilcar gliders.

7 June:

  • 12 Devons and remaining divisional troops would arrive by sea, landing on Sword Beach.
RAF Tarrant Rushton
Horsa and Hamilcar gliders drawn up ready on the runway at RAF Tarrant Rushton,
with their Halifax tugs positioned on either side

The two most important tasks for 6th Airborne were the capture of the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne, without which the paratroopers could not link up with troops advancing from the beaches, and the elimination of the coastal artillery battery at Merville, which it was feared could bring heavy fire down on Sword Beach.

To tackle the first task, a special glider-borne assault team was formed around D Company of the 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, under the command of Major R J Howard. Their mission was to capture a pair of bridges at Benouville where the road crossed the Caen Canal and the River Orne before the Germans could have the opportunity to blow them up or reinforce the defences. The advantage of using gliders for a coup de main operation of this sort was that each of the six Horsas could carry a complete platoon of infantry ready to go into immediate action on landing, unlike paratroopers who would land individually and have to muster on a drop zone before they formed a coherent unit. However, the success of the operation utterly depended on the glider pilots being able to land exactly on target next to the bridges, in the dark.

The coastal battery at Merville-Franceville Plage, across the Orne to the east of Sword Beach, was a formidable concrete bunker complex surrounded by minefields, barbed wire and machine-gun positions. Intelligence suggested it contained four heavy guns that could pose a serious threat to the Sword landings. 9 Para under Lt Col Otway was tasked with its capture. His men would have to gather on the drop zone some distance away and be in position to assault the battery before the seaborne landings began at dawn. Three Horsas would attempt to land on the battery itself at the same time as the paratroopers attacked.

While 9 Para dealt with Merville, the remainder of 3 Parachute Brigade was tasked with destroying the bridges over the River Dives to hold up the arrival of German reinforcements, particularly Panzer units. 1 Canadian Para were to destroy the bridges at Varaville and Robehomme, while 8 Para were to demolish a pair of bridges at Bures and one at Troarn. 5 Parachute Brigade were to reinforce the Ox & Bucks at Benouville, secure the area around Ranville against German counter-attacks and clear anti-glider obstructions from the fields so that the heavy equipment could be flown in later in the day.

Training and preparation were intense, under the strictest security. Corporal Jones of the Division's Intelligence Section constructed a plasticene model of the whole area of operations, while even more detailed models were made of the individual drop zones and landing zones, with every bomb crater carefully marked. A camera was "flown" over the models at the correct height and speed to produce briefing films for the aircrews to prepare them for their run-ins. The troops assigned to the Benouville attack practised on suitable bridges over the River Exe in Devon, while 9 Para rehearsed their mission at Merville on a full-scale replica built under the strictest secrecy. Security was the paramount consideration. The War Office history of the Airborne Forces, written in 1951 by Lt Col Otway (the commander at Merville) records:

"One unit even went so far as to employ some 30 attractive, well-dressed WAAFs in civilian clothes to test whether the troops could keep a secret. All concerned had an excellent time and the integrity of the troops was proved to be complete - at any rate as regards security…"

Paratroopers of 6th Airborne Division, including members of the Parachute Ambulance units, enjoy a last cigarette with RAF aircrew before boarding their transport
Paratroopers of 6th Airborne Division, including members of the Parachute Ambulance units,
enjoy a last cigarette with RAF aircrew before boarding their transport

D-Day

Late on 5 June, the first wave of aircraft took off, carrying the Pathfinders of 22 Independent Parachute Company, the two Para Brigade advance parties, and towing the Benouville gliders. The RAF glider-tug crews and the Army Air Corps glider pilots accomplished one of the most remarkable feats of airmanship of the war. Five out of the six Horsa gliders were released by their tugs in precisely the right spot over the French coast, and then descended blind through cloud to their targets, navigating by stop-watch and compass only. The glider pilots were only able to identify their landing points by moonlight in the last few seconds of approach. Three landed next to the Canal (Pegasus) bridge at 0016, while a fourth landed next to the River (Horsa) bridge, 150 yards up the road. The fifth glider came down within half a mile of its target. The sixth glider was the only one to go astray - it landed by mistake next to a bridge over the Dives, seven miles away.

The first glider down, flown by Staff Sergeants Wallwork and Ainsworth, had landed with such precision that it crushed the barbed wire defences next to the Canal bridge. The platoon aboard successfully rushed the bridge, although Lieutenant Brotheridge, the platoon commander, was killed. Similar success was enjoyed at the River bridge. The Royal Engineer team accompanying the Ox & Bucks inspected the bridges and found that while they had been prepared for demolition, the explosive charges had not yet been fitted. A patrol of three German tanks approached the bridge soon afterwards, but the lead vehicle was knocked out by Sergeant Thornton with a PIAT at very close range, and the other two quickly withdrew. The German officer responsible for the bridges arrived in his staff car and was taken prisoner.

Two of the three Horsas which landed exactly on target next to Pegasus Bridge
Two of the three Horsas which landed exactly on target next to Pegasus Bridge

As the Horsas descended on Benouville, Albemarles carrying the Pathfinders were attempting to identify the three parachute drop zones: K, N and V. Some pathfinders were dropped accurately on each of the three zones, but one team, intended for Zone K, landed on Zone N by mistake. Not realising the error, they proceeded to mark the field as if it were K. Meanwhile, all the radar and visual beacon equipment carried to mark Zone V, where 1 Canadian and 9 Para were supposed to land, was lost or damaged during the drop.

The main wave of paratroopers from 3 and 5 Para Bdes was about 30 minutes behind the Pathfinders. Within 5 Parachute Brigade, 7 Para was somewhat scattered during the drop, but by 0300 about 40% of the battalion had mustered at the Benouville bridges to reinforce Major Howard's company. 12 and 13 Para were similarly scattered, but were able to muster about 60% each before advancing on their objectives in the Ranville area, where they were joined by Maj Gen Gale's headquarters. A German counter-attack soon developed but was beaten off with a Panzer knocked out and a number of prisoners taken. The Germans brought up self-propelled guns and attacked Ranville again at 1045, breaking into the village before they were finally driven off. A third attack was mounted around 1300 and the situation grew critical. However, Lord Lovat's 1 Special Service Brigade of commandos had marched from Sword Beach to reach Pegasus Bridge and they quickly deployed across the bridges to reinforce the Paras at Ranville. The Germans were again beaten back, although at the cost of delaying the commandos advance on Merville-Franceville Plage to relieve 9 Para.

3 Parachute Brigade had suffered even greater confusion than 5 Para Bde during its drop. A few troops from the advance party jumped prematurely over the sea. Major Collingwood, the Brigade Major, endured a particularly harrowing experience. As he prepared to jump through the parachute hole in the Albemarle's fuselage, the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He fell through the hole, and the static line, meant to deploy his parachute, wrapped around his leg and left him dangling beneath the aircraft, laden with a 60lb kit-bag, battered by the slipstream. The Albemarle's crew succeeded after struggles lasting half an hour to pull him back into the damaged aircraft as it returned to its airfield. Undaunted, he joined one of the follow-on gliders and finally arrived safely in Normandy that evening.

As mentioned, none of the pathfinder beacons for drop zone V were working. 9 Para was very badly scattered as a result, and Lt Col Otway was only able to assemble 150 of his 700 men before advancing on the battery at Merville. Almost all of the equipment to support the attack had failed to arrive, including all his mortars and mine detectors. His scouts reported that a supporting attack by Bomber Command to suppress the battery had missed its target completely. Nevertheless he pressed on. The three Horsa gliders were en route, aiming to land on the battery as 9 Para began their attack. However, one of them had to turn back after its instruments failed, and the loss of Otway's mortar platoon (dropped in error several miles away near the Dives) meant that the mortar launched flares that were supposed to guide the gliders into the target could not be fired. One of the gliders landed three miles away, but the third came down quite close to the battery and its men joined Otway's attack as the paratroopers charged straight through the minefield, barbed wire and machine-gun fire. The assault over-ran the position, which proved to be held by 200 Germans, and demolition charges destroyed two out of the four guns and damaged the other two. But it had cost the Paras 65 casualties out of their 150. Their task accomplished, 9 Para withdrew towards the village of Le Plein but found it strongly held by the enemy. Although a few more men had now joined up with the battalion, bringing it up to a strength of about 100, they were only able to take about half the village, and the situation settled down to something of a stalemate. 9 Para were finally reinforced by 3 Commando on 7 June sufficiently to force the Germans to withdraw.

1 Canadian Para had shared zone V with 9 Para, and also suffered from dispersion. However, they faced much less opposition in carrying out their mission, and having successfully blown up the bridges at Varaville and Robehomme, moved to Le Mesnil to dig in with Brigadier Hill's headquarters. The Brigadier himself had been dropped off course, and while he and other men were moving across country during the day to reach their intended locations, they fell victim to an Allied bombing raid, suffering heavy casualties, Hill being wounded.

Sufficient men from 8 Para and their supporting Royal Engineer detachments made it to Bures to destroy the pair of bridges there. However, the troops advancing on the bridge at Troarn ran into enemy defences on the north of the town. Off to the west, seven Royal Engineers under Major Roseveare had commandeered a medical team's jeep and trailer to carry their demolition equipment, and in it charged through the streets, under heavy fire. They crashed into a road block at a level crossing, but extricated themselves with difficulty, reached the bridge and blew a gap in it before retreating to Le Mesnil on foot, where 8 Para had also closed up with the Brigade headquarters.

The main wave of gliders bringing heavy equipment went ahead at 2100 that evening largely as planned, thanks in large part to the clearance work to remove obstructions, although some of the Tetrarch light tanks from the Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment were immobilised after becoming fouled on the mass of parachute rigging littering the fields.

Paras of 6th Airborne en route to Normandy in an RAF transport
Paras of 6th Airborne en route to Normandy in an RAF transport

Consolidation and Breakout

Supported by the commandos of 1 Special Service Brigade, and reinforced by the arrival of 6 Airlanding Brigade by glider and by sea, 6th Airborne fought from 7 June to 16 August to consolidate their bridgehead on the east bank of the Orne and then to hold it against continuous and heavy attacks. The village of Breville proved particularly troublesome. It was strongly held by the Germans, overlooked the Ranville area, and split the British position. 153 Brigade of 51st (Highland) Division and 4 Special Service Brigade (Royal Marine Commandos) was moved up to support 6th Airborne, and the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch attempted an assault on Breville on 11 June. The attack proved a bloody failure, and the battalion's survivors dug in alongside 9 Para. German attacks from Breville on 12 June pressed hard on the Highlanders and Paras, and despite the wound he had suffered six days previously, Brigadier Hill personally led a company of the Canadian Paras in a counter-attack which stabilised the position. The Division's only available reserve was 12 Para, by now very weak with only 360 men. Nevertheless, it was clear that Breville had to be taken as soon as possible, and 12 Para attacked that night, supported by men from 12 Devons, the Pathfinders and a squadron of Sherman tanks from 13th/18th Hussars. Unfortunately, British artillery support fell short while the attack was forming up, killing the battalion commander and wounding Brigadiers Lord Lovat and Kindersley. The assault was pressed home through heavy German fire, and the village was finally taken, at a cost of 141 casualties from an already sadly diminished force.

The rest of 51(Highland) Division moved up to take over the southern part of the Orne bridgehead on 14 June, and the next two months then largely passed in static warfare with much sniping and the possibility of only very limited advances. The Princess Irene Royal Netherlands Brigade and Belgian Brigade reinforced 6th Airborne, and when the breakout south-east from Caen towards Falaise began on 16 August, the Division and the two Special Service Brigades attacked south and east between Cabourg on the coast and Troarn. By 22 August, the troops had pushed across the River Dives and the Dives Canal and reached the River Touques. Despite heavy resistance, especially at Pont L'Eveque, the river was crossed and 12 Devons dashed ahead to seize Honfleur on 25 August. By the time the Division halted its advance on 26 August, it had pushed the Germans back 45 miles in nine days to the River Seine, taking over 1,000 prisoners and liberating 400 square miles of France. 6th Airborne was pulled out of the line and shipped back to England at the beginning of September to rebuild itself. It had suffered in Normandy 821 men killed, 2,709 wounded, and 927 missing.

Last Updated: 22 Nov 05