Airborne operations during the Normandy landings
6th Airborne Division battle order
Flights and transport plan
Global framework of Operation Tonga
In order to secure their left flank during the Normandy landing against a possible German counter-attack, the Allies decided to engage an airborne division on the eastern shore of the Orne to hold the ground pending the amphibious offensive. The British 6th Airborne Division was selected to fulfill this mission which was not merely a shield to protect the flanks of Operation Overlord: once the city of Caen under allied control, this airborne unit will have to relaunch the offensive in the direction of the Seine river.
|Queen Elizabeth visiting paratroopers on May 19, 1944. Photo: Corporal Jones of the 22nd Independent Parachute Co. Photo: IWM|
On June 1st, 1944, the 6th Airborne Division was composed of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades (respectively under the command of Brigadier James Hill and Brigadier Nigel Poett), the 6th Airlanding Brigade on gliders under the command of Brigadier, the Honourable Hugh Kindersley, 6th Airborne Armored Reconnaissance Regiment commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Godfrey Stewart and several support units (engineering, communications, medics, equipment and train). The unit was strong of about 5,250 men.
The unit was transported by groups 38 and 46 of the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.), specially detached for Operation Overlord. Since these two forces did not have sufficient numbers of vectors to transport the entire 6th Airborne to its various drop points, the mission was broken down into two waves: the first (named Operation Tonga) dedicated to the main objectives, compulsorily completed before the landing on the beaches, the second (Operation Mallard) dedicated to the secondary objectives. Approximately 20 hours separated the two operations, allowing the pilots of the R.A.F. to make a round trip in good conditions.
|Horsa gliders on 5 June 1944 in England. Photo: IWM|
The 6th Airborne Division was transported by Dakota C-47, Albermarle or Stirling aircraft. These aircraft allow airborne operations but also gliderborn operations: the British used Horsa and Hamilcar gliders of operations Tonga and Mallard, Hamilcar gliders being capable of transporting Tetrarch light tanks.
Airborne troops have been preparing since June 1942 and for nearly two years they were learning and perfecting their airborne know-how on training objectives that were similar to what awaited them in Normandy. Some objectives were even reconstructed at the actual scale from aerial photographs. A full-day day exercise took place in the Welford aerodrome area on 2 March 1944 with the commitment of 97 gliders (only three of them missed their landing zone). Another exercise took place on April 23rd 1944, gathering 185 gliders in Brize Norton, Harwell and Southrop. Training was stopped on June 1st, 1944, the personnel being ready for the real action.
Operation Tonga objectives
Given that Operation Tonga was the first of the two assault waves of the 6th Airborne Division, the missions aimed at surprising the opponent and taking control of several key points on the ground.
|Executives from the 22nd Independent Parachute Company listening to the briefing of their mission. Photo: IWM|
Three objectives are defined:
– First, the two bridges on the Orne river (Bénouville) and the Caen canal (Ranville), which represent the entrance and exit gate of the left allied side, have to be under Allied control and remain intact. This mission (operation Deadstick, also known as Coup de Main Party) is under the responsibility of D company (2nd Ox & Bucks) led by Major Howard, as well as the 7th battalion of the 5th Brigade. The capture of the Bénouville bridge is defined “Euston I” mission while that of the Ranville bridge is known as “Euston II” mission.
|British paratroopers camouflage their faces and hands before embarking. Photo: IWM|
– Secondly, Merville’s battery, a potential threat to the landing beach codenamed Sword, had to be silenced before the beginning of the landing operations. This mission was entrusted to a detachment of the 9th Battalion under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Otway, belonging to the 3rd Brigade.
|Aboard a Horsa glider on 5 June 1944 in England before departure. Photo: IWM|
– Thirdly, five bridges to the east of the Orne river must be destroyed to disrupt the Germans and prevent a major counter-attack from this area, while holding this particular ground to prepare localized counter-offensives. This mission was to be carried out by the 1st Canadian Paratrooper Battalion and the 8th and 9th British battalions of the 3rd Brigade.
|“The Channel stopped you, but not us” on a Horsa glider on 5 June 1944 in England. Photo IWM|
For this purpose, five zones are defined for the gliders – Landing Zone (LZ) – and air parachuting – Drop Zone (DZ): DZ “K” north of Sannerville, LZ “N” located in the Ranville area, DZ “V” west of Varaville, LZ “X” southeast of the Bénouville bridge and LZ “Y” northwest of the Ranville bridge.
|Paratroopers are about to embark in a Stirling Mk 4. Photo: IWM|
Pathfinders and Major Howard with D Company were scheduled to begin deployment starting at 12:20 pm on D-Day (operations Euston I and Euston II), while the other elements of the division were expected on their drop zone and to land as of 00:50. All missions had to be completed before the sunrise began, that is to say before 05:58 on Tuesday, June 6, 1944.
|A towed Horsa glider takes off for Normandy at the end of the evening on 5 June 1944. Photo: IWM|
The course of operation Tonga
On the night of 4 to 5 June 1944, 24 hours before the general assault, nine parachutists were dropped near the LZ “X” and “Y”. They were instructed to contact the local resistance of which one of the members was holding a coffee in Bénouville, Louis Picot.
|General Gale addresses his men before leaving for Normandy. Photo: IWM|
On June 5, a few hours before embarking on planes and gliders, General Gale addressed the men of his division and encouraged them one last time before the start of operation Overlord. Within hours, the paratroopers were given new sleeveless jump uniforms and began their preparation: perception of the ammunition, camouflage of the hands and the face, control of the parachutes, last reminders and ultimate instructions for the actions to be carried out. The first aircraft took off at around 22:50 (the last one around 23:30) and headed towards Normandy.
|General Gale addresses his men at RAF Harwell Airfield before embarking. Photo: IWM|
The weather conditions were favorable but visibility was poor: clouds temporarily hide the moon and pilots encountered serious difficulties in flying towards targets they had seen at best only by observing aerial reconnaissance photographs. Major Howard and his D company were flying over the Orne River starting at midnight on June 6, 1944. The first of the three Horsa gliders landed at 00:16 within 50 meters of the Bénouville bridge, the Pegasus Bridge. The next two followed respectively at 00:17 and 00:18. Of the three Horsa gliders planned for mission Euston II (Ranville Bridge, also known as Horsa Bridge), only two reached their landing zone: the pilot of the third glider has confused the two bridges on the Orne with those Of Périers-en-Auge and landed ten kilometers to the northeast. But Lieutenant Dennis Fox managed to seize the Horsa Bridge and Major Howard sent his famous coded reporting the success of his mission: “Ham and Jam”. He had then to await the arrival of amphibious troops shortly after noon.
|The glider n°1 on D-Day near the Pegasus bridge in Bénouville. Photo: IWM|
|Glider n°2 in the foreground before glider n°1 on D-Day near the Pegasus bridge in Bénouville. Photo: IWM|
The pathfinders then jumped on DZ “K”, “N” and “V” as of 12:20. They installed the Eureka beacons and the Aldis lamps to mark the rest of the unit. If the mission of the Pathfinders went successful on both DZ “K” and “V”, only two teams reached the initial position on DZ “N”. At 00:50, 110 Albermarle and Stirling bombers of the 38th Group and 146 C-47 Dakota of the 46th Group were able to drop the paratroopers and the gliders. 2 Stirling of the 5th Brigade were shot down by the German Flak.
Once on the ground, airborne battalions lost long minutes and sometimes long hours to regroup. The Germans responded by sending patrols along the Orne river and in the area of Ranville where airborne operations were reported. At 02:00 am, Hauptmann (captain) Wagemann (duty officer) put the 21. Panzer-Division on alert level 2 (response capability in less than an hour and a half): five minutes later, the 1. Panzerjaeger Kompanie of the 716. Infanterie-Division left Biéville to patrol along the Caen canal towards the bridges of Bénouville and Ranville, while mortar shells were fired from Ranville to the DZ “N”.
|British paratroopers aboard a C-47 Dakota en route to Normandy. Photo: IWM|
Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Luard’s 13th Battalion (5th Brigade) seized Ranville, while Major Cramphorn’s 521st Parachute Squadron RE Company began clearing DZ “N”. The Germans had installed “Rommel’s asparagus”, wooden poles particularly dangerous for gliders. The clearing work ended only a few minutes before the arrival of the first gliders at 03:35.
|Aerial view of the Merville battery and the consequences of the bombings. Photo: IWM|
Elements of the 9th Battalion (3rd Brigade) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway gathered at the rendezvous point after their parachuting which took place around 03:00: of the 700 parachutists, only 150 were present, without the necessary heavy equipment. Others were lost in the marshes, the wind pushing them farther west during the jump. Otway, 90 minutes behind the planned schedule and only one hour before the fire support of HMS Arethusa (scheduled in case of failure of the mission), launched the assault of the battery of Merville at 04:30. Fifteen minutes later, after a particularly violent fight, he fired a yellow flare to signal to Arethusa that the mission was a success. At 05:00, the guns (of 100 mm and not of 150 as initially envisaged) were neutralized. 70 of his men were unable to fight after the assault: Otway broke contact and settled in defensive positions around the castle of Amfreville (which no longer exists), having suffered many losses.
Meanwhile, General Gale, transported by glider, landed on DZ “N” and installed his command post at the Castle de Heaume at the Bas de Ranville.
The 6th Airborne paratroopers in charge of the destruction of the bridges went towards their objectives once a maximum of their elements were gathered. The first bridge to be attacked was that of Robehomme, destroyed at 6:00 am by paratroopers of the 1st Canadian Battalion led by Lieutenant Jack Inman. Then came the turn of the road bridge of Bures-sur-Dives, destroyed by the second section of the 3rd Parachute Squadron RE. The Varaville bridge was destroyed at 08:30 by the men of Sergeant Davies of C company, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, with the help of the sappers of the 3rd Parachute Squadron RE. The railway bridge of Bures-sur-Dives was reached at 09:15, destroyed By the men of Lieutenant Shave of the third section of the 3rd Parachute Squadron RE.
|The Pegasus Bridge, one of the most valuable bridges of the Battle of Normandy. Photo: IWM|
The fifth bridge, that of Troarn, was destroyed at 15:00 on D-Day by sappers led by Captain Jukes after having been damaged during the night by the bold action of Major Tim Roseveare. The latter, commanding the 3rd Parachute Squadron RE, learned on 6 June around 04:00 that the village of Troarn was held by elements of the 21. Panzerdivision, heavily armed. He then developed a bold raid with the help of a Jeep and his trailer in which he carried 900 kilos of explosives, 45 detonators, a lieutenant and seven sappers. Crossing the main street of Troarn at full speed under heavy fire, which could trigger the detonators at any moment, they reached the bridge and immediately went to work. Five minutes later, they blew up the explosive which have dug a large hole in the middle of the bridge, without destroying it entirely. When falling back and in haste, sapper Peachey felt from the trailer and was made prisoner by the Germans.
At daybreak, the 6th Airborne Division heard the aerial and naval bombardment of the beaches and awaited the arrival of the amphibious troops. All night and during the morning, the Germans tested the British defensive positions around the bridges of Bénouville and Ranville, attacking the resistance points with mortar shells. The men of Major Howard had little heavy equipment and the wounded were more and more numerous. Shortly after 10 am, when several British parachutists who had lost their way in the area rallied to Howard’s position, three German VP Boot gunboats fleeing the landing at Ouistreham to join Caen came face to face with the bridge: almost without hesitation, Major Howard and his men opened fire with all available ammunition: the first gunboat exploded and sank immediately. The second, hit by a P.I.A.T., ran aground on the shore a few hundred meters away (right bank) and his crew was taken prisoner, while the third managed to turn back to Ouistreham.
Then the Germans decided to destroy the bridge of Bénouville by an air attack. A Junker 88 managed to drop his bomb with precision on the bridge without exploding: it felt into the river.
|Commando No. 4 crosses the Pegasus Bridge (drawing by M. Chauvet).|
The French commandos arrived from Sword Beach in the morning, accompanied by British soldiers of the 1st Special Service Brigade commanded by Lord Lovat – the latter accompanied by the famous bagpiper Bill Millin. The junction was carried out at 13 hours 32 minutes with Howard’s men by having 2 minutes 30 seconds behind the scheduled schedule, which Lovat took the trouble to apologize.
For the other battalions of the 6th Airborne, the situation was critical and the losses were particularly heavy. The rapid advance of amphibious troops of the British 3rd Infantry Division coming from Sword Beach restored morale to airborne paratroopers.
Results of operation Tonga
Generally speaking, the quality of the pilots’ work during the night drops and glider transport allowed the 6th Airborne Division to carry out precise and fast actions while totally surprising the Germans. All of the objectives essential to the success of Operation Tonga are met in time thanks to the preparatory work and courage of the British soldiers engaged in the battle.
The unit suffered many casualties during the night and on the morning of June 6th, which temporarily threatened the continuation of its action on the left flank of the allied invasion. Operation Mallard, which began on D-Day at 21:00, considerably strengthend the British positions east of the Orne river. On the evening of June 6, the situation of the 6th Airborne Division remained particularly precarious in front of the firepower of the 21. Panzerdivision.
|The arrival of the Hamilcar gliders on LZ “N” as part of Operation Mallard. Photo: IWM|
The overall logic of the airborne actions carried out simultaneously over such a large area was beyond the control of the German General Staff, which had to deal with the temporary absence of leading officers on the front. This was one of the unexpected consequences of the dispersal of the Allied units to the east of the Orne river: the Germans did not understand the real intentions of the British paratroopers, wasting time testing the defensive positions of the airborne units. The opponents of the British troops reacted too late (about 10:00 on D-Day) and their actions lacked co-ordination to actually threaten the entire allied action on its left flank.