American airborne operations in Normandy
Photo galleries of airborne operations in Normandy
Organization of operation Boston
Operation Boston is the troop transport mission of the 82nd Airborne Division commanded by General Ridgway. Its aim is to enable US paratroopers to capture several key points during the night of June 5-6, 1944, to ensure the success of the amphibious operations on Utah Beach on D-Day. Three major objectives are defined by the Allies: seize the roads linking the beach to the inland, seize the key points of the terrain, hold the road nodes and localities of the area and finally control the bridges on the Merderet and the Douve rivers. These actions are carried out in conjunction with the 101st Airborne Division of General Taylor, also parachuted in Normandy.
Unlike the 101st, the 82nd division has already been deployed in operations, in Sicily (operation Husky) and in Italy (operation Avalanche). One of his regiments, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), did not have time to complete his operational training to participate in Overlord and was replaced by two units: the 507th PIR and the 508th PIR. However, some elements of the 504th PIR strengthen the division.
The 82nd organizes its deployment on the Normandy territory in three phases: first, the assault of its parachutist regiments on D-Day; second, the reinforcement of its glider regiment on D+1 (June 7, 1944) and finally the landing on Utah Beach of its ultimate elements transported by sea from England. Operation Boston is part of the first phase of the attack.
The assault of the 82nd is divided into three stages taking place during 24 hours on D-Day: the actions begin with Boston (01:20 am, June 6, 1944), continue with operation Detroit (4 am) and end with operation Elmira (9 pm).
The vectors of the Boston mission are 370 C-47 Dakota aircraft belonging to the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW) based in Cottesmore. 52nd TCW consists of the following transport groups: the 61st Transport Carrier Group (TCG) located in Barkston, the 313th TCG in Folkingham, the 314th TCG in Salby, the 315th in Spanhoe and the 316th TCG in Cottesmore.
These aircraft are responsible for transporting the pathfinders and the bulk of the division, 6,420 parachutists. Each of the paratrooper infantry regiments is embarked on board three to four formations (called “serials”) of aircraft. These serials are composed according to the cases of 36, 45 or 54 C-47 and are spaced apart by six minutes on the drop zone. On board the Dakota, the paratroopers form a “stick” of 15 to 18 men according to the equipment transported.
|Dakota C-47 training in southern England prior to D-Day. Photo: US National Archives|
The 82nd Airborne Division must land in the Cotentin Peninsula west of the RN 13 on three drop zones (DZ): DZ “N” north of Pont-l’Abbé and Picauville is for the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (2,188 paras), in charge of destroying two bridges on the Douve river at Pont-l’Abbé and Beuzeville-la-Bastille while controlling the western edge of the Merderet river, DZ “O” West of Sainte-Mère-Eglise for the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (2,120 paras) in order to capture this locality which represents a particularly important road node, and finally DZ “T” north of Amfreville and to the east of Gourbesville for the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment (2,004 paras) which must hold the west bank of the Merderet. The entire DZ of the 82nd Airborne Division represents an area of 26 square kilometers.
|Pathfinders of the 1st Battalion of the 505th PIR before the big jump. Photo: US National Archives|
The DZs must be prepared by the pathfinders who are responsible for tagging them to guide the aircraft during their approach phase. They are equipped with “Eureka” beacons that send pulses picked up by the “Rebecca” transceivers installed under the fuselage of the C-47s. The Pathfinders teams consist of a leader, four signal operators and four paratroopers responsible for the team security during operations. They are dropped into enemy territory without initial marking, simply based on terrain observation and navigation calculations on the Dakota.
The C-47s are scheduled to take off early Monday, June 5, 1944 from the various airfields.
The Americans of the 82nd Airborne Division are opposed to the Grenadier Regiment 1058 and the Artillery-Regiment 191 of the 91. Luftlande Infanterie-Division (commanded by General Wilhelm Falley), as well as to Grenadier-Regiment 919 of the 709. Infantry Division.
|The latest checks for these paratroopers before embarkation. Photo: US National Archives|
Pathfinders of the 82nd Airborne Division
The first serials carrying the Pathfinders took off from England at 10.40 pm on June 5, 1944. The approach axis of the planes was on a southwest-northeast axis and the squadrons made a vast bypass of the Channel Islands in order to take the right trajectory. Once above the Cotentin Peninsula, the pilots of the C-47s face an important cloud mass and a thick fog on the ground that mask the Norman landscape and make orientation work difficult. To this must be added the firings of the Flak, the German anti-aircraft artillery.
|Pathfinders of the 2nd Battalion of the 507th PIR before the big jump. Photo: US National Archives|
Unlike what was done during operation Albany conducted by the 101st Airborne Division, Boston mission pilots choose to fly above the cloud mass, which allows them to avoid German shooting to the maximum. On the other hand, they no longer benefit from the landmarks. On the way, a Gammon grenade carried by a paratrooper belonging to the first battalion of the 505th PIR exploded before the start of operations: three paratroopers were killed and the Dakota of the 315th TCG was unable to continue its mission, it could no longer parachute its stick.
|Pathfinders of the 3rd Battalion of the 508th PIR before the big jump. Photo: US National Archives|
Pathfinders encounter serious difficulties during the parachuting, which causes serious complications for the subsequent parachute drops, although the situation of the 82nd is much less critical than that of the pathfinders of the 101st. To mark the jump zone of the 505th PIR, DZ “O”, the three teams are dropped to the right place and start their work immediately after landing. The Pathfinders of the 507th are much less fortunate: the Germans, alerted by the first parachutages of the 101st Airborne, patrol in the area from the Château Gris near Amfreville: while the three teams managed to set up Eureka equipment, only one of them (stick number 2 led by Lieutenant Charles Ames) manages to activate the markings on the DZ “T”. Pathfinders of the 508th land under the same conditions and must also face the presence of German soldiers on their jump zone, DZ “N”.
|Gathering before embarking the 307th Medical company. Photo: US National Archives|
The excellent drop on the drop zone “O”
Approaching at high altitude, pilots are forced to perform several circles near the drop zone as they do not distinguish the red lights from the pathfinders. Rebecca beacons from the C-47s do not receive emissions from the Eureka beacons. After a few minutes of flight and once the altitude is reduced, the Dakota activate the green light on board which allows the paratroopers to make the big jump. However, the second battalion is dropped at a higher altitude than the recommendations.
|Pathfinders of the 2nd Battalion of the 505th PIR before the big jump. Photo: US National Archives|
The parachutes on DZ “O” after the arrival of the pathfinders start at 01:51. With all beacons in place, the 118 sticks are delivered in excellent conditions and the 505th PIR records the best results of all US airborne regiments deployed during the night of June 5-6, 1944: 60 Sticks (50% of the regiment) land on target or within one kilometer of the center of the drop zone and 20 sticks are within a circle of three kilometers radius around the DZ. In total, 75% of the 505th PIR is close to its rally point. The other elements are scattered in the Cotentin region.
Paratroopers of the 505th PIR are accompanied by the division’s staff, the 307th Engineer and the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion (PFAB) with its two howitzers.
|Pathfinders of the 3rd Battalion of the 505th PIR before the big jump. Photo: US National Archives|
Major Frederick C.A. Kellam commanding the 1st Battalion of the 505th PIR takes the direction of the La Fière bridge on the Merderet river and one of his company (Company A of Lieutenant John Dolan) is to seize the causeway crossing the marshes until Cauquigny. Lieutenant-Colonel Vandervoort, commanding the 2nd battalion of the 505th PIR, broke his left ankle on landing but did not stop there: he advanced his elements in the direction of Neuville-au-Plain, two kilometers North-east of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The 3rd battalion, which touches the soil of Normandy from 2:03 am. Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Krause, it goes towards the south in direction of Sainte-Mère-Eglise.
|Lieutenant-Colonel Vandervoort, leader of 2/505th, with his crutches in Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte. Photo: US National Archives|
Inside Sainte-Mère-Eglise, a fire broke out in the house of Madame Pommier around 11 pm on June 5th. Transformed into a huge brazier a few minutes later in spite of the efforts of the inhabitants to extinguish it, this fire serves as a reference point in the night to the American pilots. Shortly after 01:50, a stick of F company of the second battalion of the 505th PIR was mistakenly dropped over the town: the Germans, already alerted twenty minutes earlier by the release of two sticks of the 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne on the Place of the church, start shooting on the American paras. At least one member of Fox Company falls into the blaze of the flaming home, Private Blanckenship. The parachutes of soldiers Steele and Russel cling to the church and only the latter manages to get out of this bad step. John Steele remained hanging on the bell tower for 45 minutes, injured by an ammunition shell during his jump, before being taken prisoner by the Germans: the lines of his parachute were cut by soldier Rudolf May, who stayed in the church steeple during the battle.
Operation Boston map
(Click on picture to enlarge)
The 3rd battalion of the 505th PIR under the command of Krause enters Sainte-Mère-Eglise at 4 o’clock in the morning. A few minutes later, the paratroopers float the American flag at the town hall; Krause reports at 5 o’clock that he is inside the town and at 6 o’clock that Sainte-Mère-Eglise is under his control.
The failure of drop zone “T”
Serials dedicated to DZ “T” face an important anti-aircraft artillery barrage during their flight over the Cotentin Peninsula. These shots, which are not very precise but very numerous, disorient the pilots and cause a feeling of panic within the formations held by the C-47s. The parachuting of the 507th PIR takes place in very bad conditions: only 3 sticks land in the immediate vicinity of the DZ. The others are dispersed in the region, particularly in the marshes around the Merderet river, and 180 paratroopers are dropped more than 20 kilometers from their drop zone near Graignes. Unlike the 505th PIR, the 507th PIR carried out the worst drop of American airborne troops on the night of June 5-6, 1944.
|A para drowned in the marshes of the Merderet by less than a meter of water. Photo: US National Archives|
General James M. Gavin, second-in-command of the 82nd Airborne, lands less than a kilometer northeast of Amfreville and heads east towards the railroad that runs north to south accross the marshes of the Merderet. He is accompanied by Colonel Lindquist who commands the 508th PIR, Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin J. Ostberg (1st Battalion of the 507th PIR – 1/507) and several other paratroopers.
The 507th PIR corps commander, Colonel George V. Millet, gathers forty paras and heads south first of the locality of Amfreville to seize it. But the German resistance, located to the west at the place called Les Landes, is particularly strong whereas American means are too limited. The paratroopers retreat several hundred meters to the west of Les Landes.
The 1/507 is scattered in the marshes of the Merderet river. Some of them drown at landing, sometimes in less than a meter of water. Isolated, many are taken prisoners or killed in the early hours of the assault. Nevertheless, Ostberg and some 150 paratroopers of his unit advance south along the railway in the direction of La Fière, held by company A of the 505th PIR. They reinforce the defensive positions from the heights east of the causeway and the bridge over the Merderet.
Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Timmes, commander of the 2nd battalion of the 507th PIR, manages to gather only thirty paratroopers after his landing. He is also heading towards Amfreville and attacks this village from the east but must break contact with a more numerous opponent. He retreats northeast of Motey and installs a 360° defensive position for the night.
As for the 3rd battalion of the 507th PIR, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur A. Maloney, the situation is catastrophic. While he manages to gather some paras in the area of La Fiere, 20 of his sticks (nearly 150 paratroopers) are dropped by mistake at Graignes, south of Carentan, shortly after 2 am. Totally lost and isolated from the rest of the regiment, these men await the dawn to locate themselves and decide to stay in the locality until reinforcements arrive.
|Aerial view of the La Fière causeway in 1944. Photo: US National Archives|
At the dawn of June 6, 1944, the 507th PIR is scattered in many different sectors: to the west of the Landes where its corps commander is located, east of Amfreville, in the marshes of Merderet, in La Fière and the 181 isolated paras at Graignes. Approximately 30 sticks are parachuted into the areas of responsibility of the 101st Airborne and these men are temporarily attached to this division in the early hours of D-Day. The regiment is unable to fulfill its mission of controlling the North-west approaches of the La Fiere causeway.
Drop zone “N”
The first Dakota aircraft transporting the 508th PIR have a correct angle of approach to DZ “N” but the rest of the drivers do not follow, mainly because of the German Flak’s disorganization of the flight formations. Parachuting takes place between 02:08 and 02:20 at a height that is far too high, at 700 meters altitude (while that of the 101st Airborne is carried out at 150 meters). As a result of the difficulties encountered by the pilots, 33 of the 132 sticks of the 508th PIR land less than a kilometer away from the jump zone. Half of the regiment’s paratroopers (about 65 sticks) are not able to accomplish their mission either because they land more than 15 kilometers from the DZ or because they are completely isolated and lost in the night.
The 508th PIR can not act organically with its three battalions. It is organized into four groups of circumstances: the “L” group led by Colonel Lindquist, the group “W by Major Warren, the group” S “by Lt. Col. Shanley and the group” G ” Headed by two captains, Novak and Simonds, consisting of isolated parachutists encountered at random from the progressions and ranging in size from about thirty to nearly 200 men.
|A stick from the HQ company, 508th PIR, dropped more than 7 km northeast of its drop zone, is proceeding south towards its assembly area along the cemetery of Saint-Marcouf. Photo: US National Archives|
Group “L” takes the direction of Pont-l’Abbé, its initial objective, but is blocked all night by the Germans defending the road through the marshes of the Merderet river. The group “W” is located to the south of DZ “N” and seizes the heights south of Gueutteville, a position originally devolved to the 1st battalion, and settles defensive positions until dawn. The Germans counterattack several times these paras that hold on. The “S” group, composed of about thirty men, operates in the same sector as group “W” south of Gueutteville and seizes hill 30. Finally, “G” group was given the task of capturing on the morning of D-Day the bridge over the Merderet located south-west of Chef-du-Pont in order to place itself on the cover.
|Captain Kenneth Johnson of the HQ Company of the 508th PIR interrogates civilians in Ravenoville. Photo: US National Archives|
The misfortune encountered by the men of the 508th PIR during the parachuting with the scattering of the sticks is temporarily put in brackets by the unexpected action of a group of a dozen paras directed by the lieutenants Malcom Brannen, head of the HQ company of the 3rd battalion, and Harold V. Richard of Acompany, 1st battalion, also reinforced by two artificers of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion. Shortly after four o’clock in the morning, the paratroopers sought information from Norman civilians living on the La Minoterie farm, two kilometers northeast of Pont-l’Abbé, when a car was heard on the road. The driver refused to stop, the Americans opened fire and the car was set in a wall of the farm. On board was Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley, commander of the 91. Luftlande Infanterie-Division. A Major is also killed while a corporal is taken prisoner.
Despite the efforts of the officers of the 508th PIR to accomplish their mission, the regiment’s front line is largely permeable, and German troops enter it on the morning of June 6th. The latter counter-attack at Cauquigny to retake the bridge of La Fière. Very violent fights take place there all day.
Results of operation Boston
The record of operation Boston is half-tinged. The 82nd Airborne Division records both the most accurate (DZ “O”) and the most inaccurate drops (DZ “T”). Of the three regiments dropped over Normandy, only the 505th PIR manages to fulfill its mission globally, while the 507th and 508th PIR are not able to ensure an homogeneous front line on the west bank of the Merderet. The various missions included in operation Boston are not all completed but the 82nd Airborne Division holds the key places despite the difficulties encountered during the drop.
The casualties within the division are high: on the evening of 6 June 1944, 195 paratroopers lost their lives. Although the first battles between the Americans and the Germans caused several victims, many paratroopers drowned in the marshes of the Merderet, deliberately flooded by the Germans to prevent both airborne actions and the installation of a bridgehead in the Cotentin Peninsula.
The Germans are at first disrupted and disorganized by the airborne assault, the dispersion of paratroopers causing them to lose a lot of reaction time: they act in multiple places without real coordination and essentially realize actions of opportunity. They do not take advantage of the plight of the Americans who are in an extremely unfavorable position. The death of General Falley in no way adjusts the German situation of the Cotentin.
The paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne are reinforced at 4 am by additional equipment and personnel transported by gliders as part of operation Detroit. In addition to airborne soldiers, reinforcements include heavy armaments, special equipment for engineers and nurses, as well as light vehicles.
The German reaction is organized at daybreak: the causeway of La Fière becomes a priority objective for both camps and very violent clashes take place there throughout the day of June 6. The American defensive positions of the 507th and 508th PIR being heterogeneous to the west of the Merderet, the Germans infiltrating them without too many difficulties, but they meet the tenacity of the paratroopers who still hold. Their courage allows to hold the lock of La Fière and prevent their opponents from using this road to join the east bank of the Merderet.
|Remains of the fighting of La Fière on 7 June 1944. Photo: US National Archives