Operation Chicago

American airborne operations in Normandy

Photo galleries of airborne operations in Normandy

Organization of operation Chicago

Operation Chicago (also known as “mission Chicago”) is the airtransport of reinforcements of the 101st Airborne Division using gliders. It is the second part of three successive operations carried out by this division on the Cotentin, the first being operation Albany. The objective of Chicago is to provide reinforcements in men and especially in equipment to the parachuted regiments in order to increase their firepower and their mobility capacity in enemy territory. These means are artillery pieces, light vehicles, radio sets, machine guns, ammunition, explosives…

Image : Les C-47 et les planeurs attendent l'ordre de décollage C-47s and gliders wait for take-off order. Photo: US National Archives

The airlanding assault of operation Chicago is conducted by 101st Airborne’s deputy commander, General Don F. Pratt, who embarks aboard the Waco “Fighting Falcon” glider piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Murphy and Second Lieutenant John M. Butler.

52 Waco gliders are needed for this operation. They are towed by Dakota C-47s belonging to the 434th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) based in Aldermaston. The arrival on the landing zones (LZ) is to start at dawn, allowing paratroopers dropped shortly after midnight to secure the assault areas. But on May 27, 1944, the Allies chose to advance this two-hour schedule by fixing it at 4 am so that the gliders could take advantage of the darkness and were not endangered by the Flak (German anti-aircraft artillery).

Image : Les C-47 et les planeurs sont prêts à décoller C-47s and gliders ready to take off. Photo: US National Archives

Several units are transported by glider. The most important one is the 81st Airborne Antiaircraft Battalion which occupies 44 Waco with two complete batteries (battery A and battery B). In the 8 other gliders can be find elements of the 101st Signal Company and the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, a surgical team of the 326th Airborne Medical Company and the anti-tank section of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. In detail, the Waco transport 155 personnel, 25 light vehicles, 16 anti-tank guns of 57 mm, 11 tonnes of various equipment (including a SCR-499 radio) and 2.5 tonnes of ammunition.

Operation Chicago’s landing area (nicknamed LZ “E”) is located on the northwestern outskirts of Hiesville and co-located with the “C” drop zone (the latter being for the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and 3rd Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment). This landing zone has a triangular shape, one kilometer long and one and a half kilometers wide. It is located at the heart of the 101st Airborne Division area of responsability, which allows the three divisional drop zones to be strengthened in a minimum of time. Unlike the glider landing areas of the 6th Airborne Division northeast of Caen, LZ “E” is very compartmentalized in several orchards and fields bordered by high hedges peculiar to the Norman landscape and by lines of trees reaching up to fifteen meters in height. However, fields in this sector are on average twice as extensive as in the rest of Cotentin Peninsula.

Image : Planeur Waco CG-4A "Hadrian" en vol Glider Waco CG-4A “Hadrian” in flight. Photo: US National Archives

Conduct of operation Chicago

The first C-47s towing the gliders from operation Chicago take off from England at 01:19 am on Tuesday, June 6, 1944. The Dakota gather four by four and the formation adopted is called a four-man step on the right. Only a few minutes after take-off, the glider carrying the only SCR-499 radio to serve as the link between the 101st Airborne and the 4th Infantry Division breaks its trailer and must land in emergency. Finally retrieved, this radio is transferred to another glider assigned to operation Keokuk.

When the serials of gliders reached Normandy, the German anti-aircraft artillery came into action and managed to touch several aircraft: a C-47 and its glider crashed on the Douve river near Pont-l’Abbé while seven other Dakota were damaged but still managed to continue their mission. A C-47 broke formation through the clouds and decided to break its trailer south of Carentan, several kilometers south of the landing area.

Image : Plan de l'opération Chicago

Operation Chicago map
(Click on picture to enlarge)

The ground marking by the Pathfinders on LZ “E” is spotted by the 49 Dakota pilots still operating, dropping their trailers at 03:54 for the first aircraft and at an altitude of 140 meters (450 feet). Gliders must rotate 270 degrees according to the preliminary instructions. During this delicate phase, many pilots are disoriented: luminosity is very low during that night because of very numerous clouds.

Image : Un laneur Waco CG-4A abimé lors de son atterrissage Waco CG-4A glider damaged during the landing phase. Photo: US National Archives

Only 6 of the 49 gliders land directly on LZ “E”, 15 others reach Norman ground less than one kilometer away. 10 others land in the Forges region (on LZ “W” dedicated for gliders of the 82nd Airborne Division). The remaining 18 gliders land within a radius of three kilometers around LZ “E”, except one which land some twenty kilometers further south, near Graignes.

The landing of the gliders takes place under difficult conditions. Darkness poses serious problems for pilots who see the lines of trees along the fields belatedly and are obliged to change their approach axis. The dew is particularly present at this time of night and the gliders slide on the grass without beeing able to slow down: most of them are embedded in the hedges at full speed. This is in particular what happens to the pilots of the Fighting Falcon carrying General Pratt: the Waco strikes a 12 meters high poplars hedge southwest of Hiesville at 250 meters of the D329. Inside, General Pratt was sitting aboard a Jeep and diedon impact, his neck broken by the shock, while Second Lieutenant Butler is killed by a branch of a tree crossing the cockpit.

Image : L'épave du Waco "Fighting Falcon" près de Hiesville. Le corps est celui du sous-lieutenant Butler. “Fighting Falcon” Waco wreck near Hiesville. The body is that of Second Lieutenant Butler. Photo: US National Archives

Results of operation Chicago

Operation Chicago is a success. The airtransport reinforcements reach their destination to reinforce the US paratroopers dropped during operation Albany 3 hours and 40 minutes earlier.

In the majority of landings, equipment transported by glider is in working condition and is recovered immediately after landing. Other Waco gliders are unloaded at dawn by a patrol sent by the commander of the 101st Airborne Division. This patrol found around midday 115 glidermen (hitherto isolated), 6 anti-tank guns, 3 Jeeps and made 35 prisoners during the round trip between Hiesville and the landing zone.

The casualties amount to a total of five killed (including General Pratt, second in command of the division), seventeen wounded and seven missing. Quantitatively, these figures are higher than the most optimistic estimates, but the death of Don Pratt is a serious blow to the division.

Image : Un planeur Waco endommagé posé sur la LZ "E" A damaged Waco glider on LZ “E”. Photo: US National Archives

The third airborne mission of the 101st Division took place early in the evening around 9 pm on Tuesday, June 6, 1944: operation Keokuk. 32 gliders reinforced the American division in men and equipment.