The Airborne Assault

During the hour before midnight on 5 June, the roar of hundreds of aircraft engines in a constant stream could be heard over villages near airfields in southern and central England. People in their nightclothes went out into their gardens to stare up at the seemingly endless air armada silhouetted against the scudding clouds. ‘This is it’ was their instinctive thought. The sight evoked powerful emotions, including painful memories of the evacuation from Dunkirk four summers before. Some went back inside to kneel by their beds to pray for those setting forth.

Three airborne divisions were taking to the air in over 1,200 aircraft. The British 6th Airborne Division was headed for the east of the River Orne to secure Montgomery’s left flank. The American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions would be dropped on the Cotentin peninsula to seize key points, especially the causeways across the flooded areas inland from Utah beach.

The first group to take off was D Company of the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. They left even before the pathfinder detachments sent ahead of the main force to mark dropping zones. This company, commanded by Major John Howard, was flown in six Horsa gliders towed by Halifax bombers. Officers and soldiers all had blackened faces and wore round paratroop helmets with camouflage netting. They were armed with a mixture of rifles, Sten sub-machine guns and several Bren guns. The Halifaxes took them over to the east of the invasion fleet and aimed for the seaside resort of Cabourg, where there was a gap in the German flak defences. The gliders were at an altitude of 5,000 feet when the tow lines were cast off. Howard told his men to stop their songs, which had been bellowed out for most of the way across the Channel. From then on there was no noise apart from the rushing wind. The pilots banked, turning the flimsy craft westwards. After losing height rapidly, they flattened out at 1,000 feet for the approach.

Their objectives were two bridges close together, one over the River Orne and the other over the Caen Canal. They had to seize them before the Germans guarding them could blow demolition charges. Howard, who had positioned himself opposite the door on the first glider, could see the gleam of the two parallel waterways below. As his Horsa swept in, the men braced themselves for the shock of landing. The two pilots brought the cumbersome glider in with astonishing accuracy. After bumping and leaping and skidding across the field, the nose of the glider came to a halt penetrating the barbed-wire entanglement. The two pilots were knocked unconscious in the crash, but they had achieved a landing within fifty feet of the pillbox beside the bridge.

Some of the plywood Horsa gliders - unaffectionately known as ‘Hearses’ - broke up on impact, so soldiers scrambled out through the broken sides as well as the door. Within moments, the first men out of Howard’s glider had hurled grenades through the slits of the pillbox on the west side of the Caen Canal. The rest of the platoon did not wait. Led by Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, they were already charging across the bridge. Howard had made sure they were at the peak of fitness with cross-country runs. But by the time Brotheridge’s platoon reached the other side, the German guards had got themselves together and opened fire. Brotheridge was mortally wounded from a shot through the neck and died soon afterwards.

Another platoon arrived led by Lieutenant Sandy Smith, although he had broken his arm badly in the landing. After a fierce but mercifully brief firefight, the bridge over the Caen Canal was secured. Howard was concerned at having heard nothing from the platoon ordered to take the bridge over the Orne, a few hundred yards beyond, but then a message arrived to say that they had secured it without the defenders firing a shot. Its commander, Lieutenant Dennis Fox, took a certain pleasure in greeting the next platoon to arrive, panting heavily since they had landed half a mile off target. When asked how things stood, he replied, ‘Well, so far the exercise is going fine, but I can’t find any bloody umpires.’


Howard immediately ordered an all-round defence and sent Fox’s platoon out in fighting patrols to probe the nearby village of Bénouville. The curious choice of success signal for the two bridges - ‘Ham and Jam’ - was sent off by radio. Howard could hardly dare believe that such a tricky operation had gone entirely according to plan, but then at 01.30 hours the platoons defending the bridges heard the unmistakable noise of armoured vehicles beyond Bénouville.

By then paratroopers were landing all over the place. German officers in command posts along the Normandy coastline were desperately ringing regimental headquarters on field telephones. In some cases they could not get through because the Resistance had cut the lines and they had to resort to their radios. To increase confusion, the RAF had mounted Operation Titanic, with a force of forty Hudsons, Halifaxes and Stirlings. They dropped dummy parachutists and ‘window’ aluminium strips to confuse the radar, as well as SAS teams to simulate airborne landings away from the invasion area. The SAS teams were there to cause mayhem behind the lines and give substance to the dummy parachutists. Some 200 dummies were dropped south of Carentan at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, fifty more east of the River Dives and fifty to the south-west of Caen. They were little more than rough scarecrows, with a device to make them explode and catch fire on landing. The Germans called them ‘Explosivpuppen’. Soon after 01.30 hours, teleprinters began chattering in corps and army headquarters, but reports of these ‘exploding puppets’ caused most commanders to think that all the attacks were simply part of a large-scale diversion, probably for the main landing in the Pas-de-Calais. Only Generalmajor Max Pemsel, the chief of staff of the Seventh Army, recognized at the time that this was the major invasion, but Generalleutnant Speidel at La Roche-Guyon refused to believe him.

Generalleutnant Joseph Reichert, who commanded the 711th Infanterie-Division to the east of the Orne estuary, had remained talking in the officers’ mess until late. On the point of going to bed, he and his companions heard aircraft engines overhead. ‘The planes were flying so low that we had the feeling they might almost touch the roof,’ he wrote later. Reichert and his companions went outside to have a look. ‘It was a night of the full moon. The weather was fairly stormy, with low-hanging black clouds, but in the gaps between them several low-flying planes could be distinctly observed, circling the divisional command post.’ Reichert went back inside to grab his pistol, then heard the shout of ‘Parachutists!’ Paratroopers were coming down all round his divisional headquarters. The 20 mm quadruple flak guns on the main strongpoint opened fire.

While his operations officer alerted the division, Reichert rang LXXXI Corps headquarters at Rouen. By this time the guns had stopped firing, leaving an uneasy calm. Reichert, who had been sceptical about the whole invasion, now sensed that it really was starting, even if this attack was only a feint. Two captured British paratroopers were brought in, but they refused to answer questions. The accuracy of the maps found on them shook Reichert. They showed almost every gun emplacement. He deduced that the French Resistance had been even busier than the Germans had imagined. Not all prisoners were so fortunate. Elsewhere in the sector, a Hauptfeldwebel in Reichert’s division executed eight captured British paratroopers, probably in obedience to Hitler’s notoriousKommandobefehl, which demanded the shooting of all special forces taken on raids.

South of Evreux, Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, the commander of the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, had been enjoying a late drink with staff officers in front of a log fire when the first reports of dummy parachutists came in. They dismissed these as yet another of the false alarms which had taken place that spring. But almost as soon as they went to bed, they were woken with more insistent warnings. Witt rang 1st SS Panzer Corps headquarters, but found that they had heard nothing. On his own authority, he ordered the alert for the Hitler Jugend, with the codeword ‘Blücher’. Yet, to their intense frustration, most of his men would spend many hours waiting in their armoured vehicles until Führer headquarters finally agreed to release them for action. Witt nevertheless permitted the 25th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment to move towards Caen and sent ahead part of his reconnaissance battalion in their six-wheeler armoured cars and BMW motorcycles with sidecars.

Of the British airborne operations that night, Howard’s success with the two bridges was about the only one which went according to plan. Brigadier James Hill, the commander of 3rd Parachute Brigade, had warned his officers before their departure, ‘Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and orders, do not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will.’

Major General Richard Gale, the commander of the 6th Airborne Division, had formulated a sound plan. To secure the left flank of the landings, his force needed to occupy and defend the area between the River Orne and the River Dives five miles further east. By destroying five bridges on that eastern side, he could make use of the Dives and the flood plain around it, which the Germans themselves had inundated, as a barrier against armoured counter-attacks. He could then concentrate the bulk of his forces facing southwards to hold off an expected counter-attack from the 21st Panzer-Division. For this they needed anti-tank guns, which would be brought in with the first glider force two hours later.

Another important objective for the 6th Airborne Division was the battery at Merville, onthe far side of the Orne estuary from Ouistreham. RAF air reconnaissance had monitored the preparation of these emplacements for coastal artillery. Large-calibre guns there could wreak havoc on the fleet and the landing ships, as well as Sword beach, the most easterly landing sector. Their massive concrete construction made them virtually impervious to bombing. Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway’s 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment therefore received orders to capture the site and destroy the guns. The barbed-wire defences, minefields and machine-gun positions around them made this an awesome assignment. A bombing raid by Lancasters to soften up the defences was due to go in just before the battalion jumped, then four Horsa gliders carrying an assault group were to land inside the wire and on top of the battery.

Otway’s men had practised the attack many times over on mocked-up positions back in England, but chaos was destined to reign, as their brigade commander had warned. The battalion was dropped all over the place. This was partly due to their aircraft taking evasive action when the flak opened up, but also because the pathfinder group’s Eureka homing devices to guide in the main force had broken on landing. Many paratroopers fell into the flood plain of the River Dives. One of Otway’s men was sucked into a bog and drowned in mud despite efforts to save him. The airborne soldiers had been equipped with duck calls to try to find each other in the dark, but the battalion was so spread out that these could not be heard. Fewer than 160 men out of 600 reached the rendezvous point.

Two sticks of the 9th Battalion had failed to join Otway because they were dropped at Saint-Pair, sixteen miles too far south. They could not believe the silence of the night. Their officer went to a nearby house and woke up the inhabitants to find out where they were. Horrified by the news, he told the men to break up into small groups and try to make their way back to join the battalion, but many of them would be captured on the way. Altogether 192 of Otway’s battalion were still unaccounted for at the end of the battle for Normandy.

Colonel Otway could not wait any longer. He had to complete the mission and send the success signal before 06.00 hours, when the six-inch guns of the light cruiser HMS Arethusa would open fire. To make matters worse, much of their kit had been lost in the jump. Otway’s men had no mine detectors and only a few Bangalore torpedoes for blowing gaps in the barbed-wire entanglements. Otway nevertheless decided to carry on, with only a quarter of his force. His soldier servant, a former professional boxer, proffered a small flask. ‘Shall we take our brandy now, sir?’ he said.

The next blow was to find that the Lancasters coming to soften up the battery had missed their target. Otway had to abandon the set plan completely, above all because the Horsa gliders which were to land on the battery never reached their objective. A young officer and a sergeant crawled ahead through the minefield to mark the way, then the attack went in. The force of 160 men suffered seventy-five casualties in a matter of minutes, but they still seized the emplacements. To their bitter frustration they found only 75 mm guns, not the anticipated 150 mm heavy coastal artillery. Using the plastic explosive which each man carried, they blew the breeches and retired as best they could with their wounded to be out of range before the Arethusa was in position to open fire.

The other seven parachute battalions of Gale’s division were also to be dropped between the rivers Orne and Dives. After the bridges between Bénouville and Ranville had been secured by Howard’s company, the next objective was to destroy the bridges over the Dives to protect the east flank. This was the task of the 3rd Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, assisted by the battalions dropping on that flank. After the bridges were blown, the 8th Battalion took up positions in the south-east of the area, in and around the Bois de Bavent.

Almost all the battalions dropping that night lost a large amount of kit. Bren guns and PIAT anti-tank launchers suffered damage on landing. In many cases, the jump bag attached to a paratrooper’s ankle was so heavy because of the extra ammunition that either the webbing attachment broke or the bag buried itself deep in the mud of marshy ground. Some soldiers drowned in the ditches of flooded areas adjoining the River Dives. Brigadier James Hill, the commander of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, dropped not far from Cabourg into flooded marshland there. The water was only waist deep, but this did not save him from one minor disaster. All the tea bags which he had brought stuffed inside his trouser legs were ruined. He soon suffered a far more serious blow, when British bombs exploded nearby. As he threw himself sideways, landing on another officer, Hill was wounded in the left buttock. He then saw to his horror a blown-off leg lying in the middle of the path, but it was not his. It belonged to Lieutenant Peters, the man on whom he had fallen. Peters was dead.

Hill’s brigade had suffered the most from inaccurate drops. Low cloud had made navigation difficult and pilots had tried to avoid the flak. Some were also confused because the River Dives, swollen by flooding, looked like the River Orne, and they dropped men on the wrong side. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, bound for the same drop zone as Otway’s 9th Battalion, was also scattered widely for the same reasons. Many of its men fell into the flooded surrounds of the Dives and two sticks were even dropped on the west side of the Orne. Only a small force reached Varaville, where the bridge was to be destroyed. Part of a company helped the 9th Battalion withdraw from the Merville battery, while other detachments, guided through the night by a French girl they met, seized and held the bridge at Robehomme until sappers arrived to destroy it.

One of the Canadian officers noted just before departure that his men were all in a ‘very suggestible state’. This may have been made worse by their Catholic padre. Appalled to hear that the paratroopers had been issued with condoms, he had ranted in his sermon before take-off that they should not be going to meet their deaths with ‘the means of mortal sin’ in their pockets. At the end of the service, the ground was apparently littered with discarded packets. But as soon as the Canadian paratroopers were in action, particularly during the fierce fighting for the village of Varaville, they showed no lack of courage. They also had confidence in their commander, Brigadier Hill, showing a rare respect among Canadians for a senior British officer.

The 5th Parachute Brigade dropped just to the east of the two captured bridges. It was while their battalions were still sorting themselves out that Major Howard’s men heard the clanking and grinding of tracked vehicles approaching from Bénouville. The only anti-tank weapon available was a PIAT launcher and two rounds. Sergeant Thornton ran forward with this hefty apparatus. Knowing that the weapon was useless except at close range, he took up a firing position next to the road. Fortunately, the oncoming tracked vehicle turned out to be a half-track rather than a tank. Thornton knocked it out with the first round and the following vehicle retreated rapidly. He and his men captured several survivors from the half-track, including the local German commander, Major Schmidt, who was coming from Ranville to see if the bridges really had been taken.

Shortly afterwards, Howard’s little defence force was relieved by the 7th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pine-Coffin, whose name alone qualified him for a place in an Evelyn Waugh novel. These reinforcements were able to increase the bridgehead considerably by occupying more of the surrounding area on the west bank of the canal, including most of the village of Bénouville. Meanwhile the 12th Battalion took up defensive positions along the low ridge beside the Orne. The 13th Battalion moved into Ranville ready for a counterattack, while one of its companies began to clear the landing zone for the gliders.

Soon after 03.00 hours, Major General ‘Windy’ Gale and his divisional headquarters landed near the bridge at Ranville. Tall and heavily built, the unflappable Gale, with his military moustache, was a welcome sight to those from the first wave, reassuring them that the invasion was proceeding as planned. Gale, for his part, admitted to a private glee at being the first British general back in France since 1940.

Other gliders brought in Jeeps and the anti-tank guns to strengthen the defences. Chester Wilmot, the BBC reporter, accompanied this wave. ‘The landing went just like an exercise and was a most wonderful sight,’ he reported, perhaps optimistically, considering the state of most of the crash-landed gliders. But then another unexpected threat to the bridge at Bénouville appeared in the form of German gunboats, armed with 20 mm flak guns, coming down the canal from Caen. Once again a PIAT round hit the target, and the boats behind fled past to the open sea, not knowing that they were sailing right into the muzzles of the Royal Navy.

The newly arrived forces wasted little time digging in. Explosive charges planted into the ground accelerated the process greatly. Their positions appeared to be under mortar fire, as one trench after another was prepared. But real mortar bombs had also started to fall, as the panzergrenadiers from the 21st Panzer-Division started a series of counter-attacks.

The most important bridge, the one just beyond the small town of Troarn on the main road from Caen to Pont-l’Evêque, had not yet been blown because of the scattered drops. Major Roseveare, the officer in charge, gathered a small force, accumulated enough explosives and seized a Jeep and trailer from a protesting medical orderly. They fought their way through a couple of German roadblocks, then Roseveare had to drive their overloaded vehicle down the main street of Troarn, while the other paratroopers on board fired back at the Germans shooting down at them from houses on either side. They reached the bridge, having lost only the Bren gunner on the back. They set their charges and within five minutes the centre span had collapsed into the Dives. Having ditched the Jeep, Roseveare managed to lead his small party on foot through the marshes and back across the Dives to rejoin the main force late in the afternoon. The left flank at least was secured. The threat now lay to the south.

The two American airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, had taken off about the same time as the British paratroopers. The pilots of their troop carrier squadrons had cursed and prayed as they pulled their ‘grossly overloaded’ C-47 Skytrains off the ground. Closing into their V formations, the matt-olive transport aircraft then streamed out over the Channel. The sky control officer on the cruiser USS Quincy observed that ‘by this time the moon had risen, and although the overcast was still fairly solid, it lighted the clouds with a peculiar degree of luminosity . . . The first Skytrains appeared, silhouetted like groups of scudding bats.’

Their aircraft could not have felt very bat-like to the sticks of sixteen or eighteen men inside, as they endured the thundering roar and vibration from the over-strained engines. A number held their helmets ready on their laps, but most vomited straight on to the floor, which was to make it slippery at the crucial moment. Catholics fingered their rosary beads, murmuring prayers. The pilots had already noticed that the mood was significantly different from what it had been on exercise drops in England. One observed that they were usually ‘cocky unruly characters’, but this time ‘they were very serious’. The aircrew were also far from relaxed about the mission. Some pilots at the controls wore goggles and a steel helmet in case the windscreen was shattered by flak.

Paratroopers in the main formations envied the pathfinders who had gone ahead with the radar beacons. They would already be on the ground, having jumped shortly after midnight, before the Germans realized what was happening. Many men feigned sleep, but only a few managed to doze off. General Maxwell Taylor, the tall commander of the 101st Airborne, even took off his harness and stretched out on the floor with some pillows. He looked forward to the jump with keen anticipation. It would be his fifth and thus gain him his wings.

As the aircraft reached the Channel Islands, German flak batteries on Jersey and Guernsey opened fire. One paratrooper remarked that it was ironic to get such a welcome from ‘two islands named after nice moo cows’. A Royal Navy motor torpedo boat, MTB 679, signalled the point where the aircraft were to turn east for their run over the Cotentin peninsula to their drop zones. Once the French coast was in sight, pilots passed back the warning that they had less than ten minutes to go. On General Taylor’s plane, they had trouble waking their commander and getting him back into his harness. He had insisted on being first out of the door.

Once the aircraft reached the coastline, they entered a dense fog bank which the meteorologists had not predicted. Paratroopers who could see out were alarmed by the thick white mist. The blue lights at the end of each wing became invisible. The pilots, unable to see anything, were frightened of collision. Those on the outside of the formation veered off. Confusion increased when the aircraft emerged from the fog bank and came under fire from flak batteries on the peninsula. Pilots instinctively went to full throttle and took evasive action, even though this was strictly against their orders.

Because they were flying at little more than 1,000 feet, the aircraft were within range of German machine guns as well as flak. Paratroopers were thrown around inside the fuselage as their pilot weaved and twisted the plane. Bullets striking the plane sounded ‘like large hailstones on a tin roof’. For those going into action for the first time, this provided the shocking proof that people were really trying to kill them. One paratrooper who suffered a shrapnel wound in the buttock was made to stand so that a medic could patch him up right there. General Taylor’s order that no paratrooper would be allowed to stay on board was taken to the letter. Apart from a dozen who were too badly wounded by flak to jump, there appear to have been only two exceptions: one was a paratrooper who had somehow released his emergency chute by mistake inside the aircraft, the other a major who suffered a heart attack.

On the USS Quincy, the sky control team at the top of the cruiser’s superstructure watched in dismay. ‘Often, a yellow ball would start glowing out in the middle of a field of red tracers. This yellow ball would slowly start to fall, forming a tail. Eventually, it would smash into the black loom of land, causing a great sheet of light to flare against the low clouds. Sometimes the yellow ball would explode in mid-air, sending out streamers of burning gasoline. This tableau always brought the same reactions from us sky control observers: a sharp sucking-in of the breath and a muttered “Poor goddamn bastards”.’

The red light by the door went on four minutes from the drop zone. ‘Stand up and hook up!’ came the shout from the dispatcher. Some of the heavily burdened men had to be hauled to their feet. They clipped their static line to the overhead cable running the length of the fuselage, then the order was yelled to check equipment and number off. This was followed by the command, ‘Stand in the door!’ But as the aircraft continued to jink or shudder from hits, men were thrown around or slid on the vomit-streaked floor. The flak and tracer were coming up around them ‘in big arcs of fire’, the wind was roaring in the open door, and the men watched, praying for the green light to come on so that they could escape what felt like a metal coffin. ‘Let’s go!’ many shouted impatiently, afraid that they might be dropped in the sea on the east side of the peninsula.

The planes should have reduced speed to between ninety and 110 miles an hour for the jump, but most did not. ‘Our plane never did slow down,’ remembered one paratrooper. ‘That pilot kept on floor-boarding it.’ As soon as the green light came on, the men shuffled in an ungainly way towards the exit to jump. One or two made a hurried sign of the cross as they went. With all the shooting outside, it was easy to imagine that they were about to jump straight into crossfire from machine guns or land on a strongly defended position. Each paratrooper, as he reached the door, carried his leg pack, which would dangle below from a long strap as soon as he jumped. Weighing eighty pounds or more, many broke off during the descent and were lost in the dark. If any men did freeze at the last moment, then presumably the sergeant ‘pusher’ kicked them out, for there are hardly any confirmed reports of a man refusing to jump. As they leaped into the unknown, some remembered to shout ‘Bill Lee!’, the paratrooper’s tribute to General Lee, the father of the US Airborne.

Most suffered a far more violent jerk than usual as the parachute opened, because of the aircraft’s excessive speed. Those who fell close to German positions attracted heavy fire. Their canopies were riddled with tracer bullets. One battalion commander, his executive officer and a company commander were killed immediately, because they had landed among an advance detachment of Major Freiherr von der Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment. Another officer, who landed on top of the command post, was taken prisoner. An Obergefreiter in the 91st Luftlande-Division wrote home, ‘US parachute troops landed in the middle of our position. What a night!’

The natural instinct, when dropping under fire, was to pull your legs up almost into a foetal position, not that it provided any protection. One man literally exploded in mid-air, probably because a tracer bullet had hit his Gammon grenade. In some cases the pilots had been flying below 500 feet and the parachutes barely had time to open. Many legs and ankles were broken, and a few men were paralysed with a broken back. One paratrooper who landed successfully was horrified when a following plane dropped its stick of eighteen men so low that none of the chutes opened. He compared the dull sound of the bodies hitting the ground to ‘watermelons falling off the back of a truck’. The men of another stick which had been dropped too low along a small ridge were found later in a long line, all dead and all still in their harnesses.

As the Germans had flooded large areas around the River Merderet and inland from the beaches, many paratroopers fell into water. A number drowned, smothered by a soaked chute. Others were rescued either by buddies or, in a number of cases, by a French family who had immediately launched their rowing boat. Most who landed in water up to their chest had to keep ducking under the surface to reach their trench knife to cut themselves free. They cursed the American harness and envied the British quick-release system. Similarly, those whose chutes caught on tall trees had to strain and stretch to cut themselves free, knowing all the while that they presented easy targets. A number were shot as they struggled. Many atrocity stories spread among the survivors, with claims that German soldiers had bayoneted them from below or even turned flame-throwers on them. A number spoke of bodies obscenely mutilated.

Those coming down into small pastures surrounded by high hedges were reassured if they saw cows, since their presence indicated that there were no mines. But they still expected a German to run up and ‘stick a bayonet’ in them. To land in the dark behind enemy lines with no idea of where you were could hardly have been more disorientating and frightening. Some heard movement and hurriedly assembled their rifle, only to find that their arrival had attracted inquisitive cows. Men crept along hedgerows and, on hearing someone else, froze. Colonel ‘Jump’ Johnson, whose determination to knife a Nazi had led him to bring a veritable arsenal of close-quarter combat weapons, was nearly shot by one of his own officers, because he had lost his ‘damn cricket’. These ‘dime-store’ children’s clickers were despised by many in the 82nd Airborne. They resorted to the password ‘Flash’, to which the reply was ‘Thunder’: these two words were chosen because they were thought to be difficult for a German to pronounce convincingly.

The sense of relief to find another American was intense. Soon little groups formed. When an injured paratrooper was found, they gave him morphine and marked his position for medics later by sticking his rifle with the bayonet in the ground and the helmet on the butt. The most bloodthirsty went off ‘Kraut-hunting’. Tracer gave away the position of German machine-gun positions, so they stalked them with grenades. Most paratroopers followed the order to use only knives and grenades during darkness. But one who did fire his rifle noticed afterwards the torn condom hanging loosely from the muzzle. ‘I had put it there before the jump to keep the barrel dry,’ he explained, ‘then forgot about it.’


The ‘Kraut-hunters’ would also follow the sound of German voices. In some cases they heard Germans approaching down the road, marching in formation. After hurried whispers, they lobbed grenades over the hedge at them. Some claimed to be able to smell Germans from the strong odour of their tobacco. Others recognized them by the creaking of all their leather equipment.

German troops seemed to be hurrying in all directions as reports of landings up and down the peninsula came in. A couple of pilots had become so disorientated from the fog and taking evasive action afterwards that they had dropped their sticks near Cherbourg, some twenty miles from the correct dropping zone. The captain with them had to go to a farmhouse to find out where they were. The French family tried to help by giving them a simple map of the Cotentin torn from a telephone directory. Another airborne officer, however, observed that the unintended dispersal of units during the chaotic drop had proved an unexpected advantage in one way: ‘The Germans thought we were all over creation.’ But the paratroopers were only slightly less confused themselves. As a lost group approached a well to refill their canteens, an old farmer appeared from his house. One of them asked him in bad French, ‘Ou es Alamon?’ He shrugged and pointed north, then south, east and west.

The most successful ambush took place not far from the command post of the German 91st Luftlande-Division near Picauville. Men from the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment opened fire on a staff car bringing the divisional commander, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley, back from the command post exercise in Rennes. Falley was thrown from the vehicle wounded and, as he crawled to retrieve his pistol, an American lieutenant shot him dead.

The plan was for the 82nd Airborne to drop on both sides of the River Merderet and secure the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. This would cut the road and rail link to Cherbourg. They were also to capture bridges over the Merderet so that the forces arriving by sea could advance rapidly across the peninsula and cut it off, before advancing north on the port of Cherbourg. The 101st, dropping closer to Utah beach, would seize the causeways leading to it across the flooded marshes and also take the bridges and a lock on the River Douve, between the town of Carentan and the sea.

Several platoons of the 82nd Airborne dropped in and around Sainte-Mère-Eglise as planned. One paratrooper’s chute caught on the church tower, where he hung helplessly, pretending to be dead while the bells deafened him. They were ringing in alarm because a house on the square by the church had caught fire and the townsfolk were passing buckets of water in a human chain. The scene below was chaotic. Soldiers from the local anti-aircraft unit under the command of an Austrian officer were firing in all directions as paratroopers dropped. Many Americans were riddled with bullets before they reached the ground. Those caught in trees stood little chance. One paratrooper dropped straight on to the blazing house. But with great determination, other rapidly formed groups who had landed outside the town began to advance towards its centre, dashing from cover to cover. Within an hour they had forced the Germans to withdraw. Sainte-Mère-Eglise was thus the first town in France to be liberated.

Sainte-Mère-Eglise became a focal point for many scattered detachments. One member of the 82nd Airborne was amazed to see two troopers from the 101st come riding bareback down the road on horses they had taken from a field. Another appeared driving a captured half-track motorcycle. Only a small number of paratroopers lost in the countryside appear to have been inactive. A few bedded down in ditches wrapped in their chutes, waiting for the dawn to find their bearings. The large majority, however, could not wait to get into the fighting. With nerves still taut after the jump, their blood was up. A trooper in the 82nd remembered his instructions only too clearly: ‘Get to the drop zone as fast as possible. Take no prisoners because they will slow you down.’

The fighting became pitiless on both sides; in fact that night probably saw the most vicious fighting of the whole war on the western front. One German soldier, justifying the annihilation of an American platoon which landed on his battalion’s heavy-weapons company, said later, ‘They didn’t come down to give us candies, you know. They came down to kill us, to fight.’ German soldiers had certainly been lectured by their officers about the ‘criminals’ recruited to the US Airborne forces and their fears were transformed into violence. But it is hard to establish the accuracy of horror stories about German soldiers mutilating paratroopers caught in trees.

Whether or not these accounts were true, American paratroopers sought revenge. There seem to have been a number of cases of soldiers shooting the prisoners taken by others. Apparently, a Jewish sergeant and a corporal took a captured German officer and non-com from a farmyard. Those present heard a burst of automatic fire and, when the sergeant returned, ‘nobody said a thing’. It was also said of another Jewish paratrooper that ‘you didn’t dare trust him with a PoW out of sight’. A soldier in the 101st recounted how, after they had come across two dead paratroopers ‘with their privates cut off and stuck into their mouth’, the captain with them gave the order, ‘Don’t you guys dare take any prisoners! Shoot the bastards!’

One or two men appear to have enjoyed the killing. A paratrooper recalled having come across a member of his company the following morning and being surprised to see that he was wearing red gloves instead of the issued yellow ones. ‘I asked him where he got the red gloves from, and he reached down in his jump pants and pulled out a whole string of ears. He had been ear-hunting all night and had them all sewed on an old boot lace.’ There were a few cases of brutal looting. The commander of the 101st Airborne’s MP platoon came across the body of a German officer and saw that somebody had cut off his finger to take the wedding ring. A sergeant in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment was horrified when he found that members of his platoon had killed some Germans and then used ‘their bodies for bayonet practice’.

On occasions, the killing of prisoners was prevented. About 02.30 hours, a handful of paratroopers from the 101st, including a lieutenant and a chaplain, were standing in a farmyard talking to the French inhabitants. They were astonished when around a dozen troopers from the 82nd came in at the run, herding a group of very young German orderlies, whom they then told to lie down. The terrified boys pleaded for their lives. The sergeant, who intended to shoot them all, claimed that some of their buddies caught in trees had been turned into ‘Roman candles’ by a German soldier with a flame-thrower.

The sergeant pulled the bolt back on his Thompson sub-machine gun. In desperation, the boys grabbed the legs of the lieutenant and the chaplain as they and the French family shouted at the sergeant not to shoot them. Finally, the sergeant was persuaded to stop. The boys were locked in the farm’s cellar. But the sergeant was not put off his mission of vengeance. ‘Let’s go and find some Krauts to kill!’ he yelled to his men, and they left. The members of the 101st were shaken by what they had witnessed. ‘These people had gone ape,’ a senior non-com remarked later.

As the scattered groups coalesced during the night, officers were able to exert control and concentrate on objectives. Soldiers who could not find their own units attached themselves to any battalion, even if it was from the other division. General Maxwell Taylor, the commander of the 101st, had accumulated a group of thirty men, which included four colonels as well as other officers. This prompted him to parody Churchill, with the comment, ‘Never before in the annals of warfare have so few been commanded by so many.’ Another group of troopers were sighted pulling the regimental commander of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, Colonel George Van Horn Mosely Jr, around on a machine-gun cart because he had broken his leg on the jump.

Several soldiers and officers who had broken an ankle on landing just strapped it up and hobbled on, gritting their teeth. Those who could not walk at all were left to guard prisoners. The bravery of the overwhelming majority of men cannot be doubted. Apart from a single battalion commander in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment who spent the night hiding in a ditch, there were few cases of nervous collapse.

There appear to have been considerably more examples of battle shock on the German side. A soldier called Rainer Hartmetz went back to his company command post for more ammunition. There he found two men in deep shock: ‘They couldn’t talk. They were trembling. They tried to smoke, but they couldn’t get the cigarette to their lips.’ And the company commander, a captain who had apparently been brave on the eastern front, was lying in a foxhole drunk. Whenever anybody appeared with a message from the forward positions, he waved his pistol and muttered, ‘I should execute every man who runs back.’


A mixed force of some seventy-five paratroopers attacked the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. The officer who took command had no idea how many Germans were there, but their training paid off. With machine guns on the flanks to cover them, squads leapfrogged forward. A bazooka team rushed out into the main street and fired at the door of the church with an anti-tank round. A dozen German soldiers, with their leader waving an improvised white flag, appeared out through the smoke and dust with their hands in the air. The village was cleared in less than an hour. Most of the defenders had fled down the road towards Carentan.

Other groups moved to secure the causeways over the flooded areas behind Utah beach. A handful of paratroopers came across fifteen Germans transporting ammunition in three horse-drawn carts. They forced them to surrender and then made them march ahead down the road. A German speaker told them that if they came under fire they were not to move. A short time later a German machine gun opened up. The paratroopers took cover in the ditches. One of the Germans began to run, but was shot down immediately. ‘We threw him in the cart,’ one of the paratroopers recorded. ‘He died later that morning. From then on, we had no problem with the prisoners remaining erect in the road, under any conditions.’ This practice was, of course, a flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention.

As with the British airborne forces, one of the tasks of the paratroopers was to clear and secure the landing zone for the Waco gliders bringing in reinforcements and heavy equipment. But their landing near Sainte-Mère-Eglise was not to pass off so smoothly. ‘After a short march,’ wrote one paratrooper assigned to this duty, ‘we arrived at the field and encountered a small group of Germans who were guarding it. They were quickly routed after a brief firefight. The field was nothing more than a large clearing surrounded by woods and several farmhouses. We were quickly assigned to squads and formed a perimeter defense around it. There was nothing more to do but wait.’

At the appointed moment signal lamps were switched on. ‘We could hear the sounds of planes in the distance, then no sounds at all. This was followed by a series of swishing noises. Adding to the swelling crescendo of sounds were the tearing of branches and trees followed by loud crashes and intermittent screams.’ The gliders were coming in rapidly, one after the other, from different directions. Many overshot the field and landed in the surrounding woods, while others crashed into nearby farmhouses and stone walls. The gliders had been loaded with Jeeps, anti-tank guns, and other weapons too large to drop by parachute. The cargo was strapped down and secured to plywood floors. Pilots and glider troops alike had only canvas and light wood to protect them.

In a moment, the field was complete chaos, with gliders ploughing in all directions. Equipment broke away and catapulted through the front of the plane when it hit the ground, often crushing the pilots. Bodies and bundles were scattered the length of the field. Some of the glider troopers were impaled by the splintering wood of the fragile machines. ‘We immediately tried to aid the injured,’ wrote one of the paratroopers who had prepared the landing zone, ‘but knew we would first have to decide who could be helped and who could not. A makeshift aid station was set up and we began the grim process of separating the living from the dead. I saw one man with his legs and buttocks sticking out of the canvas fuselage of a glider. I tried to pull him out. He would not budge. When I looked inside the wreckage, I could see his upper torso had been crushed by a jeep.’

British gliders, which were larger, carried the field guns of the 320th Glider Field Artillery Battalion. They were even more dangerous than the Waco gliders. On a hard landing the front wheel structure would smash up through the plywood floor, causing considerable injury. A lot of the crashes were caused by confusion and too many planes coming in at the same time. A number were shot down by ground fire from nearby German positions. ‘The troop-carrying gliders came like a swarm of ravens,’ wrote the Obergefreiter from the 91st Luftlande-Division, ‘and then the war really got started.’ Among the casualties was Brigadier General Pratt, the assistant divisional commander of the 101st Airborne. He too was killed by a Jeep smashing through the front of the aircraft when it came to an abrupt halt on hitting a tree. Within twenty minutes, enough glider troops had landed to allow them to start caring for their own injured. Medics were working frantically, administering morphine, sulfa pills and whatever bandages they had.

A number of the gliders missed the landing zone altogether. One came down on a landmine and blew up. Some came in on the flooded areas, which at least softened the landing. Pilots had to remember to take off their heavy flak jackets before cutting their way out through the side panels. The water could be deep in places.

Glider infantrymen were extremely vulnerable at this moment if within range of German positions. ‘Upon landing,’ wrote one pilot, ‘we discovered the source of the ground fire which nearly got me. It turned out to be a bunker containing about a dozen conscripted Polish soldiers with one German in charge. After the glider infantrymen from several gliders, including ours, directed a hail of rifle-fire at the bunker, the resistance ceased. There was silence in the bunker, and then a single shot. Then there were shouts and laughter, and these Poles emerged with their hands held high. They weren’t about to fight the Americans so they simply shot the Kraut sergeant.’

Reactions among the French civilian population could also be unpredictable. While many made omelettes or crêpes for the paratroopers and offered them swigs of Calvados, others were frightened that this operation might just be a raid, and that the Germans would return afterwards to take revenge. But such fears did not stop farmers’ wives from rushing out into the fields and grabbing as many parachutes as possible for their silk. Not surprisingly, the rather stolid Norman farmers, who seldom travelled far from their own villages, were confused by this extraordinary intrusion. A trooper in the 101st recounted that when they stopped to talk to three Frenchmen, one of the farmers said to his companion, pointing to the blackened face of a paratrooper, ‘You’ve now seen an American negro.’

Despite the intensely vicious skirmishes, the fighting had hardly started. As dawn approached, the paratroopers knew that the Germans would launch counter-attacks in strength. Their prime concern was the possible failure of the main invasion. If the 4th Infantry Division did not secure Utah beach and break through across the causeways to join them, then they would be abandoned to their fate.

After seeing the 101st Airborne take off from Greenham Common, General Eisenhower had returned to his nickel-plated trailer at 01.15 hours. He had sat there in silence for a while smoking. His aide, Harry Butcher, did not know then that the supreme commander had already written a statement assuming all responsibility if Overlord turned out to be a disaster.

A few hours later, Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, the very man who had warned of catastrophe on the Cotentin airborne operation, telephoned through a preliminary report. Butcher immediately went to Eisenhower. Unable to sleep, the supreme commander was reading a western in bed and still smoking. Only twenty-one of the 850 transports carrying the American airborne troops had been destroyed. British losses were even lighter, with just eight missing out of around 400 aircraft. Leigh-Mallory was already composing an apology in writing which managed to be both grovelling and handsome at the same time: ‘I am more thankful than I can say that my misgivings were unfounded . . . May I congratulate you on the wisdom of your choice.’ But they all knew that the airborne operation had been just the first step. Everything depended upon the seaborne landings and the German response.

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