THE singing stopped as the Norman coast drew near. Stars threw down their silver spears on a long column of eight hundred airplanes ferrying thirteen thousand American paratroopers to battle. South they flew and low, skimming the inky Channel, then turning sharply east to climb between the islands of Guernsey and Alderney. Dead ahead in the moonlight lay the Cotentin Peninsula, famed for cattle and stiff with Germans. Jumpmasters barked above the engine drone, ordering the men to their feet. With a portentousclick the sixteen or seventeen jumpers in each bay snapped their parachutes to static lines running overhead. Shortly after one A.M. on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, a captain standing in the slipstream of an open doorway peered down at the white surf beating against a beach. “Say hello to France!” he shouted. Red lights flashed to warn that four minutes ahead lay the drop zones—three tight ovals for the 101st Airborne Division in the lead, three more for the 82nd Airborne close behind.
Then France vanished. A gray cloud bank, unsuspected and so thick that pilots could barely see their own wingtips, swallowed planes, then groups of planes. Formations disintegrated as the C-47 Dakotas climbed and dove to avoid colliding. Dark patches of earth swam up through the murk only to disappear, and now German antiaircraft fire—like “so many lighted tennis balls,” in one witness’s description—began to rip into the clouds. Searchlight beams and magnesium flares drenched the cockpits in molten light, dazzling callow pilots who lurched left and right despite orders forbidding evasive jinking. Enemy tracers “thick enough to walk on” stitched the flak-spangled sky, one paratrooper reported, and shells blew through aluminum skins as if “someone threw a keg of nails against the side of the airplane.” Three GIs died when a smoking two-foot hole opened in a fuselage; a dozen others became so entangled after slipping on the vomit-slick floor that they would return to England without jumping.
Even as the cloud bank thinned to the east, bewildered crewmen mistook one French village for another. Some of the pathfinders who had parachuted an hour earlier either missed the drop zones they were supposed to illuminate—using electronic transmitters and seven signal lamps arranged in a beckoning T—or else found enemy troops infesting the ground. Green jump lights began to flash in the aircraft bays anyway. Some flashed too soon or too late, dumping howling paratroopers into the sea. Cargo bundles got stuck in aircraft doors, delaying the queued troopers for two miles or more. Other planes failed to descend to the specified jump height of 500 feet, or to slow to 110 miles an hour; chutes ripped open with such G-force violence that “anything in my jump pants pockets simply burst through the reinforced bottom seams,” a trooper recalled. Rations, grenades, underwear, and cooing pigeons spilled into the night. Gunfire thickened “like a wall of flame.” Rather than half a minute, “the trip down took a thousand years,” a private later told his family. One chute snagged on a vertical stabilizer, dragging the flailing jumper into the night; another soldier hurtled earthward beneath burning shreds of silk. Men in parachutes that failed to open hit the ground with a sound likened by one soldier to “watermelons falling off the back of a truck.”
“I pulled up my knees to make myself as small a target as possible,” a trooper in the 507th Parachute Infantry wrote. “I pulled on my risers to try to slip away from the fire.” Flames licked through the cabin of a gutshot C-47 as frantic soldiers dove out the door before the plane heeled onto its left wing, then stalled and crashed. Most of the jumpers survived; the crew did not. A burning building near St.-Côme-du-Mont gave German defenders enough illumination to fatally shoot a battalion commander, his executive officer, and a company commander before they touched France. Three other company commanders were captured.
Operation ALBANY, the 101st Airborne mission, was intended to seize four elevated causeways, each roughly a mile apart, leading from Utah Beach to the Cotentin interior. American planners knew that marshlands behind the sea dunes had been flooded with two to four feet of water by German engineers, who dammed eight small streams with boulders and tree branches to isolate any invaders arriving on the coastline. Planners did not know that the enemy inundations were in fact far more ambitious. Canals, dams, and locks in the southeast Cotentin, some dating to Napoléon’s day, drained the watershed of the Douve and Merderet Rivers, creating pasture for those famous cows. Beginning in late 1942, German occupiers closed some floodgates and opened others, allowing tidal surges to create an inland sea ten miles long and up to ten feet deep. Reeds and marsh grass now grew so dense that not even the one million aerial photographs snapped by Allied reconnaissance planes had revealed the extensive flooding. No one was more surprised than the many flailing paratroopers who upon arriving over the coast of France had removed their life vests in the airplane bays only to be pulled to brackish graves by their heavy kit.
At four A.M., as thousands of lost and scattered parachutists blundered about in the dark, the first fifty-two gliders arrived “like a swarm of ravens,” in one German description. Most were fifty-foot Wacos, each so flimsy “you could shoot an arrow through it,” as a captain admitted, and without the hardened nose caps ordered in February but yet to arrive. Cut loose from their tow planes, they drifted to earth; pilots who had rarely if ever flown at night felt for the unseen ground while bullets punctured the gliders’ fabric skins with a sound likened by a flight officer to “typewriter keys banging on loose paper.” Some found the landing zone near Blosville, others found stone walls, tree trunks, dozing livestock, or the pernicious antiglider stakes known as Rommel’s asparagus. All eight men in a 101st Airborne surgical team were injured in a crash. A Waco with a large “1” painted on the nose skipped downhill on wet grass for eight hundred feet before smashing into a stout sycamore, breaking both legs of the pilot and killing the copilot; in the cargo bay, as if napping in his jeep, sat the 101st assistant division commander, Brigadier General Don F. Pratt, dead from a broken neck. Survivors kicked through the glider fabric—“like bees out of a hive they came from that hole,” a witness reported—and began to salvage the small bulldozer, antitank guns, and medical supplies now on Norman soil.
Of more than six thousand jumpers from the 101st Airborne, barely one thousand had landed on or near the H-hour objectives on this Tuesday morning. Most of the fifteen hundred–odd who had drifted far beyond the eight-mile square enclosing the division drop zones would be killed or captured; a few made their way to safety with maps torn from local telephone books by French farmers. More than half of all supply bundles lay beyond retrieval at the bottom of various water meadows, with a devastating loss of radios, mortars, and eleven of twelve 75mm pack howitzers. A sergeant peering into a barn found “men lying in the straw, wrapped in bloody soiled parachutes, their faces darkened and bandages stained.”
Yet stalwart men, those stout-hearts celebrated in song, gathered themselves to press on. An officer pounding on a farmhouse door to ask directions announced in his best French, “L’invasion est arrivé”; a voice from the second-floor window replied, “Très bien.” The 101st’s commander, Major General Taylor, wandered in the dark on his gimpy leg with a drawn pistol and a dime-store cricket, collecting lost paratroopers and politely declining the ancient rifle offered by a French farmer who said, “Allez me tuer un Boche.” Go kill me a German. In the first apricot glow of dawn, Taylor recognized the silhouette of Ste.-Marie-du-Mont’s eleventh-century church with gargoyle drainpipes protruding from the soaring stone tower. While paratroopers and Germans exchanged gunfire in the belfry and around the confessional, Taylor sent a small force east to Pouppeville to rout the enemy garrison house by house and seize the southernmost causeway exit from Utah Beach. Three miles north, the 3rd Battalion of the 502nd Parachute Infantry did the same with the two northern causeways.
Five hours after leaping into Normandy, paratroopers lined the sandy ridge overlooking the flooded marshes behind the dunes, waiting for Force U to emerge from the sea.
* * *
In June 1940, led by officers on horseback, the first German troops had arrived in the village of Ste.-Mère-Église singing “Wir fahren gegen England.” If they had never quite journeyed on to England, life as a Norman occupier proved pleasant enough. Clocks were set to Berlin time and ration cards issued to the locals, guaranteeing ample butter and cream for the master race. A huge swastika flag flew outside the town hall, near a spring once believed by pilgrims to have healing powers. Four years after the invasion, farmers still arrived on market day to weigh their wool and grain beneath chestnut and lime trees across from the ancient church, with its paired Gothic windows and its handrail of sculpted four-leaf clovers. A small garrison of Austrian antiaircraft gunners bivouacked nearby. They drove wood-burning trucks, and it was said that their elderly commander had once been the music critic for a Vienna newspaper; now his greatest interest seemed to lie in the bottom of a wineglass. Yet growing German anxiety about an impending invasion could be seen in the feverish construction this spring of Rommel’s asparagus, and in the severe penalties levied for listening to the BBC.
No objective was more important than Ste.-Mère-Église for the 82nd Airborne as the division’s six thousand men swooped over Normandy an hour behind the 101st. Roads from all compass points converged here, and the trunk cable linking Cherbourg in the north with Carentan in the south passed through Ste.-Mère. Unless it held the town, the 82nd had “almost no chance to sustain offensive operations across the Merderet River and to the westward,” a regimental study concluded. Thus, when the division drop zones were abruptly shifted in late May, they tended to cluster around this drowsy medieval crossroads of a thousand souls.
Alas, the drops in Operation BOSTON proved even more deranged than those of ALBANY. Paratroopers sifted to earth as far as fifteen miles north of their intended zones, and twenty-five miles south; those too far afield east and west plunged into the Atlantic and vanished. Less than half of the following gliders landed within a mile of the landing zone, and many were demolished, with dire losses of antitank guns and other heavy gear. Brigadier General Jim Gavin, who had fretted over another Little Bighorn, floated into an apple orchard and spent the small hours of June 6 with M-1 rifle in hand, shoving scratch forces toward the critical Merderet bridges at La Fière and Chef-du-Pont. Soldiers stripped naked in the moonlight to dive for equipment bundles in the fens. A German train bushwhacked in the Chef-du-Pont station yielded only Norman cheese and empty bottles. One gunfight along the Merderet grew so frenzied that paratroopers not only shot down enemy soldiers but also slaughtered livestock in a barn. A lieutenant leading a patrol bayoneted three wounded Germans on a dirt road; he “felt that he could not take any prisoners,” a unit report explained, “so he dispatched them.” The wolf had risen in the heart, already.
Of the division’s three parachute infantry regiments, only the 505th made a credible drop northwest of Ste.-Mère. A fire, perhaps ignited by a hissing flare, had awakened both the town and its German garrison. As a sexton hauled on the bell-tower ropes, villagers passed canvas buckets hand over hand from the cattle-market pump to a blazing villa across the church square. Then without warning C-47s roared just overhead, wingtip to wingtip, spitting out paratroopers who frantically tugged on their risers to sheer away from both the flames and aroused German gunners.
A few GIs were butchered in their harnesses, including one young trooper who dangled from a tree bough “with eyes open, as though looking down at his own bullet holes,” as the Ste.-Mère mayor recorded. But hundreds more landed unmolested after pilots circled back through the gunfire to find the correct drop zone. The 3rd Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Edward C. Krause, known as Cannonball, managed to round up a quarter of his men. Led through hedgerow shadows by a drunk Frenchman impressed as a guide, they crept into Ste.-Mère from the northwest, bounding between doorways with orders to avoid telltale muzzle flashes by using only knives, bayonets, and grenades. Ten Germans died defending the town they had held for four years, but most fled and a few hard sleepers were captured in their bunks. Four hundred yards from the church square, Krause personally severed the cable to Cherbourg. Patrols built roadblocks outside town with antitank mines and plastic explosive Gammon grenades. A burial detail cut down a half-dozen dead paratroopers still dangling from the chestnut trees.
In front of the town hall, Krause from his haversack pulled the same American flag raised over Naples when the battalion first entered that city on October 1, 1943. He hoisted it on a wobbly pole, then at five A.M. sent a runner—few radios had survived the drop—with a message that reached the division commander, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway: “I am in Ste. Mère Église.” An hour later a second runner carried a postscript: “I have secured Ste. Mère Église.” The Americans had liberated their first town in France.
By dawn, 816 planes and 100 gliders had inserted more than 13,000 GIs onto the Continent; only 21 planes had been shot down, far less than the carnage predicted by Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory. Yet only one of six regiments had been delivered where intended, and it was the sole regiment able to fight as a cohesive, three-battalion force, albeit at only half strength. Air commanders had not sent an advance weather plane to warn of the low cloud banks so common over Normandy in June; in this failure, they were remiss if not derelict. Dispersion thinned the combat power of a force armed with little more than rifles and grenades. But, as in Sicily, the haphazard scattering was “not an unmixed evil,” as the official Army history would put it: dispersion confused the enemy as well as the dispersed. Across the Cotentin could be heard the metallic thwang of phone and telegraph wires snipped by paratroopers. Captured Germans were ordered to lie on their backs in a radial pattern, feet touching, awaiting evacuation to prisoner cages. Many others, gunned down in ambushes, simply lay dead.
Shortly before dawn, an American light bomber flew the first night photo-reconnaissance mission over Europe, illuminating the Norman landscape from 8,000 feet with a 200-million-candlepower electric lamp carried in the open bomb bay like a tiny sun. After shooting 180 exposures, the plane circled back to England, where analysts would study the film, frame by frame, looking for panzers trundling toward the Cotentin in the inevitable German counterattack.
* * *
Fifty miles to the east, the British 6th Airborne Division had crossed the coast of France, keen to settle scores after half a decade of war. Tommies hoping to bop a sleeping German heaved miscellaneous objects out the open doors of their transport planes: bricks inscribed with vulgarisms, a soccer ball painted to resemble Hitler’s face, and a stuffed moose head purloined from an Exeter pub. Almost five thousand paratroopers and glidermen followed.
Two parachute brigades were to secure OVERLORD’s left flank by seizing bridges over the river Orne and its attendant canal northeast of Caen while blowing up spans across the river Dives, which flowed roughly parallel five miles farther east. Many of the vicissitudes plaguing their American comrades in the Cotentin Peninsula bedeviled the British too: more than half the pathfinders landed in the wrong place, their electronic beacons and signal lamps damaged, missing, or invisible from the air after being ill-sited amid tall wheat. Evasive maneuvering knocked some paratroopers off balance and delayed their jumps; in one flock of ninety-one planes, only seventeen dropped in the correct spot. An antiaircraft shell blew a major from the 3rd Brigade through a hole in his plane’s fuselage. With a static line wrapped around his legs, he dangled beneath the aircraft for half an hour until he was reeled back into the bay. He returned to England and then, later on June 6, made France by glider, mussed but unharmed.
Less fortunate were the men dumped into the Atlantic or the flooded Dives valley. One sodden brigadier took four hours to wade to the riverbank near Cabourg, steeping in the sixty tea bags he had sewn into his battle dress. “We could see where parachute canopies had collapsed in silken circles on the water,” an officer reported. Bodies would be discovered in the Dives muck for the next half century.
Amid calamity came a celebrated success. Half a dozen large Horsa gliders, a craft named for the wife of a Saxon king but known as the “Flying Morgue” for its tendency to disintegrate in hard landings, carried 181 men under Major John Howard, a former Oxford policeman. Cheered by urns of tea spiked with rum, they too had sung—“Cow Cow Boogie” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”—until the pilots shouted, “Casting off!,” and tow ropes parted from the Halifax bombers ahead. For three minutes Howard and his men sat in silence but for wind shrieking over the barn-door flaps, their arms linked and fingers locked in a butcher’s grip. Three Horsas led by Lady Irene corkscrewed to the west until a pilot spotted their target and abruptly yelped, “Christ, there’s the bridge!” Then: “Brace for impact!” With a sound likened by one private to “a giant sheet being ripped apart,” the gliders clipped France at one hundred miles an hour, the wheels torn away as the Horsas bounded into the air, then settled on their skids in an orange spray of sparks so intense the glidermen mistook them for German tracers. Stunned but uninjured, Howard and his men wiggled headfirst through jagged holes in the glider fabric, lugging their Sten guns and canvas buckets brimming with grenades.
There, hardly fifty yards from Lady Irene’s battered nose, stood the squat Bénouville bridge over the Caen canal. An astonished sentry turned and fled, bellowing in alarm. A Very flare floated overhead, silvering the dark water, and fifty enemy soldiers—mostlyOsttruppen conscripts from eastern Europe—stumbled toward the western bridge ramp as gunfire pinged from girders and rails. Too late: Howard’s men shot and grenaded their way across, shouting “Able,” “Baker,” and “Charlie” to keep the three platoons intact. “Anything that moved,” a British soldier later acknowledged, “we shot.”
One platoon commander fell dead from enemy fire, but within a quarter hour the span belonged to the British. The German bridge commander was captured when his car, laden with lingerie and perfume, skittered into a ditch; to atone for the loss of his honor, he asked in vain to be shot. Three rickety French tanks crewed by Germans lumbered toward the bridge only to be smacked with Piat antiarmor fire. Two fled and the third burned for an hour after a crewman crawled from his hatch with both legs missing. Major Howard soon got word that the other half of his command had captured the nearby Orne River bridge at Ranville. He ordered the heartening news to be broadcast in a coded radio message, then dug in to await both reinforcement and a more resolute enemy counterstroke.
Across the Orne and Dives floodplains additional gliders plummeted after midair collisions caused by treacherous crosswinds, or crash-landed with the usual mangled undercarriages. One Horsa skidded through a cottage and emerged, it was said, bearing a double bed with a French couple still under the duvet. Hunting horns and bugles tooted in the night as officers rallied their scattered companies. After one vicious burst of gunfire, an unhinged young paratrooper cried, “They got my mate! They got my mate!” Mates fell, but so did bridges: those over the Orne were captured, and four across the Dives were blown.
Perhaps the most perilous mission fell to the 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, ordered to destroy a coastal battery at Merville believed capable of ranging Sword Beach, easternmost of the OVERLORD quintet. Surrounded by a cattle fence, minefields, barbed-wire thickets, and machine-gun pits, the big guns and two hundred gunners were protected by steel doors and concrete six feet thick, with twelve feet of dirt overhead. Of 750 paratroopers dropped to do the deed, only 150 landed near the assembly area. Instead of sixty lengths of bangalore torpedo—metal tubes packed with explosive to breach barbed wire—just sixteen could be found by three A.M.
No matter. The bangalores blew two gaps rather than the planned four. Creeping paratroopers defused mines and trip-wire booby traps with their fingers. While a diversionary attack forced the main gate, assault teams slaughtered Germans by the score and spiked the guns by removing their breechblocks. A signal officer dispatched the news to England by banded pigeon. Though the guns proved both smaller and fewer than expected—only 75mm, and two rather than four—the menacing Merville battery had fallen. The price had been high: “I went in with 150,” the battalion commander reported, “and came out with only 65 on their feet.”
The butcher’s bill had indeed been high for airborne forces on both flanks of the invasion crescent. Fewer than half of the 4,800 British troops now in France were either sufficiently near or sufficiently alive to join the fight in coherent units on June 6; still, the fraction exceeded that of American forces to the west. Yet this day would be famous even before it dawned, in no small measure because of the gutful men who had come to war by air. Beset by mischance, confounded by disorder, they had mostly done what they were asked to do. Now the battle would hang on those who came by sea.