In the early stages of the British airborne operations the task of the 6th Airborne Division was both complex and simple: complex because there were so many sides to it, simple because there was no time for finesse. Two brigades of paratroopers were to land right in the middle of the enemy’s territory, on the border of the German Seventh and Fifteenth Armies, capture key targets and prevent reinforcements moving into the main battlefields at all costs.
Strong elements of the German 711th and 716th Divisions defended villages, strong points and bridges in that area; the 21st Panzer Division stood ready on their right flank and behind them the full weight of the German Panzer Reserve was within reach. If the first two brigades of paratroopers failed to react with lightning speed and secure their conquests, if they failed to clear landing areas for the gliders, and if they did not have the support of Panzer defences, mortars and most of their heavy equipment, their task was impracticable. What they had achieved with lightning speed would then be lost before the sun rose.
Erwin Rommel inspects the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy - May 30, 1944.
During the British airborne landings some crucial objectives were laid down.
The 5th Parachute Brigade would capture the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal north of Ranville, clear and protect glider landing zones and establish a firm bridgehead.
The 3rd Parachute Brigade would destroy the bridges over the Dives at Troam, Bures, Robehomme and Varreville. It would block and occupy all roads from the south-west and destroy the strong Merville battery and put its crew out of action before the guns could fire on the left flank of the amphibious landings (Sword Beach). For this last task they would have at most one hour.
An Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle aeroplane.
It was 11.30 p.m. on the night of June 5 when the first of six Albemarle Pathfinders planes took off from an English airfield with 60 men on board to position beacons to guide the paratroopers. At about the same time six gliders were carrying a small force of the 2nd Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and of the Royal Engineers, who were to capture the bridges over the Caen Canal (Pegasus Bridge) and over the Orne (Horsa Bridge). It was raining and there was a strong wind, while the moon occasionally appeared from behind clouds.
Throughout the night of the British airborne landings, the noise of the aeroplanes, the bombers, the transport planes, the tow planes and their gliders, which crossed the English Channel between Le Havre and Cherbourg by the thousands, was palpable. Among them, 5000 ships, a massive armada, headed for the beaches.
At 00h30 the first Pathfinders landed on French soil; two thirds of the force had been blown off course by the strong winds, beacons had been lost, equipment had been damaged, but enough troops had still arrived at the targets to carry out the vital minimum of their task. Only a few minutes later, a glider of the first group made a belly landing less than 50 metres from the target, overwhelmed the enemy who were taken completely by surprise and occupied the bridges over the Caen Canal and the Orne undamaged.
The Pegasus Bridge on June 9, 1944 with the visible positions of the landed Horsa aircraft in the background.
Enemy light rail ammunition trailed like shining dotted lines along the planes and anti-aircraft guns fired into the cloudy sky. Gliders and transport planes crashed along the coast. A warm welcome awaited the men of the 7th, 12th and 13th Battalions of the 5th Brigade, who came tumbling out of the cloud banks. While many had to fight before they got their legs on the ground, others landed in trees, where they were easy targets for the enemy.
By 2.30 am, the 7th Battalion was engaged in heavy fighting on both sides of the River Orne with units of the German 716th Division and two battalions of the 21st Panzer Division, commanded by Feuchtinger, which had been deployed shortly after 1 am. A company of the 7th, cornered near Bénouville, held out, fighting against time, but the tremendous explosions of the shelling, which preceded the landings from the sea, gave the men courage.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (left) with General Edgar Feuchtinger (right) in Ouistreham, 30 May 1944.
The 12th Battalion captured Le Bas de Ranville and found that it needed not only luck but also inspiration. The advance platoons found themselves up against 88-mm guns firing from 70 metres. The enemy was stronger than they were, and on landing, the tailpiece of the only six-pounder at their disposal was destroyed. Their only hope was the enemy’s hesitation and fortunately that hesitation was great.
While Blumentritt did his best to make the gravity of the situation clear to the German supreme command and tried to get the deployment of the Panzer reserves done, Speidel quickly informed Rommel and was ordered to throw the 21st Panzer Division into the fray. But Feuchtinger, under instructions from Wilhelm Richter, had already deployed a battlegroup of the 21st shortly after 6 a.m. If that battle group had been less hesitant in its counterattack, it would have overwhelmed the defenders of Le Bas de Ranville and thus prevented the extension of the Allied bridgehead in that direction. The confusion of the German commanders and the fact that the Normandy coast was threatened in many places favoured the paratroopers.
Meanwhile, the third battalion of the 5th Parachute Brigade, the 13th, had landed safely within a strong perimeter and a strong force had marched towards Ranville, leaving behind a company whose task was to clear the stakes (Rommelspargel) and land mines which could make landing by gliders with reinforcements difficult. But the brigade was left with few men on the ground because many paratroopers had got stuck in the trees and many had become involved in local heavy fighting, even if it eventually strengthened the whole position.
Example of the Rommelspargel or also called Aspergeversperring. These barriers, made of tree branches connected by wire at the top, had to keep the Allied planes from landing safely.
By the time the first commandos had fought their way through from the beach at Ouistreham and reached the bridgehead on the River Orne only two and a half minutes behind schedule, the small force of the Oxford and Backs Light Infantry, supported by the 7th Battalion, had held out for twelve hours against powerful counter-attacks supported by artillery and mortars. One company, all officers of which were killed or wounded, held out for seventeen hours without receiving help.
It was 2 p.m. when No. 6 Command crossed the Orne bridge to reinforce the 9th Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Brigade. That command had then worked its way through enemy strong points, destroyed a battery busy shelling the troops on the beach and marched nearly fifteen kilometres.
It seemed impossible that any coherent pattern could emerge from the numerous tasks undertaken during the British airborne operations of the 3rd Parachute Brigade or that seven major tasks, to be carried out along a front of over ten kilometres, could be successfully accomplished. Each of these tasks demanded great daring, careful planning, rigorous timing and above all the ability to improvise if things went wrong.
Aerial view of the Merville battery after earlier bombing in May 1944.
The 3rd Brigade came down badly. The smoke and dust of the heavy bombardment of the Merville battery obscured the jumping-off zones, while many beacons were also damaged. Anti-aircraft fire and strong gusts of wind also played a part; gliders were separated from their tow planes, many were hit by anti-aircraft fire and some units had not been given sufficient time to practise. The differences of opinion that had arisen between the planners of Overlord were now asserting their influence.
By evening, the two brigades of the British 6th Airborne Division, eagerly awaiting their gliders with reinforcements, had completed their tasks and formed bridgeheads on the Caen Canal and the Orne. They had received reinforcements from the 1st Command Brigade and had closed all roads from the east. Their future would depend on the success of the British 3rd Infantry Division, which spearheaded the attack on the left flank.
Troops of the 3rd Infantry Division. Move inland from Sword Beach.
It began to become clear that the advance from the beaches was proceeding too slowly. The infantry had dug themselves in, rather than advance. Traffic jams on the beach meant that the British could not leave the beach until early afternoon. Feuchtinger’s Panzer units, having finally received their orders, came up to Lion-sur-Mer with 90 tanks. The airborne troops owed their salvation to the fact that the German Panzer forces were deployed against the greatest threat: the amphibious landing itself.
Have you noticed a language or writing error? Please let us know, as this will only improve our reporting. We will correct them as soon as possible. Your personal data will be treated confidentially.Report error