In all, more than 150,000 soldiers participated in the ground operations of the D-Day invasion. Of these, some 23,000 arrived by air, rather than sea. Theirs was the only large-scale airborne operation to be conducted at night. While this nocturnal operation significantly complicated the work of the airborne units, it also contributed substantially to the success of the Normandy invasion.
No invasion could succeed in the long run with just the troops that were originally landed, nor with the reinforcements that could be delivered in shallow-draft landing craft. Success depended on the ability to deliver large concentrations of men and of heavy equipment, from tanks to artillery. That demanded the use of transport vessels, and in turn, of some sort of harbor.
The failure of the Dieppe raid had taught the British that this could not be done quickly and easily. They had tried to secure an existing port with a relatively small team of commandos, but it had not worked. In 1944, Britain and America agreed to an alternative: once the beaches had been secured, they would assemble prefabricated artificial harbors called “mulberries.”
Securing those beaches in the first place was always known to pose a serious challenge. Allied planners had sought to improve their odds by selecting the more distant (and thus less heavily-defended) Normandy beaches, and to employ every means at their disposal to deceive the Germans about their selected target. Still, the defense would be determined, and once the main attack had been committed, the Germans would be able to send reinforcements to the contested beaches.
By this point, the Allies had achieved air supremacy over northern France. The Germans kept their armor concentrated as a strategic reserve; they would need to be delivered to the battle by rail, and it was the job of the Allied air forces to disrupt such a delivery. The more immediate dangers were the adjacent concentrations of infantry and the numerous batteries of artillery spread out beyond the front lines of the Atlantic Wall. Neutralizing these threats was the job assigned to the airborne units.
In general terms, the airborne was to secure the flanks of Utah Beach in the west and of Sword Beach in the east. This included the seizure or destruction of bridges and the general disruption of German defensive measures. The airborne was also to disable as many artillery emplacements as possible. The British had additional contingencies in mind. Not entirely convinced by American promises concerning the effectiveness of the mulberries, the British wanted to be prepared for a major push on the port of Cherbourg if the landing succeeded but the reinforcements failed. This was the reason for the inclusion of Utah Beach in the first place, and it also accounted for a larger airborne presence on its western flank, with two American Airborne Divisions being detailed to this sector, where only one British Division proved equal to the task of securing the eastern flank of Sword Beach.
While the larger part of each airborne operation was played by paratroopers, a substantial role was also played by men and equipment delivered by gliders. Airborne operations are subject, on a smaller scale, to the same challenges enumerated above with regard to amphibious landings. Paratroopers are highly mobile until they reach the ground; then they are no faster than regular infantry. Their striking power is actually less, because paratrooper units invariably disperse during the drop, and they can only carry personal weaponry without heavier support weapons. In the long run, a paratrooper landing will require the delivery of a larger concentration of men and a few vehicles or larger guns to succeed. Gliders could deliver these. Assuming that a glider landed safely, it could provide a squad of men, a jeep, a light artillery gun, and much-needed other supplies from ammunition to food and medicine. Paratroopers were necessary to make a landing, but in any large-scale operation, gliders were necessary to ensure its success.
The British designated the 6th Airborne Division to secure the eastern flank, landing nine battalions in all, of which two-thirds were paratroopers and one-third were landed by glider. The Americans detailed the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to their western flank, each delivered with greater than usual strength: nine battalions of paratroopers and three battalions of gliders. The 101st was to be sent closer to the beach itself, while the 82nd was delivered further west, nearer the Merderet and Douve rivers. Each landing was to be preceded by the deployment of a small cadre of paratroopers designated as Pathfinders, who dropped in fifteen minutes ahead of the main body to mark the Drop Zones and Landing Zones. To further disorient the enemy, planes simultaneously dropped “Ruperts,” one and a half foot tall mannequins, in other areas. These served mainly to draw German attention and then prove to be only a deception, inspiring doubt at any further reports of paratrooper landings.
The airborne troops were to confuse the Germans as much as possible, but it was understood from the beginning that the operation would diverge from the plan in many unforeseen ways. The British commander is said to have told his men, “Do not be daunted if chaos reigns; it undoubtedly will.” His words proved true, but in the end, it was the Germans who were more disoriented.
The British made their drop first, at 12:50 am, with the American 101st landing at 1:30 am and the 82nd following an hour later. This was done for two reasons: to limit the amount of simultaneous air activity, and to interfere with German countermeasures. This staggering of drops allowed the Germans to formulate a plan to deal with one threat just in time to learn that the danger was larger and more widespread than they thought.
Several factors served to scatter the landings. Heavy wind and robust anti-aircraft fire altered the course of the transport planes, and the wind also served to deposit paratroopers further from the intended Drop Zones than planners might otherwise have expected. The Americans faced an additional problem, in that a gathering cloud cover induced the pilots to spread out. This was sensible as a way to avoid collisions, but it also interfered with the timetable, which was crucial in a nighttime drop.
Despite the difficulties, the British landings were fairly well concentrated, and the main objectives were taken. In a famous case, three platoons descending in as many gliders landed almost immediately adjacent to the bridge they had been sent to seize. Overwhelming the surprised defenders in a fifteen-minute firefight, they secured the crossing, which has since been dubbed the Pegasus Bridge.
The American landings were more confused, with larger groups of men landing far from their intended destinations. By daybreak, the effective strength of the 101st was estimated at 40%, while the 82nd was nearer to 30%. The 101st was still able to seize all of its objectives; one regiment landed in a close cluster, and was able to fulfill its plans, while the others landed in a more widespread fashion, but small groups of soldiers managed to assemble in improvised teams and secure the other four objectives. The 82nd had a harder time, with many landing much deeper in enemy territory than intended, and in smaller concentrations. Even so, the town of Sainte Mere-Eglise and its adjacent bridges were secured, while the unluckiest of the paratroopers served at least to bewilder the German defenders. Here, the drops had deviated so far from the original plan that they defied German efforts to discern a plan, which in turn frustrated their efforts to oppose it.
In the end, D-Day was won on the beaches by the soldiers who arrived by boat. That success was made possible, among other things, by the efforts of the airborne units to secure the flanks. Perhaps nowhere was this help more strongly felt than on Utah Beach, which would have proven a very difficult stretch of beach to secure if the airborne had not blocked the movement of reinforcements.
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