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The Meaning of D-Day

The Airborne Landings
By Brian Williams

In preparation for the invasion of Normandy, there were a total of 4 ready airborne divisions in England during the Spring of 1944:

    U.S. 82nd (All-American)
    U.S. 101st (Screaming Eagles)
    British 6th
    British 1st

The first three of these units were given the missions of securing the eastern and western flanks of the beachhead by destroying bridges and laying mines.  Their main mission was to allow for the main invasion force to come ashore without the immediate threat of German flank attacks.  They were tasked to destroy bridges where the enemy was likely to stage a counterattack, and to secure bridges where Allied forces were expected to go immediately on the offensive.

82nd's Mission
The US 82nd Airborne Division's mission was to protect the far right flank of the invasion in the Cotentin peninsula.  It hoped to accomplish this by destroying bridges over the Douve River and by securing the Merderet River by occupying both sides.  It also had the mission to capture Ste. Mere-Eglise from the German garrison stationed there.  The capture of Ste. Mere-Eglise was important because it straddled the main road between Carentan and Cherbourg.

101st Mission
The US 101st Airborne Division's mission was to secure four exits across the marshland near the coast for the invading US 4th Infantry Division at Utah beach.  These causeways needed to be secured because on each side of the exits, it was flooded several feet deep in places.  The 101st also were tasked to destroy two bridges over the Douve and to capture the La Barquette lock just north of Carentan.  The lock controlled the water height of the flooded areas and it was essential that it be captured.

6th's Mission
The British 6th Airborne Division was to land Northeast of Caen and secure the left flank of the invasion force by controlling bridges over the Orne Canal and River.  The left flank of the invasion force was much more vulnerable to German armored attack since the 21st Panzer was stationed just outside of Caen and the 12th SS Panzer miles to the east.  Potentially, if the Panzer Divisions were not stopped by the British 6th, they could attack Sword and the rest of the landing beaches.

Cotentin Peninsula
Facing the Allied landing at Utah beach were the 709th German Division and the parts of the newly-arrived 91st, with the  243rd which was several miles away on the Western shore.  The 709th and the 243rd were "static" units which were little more than non-mobile coastal defenses manned by relatively lower quality troops.  A large number of the battalions in the peninsula were either very young, or very old, and several were composed of Russian ethnic minorities (Cossacks, Tartars, etc.).  In contrast, the 91st, which had recently arrived to the peninsula from the eastern front, was much better trained and mobile equipped.  No armor was immediately available in the area except for the 100th Panzer battalion which was equipped with older and captured equipment.  Also of consequence was the German 6th Parachute Regiment, commanded by Colonel Frederick von der Heydt - a highly-trained and experienced fighting unit which closely resembled their American airborne counterparts.

The Flight
Starting at around 11 PM on June 5th, approximately 13,000 American parachutists would descend upon the peninsula via hundreds of twin-engined C-47s.  The C-47 was a DC-3 aircraft that held 18 parachutists (known as a "stick" to the men).  At the low speed of 120 mph, the flight would take them over an hour.  The parachutists were weighed down with nearly their body weight in equipment and weapons.  They would be prepared as much as possible since they would be dropping behind enemy lines - cutoff from the invading force.  Whatever weapons they would fight with would be carried on their backs or strapped to their harnesses.  The exception to this would be the artillery battalion of twelve 75 mm howitzers which would accompany the division.  Later, heavy mortars and heavier anti-tank could be brought in by glider.  In any case, there was no guarantee that the parachutist would form up with his unit once soon after he left the plane - if at all.

The planes took off and flew at 500 feet for about half and hour to avoid detection by German radar.  After a slight ascent to make landfall and avoid the AAA guns, the final approach would be at 700 feet.  Meteorologists had called for a calm night and nearly the entire flight was without incident.  But, as the flights approached the coast of France, they encountered a cloud bank that dispersed many of the planes...only a few minutes before the dropzone.  Between the chaotic mess that followed the dispersal and the enemy flak, several planes were damaged or destroyed...along with numerous injured parachutists within.  In addition, because of flak, many pilots increased their speed and varied their altitude dramatically.  Despite these dangerous conditions, the green light was given for the crew to jump.  Aircraft speeds had reached as high as 150 mph (normal jump speed was 90 mph) - which led to numerous injuries.

At 700 feet, the descent took less than one minute.  By this time, German flak artillery and AAA were shooting at anything in the sky...including the parachutists themselves.  Many were hit on their way down or drowned upon landing in the flooded plains of the Douve and Merderet rivers.  Although the plains were mostly only 2 to 3 feet deep (in some places more), the weight of the men, in conjunction with the dragging of the parachute could easily prove fatal.  In contrast, unopened chutes among the Americans were very uncommon with their static-line parachutes.  In addition, the Americans carried a reserve chute just in case.
Of course, trees, buildings, anti-glider poles and other obstacles lent to a large number of injuries.  But, many were injured from the impact of the landing itself - which resulted in usually sprains and broken legs.  But, by far, the potentially most dangerous situation arose from the unexpected turbulence and the resulting dispersal of the units.

The Landings
Units found themselves scattered all over the Cotentin Peninsula.  In almost every case, several hours were spent just trying to find out where they were and to find others in the same Battalion or even Regiment.  In some cases, contact with other friendly units were not made for days.  Commanders who had landed in the drop were forced to gather any men they could find on their way to their objective - in the dark.  Teams that had formed to blow up communications center or bridges found themselves without the necessary equipment because either it or the men carrying it were lost.  About 60 percent of the equipment dropped was either lost by falling into swamps or into enemy-controlled areas.
Ste Mere-Eglise
Ste Mere-Eglise stood in a pivotal location between Cherbourg and Caen whose capture fell to the 82nd Airborne.  Unfortunately, sections of two planeloads of parachutists (2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 505th Parachute Infantry) were dropped directly over the village.  To make the decent even worse, a farmhouse had caught fire either from tracers or the preceding aerial bombardment and illuminated the entire surrounding sky - making perfects targets out of the descending paratroopers.  Many were killed on their way down, at least two were drawn into the fire itself, and many more were killed by the Germans after becoming entangled in trees and roofs.  The few who did make it alive to the ground were almost immediately taken prisoner.  After the initial excitement, curiously, the Germans went back to bed after the immediate threat subsided.

The commander of 3rd Battalion, 505th, Lt. Col. Ed Krause, had landed one mile west of the village and quickly began gathering stray men.  Within an hour, he had managed to round up around 180 men and began heading straight into the village.  As mentioned above, after all the immediate paratroopers were either killed or captured, and the fire had been put out, the German garrison went back to bed.  Krause entered the town unhindered and was shown the German billets by a local Frenchman whom they ran across.  30 Germans were captured and about 10 were killed - while others fled to the nearby woods.  By 6 A.M. Krause had secured the village and thus, cut off German communication and the main route between Cherbourg and the rest of the German Army.

The Gliders
At 3:00 AM, the gliders carrying heavier equipment (jeeps and antitank guns) and reinforcements began to arrive in the area.  The paratroopers who had landed earlier were able to secure the immediate area for landing, but were unable to silence the German anti-aircraft.  As a result, the tow planes were forced to climb and release at a higher altitude - making the gliders even more vulnerable.  No one had seemed to take into account the enormous hedgerows in the countryside and factor this into the glider landings.  As a result, glider casualties were extremely high as they landed.  In addition, the glider troops were also lost when they landed in most cases.

In most cases, the American objectives of the Airborne units had not been secured by dawn (the time the invasion force would be coming).  But, the unintended effect of the wide dispersal of the paratroopers was to lend great confusion to the German command.  The German command could not determine where the Americans were concentrated (they in fact weren't) and what their objectives were to be.  The French resistance had cut so many telephone lines that German HQ could not determine the full extent of the invasion.  More importantly, the Germans could not determine whether or not if this airborne invasion was the real invasion or just a diversionary tactic.  To add to the German confusion, all of the high German commanders were not present in the local area, but were away attending a map exercise in Rennes to the south.

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