The British contribution to the Normandy campaign is often overlooked, and rarely spoken of. However, the actions of 6th Airborne Division, and British paratroopers at large, contributed largely to the successful landings of allied troops on D-Day, having seized all their objectives. This post is going to examine the actions of the British and Canadian paratroopers and glider infantry in their first 24 hours on French soil, and assess how successful they were.
The Ox and Bucks at Pegasus Bridge.
Around the same time that the Americans were scattering themselves all and sundry over the Normandy countryside (see last week’s post for an analysis), a reinforced company of men from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were descending silently onto a drop zone between two river bridges in 8 Horsa gliders. It was essential these bridges were captured intact, and then denied to the Germans until the land forces due to hit the beaches 5 hours later could reach these men.
Lead by the courageous Major Howard, these troops were to become the first men of the Allied Expeditionary Force to engage the enemy in the Normandy Campaign with a Bren gunner being the first conventional infantryman out of his glider and on French soil 4 long years after the Dunkirk evacuation. This was also the first engagement resulting in a fatalities, with one unfortunate soul drowning in a pond and another, a Lieutenant leading the assault across the bridge itself, shot and killed by a German sentry.
It is a testament to the skill of the Glider Pilot Regiment that all but one of the gliders involved in the assault on Pegasus bridge landed within half a mile of the target despite the need for manual navigation and level-headed flying through flak, one setting down a mere 47 Yards from the main objective itself! The landings were bumpier than expected – the first glider to touch down did so hard, so hard in fact that the pilot and navigator were thrown through the windscreen of the glider and onto the main road, still strapped into their flight seats.
Once on the ground, the British quickly set about their task of taking the bridges, accomplishing this within 20 minutes by eliminating the sentries and proceeding to beat off attacks from German armour, gun boats and even a bomber attempted to destroy the bridge. With the bridges taken, Howard signalled two words: ‘Ham and Jam.’ This signified to his headquarters that he had succeeded in his task of taking the bridges assigned to him, and was now digging in awaiting the arrival of the land forces.
As Howard was winging his way into history for the capture of Pegasus Bridge (so called because of the emblem of 6th Airborne, a winged horse), other airborne forces were landing by parachute and glider in other parts of France. Both 3rd and 5th Parachute brigades suffered from partial miss-drops, partly due to Pathfinder error and partly due to an off target RAF raid that eliminated a Pathfinding team on the ground by bombing the landing site (more on this later).
However, despite this, the paratroopers who did manage to make their drop sites managed to get underway with their objectives and successfully secure them within timeframes. 5th Brigade, despite only being at 40% strength because of the aforementioned accidents in the jumps, successfully managed to take both Bas de Ranville and Ranville itself, before digging in to resist 2 ferocious counter attacks by a unit of Panzer Grenadiers who happened to be in the area. 5th Brigade was eventually relieved late on D-Day itself.
The other brigade (3rd) was assigned the Merville Battery, the assault of which was delayed when the RAF air raid designed to occupy the defenders actually caught 3rd Brigade’s pathfinders in the open while they were setting up their drop beacons. By the time the Pathfinders had taken stock of the fact they were victims of a massive cock-up, 3rd Brigade’s Dakotas were over the drop site, and the pilots had to make several passes over the area to firstly confirm that the site was correct and then to ensure their troops were delivered successfully.
This footage is from a Bridge Too Far, but gives you an idea how intensive organising an airborne operation can be! For Normandy, this was done in the dark.
To compound this, one battalion had 4 major objectives assigned to it, including the assault of the Battery itself. Despite fierce resistance from the German gun crews, the battery was mopped up by its planned time, but the British did not remain on the position as they had not been able to recover a radio to signal to the cruiser who had been assigned the battery as a secondary objective. By the time they were relieved, they had taken a horrendously large 50% casualty rate.
Ruperts & Bulbaskets
Hand in hand with the airborne landings, a small section of troops were also dropped in to the north of the Americans. These were men of the Special Air Service, whose role was to disrupt the German response to the parachute landings. Jumping out of their aircraft with gramophones and 200 4ft dummies nicknamed Rupert, their job was to distract as many German units as possible from the actual invasion by making as much noise as they could. Coupled with lots and lots of 4ft dummies attached to parachutes descending through the moonlight, the idea was to convince the Germans that the sites chosen for landing were a long way from the actual sites.
Once on the ground, these men used their special gramophones to play the sounds of battle out into the German countryside, enticing the Germans to come and investigate. The plan worked – the Germans detached almost a company and a half of troops from their engagement with the Americans to round up this ragtag bunch, which they did only after 3 weeks of searching. Had the American paratroopers dropped successfully or pushed quicker, they would have been relieved sooner.
Next Week – Fooling the Germans: Fortitude and it’s impact