D-Day June 6th, 1944: The Airborne Assault

US Airborne Troops D-Day 1944
US Airborne troops preparing to jump on D-Day June 4th, 1944 (photo source: US Army Corps)

As part of the Allied D-Day landings of World War Two to invade France on June 6th, 1944 the seaborne landings on the beaches of Normandy (code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches) were preceded around 5 hours earlier by a two-pronged night airborne assault by Allied paratroopers. American paratroopers from the 82nd “All American and 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Divisions landed on the Eastern side (Cherbourg) of the invasion beaches and the British 6th Airborne Division and Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion landed on the Western side (Caen). The intention of these landings was to protect the flanks of the attack on the Normandy beaches and capture strategic points, including bridges to keep the roads open for troops to more easily penetrate deeper into France.

D-Day allied invasion

82nd 101st airborne division
82nd “All American” & 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division patches

From bases in Britain around 13,000 paratroopers were dropped over the invasion sites in France by around 800 Douglas C-47 Dakota transport aircraft. The paratroopers were followed by an additional 4,000 troops who landed in approximately 500 gliders towed by Allied aircraft. Things did not go too well initially for the airborne assault though.

D-Day Paratroopers  June 6 1944
D-Day Paratroopers were dropped en masse
RAF gliders and Handley Page Halifax bombers converted to tow the gliders in D-Day stripes 1944
Preparing for take-off: RAF gliders and Handley Page Halifax bombers converted to tow the gliders in D-Day stripes 1944
RAF Airspeed Horsa glider under tow
RAF Airspeed Horsa glider under tow

Troops were scattered all over the place, many landed in the wrong locations, many drowned in areas the Germans had deliberately flooded, others were injured or killed during the landing with a lot of their equipment lost. Some of the confusion was caused by German flak, low cloud, navigation errors and from dropping troops at incorrect altitudes. Despite the difficulties they faced, the paratroopers fought bravely and managed to achieve their primary objective of securing the flanks and caused a lot of chaos behind enemy lines.

British Paratroopers 1944 Horsa Glider Chaffee Tank
Horsa Glider & M24 Chaffee tank 1944

My travels around Normandy in May 2012 included two famous locations for the airborne assault. One was the “Pegasus Bridge” (named after the symbol of the British paratroopers involved) in Ranville and the other Sainte-Mere-Eglise (US paratroopers). 3 British gliders landed almost on top of the “Pegasus Bridge” and the 6th Airborne Division troops lead by Major John Howard quickly seized their objective and held this and another bridge nearby until reinforcements arrived.

Pegasus Bridge Horsa Glider 1944
“Pegasus Bridge” and Horsa Gliders 1944
Major John Howard memorial
Major John Howard memorial near the “Pegasus Bridge” landing site
Major John Howard
Major John Howard
British 6th Airborne Division 1944
British 6th Airborne Division 1944

The “Pegasus Bridge” was actually replaced with a new one years ago (that looks more or less identical). The original remains and is displayed at the nearby Memorial Pegasus (bullet holes included) along with an informative museum and a replica Horsa glider (along with parts of an original glider).

Pegasus Bridge France
“Pegasus Bridge” (original)
Horsa Glider
Horsa Glider (replica)

At Sainte-Mere-Eglise the old church remains that has become a symbol of the town. It was where  paratrooper John Steele famously hung from his parachute, dangling up high for 2 hours during the battle (if you have ever watched the movie The Longest Day (1962) you will be familiar with this event). He pretended to be dead, but was captured by the Germans, later he managed to escape and rejoin the fight. The US paratroops eventually captured and held Sainte-Mere-Eglise with the aid of reinforcements from the landing beaches. Today there is a memorial of sorts with a paratrooper and parachute attached to the steeple.

Church Sainte-Mere-Eglise France
Town church in Sainte-Mere-Eglise
Sainte-Mere-Eglise Church Tower France
Sainte-Mere-Eglise church tower
US Paratroopers Sainte-Mere-Eglise 1944
US Paratroopers fire at German snipers in the Sainte-Mere-Eglise church tower 1944

Across the road from the church is the excellent Airborne Museum which has a large collection of aircraft and weaponry on display including a Douglas C-47 Dakota, Sherman Firefly tank and a Waco glider.

Sherman Firefly Sainte-Mere-Eglise
Sherman Firefly
C-47 Airborne Museum Sainte-Mere-Eglise
Douglas C-47 Dakota
Douglas C-47 101st Airborne
Douglas C-47 Dakota
101st Airborne warpaint
101st Airborne paratroopers in “war paint”
101 Airborne Paratroopers
101 Airborne Paratroopers applying “war paint” 1944
Waco Glider Airborne Museum France
Waco glider
Waco Glider Sainte-Mere-Eglise
Waco glider

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