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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.