D-Day: Aerial Armada

Military plans for the allied landings in France, Operation Overlord, were settled early in 1944. The British and Canadian 2nd Army was to land on beaches between Arromanches and Ouistreham at the mouth of the River Orne, while the US 1st Army was responsible for the western end and the capture of the Cotentin Peninsula, south of Cherbourg.

The British left flank (east) would rest on the Canal de Caen, which was overlooked by high ground east of the River Orne. It would be essential to capture this area before the amphibious landings to prevent the enemy targeting much of the British assault with observed artillery fire, thus endangering the whole operation. The role given to the 6th Airborne Division (AD) was to protect this left flank by denying to the enemy the area between the Rivers Orne and Dives.

Within this main task were several minor objectives. The most important of these were: the capture, intact if possible, of the bridges over the Canal de Caen and River Orne near Bénouville; the destruction of bridges over the River Dives and the seizure of the highly fortified coastal battery at Merville, which commanded the landing beaches near Ouistreham.

The 6th AD comprised two Parachute Brigades (Nos 3 and 5) and 6 Air Landing Brigade. The air components to lift the airborne division were 38 and 46 Groups, and the Glider Pilot Regiment. There were insufficient aircraft to transport the division and its supporting arms at full strength in one ‘lift’, so it was planned to complete the ‘op’ over two days.

In addition to the British plans, two American airborne divisions were to drop paratroops on the night of June 5 and into D-Day itself – the 101st US Division in the area of Sainte-Mère-Église and the 82nd Division around Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte on the Cotentin Peninsula.

Aerial picture of landing zone at Ranville on D-Day

The busy landing zone at Ranville, littered with gliders.

OPERATION NEPTUNE

Detailed study of the Normandy terrain had been in progress from February 1944. It was evident that the land surrounding Caen, with its very large, clear, almost level fields, provided suitable territory for airborne invasion. Except for two special tasks (involving landings alongside the bridges at Bénouville and the battery at Merville), the choice of drop zones (DZs) and landing zones (LZs) was soon agreed. Flak and other ground defences in the area were assessed to be comparatively light.

There were several issues to consider in finalising the route to be flown by the great armada of aircraft and gliders:

  • To avoid flak near Le Havre and fire from friendly naval forces
  • Ensure the longest possible straight run on to the DZs and LZs, and to minimise the number of turns
  • Obtain the best use of the radio navigation aid GEE and to avoid detection by enemy radar
  • Co-ordinate with the other commands operating in parallel
  • The routes were to be as straightforward as possible to eschew confusion, facilitate navigation and expedite briefing


The final route plan had three rendezvous points on the English West Sussex coast at Worthing, Littlehampton and Bognor Regis, and from these points there was just one alteration in course to be made mid-Channel, to avoid Le Havre.

In addition to the normal navigation devices, all aircraft were fitted with GEE and Rebecca II, a radar unit for homing to a pinpoint and to assist in finding target areas. Eureka beacons, that would respond to Rebecca transmissions, were to be placed in position by the Independent Parachute Company on all dropping and landing zones. Eureka beacons were also positioned at the rendezvous points.

There were 362 aircraft and 61 reserves drawn from 15 squadrons across 38 and 46 Groups, as well as 1,120 gliders. By mid-March the squadrons had moved to their final airfields (see panel).

The British airborne operation was divided into three phases, each given its own name. These, in order, were Tonga, Mallard and Rob Roy. Tonga entailed the dropping of the two parachute brigade groups in the early hours of D-Day. Mallard was planned for the evening of June 6, when the main airborne force in gliders would be landed. Rob Roy denoted the re-supply missions for the following evening.

A cover plan was devised to provide additional security for the large airborne assault. Prior to D-Day there were to be intense attacks by Typhoons and Spitfires against radar installations. Bomber Command was to target wireless and listening stations with the aid of the Pathfinder Force, and an assault would also be mounted on the heavy gun battery at Merville. On the evening before D-Day, remaining enemy radar sites were to be jammed and ‘window’ (technically known as chaff – small strips of radar-confusing metal foil) was to be dropped to simulate an amphibious attack in the Pas-de-Calais region.

The 5th Parachute Brigade was tasked to capture the bridges over the River Orne and Canal de Caen in a glider-borne ‘coup de main’ operation, to secure and hold the high ground overlooking Ranville, to seize a battery near Ouistreham and clear the landing zones to allow gliders to land later on D-Day. The 3rd Parachute Brigade was to land further to the east to take the battery at Merville, destroy four important bridges and prevent any German reinforcements using the roads to reach Ranville.

For the RAF, the lift for Operation Tonga was to be executed in three phases. The first stage involved six Armstrong Whitworth Albemarles carrying Pathfinders to locate and mark the three main DZs. At the same time, six Halifax aircraft were to tow the ‘coup de main’ party in Horsa gliders. Twenty-one Albemarles were to carry the rest of the advance party with their transport, guns and equipment to prepare for the main landings.

The second phase would commence 50 minutes after midnight, when the key body of the two brigades was delivered to the ‘N’, ‘K’ and ‘V’ drop zones. Phase three at 03:20hrs involved 68 Horsas and four Hamilcars, towed by Albemarle and Halifax aircraft, carrying the Divisional HQ and equipment of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and 4th Anti-Tank Battery.

WACO Hadrian gliders ready for D-Day

WACO Hadrian gliders pictured after assembly in the UK. KEY COLLECTION

OPERATION TONGA

As midnight approached on June 5, 1944, all was ready for the start of the huge airborne assault on Normandy. The aircrews had been briefed on June 2 and studied photographs, maps and models.

The groundcrews were busy painting invasion stripes on the aircraft and gliders before they were positioned on the runways to allow them to make a rapid and concentrated take-off.

The airborne assault got under way just after 23:00hrs, when the first of six Albemarles took off carrying men of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company. The task of these Pathfinders was to set up Eureka homing beacons and illuminations on the DZs, to guide the main forces following behind. Two aircraft were allocated to each zone.

At the controls of the first to get airborne from Harwell was Sqn Ldr Claude Merrick of 295 Squadron, who had AVM Hollinghurst, AOC of 38 Group, on board. The force flew out at 1,200ft and Merrick dropped his ‘stick’ of 20 men over DZ ‘K’, and the Pathfinders soon had their homing beacon and illuminations working. The pilot of the second aircraft tasked to the same DZ misidentified the area and dropped his group of paratroops near the neighbouring DZ ‘N’, where the team set up homing aids. As a result, 14 sticks of the 3rd Parachute Brigade intended for DZ ‘K’ were dropped on the incorrect area and separated from their equipment.

The third drop zone at ‘V’ proved to be an unhappy choice. Although apparently quite suitable when viewed from the air, being in a valley it had become extremely wet and treacherous when the river flooded. The Pathfinders had great difficulty establishing their ground signals and were only partially successful. There were also many irrigation ditches, which prevented rapid concentration of the troops. Nevertheless, the Germans were taken by surprise and sufficient men of the advance party were dropped in the right places to carry out their tasks.

Just before midnight, six Halifax tug aircraft of 298 and 644 Squadrons took off from Tarrant Rushton with their Horsa gliders. On board were Maj John Howard and his men of D Company, 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Accompanying them were 20 sappers of 249 Field Company. The task of this force was to capture intact the bridges at Bénouville and Ranville, holding them until reinforcements arrived.

The tug and glider combinations climbed to 6,000ft and headed for the French coast near Cabourg, where the gliders were released 15 miles (24km) from their targets. Descending steeply, and with the aid of just a compass and stopwatch, and no ground assistance, the three gliders assigned to the canal bridge at Bénouville landed within minutes of each other, a mere 100 yards from their objective.

The three assigned to the second bridge were not so accurate, but two were close enough to their target. The two bridges were taken intact and held until men of the 7th Parachute Regiment arrived a few hours later to secure the area. The official report said: “This glider operation was extraordinarily successful,” and ACM Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Commander of the Allied Air Forces, described the skill of the glider pilots as: “one of the finest bits of precision flying and navigational accomplishments of the war.”

As the Pathfinders on the ground endeavoured to resolve some of the difficulties on the drop zones, Horsa gliders and the main body of the two parachute brigades began arriving. Owing to the error of the lights on DZ ‘N’, some of the combinations landed in the wrong areas. The gliders destined for DZ ‘V’ carrying heavy equipment for the Merville raid were mostly unsuccessful, due to a mix of poor weather and the unsuitable landing ground.

Seventy-one Dakotas and four Albemarles transported the main body of the 3rd Parachute Brigade. They too experienced difficulties at DZ ‘V’ and their sticks were dispersed; this seriously affected the attack on the Merville battery, a prime objective of the early raid. Only about 150 of the 600 men were dropped close enough to the battery to be able to assault it. Despite this, they destroyed two of the guns and put two others out of action for a time.

Soldiers dragging a canon in a Horsa aircraft in preparation for D-Day

The Horsa could accommodate field artillery for D-Day, as this photo shows.

MIXED FORTUNES

The Brigade had better fortunes at DZ ‘K’ and, although the lighting error on DZ ‘N’ caused problems, there were sufficient forces to achieve their intended aim and they destroyed two key bridges over the River Dives at Bures, and Troarn, which impeded enemy movement from the south.

The men of the 5th Parachute Brigade had better luck, since the lights and Eureka beacon had been correctly placed on DZ ‘N’ and 123 aircraft carried out the drop without issue.

Operation Tonga – its third and final stage – was the landing of a glider force of 68 Horsas and four Hamilcars towed by aircraft of 38 Group. They were carrying the 6th Airborne Divisional HQ troops, including its commander, Maj Gen Richard Gale, to DZ ‘N’ where the Divisional HQ was to be established. The Horsas were released at 1,500ft and 48 got down successfully, despite the deteriorating weather. Three Hamilcars carrying heavy equipment landed safely. This ended the activity of the first night. There had been complications, many caused by the mis-identification of DZ ‘K’ by one of the Pathfinder aircraft, but enough troops were available to achieve several crucial objectives and hold the ground until the main force arrived later on D-Day. For the aircrews it had been a busy night. A total of 266 aircraft had taken the parachute force and there had been 98 glider combinations carrying 611 troops and heavy equipment, including one bulldozer.

There was to be no respite for the air and groundcrews and most of the former had just 15 hours’ rest before flying again. By 17:00hrs on June 6, the tugs and gliders were in position ready for take-off, to initiate the main glider assault.

OPERATION MALLARD

There were considerable misgivings during the planning stages for Overlord, about mounting the main glider assault in daylight. However, a large airborne force was needed to consolidate the gains made by the advance parties – and to meet the anticipated counter-attacks by German forces. The timing of the operation was most important. To ensure the element of surprise and the protection of darkness on the return journey, the release was timed to occur at dusk when the sun would be in the most favourable position. Close fighter escort by 15 squadrons of 11 Group RAF was given to the long and vulnerable stream of slow flying aircraft/tug combinations.

Apart from 233 Squadron, which was preparing for Operation Rob Roy, all the squadrons of 38 and 46 Groups were involved. Horsas carried the men, jeeps and trailers, while the Hamilcars transported the heavy armour and guns of the 6th AD. Two drop zones were chosen for the landing: the successful DZ ‘N’ near Ranville and, following the triumphant ‘coup de main’ operation, a new DZ ‘W’, which had been established west of the Canal de Caen.

The force commenced its take-off at 19:00hrs when the weather was described as ‘excellent’. Heading for DZ ‘N’ were 146 tugs with gliders, and only four failed to reach the objective. Dakotas towed 74 Horsas, and the Stirlings and Albemarles of 38 Group pulled 42 Horsas and 30 Hamilcars. One Dakota was shot down.

Heading for the new DZ ‘W’ were six squadrons of 38 Group with 112 Horsas. All but four landed, and this was completed in 28 minutes… testament to the skill of the glider pilots and their intensive pre-operation training.

The evening’s missions were a great achievement, with just ten gliders failing to reach the drop zones (95.3% managed the task). After two days’ fighting, the 6th AD had completed all its plans except for a small number on the coast. The only remaining operations were those of re-supply to the forces on the ground and the Special Air Service taskings.

Army trucks crossing Bénouville Bridge over the Caen Canal on D-Day

The Bénouville Bridge, later known as Pegasus Bridge, over the Caen Canal with gliders (behind the trees) that landed within 100 yards.

OPERATION ROB ROY

Re-supply became the main task once the forces were well established at the bridgehead. On the evening of D-Day, 50 Dakotas were detailed to drop 116 tons of supplies on DZ ‘N’. Flying in ‘vics’ of three, the formation came under fire from allied shipping, causing the group to fragment. Six Dakotas were lost and only 20% of the supplies reached their target.

This operation was the last flown by the crews of 46 Group, who reverted to transport duties. Within days they were alighting on hastily prepared landing strips in Normandy, carrying stores before returning with the wounded.

Over the next few days the aircraft of 38 Group continued to drop supplies and Rob Roy was complete by the end of June 10. The armies were established, equipment and rations were being delivered to the beaches, and the first of the airstrips were being completed, allowing the Dakotas to fly in additional materiel.

US AIRBORNE OPS

As the 6th Airborne Division was landing in the Caen area, the US 82nd and 101st ADs were being dropped in the south of the Cotentin Peninsula by aircraft of the IX US Troop Transport Command. Operating from airfields in the south of England, the C-47 Skytrains routed from Portland Bill, Dorset, to the west of Cherbourg at 500ft and approached the drop zones on the east of the peninsula from the west. The 53rd Troop Carrier Wing took 140 Waco CG-4 Hadrian and 160 Horsa gliders. Meanwhile, the 50th and 52nd Wings carried the parachute troops.

The drops were not as accurate as those of the British. As soon as the force turned east to cross the Cotentin peninsula, there was thick cloud and they ran into heavy flak and small-arms fire. The formations started to break up and the lack of navigation training, for all but the formation leaders, caused great difficulty for the Pathfinders, who were responsible for locating and marking the drop zones. As a result, the troops were widely scattered. Of the 6,600 soldiers of the 101st dropped near Sainte-Mère-Église, only 1,100 landed near their objective. The 82nd was also widely dispersed.

Reinforcements were flown in on the following night, including almost 200 gliders. Once again, troops were widely spread but the element of surprise, and the gallant fighting of the troops, did not prevent victory, albeit at a high cost.

299 Squadron Stirling gliders getting ready for D-Day

Various 299 Squadron Stirling glider tugs being prepared for D-Day at Keevil.

RESULTS

Operation Neptune was the first airborne project ever attempted on such a large scale. Not all went according to plan. The weather was less than ideal and such a mission needed very accurate navigation and timing, which were difficult at night. The efficiency of Operation Mallard highlighted the value of attempting this kind of task in daylight, when navigation was easier, and there was less chance of collisions.

Without air superiority, the operation could well have foundered.

Despite the difficulties, the 6th AD achieved much and carried out all its tasks. By dawn on June 6 it had captured and held the Orne bridges, destroyed three spans over the River Dives, had put the Merville battery out of action, and created a defensive aspect on the high ground on the eastern flank near Ranville. This was a vital position, which was denied to any German counter-offensive. Had the latter been successful, the beachhead could have been made untenable. Thus, the airborne assault played a major role in the victory that was Overlord, and invaluable experience was gained for the future.

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