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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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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