British Airborne Operations on D-Day, 6 June 1944

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Introduction
Pegasus Bridge
The Paratroops
The Merville Battery
The German Reaction

Introduction

The eastern flank of the Allied beachhead on D-Day was formed by the troops of the British 6th Airborne Division, who had the job of destroying the bridges across the River Dives and capturing intact those across the River Orne and the Orne (or Caen in some sources) Canal.

One of the biggest fears of the Allied planners was that the Germans would rush their armoured divisions west to Normandy before the Allies were ready for them. Two major German armoured units – 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer Group Lehr – were posted between Normandy and Paris, and if they had moved quickly could have begun to make their presence felt very quickly. Of particular concern was the direct route across the River Dives, which would have seen the German armour hit the left flank of the Sword beachhead.

To counter this threat the British 6th Airborne Division (General Gale) was to land at three dropping zones. Some troops were to capture and hold the bridges across the Orne while others were to advance east to the Dives, destroy the bridges, and then pull back onto a ridge of higher ground between the rivers and create a defensive line. They then had to hold out until more heavily armed troops could arrive from Sword Beach.

Pegasus Bridge

The most famous achievement of the British airborne troops on D-Day was the capture of Pegasus Bridge, at Benouville on the Orne Canal, and a nearby bridge over the River Orne, the only such pair of bridges between Caen and the coast. These two bridges were to be captured by a small force under Major John Howard carried in six Horsa gliders. The first of these gliders cast off from its tug craft at 0007hrs, followed at one minute intervals by the other five. Starting at 0016hrs five of these six gliders landed within a few yards of their targets, and within fifteen minutes both bridges had been captured intact.

The British plan called for the 7th Parachute Battalion (commanded by the splendidly named Lieutenant-Colonel Pine Coffin) to join the men at the bridges soon after they were captured, but the paratrooper landings were more scattered than had been expected. Pine Coffin waited as long as he dared at the landing zone, before leading his men to the bridges, where they arrived just as the Germans began to counterattack.

The next wave of reinforcements was to be provided by Lord Lovat's commandos, but they didn't arrive until just after 13.00 in the afternoon. Luckily for the airborne troops the nearest German tanks, Colonel Hans von Luck's 125th Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division, were not given permission to attack the bridge until 14.00, by which time British tanks had arrived from the coast. The attacks during the morning were made by the existing German of Benouville, supported by some obsolete French tanks captured in 1940.

Luck's attempted counterattack ended in disaster. His tanks were spotted by Allied aircraft, and were targeted by the large guns of the naval force just off the coast. The leading battalion lost thirteen of its seventeen tanks to naval fire, and Luck was forced to go onto the defensive. Pegasus Bridge remained in British hands.

The Paratroops

Six aircraft carrying pathfinders arrived in France at about the same time as Howard's gliders, but with less precision. As a result the three drop zones were not well marked, and the main force became rather badly scattered (although not as badly as some of the American airborne forces).

The 5th Parachute Brigade was meant to land at DZ 'N', but it was widely scattered. While Pine Coffin's 7th Parachute Battalion moved to Pegasus Bridge, the commanders of the 12th and 13th Battalions waited until they had gathers around 60% of there men, and moved out to take up their positions in the defensive perimeter.

The 1st Canadian Battalion was meant to land at DZ 'V' and destroy the central bridges over the Dives. Once again the battalion was scattered in the drop, but enough Canadians were mustered for them to reach and destroy their targets. They then withdrew to their defensive position at Le Mesnil.

The 9th Parachute Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Brigade was the most scattered unit of all. Only four of its thirty seven C-47s dropped over DZ 'K', and 230 men ended up at DZ 'N'. The battalion had the task of destroying the bridges at Bures and Troarn, the southernmost targets on the Dives. Lt-Colonel Pearson, the battalion's commander, waited until 3.30am, by which time he had 11 officers and 130 men available. He then sent a small party to destroy the railway bridge at Bures, while he led the bulk of his force against the bridge at Troarn. This was the harder target, for the village was believed to be held in some strength, and the bridge was on the far side of the village, but despite these difficulties both bridges were destroyed, and Pearson's men were able to withdraw back to their defensive positions.

The Merville Battery

Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway's 9th Parachute Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Brigade had one of the most important tasks on D-Day – the destruction of the Merville Coastal Gun Battery, which overlooked the sea lanes approaching Sword Beach. Otway had until 5.00am to destroy the battery or HMS Arethusa would have to close to within a dangerous distance of the guns and attempt to known them out. Otway's men were very badly scattered – by 3.00am he had 150 of his 750 men and had lost all of his jeeps, trailers, anti-tank guns, 3in mortars, demolition engineers, medical teams or naval bombardment parties. Despite this he knew that he would have to move soon, for three gliders were due to land on the roof of the gun emplacement.

When Otway reached the gun battery he found Major George Smith and an advance party had already found their way through the German minefield and right up to the inner wire. They had also marked four clear routes through the mines. Otway only had enough men to use two of these routes, and so he split his force. Half went to the main gate and half attempted to attack the guns.

At first the German defenders of the guns fought fiercely. Sixty six of Otway's men were killed and 30 wounded, but after half an hour of close quarters fighting in an around the gun emplacements the guns had been destroyed and the last German defenders killed or captured. At around 5.00am, just before the naval attack was due to begin, Otway was able to send up the success signal.

By dawn General Gale had the satisfaction of knowing that his men had achieved all of their D-Day objectives, but they now had to hang on until reinforcements could reach them from Sword Beach.

The German Reaction

The initial German reaction to the British airborne landings was as chaotic as the rest of their actions on D-Day, and until the early afternoon the only troops involved in large numbers were those that had been garrisoned in the army. Although they did have some armour available, most of it was made up of obsolescent French or Czech tanks. The airborne troops were hard pressed, but managed to hold on for long enough for the commandos to reach them, and then for armour to arrive from the beach.

The first proper German counterattack came at 3.30pm. At 2.00 the 2nd Battalion, 192nd Panzergrenadiers, from the 21st Panzer Division, moved off with orders to retake Bénouville, but they ran into Pine Coffin's men outside Bénouville. Although the paratroops were pushed back into the town, the Germans were unable to make any more progress without armour. When the tanks of the 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment were finally thrown into the battle they were spotted by Allied aircraft and the attack was defeated by naval gunfire.

The two armoured units further to the east were paralyzed by the German command structure. They couldn't move without Hitler's authority, and that didn't come soon enough for them to make any difference on D-Day – they were only allowed to move after Hitler's regular afternoon conference, and the German Seventh Army didn't learn it had finally been given control of the two units until four in the afternoon. When it did begin to move on D-Day+1 Panzer Lehr was exposed to constant air attacks, which destroyed 40 fuel trucks, 90 other trucks, five tanks and 84 other fighting vehicles.

If Chaos Reigns, Flint Whitlock. Focuses on the activities of the Allied airborne forces on both flanks of the D-Day beaches, covering the British, American and Canadian paratroopers and glider-borne troops. Most of the book covers the fighting on D-Day itself, although the author also includes a history of the development of airborne troops [read full review] cover cover cover
The D-Day Companion, ed. Jane Penrose. A selection of thirteen separate essays on different aspects of the D-Day lands, from the initial planning to post-war memorials; this is an excellent piece of work that sets the D-Day landings firmly in context. An excellent starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about Operation Overlord, but its wide range of topics means it is likely to be of value to anyone with an interest in the subject. [see more] cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 May 2009), British Airborne Operations on D-Day, 6 June 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_D-Day_UK_airborne.html

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