American Airborne Operations on D-Day, 6 June 1944

The Defenders
The Attackers
US 82nd Airborne Division
US 101st Airborne Division
Conclusion

One of the most daring elements of the D-Day landings was the insertion of two full US airborne divisions in the Cotentin peninsula, on the western flank of the Allied beachhead, where they played a vital part in the success of the landing on Utah Beach and helped to cause so much confusion that the Germans were unable to launch a coherent counterattack against either American beach.

The Defenders

Three German divisions were posted to the Cotentin Peninsula on D-Day. The eastern side of the peninsula, including Utah Beach, was allocated to the 709th Static Infantry Division, which also had responsibility for the defence of Cherbourg. The west coast was defended by the 243rd Static Infantry Division. Between them was the newly formed 91st Luftlande Division, which had only been sent to the area in May 1944. The 709th and 243rd were weak units. Three of the eleven infantry battalions in the 709th were manned by former Soviet prisoners of war, and many of the other battalions included large numbers of Poles. Neither group was trusted by their German officers.

Armoured support was very limited, and relied on some obsolete equipment, including the Panzerjäger 35R, which combined an old Czech gun and an obsolete French tank although the 243rd Infantry Division did possess ten StuG IIIs and fourteen Marder IIIs and a mix of 38 French types.

The 91st Division had been formed at the start of 1944 and only had 7,500 men in June, but on D-Day it was joined by the 6th Fallschirmjager Regiment (elite paratroops),

The Attackers

The two American Airborne Divisions were amongst the best trained in the US Army. The 82nd Airborne had fought in Sicily and Italy before moving to Britain to prepare for D-Day, and just under half of its men were combat veterans. The D-Day landings would be the first combat jump for the 101st Airborne, but it was entirely made up of volunteers and many officers had been transferred from the 82nd.

The original plan was for the 101st Airborne to land behind the flooded areas next to Utah beach to capture the western ends of the causeways across the inundations, while the 82nd Airborne landed around St Sauveur-le-Vicomte, in the centre of the peninsula, in an attempt to reach the west coast as quickly as possible. In May Allied intelligence discovered that the German 91st Division had moved into that area and the plans were modified. The 82nd Airborne was now to land around the Merderet River, with the 101st on the Douve River, to the south-east. The two airborne divisions were to seize and hold the dry ground between the Douve and Merderet Rivers in the west and the coastal inundations in the east, where they would soon be joined by armour coming in from Utah Beach.

The Airborne Divisions were preceded by two sets of pathfinders. The first wave was made up of two men from the Office of Strategic Services and three British commandos. This first wave went into France at 1.30am on 3 June, and had to survive for three days in France (2 days before D-Day was postponed for one day). Their task was to set up landing zones for the second wave of pathfinders.

The second wave went in from 00.15am on 6 June. They were carrying radar beacons and Aldis lamps and had the task of marking the landing zones for the main force. The main force then followed in 821 C-47s and C-54sm each carrying 18-20 paratroopers or 9-10 men and artillery equipment.

The drop went very badly wrong. The aircraft carrying the second wave of pathfinders ran into an unexpected cloud bank close to their drop zone. The teams allocated to Drop Zone C (101st Airborne) and Drop Zone O (82nd Airborne) landed in the correct area, but the other pathfinders were scattered far and wide. Very few of them were able to return to their landing zones in time to set up their beacons, and even then  many were unable to act because German troops were in the area.

The main force also ran into the cloud barrier. With so many aircraft in such a small part of the sky the cloud inevitably caused chaos, with some aircraft climbing above and some dropping below the cloud, and many losing their place. Anti-aircraft fire added to the confusion. For many of the aircrew involved this was their first combat mission and their first time under fire, and once again the formations were broken up before they reached their landing zones. The two American airborne divisions were scattered far and wide across the Cotentin peninsula, and the American Army limited itself to daytime jumps for the rest of the war. 

US 82nd Airborne Division

The 82nd Airborne had two tasks. The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment was to land east of the Merderet River and capture Ste. Mère-Eglise. The 507th and 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments were to land west of the river and create a defensive line about three miles further to the west. This plan was badly disrupted by the scattered drop. Only 4% of the men in the two regiments west of the Merderet landing in the correct place, and these two regiments spent most of the day attempting to recover from the confusion.

The 505th PIR made the most concentrated jump of the night, landing in Drop Zone O, to the north-west of Ste Mère-Église. Here the pathfinders had done their job, and the C-47 pilots negotiated the troublesome cloudbank without any problems. The town was captured by a small force led by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Krause, and was then held successfully against a German counterattack from the south. Krause attacked the town with one quarter of his men. He ordered his men to limit their attacks to knives, bayonets and grenades, so that any gunfire would give away the position of a German. When the town was cleared the paratroops had taken thirty prisoners and killed ten men. During the morning the Germans mounted a counterattack from the north and south, but the 505th held its ground.

By the end of the day the division was still missing two thirds of its men, and had not yet made contact with either the 101st Airborne or with the troops coming from Utah Beach. Eventually most of the missing men were found, and the final figure for D-Day casualties produced figures of 156 dead, 756 missing and 347 wounded, for a total of 1,259.

US 101st Airborne Division

The 101st Airborne Division was scattered across an area 25 miles long and 15 miles wide, with outlying fragments even further afield. Despite this the 101st did manage to achieve some of its main objectives, which had been to secure the western edge of the flooded area behind Utah Beach and to seize the line of the Douve River.

These scattered landings caused far more confusion on the German side than on the American. In Normandy the lack of any large concentrations of paratroops made it almost impossible for the local commanders to organise an effective response – every field or village could contain one or two or twenty or one hundred or no Americans. Further afield the confusion even helped reinforce the Allied deception plans, for the airborne landing was so scattered that several key officers, including both Rommel's and Rundstedt's chiefs-of-staff used them as evidence that the landing in Normandy was a feint.

Elements from the 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry, managed to occupy Mésières, and then advanced to the west of Foucarville in an unsuccessful attempt to make contact with the 82nd airborne.

The 2nd Battalion, 502nd PIR, was too badly scattered to make any significant contribution on D-Day, and spent most the day attempting to recover from the drop.

The 3rd Battalion, 502nd PIR reached the St. Martin coastal battery but found that the guns had been removed after the Allied air offensive had destroyed the fire control systems. The battalion them moved on to Audouville-la-Hubert, at the western end of one of the causeways from the beach, where they ambushed a force of German troops attempting to retreat from the battle on Utah Beach.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 506th PIR had the task of protecting the two southern beach exits. Colonel Sink, the regiment's commander, set up his command post at Culoville, where he spent most of the day isolated from his own men and under intermittent German attack. The 2nd Battalion landed too far to the north, and attempted to advance south to Pouppeville, but was held up by German resistance and didn't reach its target until the early afternoon. The same was true of a force from the 1st Battalion which Sink dispatched from Culoville to Pouppeville.

Pouppeville actually fell to troops from the 3rd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry, the divisional reserve, dispatched by the division's command, General Maxwell Taylor. This force reached the village at around eight, but wasn't able to clear out the last defenders until noon. Soon after that they became the first airborne troops to make contact with the troops on Utah Beach when they joined up with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry.

The 3rd Battalion, 506th PIR managed to hold a precarious defensive line on the Douve River, partly because the Germans were unwilling to risk leaving their fixed fortifications to attack an American force of unknown strength.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions, 501st PIR, had the task of securing the western stretches of the Douve River, and the lock at la Barquette. The second of these objectives was achieved, but the German resistance along the river meant that the Douve bridges remained in German hands on D-Day.

By the evening of D-Day the 101st Airborne had about 2,500 of its 6,600 men under orders. Despite the scattered landings and confusion on the ground the division had succeeded in its most important task – securing the western edge of the flooded area at Utah Beach, preventing the Germans from using the causeways to bottle up the landings, or to launch any counterattack. The relatively easy victory on Utah Bridge owed much to the scattered battles of the 101st Airborne.

One small group from the 101st helped to further sow confusion when at about dawn they ambushed and killed General Wilhelm Falley, the commander of the 91st Luftlande Division.

Conclusion

Despite the near-disastrous scattering that marked the paratrooper drop, the two American airborne divisions made a significant contribution to the success at Utah Beach. The 101st Airborne was most successful, preventing the Germans from defending the western ends of the causeways across the river. Even the two worst scattered regiments of the 82nd Airborne made something of a contribution by causing confusion in German minds.

General Dollmann, the commander of the German Seventh Army, did attempt to organise a large scale counterattack against the drop zones, ordering the 709th and 91st Divisions to attack from the east and west and the 6th Parachute Regiment to attack from the south. The result was not as impressive as he had hoped. None of these units attacked in any strength on D-Day, and the Germans soon discovered that the bocage country greatly favoured the defender. Small pockets of American paratroops could turn individual fields into a temporary strongpoint, and the Germans would often be able to tell how strong a force they were attacking. While everybody remembers how difficult the Allies found it to attack across the hedgerows it is often forgotten that the Germans suffered just as much in their repeated attempts to throw the Allies back into the sea.

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

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