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Airborne troops led the D-Day landings in a combined parachute and
glider assault, to throw a net of protection around the Normandy
beaches, where a massive invasion force would sweep ashore and advance
Among their initial objectives, the British airborne units were to
destroy a German gun battery that threatened the lives of seaborne
troops, and protect the left flank of the sea assault by seizing
strategic points, which would prevent the enemy from reaching the
Preparations had been going on for three years prior to the invasion
of Normandy, with new roles being created and units formed, including
the 6th Airborne Division on May 18, 1943. The number 'six' being
chosen to hoodwink the enemy and fool them into believing that Britain
already had five airborne divisions, when in fact it had just two, the
lst and 6th, under General Browning.
Operation Overlord 'D-Day' on June 6, 1944, involved the massed troops
of two Allied armies pouring into France to drive the Germans out of
the country, after the 6th Airborne division had dropped and captured
key points, including a heavily fortified gun battery.
The division, which had been bom in 1943, was under the command of
General Gale, and included glider and parachute troops from many
different regiments, all wearing the distinctive red beret of airborne
There were now ten glider squadrons operating under the control of No.
38 group RAF, and today, at the end of the old runway at Harwell, now
the Atomic Research Establishment, a memorial marks the spot where the
first gliders left for D-Day.
Bad weather had delayed the invasion by 24 hours, but late on the
night of June 5, the force of Dakotas and Horsa gliders towed by RAF
bombers took off for the invasion of Normandy.
First in were the pathfinders of 22nd Independent Parachute Company,
with Lt De La Tour being the first man on the ground. They were tasked
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using special Eureka beacons.
Few were dropped accurately, as the Germans had flooded the low-lying
ground around the Orne and Dives rivers, destroying many identifying
features which had been given to pilots as 'markers' during the
intense pre-flight brief.
Unit planning had been very detailed, especially by the 9 Para, who
had been tasked to silence the Merville gun battery before the
landings started. If they didn't succeed they would be shelled
themselves, by the warship HMS Arethusa.
The huge guns at Merville were just miles from the beaches of Sword,
Juno and Gold, where the seaborne assault was to take place and posed
the greatest threat to the invasion. Buried under 12ft-thick concrete,
the four 75mm guns had the capability to engage Royal Navy warships
out at sea and sink landing craft heading for the beaches.
RAF bombers had tried several times to destroy the concrete bunkers at
Merville, but their precision bombing made no impression; now the task
had been given to the Paras.
The 6th Airborne division was 8,500 strong and included the 3rd and
5th Parachute Brigades, as well as the 6th Air Landing Brigade of
glider borne troops, who had been training at Netheravon. Their role
was to seize or destroy several bridges over two rivers and the Caen
canal, silence enemy positions in the area and secure the eastern
flank of the beaches. Here the British Second Army was to come ashore,
just a few hours later.
The 3rd Parachute Brigade had to land in the very heart of the enemy's
defences and destroy the Troarn, Varaville, Robehomme and Bures
bridges across the Dives river, while its 9th battalion hit Merville.
At the same time, their colleagues in the 5th Parachute Brigade were
given a similar task and briefed to hold the bridges north of the
village of Ranville spanning the River Orne and the Caen canal, as
well as preparing a landing zone for the glider troops.
More than 200 gliders were towed up into the skies of Britain during
the night of June 5, along with a huge force of Dakota aircraft
heading for what should have been, the most planned military action of
Flak started to hit the aircraft and as pilots took avoiding action
weaving across the sky, some Paras already hooked up and waiting to
jump, were tossed out of the doors.
The entire force of 9 Para had been dropped off their DZ and Lt Col
Otway could only assemble 150 men to commence his attack. He ordered
his men to paint a skull and crossbones on the chest of their smocks
as an identifying mark to recognise each other in the heat of the
battle, which along with their blackened faces and helmets, served to
scare the Germans.
After more of the battalion had arrived, one of the unit's officers
sounded his hunting horn to start the assault on one of the most vital
features of D-Day.
Para casualties were very heavy, but the Germans surrendered. Then
just half an hour before the Navy were to start shelling the Merville
guns, Otway fired a yellow flare to signal his unit's success.
Glider troops had been ordered to capture Pegasus Bridge, which they
did despite heavy enemy fire and constant counter attacks, which
Arthur Brock, a Royal Engineer serving with Airborne Forces, was in
one of three gliders which landed directly in the area of the bridge
and owes his life to his Army pay book.
He was sent in to deal with mines, but instead, found himself in the
thick of the fighting. He was showered by shrapnel from a shell blast,
sending splinters of metal flying into his chest, but luckily, not
him. His Army pay book took the blast and saved his life. 'I was very
lucky, but others weren't so fortunate. The shelling went on for
hours, I will never forget it, or my pals.'
Just four days after D-Day, the Germans attempted to push through the
divisional area at Breville. A battle raged for hours and the enemy
lost 200 dead and 150 prisoners to 13 Para, but still maintained their
position, threatening to break through to the invasion beaches.
In the days that followed, 153 Infantry Brigade launched an assault on
Breville, but were beaten off, suffering heavy casualties.
On June 12, the Germans launched two major attacks with armour support
on 9 Para. The Battalion held its ground and beat off the assault, but
by the end of the day, the unit was reduced to just 200 men.
Finally 12 Para with a company of 12 Devons and 22 Independent
Parachute Company were ordered to capture the village of Breville, in
order to secure the division's sector, in defence of the beachhead.
At a cost of 141 men, Breville was back in Allied possession and
proved to be one of the most important battles of the invasion. Had it
been lost the beaches could have been attacked and the war lost.