Airborne Assault of 6th Airborne Division

Source: Lt. Col. T.B.H. Otway, DSO, compiler, The Second World War 1939-1945: Airborne Forces. London: Imperial War Museum, Department of Printed Books, 1990.



Two sticks of pathfinders from 22nd Independent Parachute Company should have been dropped on each dropping zone but in each case only one stick was accurately dropped. In three cases two or more runs over the target were needed to get all the troops out, one aircraft completing its drop on the-third run, 14 minutes later. All the radar and visual beacons for dropping zone “V” (1st Canadian and 9th Parachute Battalions) were lost or damaged, and one aircraft carrying a pathfinder team intended for dropping zone “K” (H.Q. 3 Parachute Brigade and 8th Parachute Battalion) put its passengers down on dropping zone “N” (5 Parachute Brigade). Not realizing that they were on the wrong dropping zone, the “K” pathfinders set up their beacons and lights on dropping zone “N”. The result was that 14 sticks, with their jettison containers, of Headquarters 3 Parachute Brigade and 8th Parachute Battalion dropped on to dropping zone “N”, before the “N” pathfinders, who had been dropped some distance away, arrived and erected the correct beacons about 30 minutes later. In addition some of the pathfinder personnel set up their lights in standing crops, and they were not seen from the air.


The seizure of the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne was carried out by a glider-borne coup de main party of six platoons of 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry under command of Major R. J. Howard, with a detachment of Royal Engineers, supported by 7th Parachute Battalion dropping half an hour later. Of the six gliders, five landed exactly on time at 0020 hours 6th June, 1944, four with great accuracy and one half a mile away. The sixth was put down on a bridge over the River Dives seven miles way. The surprise obtained in this initial landing, coupled with the degree of speed with which the assault was delivered, resulted in the enemy’s defences being overrun immediately. Both bridges were captured intact and a close bridgehead was established on the western bank. Of the 131 aircraft allotted to 5 Parachute Brigade two became unserviceable at the airfield, and were unable to take off, and six failed to reach Normandy, among them five Stirlings later reported missing. Flight conditions were similar to those of the pathfinder aircraft, the sky being covered most of the way with layers of cloud between 4,000 and 6,000 feet, with no moon. Average visibility was under three miles, and the wind was ten to twenty miles an hour from the west. However, the crews carrying 5 Parachute Brigade had the advantage of being able to use the battle for the bridges as a land-mark, and although some sticks were dropped short of the target, on the whole the dropping was fairly accurate. Of the 750 jettison containers carried, 702 were dropped.

The drop of 7th Parachute Battalion was scattered, but by 0300 hours, 40 per cent. of the battalion had reached the bridges and more men continued to come in throughout the day. The battalion assumed responsibility for the position on arrival and enlarged the bridgehead on the western bank to a depth of 800 yards. Enemy counter-measures, consisting of isolated and uncoordinated counter-attacks by tanks, armoured cars and infantry, began to develop at 0500 hours and continued with increasing intensity during 6th June. 7th Parachute Battalion, with the glider force, successfully beat off these attacks and at 1900 hours 6th June, Major-General T. G. Rennie, Commander 3 British Infantry Division, arrived at the bridges. He issued orders for troops of his Division to take over from 7th Parachute Battalion, and the relief was completed by about 0100 hours 7th June. Among other things, while holding the bridges, 7th Parachute Battalion had a “naval battle” with two German coastal craft, which had retired from Ouistreham, and were on their way up the canal to Caen. The first information they had that we owned the bridges was when our troops opened fire. The vessels went aground and the crews were captured. During 6th June the Germans made an unsuccessful air attack on the bridge, a 1,000 lb. bomb actually hitting it, but bouncing off without exploding.

Meanwhile 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions had dropped at 0050 hours and were also scattered. When they moved from their rendezvous each battalion was not more than 60 per cent. strong, though odd parties joined up during the day, but 12th Parachute Battalion seized the Le Bas de Ranville area and 13th Parachute Battalion the Ranville-Le Mariquet area. The Germans reacted swiftly against these units and attacked Ranville almost at once, but they were repulsed with the loss of a number of enemy prisoners of war and one German tank destroyed. At 1045 hours a further attack developed supported by self-propelled guns, which penetrated the village but was beaten off by 12th Parachute Battalion while 4th Air-landing Anti-Tank Battery accounted for three self-propelled guns and one tank. By 1300 hours the enemy attacks had increased and the position of 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions was critical, with the result that the leading commando of 1 Special Service Brigade was diverted to the area to assist the airborne troops and was -not released until the evening. This diversion, necessary and successful though it was, curtailed the offensive action of 1 Special Service Brigade and subsequently delayed their penetration into Franceville Plage. In the fighting at Ranville there were many gallant actions but one was outstanding. Lieutenant J. A. N. Sims, 12th Parachute Battalion, was in charge of a position held by a few men. German infantry attacked, supported by two self-propelled guns, one of which Lieutenant Sims knocked out. The other gun killed his men one by one at point-blank range. However, the officer held his ground until the gun withdrew, leaving him with only three men.


When addressing some of his officers on the day before the operation Brigadier Hill proved himself to be somewhat of a prophet. He said “Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and orders, do not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will.”

The advance party of 3 Parachute Brigade included elements of Brigade headquarters and of each battalion, and one company of 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, whose duty it was to clear dropping zone “V” of enemy posts. Two of the 14 Albemarles carrying the advance party dropped only three and nine troops respectively; from a third aircraft six men went out as it crossed the coast, and only four jumped over the dropping zone ; and a fourth aircraft, under enemy fire, had to make a second run over the area, so that it dropped late. Two more aircraft reported “Gee” failure, one losing time flying along the coast to find the point of entry, and the other having to return to base after being hit by flak on its seventh run-over in search of the dropping zone. 

6 airborne map

Allied assault routes (Map No. 2, from Utah Beach to Cherbourg)

 In the latter aircraft was Major W. A. C. Collingwood, brigade major of 3 Parachute Brigade, who was waiting to jump when the aircraft was hit. He was knocked through the hole and remained hanging underneath the fuselage for half-an-hour suspended by his static line which had become wound round his leg. He had a 60 lb. kit-bag attached to his leg, but was eventually pulled into the aircraft. Despite his hair-raising experience he arrived in Normandy by glider later in the day.

Most of the pathfinder equipment for dropping zone “V” was damaged in the drop, so only two green lights were exhibited when the main body arrived there and few crews saw them, in addition to which they were hampered by dust and smoke blowing across the run-in from the bombing of the Merville battery by the Lancasters. The main body had a very scattered drop, Brigadier Hill and several sticks of 1st Canadian and 9th Parachute Battalion being dropped near the River Dives. Their position of course was not known and unfortunately on their way to join their units later in the day, this party suffered heavy casualties in killed and wounded from our own bombing. Brigadier Hill being slightly wounded. Of the gliders carrying the heavy equipment of the brigade, three parted from their tugs in cloud off the French coast, the remainder being released to the north of the landing zone. Three gliders landed on dropping zone “N”, the others ending up in a semi-circle about a mile and a half to the south-east of their correct landing zone.

9th Parachute Battalion, with under command detachments of anti-tank artillery, forward observation bombardment units to control naval gunfire, Royal Engineers and field ambulances, was given the task of destroying the Merville coastal battery. The battalion was given the secondary tasks of seizing and holding the high ground on which stood the village of Le Plein until relieved by commandos, of blocking the roads leading from Franceville Plage to the Le Plein feature, and, finally, of capturing a German naval head- quarters at Sallenelles near the mouth of the River Orne. The battalion dropped at 0050 hours over an enormous area. They moved off from their rendezvous under the commanding officer at 0245 hours with only 150 all ranks out of an approximate total of 700, and having only one Vickers machine-gun, no 3-inch mortars, no vehicles, no artillery, Royal Engineers or field ambulance personnel, no mine detectors, a few anti-tank weapons, no special stores and barely sufficient wireless sets. The glider-borne element of the battalion which carried the anti-tank guns, jeeps and special stores for the assault on the battery, had failed to arrive and the battalion reconnaissance party reported that the preliminary heavy bomber attack by Lancasters had completely missed the target.

The battalion plan included a direct assault on the battery by three Horsa Gliders carrying 58 officers and men of the battalion, and one officer and seven other ranks of the Royal Engineers. The commander of this party was Major R. Gordon-Brown, and the arrival of the gliders was timed to coincide with the attack of the remainder of the battalion from outside the battery defences so that they could be guided in by 3-inch mortar flares. Of the three gliders detailed for this task, one had instrument trouble and turned back to land in England. There were no flares to guide the other two glider-crews as the battalion had no 3-inch mortars, the majority of the mortar-platoon having been dropped in or near the River Dives, and one glider landed close to the battery, the other landing about three miles away. In spite of these handicaps, the battalion penetrated the minefields and outer wire defences of the battery in the face of heavy enemy fire, and finally assaulted and overran the position, destroying two out of four guns completely and rendering two useless for 48 hours. 

6 airborne map

Normandy, 6 Airborne Division (Map 7 in The Second World War 1939-1945: Airborne Forces)

At the close of this action they had lost 65 killed, wounded or missing from the assaulting 150, and had captured 22 enemy prisoners. The remaining personnel of the German garrison of 200 were either killed or wounded. Subsequently, on approaching Le Plein, it was found that the village was strongly held by the enemy. The battalion’s strength had now increased to approximately 100 all ranks, but it suffered further casualties and in any case was too weak to evict the enemy from the village completely, so that after it had captured half the village both sides settled down to a period 180 of watching and waiting. On the arrival of No. 3 Commando on the afternoon of 7th June, a combined airborne-commando attack finally forced the enemy to withdraw.

1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was allotted the primary task of destroying the bridges at Varaville and Robehomme after which they were to assist in forming the bridgehead in the area of the Bois de Bavent. Most of this battalion was also dropped some distance from the dropping zone but the enemy offered only slight opposition, except in the area of the chateau near Varaville where a sharp action took place, with the result that the primary tasks were successfully carried out without difficulty. The battalion then reverted to brigade control and occupied a position in the Le Mesnil area.

Airborne patch
1st Canadian Parachute
Royal Engineers patch

8th Parachute Battalion was given the task of destroying two bridges at Bures and one east of Troarn. Then they were to assist in forming the bridgehead, by occupying an area south of Le Mesnil. The drop of this battalion was also scattered, a number of sticks being dropped in 5 Parachute Brigade’s area, as has already been mentioned, with the result that the Royal Engineer detachments became separated and could not reach the battalion rendezvous in time. They therefore proceeded direct to the objective independently. One sergeant, a Sergeant Jones, was captured, but snatched a machine-carbine from a German, killed eight of the enemy and escaped. At Bures the sappers linked up with the advance elements of 8th Parachute Battalion, did not meet any enemy, and blew both bridges successfully. At Troarn the leading elements of the battalion encountered opposition on the northern outskirts of the town. The engineer detachment of seven, with Major J.C.A. Roseveare in charge, mounted in a jeep and trailer, heard this action in progress as they approached Troarn from the west. They decided to rush through the town, and this they did, firing blindly from their vehicles as they went, and being in turn heavily fired upon by the Germans. At a level crossing in Troarn they ran into a barbed wire knife rest, and took 20 minutes to cut themselves free. They went on and reached the bridge and successfully blew the gap. After this feat they ditched the jeep and made their way back to Le Mesnil on foot. The gap in the bridge was subsequently widened by 8th Parachute Battalion later in the day. The battalion then moved north and occupied its position in the bridgehead.


Headquarters 6 Airborne Division landed by glider on the main landing zone in the Ranville area at 0335 hours, though a few gliders were scattered, and moved to the Le Bas de Ranville area. Contact with Headquarters, 5 Parachute Brigade was established at 0500 hours, and with 3 Parachute Brigade at 1235 hours. As stated above, enemy pressure gradually increased during the morning culminating in the attack on Ranville at 1300 hours. However, by 1353 hours 1 Special Service Brigade had crossed the bridges, where it came under command of 6 Airborne Division, and the situation was in hand. By 1700 hours it was known that the Merville battery had been destroyed, that the bridges at Varaville, Robehomme, Troarn and Bures had been blown and that 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was established in the area of Le Mesnil. 6 Air-landing Brigade less one battalion, the Airborne 181 Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment and 211th Light Battery, R.A., landed by glider on the Ranville and “W” landing zones at 2100 hours without incident. Few casualties were sustained, either by enemy action or from crash landings, and all obstructions had been removed as planned by the sappers of 5 Parachute Brigade. A few days after landing, a Frenchman was observed laboriously digging holes in the fields on the landing zone, and erecting large poles. When asked why, he replied that the Germans had paid him to do it and no one had told him to stop. 27. A summary of the 85 gliders of the Division, not including the bridge and battery assault gliders which landed by night is as follows:—

Correctly landed on L.Z….52

Within two miles of L.Z…….6

Over two miles from L.Z….10


Of the 17 missing gliders, three landed in England, and one in the sea, personnel of all four joining the Division later. It is impossible to give the accurate strength of units in the first few hours of darkness, but the battalions of 3 Parachute Brigade had to carry out their tasks at well below 30 per cent strength. In the case of 5 Parachute Brigade, some 16 men were killed and 80 wounded during the drop, and the number of all ranks finally missing after rallying was complete was 432, of whom a substantial number re-joined during the next few days. One sergeant-major came in on a bicycle, wearing civilian clothes and carrying a Frenchman’s identity card. A French girl was with him, as she had accompanied him through the German lines in case he was stopped, in which case she was going to do the talking. The clothes and papers belonged to her brother. The final figures of missing for the two parachute brigades, as a result of the initial airborne operations, was 30 officers and 628 other ranks. Parachute drops were not as concentrated as might have been expected.

One unforeseen repercussion of this unintentional scattering of troops was that great confusion was caused to the Germans who were misled as to the area and extent of the airborne landings. Some of our own troops got a bit mixed up too, especially in regard to the passwords. One staff officer of divisional headquarters whose glider landed a long way from the correct place, was challenged by an officer of the parachute troops, accompanied by several of his men. The staff officer had to confess that he didn’t know the counter-sign. After several bursts of Sten-fire had missed him identities were established. The staff officer then came into his own for he knew where he was and the parachutists did not. On another occasion an officer was challenged with the password “Punch” by a raucous voice. The officer froze into frightened immobility, too shaken to reply. The voice then said “if you don’t…well answer Judy I’ll…shoot” and a large British warrant officer appeared.

In fact the air plan worked, although weather conditions were by no means ideal. All tasks allotted to 6 Airborne Division were carried out up to time, and such scattering of personnel as there was did not cause failure in any part of the operation of the plan.

The American Airborne Assaults

While the attack by 6 Airborne Division had been proceeding east of the River Orne, at the other end of the long front, near the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, the American airborne assaults had been taking place with much the same difficulties from the weather as those of their British comrades. 101 U.S. Airborne Division began dropping south-east of Sainte Mere Eglise at about 0130 hours, 6th June, 1944. Owing to the weather the pathfinders had failed to locate the exact areas of the dropping zones, and this, combined with the inexperience of some of the pilots and their method of formation flying (see para. 76 (c) led to a very wide dispersal of troops and supplies. The Division went into action at an approximate strength of only 6,600 and was scattered over an area some 25 by 15 miles as a result of which 60 per cent of their equipment was lost. However, despite these difficulties the troops fought with great gallantry and quickly seized the two villages of Pouppeville and Saint Martin de Varreville behind the beaches. 82 U.S. Airborne Division landed west of the Carentan-Cherbourg main road from 0230 hours onwards, and was also very widely scattered for the same reasons but had the added difficulty that the troops were dispersed astride the River Merderet. In addition they came under very heavy shell fire but despite these hardships the town of Sainte Mere Eglise was captured before daylight and by the early hours of 6th June contact had been established with the sea-borne troops pushing inland from the beaches. Gliders were flown in during the day and suffered considerable casualties, but reinforcements reached the hard-pressed airborne units during the night of 6/7th June. The element of surprise achieved by the American airborne troops was as effective as that achieved by 6 Airborne Division and great confusion was caused by the cutting of enemy communications and the disorganizing of the German defences. 

airborne (1)

Airborne. (National Archives of Canada PA 132785)

More important than this, the American airborne troops succeeded in capturing the causeways across the inundated areas behind the beaches, thereby giving the Allies control of the routes into the Cotentin Peninsula, upon which depended the capture of Cherbourg.

Lessons learned (excerpt)

To end this chapter some of the reasons will be considered which caused the scattered dropping of parts of the Division, especially 3 Parachute Brigade. A detailed “inquest” was held soon after the operation and the following points were brought out :—

(a)    One of the pathfinder teams for dropping zone “V” (1st Canadian and 9th Parachute Battalion), although dropped reasonably accurately, had its Eureka sets so badly damaged in the drop that they were unworkable. The other team for this area came down well away from the dropping zone and did not get its beacons into action until much too late. The result was, as we have already seen, that the marking on the dropping zone consisted of only two lights.

(b) Greater accuracy might have been achieved if there had been more insurance in the shape of more pathfinder teams for each dropping zone. It has already been mentioned that surprise was essential and depended on the timing of the operation. The time allowed for the pathfinders to erect their beacons had to be kept to the minimum in order not to prejudice the surprise of the glider assault on the River Orne bridges. Therefore the pathfinders could only be given half an hour, which was time enough if they were dropped accurately. But it was taking a risk if they were even a short distance away from the dropping zone, as they would have to find their position before making their way to the correct place However, the risk had to be accepted, though more teams would have increased the chances of success.

(c) The aircraft carrying out the drop of 3 Parachute Brigade, which were the comparatively hastily trained crews of 46 Group, were instructed to fly in loose formation and release on a signal from the leading aircraft.

Thus if the leading aircraft missed its mark, and in the absence of Eureka many of them did, the whole drop went wide This method which was the same as that adopted by the Americans, differed from the standard procedure. In the latter each aircraft navigated singly, which increased the chance of isolated aircraft dropping wide but it did ensure that there would be no wide mass drops. The experience of one Dakota aircraft of 46 Group which had got off course illustrates how things can go wrong. After it had crossed most of the Channel it encountered flak put up, as it transpired later, by ships of an Allied navy who were stationed some five to eight miles off the coast. The pilot of the Dakota thought he was over the coast, and as he had promised the stick commander the privilege of releasing the small bombs carried, he called him forward and away went the bombs. This convinced the ships that the aircraft was hostile and the anti-aircraft barrage increased. The pilot immediately took evasive action so that one moment the troops were piled up at the forward end of the aircraft, and the next moment at the rear. In the meantime the green light had gone on and the first three men had jumped into the sea, never to be seen again. The remainder of the stick got out as and when they could, but were scattered over a huge area.

Finally, a note of caution should be sounded. A few seconds flying time will carry the aircraft well away from the dropping zone. It must be remembered that it is difficult for a man dropped at night in strange country to say accurately where he is, especially when there are standing crops and such obstacles as floods to contend with. Distances become exaggerated and multiplied by each detour made to avoid an obstacle. To the lay-man the expression “dropped wide” probably conjures up a distance of several miles, but to the parachutist it may mean only 1,000 yards or so—which takes a long time to cover on foot under conditions such as prevailed in Normandy.