The MilBlogs And Friends Special Edition of the Sixtieth Anniversary of D-Day contains links to many interesting posts about various aspects of D-Day. It is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED reading.
As a small contribution, ACE (an unofficial "friend") would like to review the role of the Airborne on D-Day (beginning at midnight, well before the major shore invasion at dawn, and continuing for days afterward).
[Somebody else has already posted on the role of the Engineers.]
If you're busy (or not all that interested) and want a Cliff's Notes version, here's one from Military History Online.
If you're REALLY interested, click on the VERY LONG continuation.
See the 82nd and 101st unit symbols to the west, and the British 6th to the east
(the German units are shown in black with a GE to the left of them)
[This information is from a number of sources, the main one being "D-Day" by Stephen Ambrose. See also the links at the end, for more reading. This subject cannot really be adequately covered without writing a book (as several have done). This post only provides an overview and touches on only some of the highlights. If someone who previously knew nothing about the airborne operations of Overlord has a general idea of them and their impact after reading this post, it has accomplished its goal. See the links at the bottom of this post if you'd like to delve into it in more detail. Comments are welcome.]
Virtual images of some of the sites as they appear today are linked, from the D-Day Spots site. The Airborne units operated on the flanks (Zones 1 and 3). Quicktime 5 is required to view them panoramically.
The Airborne mission
The overall missions of the three Airborne divisions (two American and one British) were to disrupt and confuse the Germans so as to prevent a concentrated counter attack against the seaborne troops coming in at dawn and to protect the flanks of the Sword and Utah beaches.
Here's a map showing the Final Overlord Plan, with the airborne landing areas marked.
Near the end of May, Air Vice Mashal Trafford Leigh-Mallory came to Eisenhower at his headquarters in Southwick House, just north of Portsmouth, to strongly advise against the airborne plan. Intelligence had discored the German 91st Division was now in central Cotentin, exactly where the American paratroopers were to be dropped. He warned of a "futile slaughter" of two fine divisions, predicted 70% loss of gliderborne troops and 50% loss of parachutists. He wanted Ike to to cancel the air drop and bring the Airborne divisions into the beaches as followup troops.
Ike later recalled this as the most worrisome moment in the war. He obviously didn't want to waste human life. But he felt that if he canceled the airborne mission, he'd have to cancel the Utah landing. If the paratroopers were not there to seize the causeway exits and Sainte Mere-Eglise, the entire 4th ID could be endangered. Canceling Utah would so badly disarrange the elaborate plan as to endanger the entire Overlord operation. He felt the experience at Sicily didn't justify such pessimism. He called Leigh-Mallory to inform him the airborne drops were a go as planned, and to not allow his doubts to be spread among the troops.
General Marshall urged Ike to drop the Airborne much further inland, as much as sixty kilometers from the beach. Ike rejected his suggestion, reasoning that lightly-armed paratroopers far behind German lines would have been of little value to Operation Overlord.
Much of the Airborne (chutes and gliders) drama occurred overnight beginning around midnight, well before the main invasion at dawn. The Airborne units continued to fight throughout D-Day and in some cases for days afterward before they would receive any help from other units.
Despite many problems, the Airborne accomplished its mission, in general (though certain specific objectives were not seized). It's a tribute to the American and British style of leadership, which empowers all soldiers to improvise and adapt to changing conditions. The German military's rigid command structure, on the other hand, actually worked to the advantage of the allies. The chaos to which the Allied paratroopers adapted confused the hell out of the Germans. Forces vastly superior in numbers and weaponry were unable to mount a significant counter attack, while the beachhead was most vulnerable, and were unable to prevent a fairly rapid deployment past the beach into land.
One history of D-Day summarized it this way:
Small rag-tag groups of paratroopers did manage to capture the most critical of their objectives. These included the bridges across the rivers that surrounded the invasion area, cutting off the German's support. The paratroopers also managed to hold the causeways that led off the beaches. The protection of these causeways was critical because they were the only way to get troops off the beaches and onto the roads that lead to Caen, Paris, and Germany. The groups and individuals who accomplished this without large-scale organization are some of the greatest heroes of the invasion.
The dummy parachutes
Dummies called "Ruperts" (sack dummies about 3 ft tall) were dropped under parachutes by two SAS teams, along with recordings of firefights. A German reserve unit of 2000 men spent the small hours of June 6 beating the woods looking for a major airborne landing.
The air drop routes
See this map for the Airborne and Glider routes.
The US airborne units (the 82nd and 101st) would fly slightly SW across the channel out of England, then make a left turn and fly east to their drop zones at St. Mere Eglise and St. Marie du Mont. The Gliders would follow the same route, but turn left earlier, passing to the north of the Cotentin Peninsula, then turning SW to land.
The British 6th Airborne would fly south from further to the east in England, and drop in near Caen.
Over England, the American route was marked at 10-mile intervals with Eureka sets and at 30-mile intervals with aerial beacons. Thirty miles over the Channel, a British patrol boat, "Gallop," marked the path. It was 30 additional miles to checkpoint "Hoboken," marked by a light from a British submarine. At that point the aircraft made a sharp turn to the southeast, crossed between the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey (occupied by the Germans, who would throw up some flak) and on to their drop zones in the Cotentin. All planes would maintain radio silence.
The Pathfinders preceded the main body of troops by an hour or so. Their mission was to mark the drop zones with automatic direction-finder radios, Eureka sets (the "Eureka" transmitted a radio signal which was picked up by a "Rebecca" receiver on the planes), and Holophane signal lights formed into Ts on the ground. (The lights could be manually flashed in morse code to identify which unit's drop zone.)
The objective was to avoid the scattering of troops experienced earlier at Sicily.
The combination of a cloud bank and enemy fire threw the planes carrying the Pathfinders off course, resulting in only one of the 18 teams landing where it was supposed to. They did the best they could.
The main Airborne forces
13,400 Americans and nearly 7K British paratroopers were on the planes. MG Matthew Ridgway commanded the 82nd, and MG Maxwell Taylor commanded the 101st. It took 432 C-47s [modified DC-3s] to carry the 82nd, and about the same for the 101st. They flew in a V-of-Vs formation, 300 miles long, 9 planes wide, w/o radio communication. The lead pilot in each serial of 45 planes had a Eureka set, with a show of lights for guidance of the following planes. The planes were 100 ft apart in their groups of nine, with groups 1000 ft apart (a tight formation for night flying).
They crossed the channel at 500 ft elevation to avoid radar detection, then climbed to 1500 ft. to avoid AA fire from the islands. As they approached the Cotentin coast, they descended to 600 ft, the designated jump altitude.
Problems arose when the planes hit the cloud bank the Pathfinders could not warn them about (due to radio silence). All visibility was lost. The pilots instinctively spread their planes out to avoid midair collisions. When they emerged from the clouds, they had lost contact with each other. At about the same time, all hell broke lose on the ground. Searchlights, tracers, and explosions filled the sky. The pilots sped up (well beyond the jump speed of 90mph to as much as 150mph to reduce the probability of getting hit. The red light (signaling the jumpmasters to order "Stand up and Hook up") came on as the passed the Channel Islands. The green light (signaling time to jump) was cut on when the pilots guessed they were somewhere near the drop zone.
[For future missions, the pilots were trained to not speed up, to not try to avoid flak by evasive tactics, and to not fly too low or two high.]
In the planes, the troopers were terrified as they were thrown about and bullets ripped through the fuselage, sounding like corn popping as they passed through. It was hard to go threw the preparatory drill while being bounced around, with some troopers throwing up. But, when the green light came on, they jumped out into the night sky, lit up like the 4th of July with tracer rounds.
Most of the "Sticks" (lines of jumpers) jumped much too low from planes going much too fast. Others jumped too high. In some open fields, the Germans had anticipated a drop, and had machineguns and mortars set up.
Some dropped into flooded plains. The lock, located due north of Carentan, controls the water level of the Douve River to the west as far as the confluence of the Merderet. When the lock is opened the high tide floods the river channel and spreads gradually over the whole low marshy area between St. Côme-du-Mont and Carentan. The Germans kept the area flooded as a deterrent to air drops. The American chutes at the time didn't have the quick-release like the British chutes, and some paratroopers, heavily loaded down and unable to release their chutes, drowned.
On the ground
Not surprisingly, given the confusion in the air, the Airborne troops were badly separated when they hit the ground. One company had soldiers spread over 20 kilometers. The men who landed alone clicked their crickets (a child's toy all were issued) hoping to hear one in return. (Once they approached, the recognition words were "Thunder ... Lightning.") Some even dropped in the channel and drowned.
One exception was the 505th, which had an excellent drop on its intended drop zone.
To the west of Sainte Mere-Eglise, astride the Merderet River, Rommel had ordered the locks near Caretan opened at high tide, then closed, to flood the valley. Thirty-six 82nd troops, loaded down by equipment, drowned. Others managed to cut themselves loose. Another 173 broke an arm or leg on landing. Sixty-three were taken prisoner.
But, as paratroopers found each other, they grouped up and did what damage they could.
[One key learning was that scattered paratroopers cannot hunker down and wait for others to come to them. As soon as they are not under direct fire, they need to move in search of other paratroopers to join up with, and targets of opportunity.]
One silver lining to the widely scattered troops is the Germans were completely confused as to how many there were and where they were. Captured paratroopers refused to provide any clarity, for the most part.
Cutting communication lines
The paratroopers had been told to at least cut communication lines, and they did that everywhere they found them. They knocked down phone poles with grenades and cut lines with their knives, isolating the German units scattered in the villages. The 3rd Battalion of the 506th [101st] had the mission of destroying a key communication link between Carentan and the German forces in the Cotentin, and did so within 30 minutes of its drop.
The Germans had no idea of how many Airborne troops had jumped in. Their reaction was limited by broken communications and their own command structure. Only Hitler could release the Panzers, and he was asleep. Rommel had picked a bad time to be with his wife. General Dollmann was in Rennes. General Feuchtinger was in Paris. Back at headquarters, arguments ensued about whether this was a major invasion. Col. Hans von Luck, head of the 125th Regiment of the 21st Panzer Div., was ready to counterattack, but was tied up by the intricacies of the command structure. [See an appraisal by ex-German officers near the end of this post.]
Here come the Gliders
At 0300, the gliders began to come in to reinforce the paratroopers. For details about and photos of the gliders, see this Tribute to the Glider Pilots. The WACO glider could carry 13 men. The larger Horsa glider could carry twice as many soldiers, a jeep, an artillery piece, or a small bulldozer. (This ability made the gliders essential, since the concept of air dropping jeeps and guns had not yet been developed.) On the left flank, sixty-nine gliders brought in a regiment and the commander of the 6th Airborne Division, MG Richard Gale. They landed near Ranville on fields that had been cleared by the paratroopers. Forty-nine gliders landed safely on the correct LZ. They brought jeeps and antitank guns. On the right flank, fifty-two American gliders landed near Hiesville, six kilometers from Ste.-Mere-Eglise. BG Don Pratt, Asst. Div. Commander of the 101st, was in the lead glider. German AA caused the Dakotas to climb, resulting in the gliders having to circle for a long time. Many planes and gliders were shot down.
Tall hedgerows on each side of sunken roads proved a problem. [The planners had seen these in the aerial recon photos, but thought they were the height of the 2-3ft hedgerows more common in England, not over 6ft tall. This was a major recon error.] In more likely landing fields, there was also "Rommel asparagus" (12-ft tall poles, 15-40 ft apart, connected by trip wires to mines at their bases). There was less moonlight than hoped. Many crashed. Of the 957 men, 25 were killed, 118 wounded, and 14 were missing. 19 of 111 jeeps were unserviceable, as were 4 of 17 antitank guns.
Too many glider landings ended up like this
Here's an aerial photo of gliders after they landed in fields bordered by taller than expected hedgerows.
Based on the results at Sicily (where the Airborne needed more firepower), the British brought some very light tanks over in the large gliders. They were no match for the large German tanks, but handy against lesser enemy vehicles.
Now, with the phase-out of the Sheridan and the cancellation of the M8, the 82nd finds itself without mechanized armored vehicles, except for the four M8 prototypes.
THE AMERICAN AIRBORNE [on the right (west) flank]
This map shows the plan for the US Airborne.
The 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.
The 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 Sainte Mere-Eglise from the German garrison stationed there. The capture of Sainte Mere-Eglise was important because it straddled the main road between Carentan and Cherbourg (near the coast to the NW).
That was the plan, but the scattered drop resulted in a different reality. It took hours, until dawn and after, for units to come together in BN strength, and then another week to sort out the 101st and 82nd men. But, they improvised with whatever men and equipment they could gather, and set out to accomplish their missions, while killing any Germans who got in their way.
Quite inexplicably, the German garrison in Sainte Mere-Eglise had gone to bed, after firing on the paratroopers when they first dropped in, and was relatively easily captured by the 3rd BN, 505th PIR [82nd] at 0400. Thirty surrendered. Ten died resisting. A key objective was taken.
Panoramic view of Sainte Mere-Eglise Church today. A chute and dummy remain, to honor John Steele, whose chute caught on a spire under enemy fire. He played dead until he was taken prisoner.
Nowhere else had either Airborne objective been accomplished by dawn. Bridges had not been taken or blown, and the causeways were not secure. Units were still trying to find each other. In hindsight, it might have been better to have dropped them at dawn. But the night drop had certainly confused the Germans.
Just before dawn, German Col. Frederick Von Heydte [commander of the German 6th Parachute Regiment, already a legend for his exploits in Crete] finally got through to Gen. Erich Marcks [one-legged commander of the LXXXIV Corps on the western sector of theCalvados coast and in the Cotentin] and received orders to attack northward out of Carentan and clean out the area between that city and Sainte Mere-Eglise. His 6th Parachute Regiment, the elite of the Nazi system, would stage the first significant counter attack of D-Day, against the elite American Airborne troops.
When the German 6th Parachute Regiment moved out, it was hit almost immediately by intense naval gun fire. Col. Heydte hopped on his motorcycle and drove to Sainte Marie-du-Mont, climbing to the top of the church steeple (50m high) to see Utah Beach. What he saw (the invasion force) took his breath away.
Again inexplicably, a battery of four 105mm cannon at Brecourt Manor, and another at Holdy, perfectly situated to lob shells onto the landing craft at Utah, were not firing. Hedyte got on his radio and ordered his 1st BN to get to Sante Marie-du-Mont ASAP, hold the villages, and get those guns firing. This divided his force and weakened his counter-attack against the American Airborne.
E Co. of the 506th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) [101st] attacked the 50-man garrison at Brecourt Manor at 0830 and destroyed the cannon. Tanks from the beach used 50 cal. fire to clear out the hedgerows.
The 1st BN of the 506th destroyed the battery at Holdy, then drove Heydte's BN out of Sainte Marie-du-Mont, clearing the way for the 4th ID to move further inland. All this despite the fact that no more than a platoon of men from any company was gathered together.
The 101st did not do so well in carrying out its second major mission: securing the southern flank by taking the bridges over the Douve and opening the way to Carentan. Col. Johnson did take the lock at La Barquette and established a small bridgehead on the south bank, but his unit was pinned down by fire from Heydte's paratroopers in Sainte Come-du-Mont.
Operating independently, Capt. Sam Gibbons of the 501st PIR [101st] lead a small patrol toward Sainte Come-du-Mont, but encountered heavy fire, the Americans broke off and headed north. This was a significant victory for the Germans, as it kept them in possession of the railway and road bridges over the Douve, making it possible for them to move reinforcements into the eastern Cotentin. But, that's as far as his counterattack would get. One of Heydte's companies did get the 88mm guns at Beumont working, firing on Johnson's position at La Barquette, but a radio call to a shore party at Utah was relayed to the Quincy, which obliterated Beumont.
The 101st had accomplished two critical missions. It had opened the way inland over the causeways for the 4th ID and it had knocked out cannon at Brecourt Manor, Holdy and other places.
Panoramic of Sainte Marie-du-Mont Church, liberated by the 101st, as it appears today.
Refer to this map to better follow the narrative below.
The 82nd had landed astride the Merderet River, which had been flooded by Rommel's order to close the lock at high tide. The 82nd had hoped to take La Fiere and Chef-du-Pont during the night, then spend the day attacking westward to secure the line of the upper Douve River. Many of its units remained surrounded and isolated for as long as four days, fighting off German tank and artillery attacks with their hand-held weapons.
As mentioned above, Sainte Mere-Eglise, a key objective, was taken.
As a result of the extensive flooding caused by closing the lock after high tide, the Merderet was more a shallow lake (a kilometer or more wide and ten kilometers long) than a river. There were two crossings, one a causeway and bridge at La Fiere, about a kilometer west of Sainte Mere-Eglise, and the other a causeway and bridge at Chef-du-Pont, two kilometers south of La Fiere.
Shortly after dawn, Gen. James Gavin had assembled nearly 300 men -- about as large a group as the Americans had that morning. Leaving part of his force to secure the east bank of the causeway, he headed south to Chef-du-Pont with the rest. But the Germans held the high ground west of the causeway. About mid-morning, the Germans launched a counterattack led by three tanks, driving the small number of Americans left behind northward and retaking the bridgehead.
Fragments of the 507th and 508th PIR [82nd] did ultimately succeed in taking Chef-du-Pont, to the SW of Sainte Mere-Eglise, on the railroad line to Cherbourg. But the 82nd fell short of it's planned objective line at the end of D-Day, which extended about two miles west of the Merderet, due to the scattered drop and heavily armed German forces to the west.
C-47s dropped bundles of weapons and ammunition around mid-afternoon. Using the 57mm AT gun delivered via glider, the Americans stopped the German fieldpiece and seized the causeway as the Germans were either shot or surrendered.
The la Fière bridgehead had been won only to be promptly lost. (The inability to establish and hold a bridgehead over the Merderet would later result in a redirection of the 4th ID to proceed up the coast on the east side of the Merderet.)
The 82nd managed to take and hold Sainte Mere-Eglise (on the Carentan to Cherbourg road, Route N13) and Chef-du-Pont. These were significant accomplishments, most helpful to the overall success of Operation Overlord. But the bulk of the 82nd was scattered on the west side of the Merderet in small, isolated pockets, surrounded, fighting for survival rather than seizing objectives. Communication was almost non-existent.
At 2400 hours, recon elements of the 4th ID wheeled into town, and the paratroopers knew for the first time that the invasion was a success, and their situation would improve. But it would be well into the next day before that relief actually arrived.
Between the 82nd's main body at Ste. Mere-Eglise and the 8th Infantry at les Forges the enemy still had a large force, holding the ridge between Fauville and Turqueville and blocking the highway south of Sainte Mere-Eglise. Another enemy force was threatening the 82d Division from the north. The elimination of these enemy forces became the main preoccupation of both the Infantry and the 505th Parachute Infantry on D plus 1 (beyond the scope of this post).
For more detail on the battles of the American airborne, read this
THE BRITISH 6TH AIRBORNE [on the left (east) flank]
Refer to this map to better follow the narrative.
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 Luck's 125th Regiment of the 21st Panzer Div. 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.
A brilliant first action
While the pathfinders were preparing for the American paratroopers to drop to the west, the British Airborne executed an operation nearly flawlessly on the east. The first unit action of D-Day was by Maj. John Howard's D Company of the British Ox and Bucks. The Horsa gliders (which had taken off from the Tarrant Rushton RAF base in Dorset shortly after 2300 hours) were released from their Halifax bomber "tugs" at seven minutes past midnight, and landed just as planned less than 10 minutes later near the Orne Canal and Orne River bridges. They secured the area and the two bridges by 0100, routing 50 Germans in the process. (Control of these bridges was critical to block a German counter-attack while providing a route of advancement for Allied troops.) Few airborne operations (glider or chute) would go anywhere near this smoothly.
[After the war, the two captured bridges would be renamed Pegasus (in honor of the flying horse on the 6th's Airborne's insignia) and Horsa (in honor of the glider which brought them in).]
Pegasus Bridge right after its capture
British and Canadian troops control or destroy bridges (as ordered)
Before daylight, the British Airborne would also take control of the bridges over the Orne Canal and River. It blew the bridges over the Dives River at Bures and Troarn. Sappers (engineers) in a Canadian Airborne BN led by Sgt. John Kemp took out the downstream bridge.
Panoramic view of the Orne River bridge as it looks today.
By daybreak, in addition to taking out the Merville Battery, the British Airborne had blown the bridges it had been told to blow, captured the bridges it had been told to capture intact, and seized some of the key villages between the Dives and Orne Rivers. The left flank at Sword Beach (the left flank for the entire invasion) was secured before daybreak.
The British Airborne on D-Day [on the left (east) flank]
As covered above, the British achieved their principle nighttime objectives, blowing the bridges over the Dives to isolate the area, destroying the battery at Merville that threatened Sword Beach, and capturing intact the bridges over the Orne waterways.
Their daytime objectives were to set up a strong defensive position along the ridge that divided the valleys of the Orne and the Dives and to hold the bridges over the Orne waterway, so the seaborne commandos and British armor could cross and reinforce along the ridge.
At dawn at Pegasus Bridge, over the Orne Canal, Major Howard's gliderborne D Company of the Ox and Bucks was barely holding on, as the German garrison in Benouville had come to life, lobbing heavy rifle, mortar, and rocket fire.
Fighting continued in Benouville, which Col. Geoffrey Pine Coffin was holding with a battalion of the 5th Brigade against Germans in French tanks and other armored vehicles. By 1300 the first commandos arrived to help. British tanks came in from the coast.
At 1400, Luck (the German Panzer commander) finally received orders to attack the bridge. But as his tanks began to move, Allied aircraft spotted the movement and called in naval fire. His forces had to break off the attack and dig in.
On the east side of the bridge, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion of the 6th Airborne had started their attack on Varaville during the night, around 0330, and were still fighting for it. It was 1900 before they secured it.
Just before dark, British aircraft dropped gliders with reinforcement troops and supplies on that side of the canal. There were 308 Horsa gliders, bringing in two glider battalions of 1K men each, accompanied by 34 of the larger Hamlicar gliders bringing in Jeeps, artillery, and supplies. (Some of the troops who had fought all night ribbed them, saying "War's over" and "A bit late for parade, chaps.")
Unfortunately, some trigger happy Royal Navy gunners fired on forty DC-3s carrying 116 tons of supplies to drop. Two had to turn back, one ditched in the channel, and five were missing. Only 25 tons were recovered.
At the end of D-Day, the 6th Airborne Div. was securely in place. But, it had not achieved its goal of taking Caen and Carpiquet. They would later regret not pushing on into Caen (on the road to Paris) while the Germans were still in a state of shock and disorganization. (That's another story.) But, all in all, they had a long and generally good day.
What the German officers thought about the impact of the Airborne attack
One of the best ways to test whether we're unduly glorifying the role of the Airborne is to look at what our opponent thought about its impact.
After the war, a committe of ex-officers prepared a report analyzing the conduct of the war by both sides. for the Historical Division, European Command, by a committee of former German officers. Section VII was entitled Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal. Here are exerpts dealing with the Normandy landings:
The Allied air landings in Normandy in June 1944 were carried out in close tactical collaboration with the amphibious operations. The Germans expected the air landings to take place farther inland, and to be aimed at more strategic objectives. Defensive measures were taken accordingly. The choice of landing areas for the over-all operations came as a surprise and, consequently, the defensive front was such that in comparison with other areas it was inadequately fortified and was held by weak German forces. The majority of the German reserve was committed elsewhere and was only reluctantly released for action.
Interestingly, one of Ike's aides strongly advised him to drop the Airborne troops (parachutists and gliders) 60 miles inland. In hindsight, almost nobody thinks that was a good idea.
Passive defense measures taken by the Germans did not influence the progress of the Allied airborne operations to any large extent. The first air landing, owing to an error in orientation, was dispersed far beyond the originally planned area. This caused the dissipation of initial German countermeasures. Isolated German successes were not able to prevent the over-all success of the air landing. Besides, since the drop zones covered a large area, it was difficult for the German command to quickly gain an accurate picture of the situation. This resulted in the erroneous commitment of the reserves and also had an adverse effect on the morale of the German troops. Because of the unmistakable air superiority of the enemy, it was impossible for the German countermeasures to be executed rapidly enough. The German counterattacks were able to narrow the landing areas temporarily and to limited extent; they succeeded in preventing the troops which had landed from immediately taking the offensive. They also succeeded in temporarily placing the Allied airborne troops in critical situations.
The German reserves were almost completely tied down by the air landings, making it impossible to launch effective counterattacks against the amphibious assault. Consequently, the attackers were able to gain a foothold on the coast and, within a short time, to establish contact with the airborne elements. The tactical objective of establishing a bridgehead as thus accomplished despite German countermeasures.
The significant fact is that the air landings made it possible to substantially increase the number of forces which had been brought to the mainland during the first phase, thus augmenting the purely numerical superiority of the attacker over the defender.
It is open to question whether air landings with distinct concentration of forces on tactical objectives would have caused a more rapid collapse of the German over-all defense. Of course, the landings on the beaches would then have been more difficult. It also might have been possible to unify the German countermeasures against the invasion more effectively. The chances for greater victory would have involved a greater risk.
Rommel, writing later about the war, had high praise for the paratroopers:
"Parachute and airborne troops are employed in such numbers and with such flexiblility, that the troops they engage are hard put to it to fight them off."
What if the beach landing had failed?
Had the unthinkable happened, the Airborne troops would have been stranded behind enemy lines with German reinforcements rolling into the area.
Making their way to the beach would be an option, but the beach would be a madhouse of landing craft trying to extract troops while they were being killed as in a turkey shoot by the Panzers, who would have arrived in force by then. Remember that most of them had no idea how the landings were going, or if they even occurred, until they saw Allied troops approach.
About the only options the inland paratroopers and glider troopers would have would be to fight until their ammo ran out, and if still alive, don civilian clothes and either join up with the French resistance (saying little if they didn't speak fluent French) or attempt to escape to a friendly country. To this end, they were issued maps of Europe:
Some of the Airborne leaders would go on to bigger things
MG Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne (whose Normandy jump was his qualifying fifth jump), went on to serve in Korea, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as ambassador to South Vietnam.
MG Matthew Ridgway, who commanded the 82nd Airborne at Normandy, would go on to command the Allied Forces in Korea, replace Ike as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe, and then Army Chief of Staff.
As chaotic and costly as the Airborne operations were, they served a major purpose in breaking German communication lines, disrupting any major counter attack, and opening the causeways for the inland movement of the seaborne units.
The Germans had to be confused, as the widely scattered landings confused many allied troops. But, they adapted, formed ad hoc fighting groups, and accomplished many of the planned missions nevertheless.
Thanks to the largest nightdrop of paratroopers ever made (with an estimated casualty rate of 10%), and the glider landings which provided jeeps and artillery pieces as well as reinforcing troops; the 4th ID got ashore and inland with a minimum of casualties, and the left (east) flank and the Panzers to the east had no significant impact.
The greatest risk to establishing a beachhead, a major counter attack during the early hours before the Mulberry docks were set up and heavy weapons were rolled in, did not occur, in part due to the Airborne.
The Airborne story doesn't end with D-Day
... but this (already very long) post does. The Airborne units would continue to fight for several weeks before being finally relieved, after which they would prepare for the next Airborne operation, Market Garden (yet another story for another ACE post).
Two books on the Airborne on D-Day have been reprinted for the 60th anniversary. D-Day Paratroopers, covers the US Airborne (82nd and 101st) role. D-Day Paratroopers: British, Canadian, and French covers the role of our allies and the French resistance.
Here's an index of some more books on the subject.
more books to be mentioned later
Links for further reading
US Airborne photo file (www.warchronicle.com)
(includes maps showing actual drop points of 82nd and 101st "sticks")
Virtual visit of D-Day Spots as they appear today
ABC news photo