The amphibious invasion of Normandy by Allied forces on 6 June 1944 was preceded by airborne landings to secure key objectives. The efforts of these airborne troops were an important factor in the success of the invasion. Three divisions took part in the airborne piece of the battle on D-Day. They were the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 6th Airborne Division. All three units had combat jump experience and consisted of a combination of parachute and glider infantry regiments. The American portion of the airborne mission was code named Operation Neptune. In the sections below, I will examine the mission, operations, equipment, and leaders of these units on D-Day ("D-Day").
The paratroopers who participated in the D-Day invasion carried an average of seventy pounds of equipment. Officers averaged ninety pounds of equipment. When the weight of the parachute is factored in, most airborne soldiers jumped with about ninety to one-hundred twenty pounds of gear. Soldiers were armed with an M-1 Garand rifles with an eight-round clip, a cartridge belt, hand grenades, bayonet, helmet, gloves, a compass, a machete, water purification tablets, a.45 caliber Colt automatic rifle, flares, and two days worth of food and water. Officers also carried plastic explosives, wire cutters, spare batteries, and extra ammunition. Pistols, medical kits, radios, ropes, and other items were also carried by selected troops. British and American troops carried similar equipment except that the British carried the Lee Enfield Mk IV.303 caliber rifle instead of the M-1. The officers' equipment was also similar except that the British carried the Sten submachine gun, and American forces used the Thompson submachine gun. The packing lists were designed to sustain the units for three days of combat operations. Glider troops were similarly equipped, and gliders carried antitank guns, jeeps, light artillery, and supplies for extended operations. The gliders themselves were different for the Americans and the British. The British favored the large Horsa glider which had a propensity to break up on impact. The Americans used the smaller, lighter Waco glider which did not break up so easily. The Horsa carried twenty-six men and was better able to carry antitank guns and jeeps. The Waco was cheaper and easier to produce than the Hosea, but lacked its sturdiness (Bando27-36; "Airborne Operations"; The Paratrooper Experience").
III. Contending Forces
The American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were well-trained and combat experienced. The same was true of the British 6th Airborne Division. The 101st and 82nd each consisted of three parachute infantry regiments who jumped into action and one glider infantry regiment which came into combat in gliders released from tow planes. Gliders landed on strips prepared by the earlier arriving parachute troops. About 6,200 troops from each division took part in the invasion. The British Sixth Airborne Division consisted of three brigades, two parachute brigades and one airlanding or glider brigade. One of the parachute brigades contained a Canadian parachute regiment. The 6th was similar in size to the American divisions. The Germans initially placed second line or older reserve troops in the Normandy invasion area. But shortly before the invasion, Field Marshall Rommel succeeded in obtaining reinforcements for Normandy, many of which were first line and elite troops. The Americans had to deal with the German 91st Airlanding Division which took up positions in some of the original American drop zones. This division reinforced the second line 243rd Coastal Division on the Cotentin Peninsula. Just before the invasion, elite special battalions and the 6th Parachute Regiment we attached to the 91st Division. Some strategists argued that if the airborne invasion took place against this reinforced opposition, it would fail with a seventy percent casualty rate. General Eisenhower decided to use the airborne forces anyway. The 6th Division faced the German 716 Infantry Division in its area of operations. The 716th was a second line division at best. Originally composed of older reservists, it had gradually been filled out with conscripts from occupied Russia. Its troops were considered suspect, and the division was expected to defend a twenty-one mile front when doctrine called for divisions to cover only six miles. Panzer or armored units were close enough to lend a hand in defending both the British and American sectors, but they were held in reserve and not released to engage the airborne units (Shilleto 18-62; Ford 20-23; Blair 207).
IV. The Commanders
Overall command for the D-day invasion was given to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower was known as an exceptional organizer and planner. He also possessed superb political and social skills and was able to smooth over friction among his subordinate commanders. Eisenhower visited the 101st shortly before they boarded their planes to pump up moral. Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was to command the invasion's ground forces until Eisenhower could come to France. Montgomery had won fame battling Rommel's Afrika Korps earlier in the war. The commanders of the American divisions were General Matthew Ridgeway of the 82nd Airborne Division and General Maxwell Taylor of the 101st Airborne Division. General Ridgeway was one of the innovators of American airborne forces and was highly regarded by both his men and his superiors. General Taylor had served in the 82nd Airborne and became commander of the 101st Airborne only a few months before the invasion because the previous commander suffered a heart attack and had to give up command. Although both division commanders were scheduled to fly in on gliders, both decided to jump in with the first assault wave. This won them the admiration of their men and allowed them to participate in the first hours of the battle. Both men would go on to stellar careers. Also notable in the American command was Brigadier General James Gavin, deputy commander of the 82nd. Gavin was also one of the founding members of American airborne forces and was greatly respected by his men. However, he sometimes lacked the political skills to remain in the good graces of his superiors. Brigadier General Don Pratt was the deputy commander of the 101st and was killed when his glider crashed. He was the first general officer killed on D-Day. The British 6th Airborne was commanded by Major-General Richard Gale. Gale had spent seventeen years in India before taking over a parachute brigade. Gale was one of the founders of British airborne forces, and formed the 6th Airborne Division. Gale was a rigorous trainer who drove his troops to be ready for the invasion. He was the only division commander to achieve all of his assigned objectives on D-Day (Ford 14-16; Blair 175-211; Bando 24, 35, 82).
German forces in France were commanded by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt. Von Rundstedt was a career soldier who believed that armored forces should be held in reserve in and used to counterattack. His immediate subordinate was Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Rommel was also a career soldier who won Germany's highest award for valor in World War I and fame for his performance as an army commander in North Africa. Rommel was greatly respected as a strategist by both sides. He advocated keeping armored forces close to the beaches, believing that Germany's only chance was to repel an invasion immediately. Realizing that German forces were undermanned in France and that not enough had been done to prepare for invasion, Rommel worked tirelessly to improve defenses, adding new gun emplacements, putting in dummy fortifications, emplacing barriers on the beaches, and obtaining additional men to fill out the ranks. General Erich Marcks commanded German forces along the Normandy beaches. He saw action in Poland and commanded a division in Russia. After being wounded and losing a leg, he was reassigned to France. Marcks was considered to be one of the best German field commanders (Ford 14-16; Blair 207; "Airborne Operations").
The original mission of the 82nd and 101st Divisions was to cut the Cotentin Peninsula in half and to secure forward positions for American forces landing at Utah Beach. But the presence of the 91st Airlander Division caused planners to scale back their objectives. The less ambitious mission for the 82nd was to secure both banks of the River Merderet, to seize the town of St. Mere Eglise, and to secure the bridges south of the town. The 101st was to secure the four exits from Utah Beach and to secure the southern flank of the invasion. Shortly after midnight on 6 June 1944, teams of Pathfinders parachuted into Normandy. Their job was to set up and mark drop zones for the other troops and to activate radio beacons for the planes. The sky was cloudy and antiaircraft fire was heavy. The C-47 planes took violent evasive action and teams were dropped in the wrong locations. In fact, only one team was dropped in the correct spot. Dummy paratroopers were also dropped to confuse the Germans. After the Pathfinders came 900 planes with the main force. Taking a…