This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri June 6th 2018. If you would like to see the current articles as they are published, you may subscribe to The Belle Banner by calling 573-859-3328, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to The Belle Banner, PO Box 711, Belle, MO 65013. Subscription rates are; Maries, Osage, and Gasconade County = $23.55 per year, elsewhere in Missouri = $26.77, outside Missouri = $27.00, and foreign countries = $40.00.
On June 6th 1944, 75 years ago, the United States of America led the way in changing world history. In June 1944 Hitler’s Nazi German army occupied almost all of Europe, including France. In order to push the German army back into Germany and defeat it, the Allies (primarily the United States, Britain, and Canada) had to get a foothold on the European Continent, they had to do a beach landing invasion. Hitler also knew that, and he was convinced that the invasion would happen at Pas De Calais, France (pronounced “Pa Dee Calay”). Pas De Calais is located on the French coast opposite England on the narrowest part of the English Channel. The Allied forces encouraged that idea by running Operation Fortitude, which was a giant intricate plan of deception to convince the Germans that the invasion would happen at Pas De Calais.
The entire coast line of France was fortified and heavily defended by the German Army, plus the Germans had around 40 divisions in France which could move in any direction. A large part of the German Army was armored. Tanks which could move fast. Pas De Calais was the quickest way to get from England, where the allied forces were staging and training, but it is located on a peninsula which would have made it easy for the German army to cut off an invading force. The Normandy area of France was chosen because it has several beaches on a wide front, which provided enough room to land an invading force large enough to get established on the shore. The invasion area was over 60 miles wide. Normandy is also on a peninsula, the Cotentin also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula, but it is a much larger area. In 1942 when the planners started developing the invasion plan they looked at the Cotentin Peninsula. A spider web of roads connects the towns and villages across the peninsula. At the center of that web is the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Five roads pass through the town, plus it is only seven miles from Utah Beach. Control Sainte-Mère-Église and they felt that they had a good chance of controlling the Cotentin Peninsula and preventing German reinforcements located at Cherbourg in the north and Brittany in the west from reaching the beaches. The flanks of the invasion area had to be secured, if not, German tanks could have swept into the invasion area and possibly have defeated the Allied forces on the beaches. The only way to get forces into the invasion area before the landings from the sea was with airborne troops (paratroops). The specific mission of the airborne forces was to block the approaches to Utah Beach. There were two areas of higher ground on the flanks. The 101st Airborne Division was assigned to the high ground overlooking the beach with primary objective of securing four causeway exits from Utah Beach, which were to be used by the 4th Infantry Division to move off of the beach.
The 82nd Airborne Division was assigned to the ridgeline centered at Sainte-Mère-Église, with the mission of blocking the German armor from coming into the invasion area. The 82nd Airborne Division mission was key to the success of the entire invasion, it could not fail. Many senior planners for the operation felt that the 82nd had no chance of obtaining its objectives. Some said that it was a suicide mission. General Eisenhower gave them a 50-50 chance for success.The 101st Airborne Division had not seen combat, it was shipped to England in the fall of 1943 to train for the invasion of Europe. It was commanded by Major General Maxwell D Taylor, who had been promoted to two stars and moved from the 82nd Airborne Division Artillery in March 1944 after the 101st commander Major General William Lee suffered a heart attack.
The 82nd Airborne Division was commanded by Major General Matthew Ridgeway, who had commanded the division in combat in Sicily and Italy. The Assistant Division Commander was Brigadier General James M Gavin, who at 37 was the youngest general in the army, and as a colonel had led the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment on night parachute jumps into combat in Sicily and Salerno. Ridgeway and Gavin knew from experience that their paratroops would be scattered upon landing, so they conducted their training with that in mind. They conducted night training jumps until injuries became too numerous, then they trucked the troops out into the field, at night to train for taking objectives, but they would mix-up the units. They had organized competition in football, basketball, volleyball, and baseball, but they couldn’t play unit against unit. Teams had to be players from different units, such as three from A Company, 1st Battalion, three from C Company, 2nd Battalion, and three from D Company, 3rd Battalion. They wanted the paratroopers to learn to trust each other, even if they didn’t know each other. They also gave the paratroops lots of free time, which was spent by most of them in the bars in the local villages. The troops would have plenty to drink and get into fights sometimes between the 82nd and 101st, but mostly between the paratroops and the legs (non-airborne soldiers). The military police would come to the generals and tell them that their paratroopers were getting out of hand, they needed to do something, and the generals would say; “OK, we’ll look into it”, and nothing happened. They wanted the paratroopers to be full of bravado, gusto, and aggressiveness.
The 82nd was organized into two elements for the assault. Force A, which was the main combat element, was commanded by Brigadier General Gavin and consisted of three Parachute Infantry Regiments, with Artillery, Engineers, and Signal attached. Force B, commanded by Major General Ridgeway, consisted of a Glider Infantry Regiment and the remainder of the divisions’ Artillery, Engineers and support elements. So, after all the equipment and ammunition had been issued, knives and bayonets sharpened, last letters written home, faces blackened with burnt cork, and last prayers said, Force A took off in England at 11:15 PM, June 5th 1944. Three five man pathfinder teams jumped in 30 minutes ahead of the main element. They sustained casualties, but still managed to set up beacons to guide the incoming aircraft. The 378 airplanes carrying Force A kept good formation across the English Channel, but ran into a fog bank between the beach and the three drop zones, which caused some to move out of the formation, then anti-aircraft fire opened up and when planes started getting hit and shot out of the air some pilots panicked and started trying to evade. Some scattered and some were flying too high and faster than they should have been at jump time. One lieutenant said that when his plane ran into heavy flak, the pilot panicked, turned on the green light and started climbing at full throttle. The lieutenant said that the prop blast was so strong that all his equipment was ripped off of him, when he got to the ground the only weapon he had was his jump knife. The first jumpers went out the door at just before 2:00 AM and all were on the ground by just after 3:00 AM. The gliders started crash landing about 4:00 AM. Both paratroops and glider troops were scattered.
The 3rd Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 82nd, got the mission of taking the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Their drop zone was planned just outside the town, but many landed directly on the town. There was a house fire in Sainte-Mère-Église which lit up the sky and made the paratroopers very visible, plus the Germans were already alerted because two planes of 101st Airborne paratroopers, wildly off course, had dropped on Sainte-Mère-Église just 30 minutes prior to the 505th jumping. Many were killed in the air, if they got caught in trees or lines, they were killed, at least one landed in the house fire, and two got caught on the church steeple. Within an hour Sainte-Mère-Église was firmly secured in the hands of the Americans. The American flag was raised making Sainte-Mère-Église the first French town liberated by the allies.
Out in the countryside on the ground, a little group of paratroopers would get together, the ranking man would take charge and start trying to find their unit or their objectives, but they engaged the Germans wherever they found them. They conducted ambushes, they attacked bridges and road intersections and generally created havoc, causing the German commanders to think they were facing a much larger force than was actually there. The 82nd and the 101st accomplished all their objectives, but the cost was high. Each division jumped just over 6,500 paratroopers and each division suffered about 20 percent casualties, but the strategic importance to the overall success of the Normandy invasion was huge. Those two Airborne Operations are still considered two of the most daring in the history of modern warfare.
The following is a quote from 82nd’s After Action Report of the Normandy action; “Enemy reaction to the landing of the 82d Airborne Division in the NORMANDY area was prompt and severe, but from the time the first member landed until 35 days later, when the Division was finally relieved, every mission was accomplished and no ground gained was ever relinquished.”
Throughout the day of June 6th 1944 over 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft delivered about 176,000 troops onto the beaches of Normandy.
Over 4,000 of them died on the beach and another 6,000 were wounded, but they captured the beaches and the seaport of Cherbourg, establishing the Allied forces in France with a solid beach-head, from which they would begin the push across France and into Germany.
“The Longest Day” is a four star movie about D-day. It was written by Cornelius Ryan, who was a war correspondent in World War II. It is one of the best and most historically accurate movies about that day.