6th Airborne in Normandy


IWM caption : PHOTOGRAPHIC INTELLIGENCE FOR OPERATION ‘OVERLORD’. Overhead aerial of the gun battery at Merville (3km east of Ouistreham) consisting of four medium casemates, after air bombardment, c May 1944. Bombing failed to penetrate the casemates and, because of the threat the battery posed to the landings on SWORD Area, it was attacked and neutralised by 9th Bn the Parachute Regiment in the early hours of 6 June.


The battery was manned by the 1./1716 of Artillerie-Regiment 1716 (716. Infanterie-Division) and equipped with 4x10cm Le FH 14/19 (t). It was commanded on 6.6.44 by Leutnant Raimund Steiner.

German soldiers fought tenaciously from the first moments of the glider and parachute landings. But they were unable to prevent British glider and parachute troops breaking into the battery at Merville, a mile inland and with a field of fire over the beach. The men of the 9th Parachute Battalion had dropped twenty minutes past midnight, many falling far from their dropping zone. By 2:20 in the morning, only a quarter of the six hundred who had dropped two hours earlier had reached the area where they were meant to be prior to the assault. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, who had landed in the correct area, was determined to reach the objective. Setting off with all the men he could muster, he reached the battery at Merville at 4:20 A.M. A fierce fight ensued and the battery was overrun. Forty minutes later Otway signaled his success to Major General Richard (“Windy”) Gale, his divisional commander, by smoke flares and carrier pigeon. When the battery was examined, it emerged that the heavy guns believed to be there—with their power to bombard the beachhead—had never been installed.


With the battery at Merville overrun, the Germans concentrated on holding the village of Ranville, five miles inland. Within hours, however, they were driven out. Today, a plaque by the village church records that Ranville was the first French village to be liberated. Four years of Nazi rule were over, and General Gale took up his headquarters in a nearby château.

The Germans were determined not to give up. Later in the day they regained the battery at Merville, holding it until the following day, when it was taken by troops of No. 3 Commando.


The 6th Airborne Division was raised by the War Office in April of 1943, and command was given to Major General Richard ‘Windy’ Gale formally of the 1st Airborne Brigade. The number of the division was intentionally misleading, making the Germans believe that the British had six airborne divisions, the 6th only being in fact the second airborne division of the British Army. By early 1944 the division was up to a full strength of 12,000 men split up into three brigades, the 3rd and 5th Parachute and the 6th Airlanding. Training immediately commenced for the upcoming invasion of France.

The 6th Airborne Division was ordered to carry out a similar task to it’s American cousins to the west of the invasion. They were to drop on the eastern flank of the task force and destroy or capture strategic bridges, sabotage coastal batteries and form a defensive line to halt any German reinforcement or assault on the flanks.

The first mission was for two bridges, over the Caen Canal and the Orne river, to be captured intact, in order for the rapid dispersal of troops and armour coming off the beaches in the Sword area to consolidate the Allied eastern flank. These two bridges were to be captured in a Coup de Main operation by 6 platoons drawn from the 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. These platoons would be inserted just after midnight in six Horsa gliders, three per bridge. They would take control of the bridge, dispose of any demolition charges and wait for reinforcement from the 5th Parachute Brigade landing an hour later to the east of them.

The second mission was for the destruction of a major coastal battery at Merville consisting of four heavy casemates containing 150mm guns that could cause massive destruction amongst the invasion fleet off the Normandy coast. The destruction was tasked to Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway’s 9th Parachute Battalion.

The third and final task was for the destruction of four bridges over the River Dives and a fifth over a small stream near Varraville in order to halt or hamper any enemy advance from the east. Whilst all these operations were being undertaken the remainder of the division would be making a defensive line between the Orne and Dives rivers making preparations to halt any German movement from the south and east.

At 00.16 hours on 6 June 1944 the first glider of the coup de main party at the bridge over the Caen Canal at Benouville touched down. Piloted by Staff Sergeants Wallwork and Ainsworth, it landed within 50 yards of the bridge. Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory would later say that this was one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war. The men, commanded by Major John Howard, soon took control of the bridge and after a brief firefight set about creating a defensive perimeter. A similar feat was achieved a few hundred yards away at the river bridge, although one of the assault parties gliders landed some miles off target. In Benouville village, west of the canal bridge, there had been some tough fighting as the paras cleared out the defenders, this led the German commander in Caen to send an armoured column to investigate. As the lead mark IV tank neared the T-junction at the bridge it was hit by an anti-tank PIAT round fired by one of the paras, setting the tank ablaze. This forced the Germans to retire for some time allowing for the bridge to be heavily reinforced by the men of 7th Parachute Battalion. Fighting in and around the bridge area would continue for the rest of 6 June, including an air attack on the bridge itself, to no effect. The men defending these important bridges were relieved by the 1st Special Service Brigade in the early afternoon of 6 June.

Meanwhile the mission to destroy the battery at Merville was not going to plan. Lieutenant Colonel Otway’s 9th Battalion had been badly dispersed and by the time they had to move to his start line he had only managed to assemble 150 of the 650 men intended for the assault. Due to time constraints, if the naval commanders had not received notice that the battery had been destroyed a massive barrage from the outlying ships would be laid down at dawn, Otway had no choice but to continue. With fewer men and equipment than he anticipated, he led his men towards the battery. Here he assigned a few men to the east of the battery to put in a diversionary attack whilst the bulk of the force made an assault from the south. Two paths were cleared through the minefields using bangalore torpedoes and the men of the 9th Battalion stormed the casemates, being torn to shreds by the defenders numerous machine guns. Under this intense fire the men nevertheless managed to reach and clear out the casemates, discovering that the guns were not in fact 150mm coastal guns, but aging 100mm guns of First World War vintage. They set about disabling the guns as best they could then withdrew, not having any means in which to send the success signal. Fifty men were killed in the assault with a further twenty being badly injured.

The destruction of the bridges went slightly better, with the sappers of the 8th Parachute and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalions making their way to the various targets on jeeps that had landed with the gliders, all the bridges were destroyed before daybreak.

The bulk of the Division that was landing after midnight on 6 June were badly dispersed, the Pathfinders that were dropped before them being dropped in the wrong area due to poor pilot navigation, bad weather conditions and flak. Nevertheless the men went about their tasks in small units, causing mayhem and panic within the German rear areas. By dawn all the tasks alloted to the division had been carried out with great success as the morning light not only brought the landings on the beaches but further reinforcement from the air in the form of heavy Hamilcar gliders bringing in ultra-light tanks and jeeps as well as ammunition and much needed communications equipment. For the first week after the invasion the Division defended against major assaults from the German defenders, wanting to roll up the Allied flank. The airborne troops repulsed all the assaults but with heavy losses. The men then were kept as ground troops, even though they were not equipped to fight in such a role, until the end of August when they were eventually taken out of the line.




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