The British army authorized small airborne units in 1940 but did not form the Parachute Regiment until 1942. That unit served as a training organization, producing seventeen battalions, of which fourteen were committed to combat. The battalions were formed into the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, the latter involved in Operation Overlord. Both divisions were committed to the Arnhem assault, Operation Market-Garden, in September 1944.
Apart from isolated uses of airborne battalions, the first Allied airborne operation of note occurred during Operation Husky, the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Subsequent operations on the Italian mainland perfected doctrine and techniques so that by 1944 the United States and Britain could integrate three airborne divisions into the plan for Overlord. By isolating the vulnerable beachheads from German reinforcements during the critical early hours of 6 June, the airborne troopers gained valuable time for the amphibious forces.
Later uses of British and American airborne forces included the Arnhem operation in September 1944 and the Rhine crossing in March 1945.
Airborne operations were considered high-risk undertakings, requiring commitment of large numbers of valuable assets—elite troops and airlift—and incurring the danger of assault troops being isolated and overwhelmed. The latter occurred on a large scale only once, when supporting Allied ground forces were unable to reach British paratroopers at Arnhem, Holland, in September 1944.
Because they were by definition light infantry—without armored vehicles or heavy artillery—paratroopers were laden with enormous personal burdens. Many D-Day troopers carried nearly two hundred pounds of equipment, including their main and reserve chutes, life preserver, primary and secondary weapons and ammunition, water and rations, radios or mines, and other gear. It could take as much as five minutes for a trooper to pull on his parachute harness over his other equipment, and if they sat on the ground many men needed help standing up.
Normal parameters for dropping paratroopers were six hundred feet of altitude at ninety miles per hour airspeed. Owing to weather and tactical conditions, however, many troopers were dropped from 300 to 2,100 feet and at speeds as high as 150 miles per hour.
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.