British 6th Airborne Division
6th Airborne Division
Airborne troops landed in Normandy prior to the D-Day landings in a combined parachute and glider assault, to secure the Normandy beaches and help the seaborne invasion force as it came ashore during the morning of June 6th.
Among their initial objectives, the British airborne units were to destroy a German gun battery at Merville that threatened the lives of seaborne troops, and protect the left flank of the sea assault by seizing strategic points, which would prevent the enemy from reaching the beaches. Critical among these points were bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne, northeast of the key city of Caen.
The British 6th Airborne Division was tasked with the mission of securing the eastern flank of the invasion area. Organized in 1943, the division was under the command of General Richard Gale, and included glider and parachute troops from many different regiments. The number six had been chosen to confuse the enemy and fool them into believing that Britain already had five airborne divisions, when in fact it had just two, the 1st and 6th.
Just past midnight on the morning of D-Day, gliders containing Company D, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, commanded by Major John Howard, landed exactly on target near the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne. Within 10 minutes, and with the loss of only two men dead, the daring attack placed both bridges in Allied hands. Howard’s company became the first attackers on French soil and the first unit to achieve its objective on D-Day.
The silencing of the Merville battery fell to Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway’s 9th Battalion. The 9th, however, had a bad drop, and the attack began with only 150 men of the 750-man force. The brave, but short-handed attack captured the battery at a cost of half the attacking force. The defending Germans paid a terrible price: only 22 men of the 200-man garrison were uninjured.
The rest of the 6th Airborne troopers continued to land throughout the night, although many were scattered. Small parties found one another and managed to destroy five bridges over the River Dives, which later hampered the Germans from rushing forces westward.
By morning, as the invasion force touched down on Sword Beach, the left flank of the area was secure. By 1300 hours, elements of the 1st Commando Brigade, under the command of Lord Lovat linked up with Howard’s glider troops at the bridges. Despite heavy losses, the 6th Airborne Division was generally in place on D-Day evening and had achieved its primary objectives.