D-Day, 6th June 1944 – Part Ten The British 6th Airborne Division

This post is dedicated to the memory of those who died on Tuesday 6 June 1944 in pursuit of freedom. It is through their sacrifice that we enjoy the freedoms we have today.

In the early hours of Tuesday 6 June 1944 when three Allied Airborne Divisions were dropped by parachute and reinforced by gliders to secure the flanks of the invasion area. The US 82nd ‘All American’ Airborne Division was to be dropped by parachute and reinforced by gliders in the area of Sainte-Mère-Église to protect the right flank of the invasion area. The US 101st ‘Screaming Eagles’ Airborne Division was to be dropped by parachute and reinforced by gliders in the area of Vierville to secure the four beach exits and support the US VII Corps landing at UTAH Beach. The British 6th Airborne Division, comprising 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades and the 6th Airlanding Brigade, was to be airlifted and delivered by parachute and glider to the area between the River Orne and River Dives to protect the left flank.

In this the tenth part of the story of D-Day, 6 June 1944 we concentrate on the actions of the British 6th Airborne Division to the east of the invasion area between the River Orne and River Dives. This is their story…

The British Airborne Landings

The British 6th Airborne Division was dropped by parachute and delivered by glider into the area between the River Orne and River Dives during the night of the 5/6 June 1944. They had been tasked with securing the left flank of the seaborne invasion due to take place on the morning of the 6 June 1944.

The British 6th Airborne Division's three primary D-Day tasks these were: -
• The destruction of the bridges over the River Dives was considered to be vital in order to prevent the German Panzer Divisions that were located further east in the Pas de Calais from counterattacking and rolling up the invasion before it could become established.
• The destruction of the German Coastal Battery at Merville was also considered to be vital as it occupied a commanding position from which it was able to shell the landing beaches. Its destruction prior to the seaborne assault would save many lives amongst the troops of the seaborne assault force.
• To seize and hold the two bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal near Bénouville. These bridges were considered to be vital to the invasion because they would not only allow British reinforcements to be brought up into the British Airborne’s area, but provide a route by which the British could breakout towards the east.

Elements from two German Static Divisions, the German 716th Static Division from the Seventh Army and the German 711th Static Division from the Fifteenth Army, were located in the area between the River Orne and River Dives. The 716th was located mainly to the west of the River Orne and the 711th to the east of the River Dives. Also in the vicinity were elements of the German 21st Panzer Division that had moved up to the area of Caen just prior to the invasion.

The destruction of the bridges over the River Dives

There were five bridges over the River Dives that were to be destroyed on D-Day to prevent the German Panzer Divisions further to the east counterattacking against the seaborne invasion forces and the British 3rd Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier James Hill was responsible for carrying this out. The bridges at Varaville and Robehomme were assigned to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Bradbrooke and the two bridges at Bures-sur-Dives and the bridge at Troarn were assigned to the British 8th Parachute Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alastair Pearson.

The leading elements of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion dropped onto DZ ‘V’ ahead of the British 9th Parachute Battalion. As they were mustering at their RV the RAF commenced their bombing run on the Battery at Merville and several of the bombers dropped their payload over DZ ‘V’, the battle for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had not got off to a good start. They managed to enter Varaville without raising the alarm, but as they formed up to assault the main German positions in the hamlet a 75 mm gun engaged them. The ensuing fight went on until 10.00 hrs when the Germans finally surrendered. Whilst the battle raged a party of sappers from the 3rd Parachute Squadron destroyed the bridge over the River Dives to the east of the hamlet. At the same time another party of sappers destroyed the bridge at Robehomme.

The British 8th Parachute Battalion parachuted onto to DZ ‘K’ seven miles to the southwest. They too did not have a good drop and only a quarter of their strength mustered at the Battalion RV. Without sufficient men as yet mustered to attack Troarn they moved off the DZ towards the Bois de Bavent woodland. Only one party of the sappers attached to the Battalion was present and Lieutenant Colonel Pearson sent them to destroy the bridges at Bures-sur-Dives. Captain Thomas Junkers commanded the engineers and they arrived at the Bures-sur-Dives bridges at 06.30 hrs. Three hours later they had completed their task and had returned to the 8th Battalion’s position at Bois de Bavent.

Unknown to Lieutenant Colonel Pearson the commander of the 3rd Parachute Squadron Major John Roseveare on landing had got his party together and dealt with the bridge at Troarn. They unloaded their jeep and trailer full of explosives, drove through Troarn with all guns blazing to blow them up on the bridge.

The German Coastal Artillery Battery at Merville

The task of silencing the guns of the Merville Battery fell to the British 9th Parachute Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway. It was thought that the battery had four 155 mm guns and these presented a significant threat to the seaborne invasion forces. The main body of the 9th Parachute Battalion parachuted onto DZ ‘V’, which was located to the east of the small Normandy hamlet of Varaville. The drop did not go well and less than a quarter of the men came into the Battalion RV. Without radios, most of their specialist equipment and none of the engineers they set off for the Battery.

Reaching the Battery, Lieutenant Colonel Otway called an impromptu O Group to explain his revised plan for the assault. Major Allen Parry was to command a composite assault force of about 50 men, Sergeant Knight was to lead a small diversionary attack at the main gate and the remainder would be held back to counter any resistance that harried the assault party. As they formed up for the assault they were spotted and fired at by machine-guns on both flanks that were quickly assaulted by Sergeant Knight’s small diversionary force. The assault gliders that should have landed within the Battery’s perimeter had not arrived, one flew over the Battery but the rest did not appear. Unable to wait any longer Lieutenant Colonel Otway gave the order to attack, Major Parry blew his whistle and Lieutenant Colonel Otway shouted, “Get in! Get in!” and the men of the British 9th Parachute Battalion attacked.

After some fierce fighting the Battery was taken, but without the appropriate demolition equipment they were unable to destroy the guns. Instead they put them out of action as best they could before continuing with their secondary task. Out of the 150 men who made the attack only half were still on their feet, the rest either wounded or dead, and out of a Battalion of 750 officers and men Lieutenant Colonel Otway had 65 or so who were fit to fight.

The River Orne and Caen Canal Bridges

The seizing of the two bridges near Bénouville was to be carried out by a specially trained and reinforced gliderborne infantry company, D Company of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry commanded by Major John Howard. They were to be the first Allied unit into action on D-Day and they were to seize the bridges by a coup de main assault. Once the bridges had been captured they were to be reinforced by the British 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Pine-Coffin who were to drop onto DZ ‘NAN’ a couple of miles to the east of the River Orne Bridge.

At 00.16 hrs the first of the six Horsa gliders carrying Major Howard’s coup de main force landed at the Caen Canal Bridge. The pilot S/Sgt Jim Wallwork put the glider down onto the bumpy LZ perfectly and it came to rest in the corner closest to the bridge with its nose through the wire defences. The men of D Company dismounted and attacked. Within ten minutes both bridges had been captured and about an hour later the 7th Parachute Battalion arrived to reinforce the position. Throughout the night and the following morning the British Airborne at the bridges fought off repeated counterattacks until British soldiers coming up from SWORD Beach finally relieved them.

With their primary D-Day tasks accomplished the British 6th Airborne Division set about securing the eastern flank of the invasion area, a task that they continued to carry out in the weeks following the invasion.

Ian R Gumm
at Willowmead

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