D-Day, 6th June 1944 – Part Two The US 82nd ‘All American’ 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 second part of the story of D-Day, 6 June 1944 we concentrate on the actions of the US 82nd ‘All American’ Airborne Division securing the western flank of the invasion area. This is their story…


Introduction

The US 82nd ‘All American’ Airborne Division was dropped onto the Cotentin Peninsula around the small Normandy town of Sainte-Mère-Église. They were tasked with securing the important crossroads at Sainte-Mère-Église and two bridges over the River Merderet to the west of the town. The joint purpose of these missions was to secure the western flank of the invasion area. It was also intended that the two US Airborne Divisions combined would neutralise any initial German counterattack against UTAH Beach.

Between 00.15 and 03.00 hrs on 6 June 1944 nearly 1,000 Dakota C-47 transport planes of the US IX Troop Carrier Command dropped more than 13,000 American paratroopers over the Cotentin Peninsula. The conditions for the drop were far from ideal with unexpected low-lying cloudbanks over the Normandy coast. The efforts of the pathfinder teams to mark the landing zones were largely ineffective. This was partly due to the inaccuracy of their own drop and the unexpected presence of German troops in the area. This meant that the aircraft carrying the main drops of the paratroopers had to rely on the Eureka beacons to guide them in.

The pilots of the main drops knew they had to maintain formation, but to do so they had to be able to see the aircraft next to them. If they lost sight of them the danger of a mid-air collision became very real. The low lying cloud loosened up the formations as the pilots lost sight of the leading planes and the German anti-aircraft flak broke them up further as the aircraft took evasive action. Consequently both US Airborne Divisions were widely scattered during the drops and many of the paratroopers found themselves in entirely the wrong areas and ended up fighting with different units. Others landed in the flooded areas of the River Douve and its principle tributary the River Merderet. Some paratroopers drowned in these deliberately flooded areas and those that did not had great difficulty in assembling.

The parachute drops were followed at 04.00 hrs by the arrival of the first wave of gliders. These brought the heavier equipment of the Airborne Divisions and the bulk of the Glider Infantry Regiments. Losses were sustained in these glider landings due to the presence of German troops in the vicinity of the LZs, the German anti-airborne landing obstacles and the high Normandy hedgerows, but they were not as bad as some had predicted.

The 82nd captured Sainte-Mère-Église early in the morning of 6 June when the men of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment occupied the town, giving it the claim to be the first town liberated in the invasion. 3/505th commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Krause entered the town in the early hours of the invasion and raised the stars and stripes that had so recently been unfurled over Naples. They were later reinforced by 2/505th commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ben Vandervoort and between them the two commanding officers organised the defence of the town.

The Germans mounted counterattacks against Sainte-Mère-Église from the south throughout the morning, but these were repelled and subsequently forced to withdraw. A second German counterattack was mounted from the north of the town which was held off throughout the day by a reinforced platoon from D Coy 2/505th commanded by Lt Turner Turnbull.

The 82nd were less successful in securing the two crossings over the River Merderet to the west of the town. Many of the men from the 507th and 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments were dropped on the wrong side of the river and this led to a convergence of an assortment of groups on the bridge at La Fière. Brigadier General James Gavin, the deputy divisional commander of the 82nd, sent part of this mixed group south to cross the river at Chef-du-Pont. At both La Fière and Chef-du-Pont the US Airborne managed to secure the eastern end of the bridges, but they were unable to establish bridgeheads at the western end of either causeway.

It was at La Fière that the main bulk of the US 82nd Airborne gathered on D-Day and were to become embroiled in a bloody battle in the days immediately thereafter. Those that did land on the western side of the river remained isolated until a crossing over the River Merderet was achieved by force of arms two days later.

Of the 6,209 men of the US 82nd Airborne Division dropped on D-Day, some 4,000 were still unaccounted for at the end of the day. Eventually the stragglers made it back to the Division and the final toll of the landing was put at 156 dead, 347 wounded and 756 missing presumed dead. The operation had started out disastrously, but the capture of Sainte-Mère-Église and the securing of the eastern bank of the River Merderet achieved the principle aim of preventing the Germans from counterattacking and reinforcing the UTAH Beach area.

Ian R Gumm
at Willowmead

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