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D-Day - The Normandy Landings

Airborne troops led the D-Day landings in a combined parachute and glider assault, to throw a net of protection around the Normandy beaches, where a massive invasion force would sweep ashore and advance into Europe.

Among their initial objectives, the British airborne units were to destroy a German gun battery 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.

Preparations had been going on for three years prior to the invasion of Normandy, with new roles being created and units formed, including the 6th Airborne Division on May 18, 1943.  The number 'six' being chosen to hoodwink the enemy and fool them into believing that Britain already had five airborne divisions, when in fact it had just two, the lst and 6th, under General Browning.

Operation Overlord 'D-Day' on June 6, 1944, involved the massed troops of two Allied armies pouring into France to drive the Germans out of the country, after the 6th Airborne division had dropped and captured key points, including a heavily fortified gun battery.

The division, which had been bom in 1943, was under the command of General Gale, and included glider and parachute troops from many different regiments, all wearing the distinctive red beret of airborne forces.

There were now ten glider squadrons operating under the control of No. 38 group RAF, and today, at the end of the old runway at Harwell, now the Atomic Research Establishment, a memorial marks the spot where the first gliders left for D-Day.

Bad weather had delayed the invasion by 24 hours, but late on the night of June 5, the force of Dakotas and Horsa gliders towed by RAF bombers took off for the invasion of Normandy.

First in were the pathfinders of 22nd Independent Parachute company, with Lt De La Tour being the first man on the ground.  They were tasked to mark the drop zone and guide the parachute and glider units in using special Eureka beacons.

Few were dropped accurately, as the Germans had flooded the low-lying ground around the Orne and Dives rivers, destroying many identifying features which had been given to pilots as 'markers' during the intense pre-flight brief.

Unit planning had been very detailed, especially by the 9 Para, who had been tasked to silence the Merville gun battery before the landings started.  If they didn't succeed they would be shelled themselves, by the warship HMS Arethusa. 

The huge guns at Merville were just miles from the beaches of Sword, Juno and Gold, where the seaborne assault was to take place and posed the greatest threat to the invasion.  Buried under 12ft-thick concrete, the four 75mm guns had the capability to engage Royal Navy warships out at sea and sink landing craft heading for the beaches.

RAF bombers had tried several times to destroy the concrete bunkers at Merville, but their precision bombing made no impression; now the task had been given to the Paras.

The 6th Airborne division was 8,500 strong and included the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, as well as the 6th Air Landing Brigade of glider borne troops, who had been training at Netheravon.  Their role was to seize or destroy several bridges over two rivers and the Caen canal, silence enemy positions in the area and secure the eastern flank of the beaches.  Here the British Second Army was to come ashore, just a few hours later.

The 3rd Parachute Brigade had to land in the very heart of the enemy's defences and destroy the Troarn, Varaville, Robehomme and Bures bridges across the Dives river, while its 9th battalion hit Merville.  At the same time, their colleagues in the 5th Parachute Brigade were given a similar task and briefed to hold the bridges north of the village of Ranville spanning the River Orne and the Caen canal, as well as preparing a landing zone for the glider troops.

More than 200 gliders were towed up into the skies of Britain during the night of June 5, along with a huge force of Dakota aircraft heading for what should have been, the most planned military action of the war.

Flak started to hit the aircraft and as pilots took avoiding action weaving across the sky, some Paras already hooked up and waiting to jump, were tossed out of the doors.

The entire force of 9 Para had been dropped off their DZ and Lt Col Otway could only assemble 150 men to commence his attack.  He ordered his men to paint a skull and crossbones on the chest of their smocks as an identifying mark to recognise each other in the heat of the battle, which along with their blackened faces and helmets, served to scare the Germans.

After more of the battalion had arrived, one of the unit's officers sounded his hunting horn to start the assault on one of the most vital features of D-Day.

Para casualties were very heavy, but the Germans surrendered.  Then just half an hour before the Navy were to start shelling the Merville guns, Otway fired a yellow flare to signal his unit's success.

Glider troops had been ordered to capture Pegasus bridge, which they did despite heavy enemy fire and constant counter attacks, which lasted days.

Arthur Brock, a Royal Engineer serving with Airborne Forces, was in one of three gliders which landed directly in the area of the bridge and owes his life to his Army pay book.  

He was sent in to deal with mines, but instead, found himself in the thick of the fighting.  He was showered by shrapnel from a shell blast, sending splinters of metal flying into his chest, but luckily, not him.  His Army pay book took the blast and saved his life.  'I was very lucky, but others weren't so fortunate.  The shelling went on for hours, I will never forget it, or my pals.' 

Just four days after D-Day, the Germans attempted to push through the divisional area at Breville.  A battle raged for hours and the enemy lost 200 dead and 150 prisoners to 13 Para, but still maintained their position, threatening to break through to the invasion beaches.

In the days that followed, 153 Infantry Brigade launched an assault on Breville, but were beaten off, suffering heavy casualties.

On June 12, the Germans launched two major attacks with armour support on 9 Para.  The Battalion held its ground and beat off the assault, but by the end of the day, the unit was reduced to just 200 men.

Finally 12 Para with a company of 12 Devons and 22 Independent Parachute Company, were ordered to capture the village of Breville, in order to secure the division's sector, in defence of the beach head.

At a cost of 141 men, Breville was back in Allied possession and proved to be one of the most important battles of the invasion.  Had it been lost the beaches could have been attacked and the war lost.