Friday, May 30, 2014

It's the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

Hey there! You're about to invade a continent. But how?

This isn't a board game, fellas. You can't marshal your forces in Kamchatka and then sweep across North America with a few good rolls of the dice. You have to think about what you want to do, what your enemy is going to respond with, and then how to stop that response. You have to think two or three steps ahead, and plan -- with exceedingly limited resources -- how to deal with things. All while leaving room for the impossible, the improbable, the bad roll of the dice.

The success of any amphibious landing depends on the establishment of a beachhead, securing that beachhead, building up a well-supplied force, and then breaking out of your encircling enemy's lines. The most dangerous phase is during and immediately after the landing, when the invading forces are most vulnerable to enemy counterattacks. Allied forces had nearly been thrown off the beaches during the invasion of Italy in September 1943. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring opposed the Americans, and was one of the Luftwaffe's ablest commanders -- a tactician who knew the power of combined air-land operations in the way few German officers did. But Adolf Hitler denied Kesselring the right to draw on reserves, believing (as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel did) that Italy was lost from the get-go and that Germany should only attempt a delaying action there. Had Kesselring been able to commit his reserves, the Fifth U.S. Army would have been ejected from Italy, the British Eighth Army would have been trapped on the Calabrian peninsula, and the Allies would have suffered a major defeat. The Allies had learned a lot of lessons from the landings in Italy. The most important was that they absolutely must slow or eliminate Germany's ability to organize and launch counterattacks.

Airborne operations were the key here. Paratroops could be inserted behind enemy lines and seize bridges, road crossings, and terrain. If held, these could permit the invaders to more easily penetrate into the interior. If they could not be held, these structures would be destroyed to prevent the enemy from moving up reinforcements to throw the invaders off the beach. Paratroops could also disrupt enemy forces and operations, making it easier for the invading forces to fight their way off the beaches. And they could also destroy key enemy installations such as coastal batteries or supply dumps.

To provide support for the Allied invasion of Normandy, three major airborne operations were planned. Two American airborne divisions -- the U.S. 82nd and U.S. 101st -- were assigned to the western part of the invasion route. The 82nd Airborne would be dropped west and southwest of the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Their mission was to seize crossings over the Douve River (which roughly paralleled the coast, six miles away). The 101st Airborne would be dropped east and west of Sainte-Mère-Église. Their mission was to capture and hold bridges and roads which led to the beaches, preventing the enemy from moving its troops up quickly. The newly-formed British 6th Airborne Division was assigned to the eastern invasion zone. It had three missions: First, capture the bridges over the Caen Canal and the Orne River; Second, destroy the coastal artillery battery at Merville; and Third, advance four miles and destroy the bridges over the River Dives.

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Training for the airborne assault began in early 1944. But in mid-May, Rommel moved large numbers of German reserve forces into Normandy. This caused military planners to change the location of their drop zones. This meant training for the new drop zones was minimal for both pilots and paratroops. The training did not go well, in any case. Numerous accidents occurred. Errors were common. The pilots did not know the terrain well, and few had dropped paratroops before. Training had occurred at night, but always in clear weather -- and never under poor conditions such as haze, fog, or rain. Allied commanders were so nervous about the training that the tails of the paratroop planes were painted with black-and-white stripes so that their pilots would tell who their formation-mates were.

Allied planners tried to overcome the limitations of the paratroop training. "Pathfinder" paratroop groups of 14-18 men were created. These pathfinders were to be dropped a half-hour before the main body of the troops. Their mission was to locate the drop zone and illuminate it so that additional oncoming planes would know where to drop the troops. They were also equipped with rudimentary "Eureka" radio transponders. The idea was that, even though the "Eureka" beacons were short range, paratroop planes could home in on the "Eureka" beacons and more accurately drop their troops.

To achieve surprise, the troop transport planes were to fly at 500 feet (150m) over the English Channel (to avoid German radar). They were to fly far past the beaches and inland drop zones, turn west again, and then reach their drop zones. The idea was to confuse German defenders, who would not expect the paratroops to be dropped during the return leg.

The U.S. 101st Airborne was assigned drop zones A, C, and D, and the U.S. 82nd Airborne was assigned drop zones N, O, and T. The British 6th Airborne was assigned drop zones K, N, V, X, and Y.

The planes took off at 11:30 p.m. on June 5 and assembled into formation over England. Each plane contained 15-18 men and their gear, weapons, and equipment (often artillery). Each "flight" of nine aircraft flew 1,000 feet (300 m) behind the "flight" ahead. Flights were organized into "serials" of 36, 45, or 54 planes. Interior lights were turned off. Navigation lights were turned down to their lowest acceptable level. The planes flew southwest at first to get out of German radar range. Then they descended to 500 feet, made a sharp turn right, and flew southeast toward France.

Problems quickly cropped up once the "serials" reached France. Nearly 60 percent of the aircraft lacked navigation devices (transponder beacons, radar, etc.), forcing the pilots to navigate by visual dead-reckoning. But heavy fog covered the ground, making visual navigation almost impossible. Strict radio silence had been ordered, so that pilots could not be warned about the bad weather. German antiaircraft fire drove some plans off-course, and strong winds pushed others away from their drop zones. Pilots struggled to find their drop zones for the pathfinder troops. Some made two, even three passes over an area, searching for their drop zones. Some were so desperate to make their drops that they flew too far above or too far below the 700 foot (200m) drop altitude, or in excess of the 110 mph (180 km/h) drop speed. Some of the green pathfinder troops hesitated to jump in the night, meaning that they jumped only after the plane had left the drop zone several miles behind.

The pathfinders of Drop Zone A, 101st Airborne, missed their drop zone entirely and set up a mile away. They were unable to get either their lights or "Eureka" beacon working within the allotted half-hour. By then, the drop of the remaining troops was already in progress. The pathfinders of Drop Zone C, 101st Airborne, were dropped pretty much on target. But their lights were lost in the drop. They used a hand-held signal light instead, which was not seen by many of the other pilots. The planes carrying the pathfinders assigned to Drop Zone D, 101st Airborne, got lost following the physical terrain and flew several miles past the drop zone. The pilots turned around, but got lost even more in the dark. These pathfinders were dropped 10 minutes late and a mile (1.5 km) off-target. Unfortunately, this was an area infested with Germans, and they were not able to turn on their lights or "Eureka" transponder.

The pathfinders of Drop Zone N, 82nd Airborne, were brought to their target. But the pathfinders dropped late, and landed a mile to the southeast. Between them and their target was a massive German armored division, and they remained trapped behind enemy lines -- unwilling to turn on their lights or transponder for fear of misleading the other troops off-course. The pathfinders of Drop Zone O, 82nd Airborne, dropped near their drop zone but dropped late after the plane was driven off course by weather. These pathfinders set up their lights and transponder immediately. The pathfinders of Drop Zone T, 82nd Airborne, were dropped on target. But with German troops nearby, they could not turn on their lights and had to rely on transponders alone.

Pathfinders for Drop Zone N, 6th Airborne, landed off-target and were unable to set up either lights or beacons. Pathfinders for Drop Zone K, 6th Airborne, accidentally dropped onto Drop Zone N and set up beacons and markers that caused a number of troops to drop in the wrong area. The pathfinders of Drop Zone X, 6th Airborne, landed on target and lit their drop zone. The pathfinders for Drop Zone V, 6th Airborne, were scattered over such a wide area (some 10 miles off target, in some cases) that they never established a drop zone. The pathfinders of Drop Zone Y, 6th Airborne, landed on target and lit their drop zone.

As the "serials" with the main body of paratroops began to arrive over their drop zones shortly after midnight local time, additional problems cropped up. Many pilots who were on course could not find their drop zones, because the pathfinder lights and radio beacons were not turned on. Confused, they began to circle, delaying their drops or dropping off-target. Due to the fog, many began to rely heavily on the "Eureka" transponders to locate their drop zones. Off-course pilots assumed that the closest beacon was their beacon, which may or may not have been the case. Again, some paratroops hesitated (some even jumped too early!) and drops were made miles off-course and some planes dropped too high or too low (causing more off-target drops). Worse, many of the large vehicles and artillery pieces carried by the planes had drag parachutes to slow their speed as they came off the aircraft. As these chutes caught the wind, the aircraft would be thrown off-course -- worsening the drop problems. Shifting centers of gravity aboard the aircraft also threw many planes off-course as they made their drops, as pilots struggled to control their planes.

Paratroops of the 101st Airborne Division ("Screaming Eagles") were the first to jump. Their drops occurred between 12:48 and 1:40 a.m. on June 6. Just under 7,000 troops were dropped over Drop Zones A and C. Most came down on the wrong drop zone, while the remainder landed too near the beach. The 502nd Regiment lost all its artillery and lost all but one of their howitzers. Nonetheless, the 502nd managed to achieve its objectives and seized its assigned bridges and roads. The 506th Regiment (the "Band of Brothers") was dropped all over the place instead of on top of Drop Zone C. The fog and heavy antiaircraft fire dispersed many planes. Oddly, this drove some planes back on target, and about a third of the regiment landed on Drop Zone C's original target. Another third dropped into swampy marshland; by the time it reached its objective, the objective had been captured by the Americans already. The remaining third dropped to the west, and engaged in a bitter six-hour fight with the Germans before troops from the beaches reached and relieved it. The 501st Regiment was driven off-course, but fortunately landed on Drop Zone D accurately. Sadly, most of its officers were killed by German troops as they floated down to land. Junior officers took over, and achieved about half the regiment's objectives (stiff German resistance blocked them from achieve the rest).

The 6,500 paratroops of the 82nd Airborne began their drop at 1:51 a.m. The 505th Regiment dropped over Drop Zone O very accurately, and achieved its mission objectives. During the initial drop, German soldiers killed nearly all the soldiers and officers. Paratrooper John Steele's parachute caught on the spire of the town church. He feigned death, and watched as his comrades were killed below. (A memorial to him hangs from the church steeple today.) Miraculously, the Germans went back to bed, convinced the battle was over. About 5:00 a.m., the rest of the 505th seized the town without a shot. But only 25 percent of the 508th Regiment hit their drop zone. Half of them landed east of the River Merderet. Unable to cross the river and reach the Douve (three miles west), they were useless. One small battalion secured a hill and managed to disrupt German artillery fire for three days. The 507th Regiment landed in the swampy marshland. Many of them drowned and others were unable to assemble to accomplish their mission.

The 8,500 paratroops of the 6th Airborne began jumping two minutes after the 101st Airborne, at 12:50 a.m. The 5th Parachute Brigade, 8th Battalion, landed squarely on Drop Zone K and quickly secured its mission objectives. The rest of the 5th Parachute Brigade dropped accurately on Drop Zone N, but about a third of its strength missed the drop area. Nonetheless, it managed to secure the bridges over the Caen Canal -- including the famous "Pegasus Bridge." The 3rd Parachute Brigade dropped on Drop Zone V, but due to the lack of lighting and beacons was moderately scattered. Unfortunately, most of their equipment was lost, leaving them with only a single machine-gun and a small number of Bangalore torpedoes with which to assault the Merville artillery battery. It successfully assaulted the battery at 4:30 a.m., but was unable to destroy the guns. The gliders of 5th Parachute Brigade landed accurately on Drop Zone X, but a number of the gliders came in too fast and the men were either killed or severely injured. Nonetheless, after brief firefight, they secured the bridges over the Caen Canal. Additional gliders landed (albeit with no crashes or deaths) at Drop Zone Y and assisted with the seizure of the Caen bridges.

By the time most of these airborne troops had completed their tasks, it was 6:30 a.m.

And that's when the first troops hit the beach at Normandy.

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