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Jumping into Normandy

Paratroopers preparing to leave for Normandy
Paratroopers preparing to leave for Normandy (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

In a few weeks, we'll be celebrating the 78th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in Normandy, and the beginning of Europe's liberation from the Nazi yoke. This article will preface the celebrations by taking a look at the paratroopers and glider infantrymen who jumped or landed in Normandy on the night between the 5th and 6th of June to capture key locations and wreak havoc behind enemy lines in preparation of the amphibious landings the following morning. Allied airborne were excellently trained, but special troops also need special equipment to truly shine; this article will introduce some of the less usual pieces of equipment they carried and the planes they used.

Wrist-mounted (left) and Escape & Evasion (right) compasses (Photo: War History Online)
Wrist-mounted (left) and Escape & Evasion (right) compasses (Photo: War History Online)

Finding your way behind enemy lines (and at night) was absolutely critical for the airborne troopers before D-Day, especially since the majority of them mis-jumped and landed in wrong locations. In order to help navigation the men were issued wrist-mounted compasses with glow-in-the-dark needle tips for night-time use. Paratroopers also had additional tiny compasses that came in their Escape & Evasion (E&E) kits. These miniature devices could be secreted away on their bodies prior to capture and used in a later getaway attempt. The nickname "asshole compass" is indicative of one frequent way of hiding them.

Some parts of an E&E kit
Some parts of an E&E kit (Photo: War History Online)

E&E kits also included a tiny steel hacksaw, French currency (lacking the proper watermark and thus not actually being legal tender), and a map indicating escape routes. Different maps were produced for different regions of Europe depending on where the kit might need to be used. These maps are often described as having been printed on silk, but they were actually on a cellulose-based fabric called Rayon. Rayon was waterproof and never creased along fold lines, which made it superior to paper for mapmaking. Some map pouches featured the words "MAP ONLY," indicating that there was no money was inside. This was for the benefit of army quartermasters who had to account for E&E money every time a pouch was returned after a mission. "MAP ONLY" told them that they didn't need to check that particular pouch, since it never contained money in the first place.

A luminous disc and its carrying bag
A luminous disc and its carrying bag (Photo: War History Online)

Compass needles weren't the only things that needed to glow during a night-time operation. Special buttons called luminous discs were issued to squad leaders. These buttons had a transparent lid and contained toxic and radioactive Radium dust. The dust could be charged by holding it close to a light for a short while, before getting near the enemy, and would then emit a soft glow for several hours. The squad leader would clip it to the back of his helmet or collar, so his men could see his position and follow him in the dark without revealing their presence to the Germans by the use of stronger lights. After the war, many of these discs ended up with surplus store owners who didn't understand their purpose and incorrectly claimed they were poison pills officers carried to avoid capture.

A bundle light, the red color means ammunition (Photo: 101airborneww2.com)
A bundle light, the red color means ammunition (Photo: 101airborneww2.com)

Another light device was attached to equipment bundles that were carried on the undersides of C-47 planes and dropped independently of the paratroopers. They were activated automatically when the bundle was dropped, and helped airborne troops locate the bag containing extra weapons, food and medical supplies once on the ground.

TL 122-A flashlight (Photo: War History Online)
TL 122-A flashlight (Photo: War History Online)

The TL 122-A was the standard issue flashlight in the U.S. Army. It was notable for having a hollow handle containing blue, green and red filters. These could be affixed in front of the bulb, allowing soldiers to send coded signals by color light.

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Mk 2 "pineapple" grenade (left) and a full Gammon bomb (right) (Images: Wikipedia)

Soldiers were equipped with two types of grenades for D-Day. The standard Mk 2 "pineapple grenade" was designed before the war and was originally painted yellow; at the time, the U.S. Army's color coded different grenade types, and yellow was used for high explosives. Use in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, however, proved that an all-yellow grenade was too visible: Japanese soldiers could easily spot them and either dive for cover, or simply pick them up and throw them back at the Americans. The grenades were repainted olive green to make them harder to spot after throwing, only leaving a narrow yellow band around the neck for ease of identification.
 
The Gammon grenade was a British invention, essentially a soft bag with a detonator. The user could fine-tune its explosive power by filling it with varying amounts of plastic explosive. Half a stick of explosive in the bag could be used against infantry like a normal grenade, while a fully stuffed bag was roughly equivalent to a 105mm artillery shell and a serious danger to armored vehicles. The user would hold on to a linen tape attached to the grenade while hurling it at the enemy. Once the bag came free of the tape, the separation armed the explosive and the latter exploded immediately upon impact. The Gammon bomb could be devastating, but was also somewhat dangerous to the user due to an unstable detonator.

The famous Zippo lighter (Photo: War History Online)
The famous Zippo lighter (Photo: War History Online)

An iconic piece of WWII soldier's gear, the Zippo was in such high demand that the company had to cease producing for the consumer market and concentrate wholly on the military. One version came in a matte black color that wouldn't shine and give away the user's location, another in olive green.

A rare version of the cricket (Photo: 101airborneww2.com)
A rare version of the cricket (Photo: 101airborneww2.com)

Every war buff knows about the famous "crickets." Adapted from a child's toy, these tiny devices were used by paratroopers on the night before D-Day. It was a discreet method of identification: one click was the call, two clicks the reply. Most crickets were made of brass, but the one above is a rare nickel version that also has the manufacturer's logo stamped in it. You can also see the crickets in several scenes of the famous 1962 war movie, The Longest Day. In the film, they are being used by the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division. This is a mistake in the movie, since crickets were only issued to the 101st Airborne Division in Normandy.

A sound-powered phone (Photo: 101airborneww2.com)
A sound-powered phone (Photo: 101airborneww2.com)

Once the airborne established themselves behind enemy lines, they often needed to communicate over ranges too large to simply whisper – and shouting could easily give them away to the Germans. Field telephones were the preferred way of communication between a temporary command center and soldiers closer to the enemy. Standard issue phones, however, had a potentially fatal attribute. Before using them, they needed to be powered up by turning a crank, and the receiver would hear a bell ring to notify him of the incoming call. This ring could potentially betray the location of airborne soldier. Therefore, a special sound-powered phone was issued to troops in need of a quiet solution. These phones had no sound amplification, and could be powered up by softly whistling into the mouthpiece. The sound of whistling was also immediately transmitted to the receiver without a loud warning ring, warning him of an incoming call quietly. (As long as the operator had the phone at his ear at all times, like he was supposed to.) The mouthpiece also had a cupped section placed over it: this facilitated the whistling and further muffled the sound of conversation.

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The lighter patch of cloth on the paratrooper's left shoulder, partially obscuring the Screaming Eagle, is a gas brassard. (Photo: U.S. military)

Bullets and shells were not the only concern for D-Day paratroopers. Invasion planners were worried that Hitler might deploy poison gas to repel a landing attempt. Therefore, paratroopers carried gas masks on their jumps, along with special brown or green paper brassards, pieces of cloth or paper worn on the shoulder like a patch. These were impregnated with a chemical that turned pink or red in contact with poison, alerting the wearer. As further protection, all pieces of clothing to be worn on D-Day were also impregnated with a smelly gas repellant. Wearing of the paper patches was not enforced with equal strictness in all units, and many soldiers threw them away, along with their masks, after landing.
 
A late addition to the D-Day airborne equipment was the British-designed leg bag. Intended to carry extra equipment (some soldiers even stuffed their weapons in it), it was attached to the paratrooper's leg with a 15 ft (4.5 m) rope. The idea was that the jumper would release the bag just before landing, so the weight of its contents wouldn't be added to the force of his impact. In practice, the rope often snapped when the parachute was deployed, and the bag plummeted away into the night sky, robbing the unlucky paratrooper of his gear.

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Dick Knudsen of the 506th PIR stuffed his bazooka into his leg bag along with his other gear. Unable to release it in time, he broke his pelvis on landing and lay in no man's land for days before being found and rescued. (Photo: U.S. military)

After these highlights of personal gear, let us also talk about the airplanes that airborne soldiers rode in. The Douglas C-47 Skytrain was undoubtedly the single most important type of plane to carry the airborne into battle. The Skytrain was based on the civilian Douglas DC-3 airliner, but included several modifications. One of these was a transparent dome above the cockpit so pilots could navigate by the stars with a sextant. The C-47 was a versatile design that eventually spawned numerous versions; it could carry troops, cargo or wounded, and more than 50,000 paratroopers jumped from it in the first few days of the Normandy invasion.  Nicknamed the "Gooney Bird," it saw heavy service both in Europe and Asia. The origin of the nickname is a bit of a mystery, but one explanation connects it to Midway Island. An older military transport plane based on the DC-3 predecessor, the DC-2, was the first plane to ever land on Midway. The island was home to numerous albatrosses, also known as gooney birds, so it's possible the name was first applied to the older military transport, and was inherited by the Skytrain. C-47s used by the British as part of the Lend-Lease system were designated Dakota. The Royal Air Force had a tradition of giving American-themed names to American-designed aircraft, and the name of the Sioux sub-tribe certainly fit the bill. However, it's also possible the British name was inspired by the acronym DACoTA for Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft.

A stick of 12 students at the Airborne School boarding a C-47 Skytrain. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A stick of 12 students at the Airborne School boarding a C-47 Skytrain. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

 The C-47 had a maximum troop capacity of 28, but sticks (groups of paratroopers jumping from the same plane) were usually smaller, often 13 men. This was especially true when the same plane was also towing a glider, like most of them did the night before D-Day.

A C-47 towing the assault version of the Waco glider with a 4-foot tow bar (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A C-47 towing the assault version of the Waco glider with a 4-foot tow bar (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The glider most C-47s towed that night was the American Waco CG-4 (designated Hadrian in the Royal Air Force after the 2nd century Roman emperor). With a load capacity of 4,200 lbs (1,905 kg), the Waco could carry 13 airborne and their equipment, or a jeep-sized vehicle, a 75mm howitzer, a 1/4-ton trailer, or a small bulldozer. The entire nose section and the cockpit hinged upwards, allowing such vehicle to drive out of the landed glider once the nose was lifted up. The Waco glider was smaller than its British counterpart, but the upside was that it could land on smaller stretches of open ground. Development of the glider began in 1942, but was off to an inauspicious start. In 1943, a public demonstration in St. Louis ended in tragedy when the glider lost a wing and plummeted to the ground immediately after release, killing all 10 men onboard, including the city's mayor. Investigation revealed that a wing strut connector was at fault. In a sad irony, the component was manufactured by a subcontractor that usually worked in the coffin business.

A C-47 retrieving a Waco glider from the field with a hook (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A C-47 retrieving a Waco glider from the field with a hook (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Waco gliders were designed with reusability in mind. A C-47 could fly past a landed glider, using a hook and an elastic cable to "snag" the plane, yank it into the air, and allow it to be used again.
American glider pilots were usually either washouts from conventional pilot training, or individuals with a civilian pilot's license. Not considered proper combatants, they were supposed to abandon their vehicles and passengers after landing and try to make their own way back to friendly lines, often hiking or riding a bike. Obviously, landing behind enemy lines, which gliders often did, made this an incredibly difficult and dangerous task. While Waco pilots were left to their own devices on the ground, their passengers took the best care of them they could while still in the air. Should the crew get killed in the air, the glider was guaranteed to crash and almost certainly kill everyone else onboard as well, so glidermen had a vested interest in the safety of their pilot. Therefore, pilots were sometimes given an extra flak jacket – not to wear, but to sit on. This way, their internal organs were slightly better protected against shrapnel penetrating the cockpit from below. 

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German soldiers inspecting an abandoned Waco glider after the landings in Normandy. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The British equivalent of the Waco was the Airspeed AS.51 Horsa, named after a legendary 5th century Anglo-Saxon warlord. Larger than the American glider, it had a cargo capacity of 7,000 lbs (3175 kg), allowing the transportation of up to 30 soldiers (but usually only 20-25), while remaining surprisingly maneuverable for a glider. Beside an upward-hinging nose similar to the Waco's, it also had a side entrance, and the entire tail section could be jettisoned to allow even more rapid deployment out through the back. Unlike their American counterparts, British glider pilots were considered combat personnel and fought alongside their passengers.

A jeep being loaded (with much difficulty) into an early version of the Horsa glider. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
A jeep being loaded (with much difficulty) into an early version of the Horsa glider. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The third glider, also a British design, to participate in the invasion was the imposing Hamilcar Mark 1, christened after the ancient Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, the father of the famous Hannibal, who crossed the Alps to cause much headache to the Roman Republic in the 3rd century BC.  The Hamilcar was specifically designed to carry heavy cargo, and with its cargo capacity of 17,600 lbs (close to 8,000 kg), it could deploy a single Tetrach or Locust light tank or two Universal (a.k.a. Bren) Carriers. The front of the plane hinged open sideways, but the plane's landing gear supports had to deflated first so the nose would come to rest on the ground and allow the vehicle to drive out. In case of an emergency, a sturdier vehicle inside could also deploy by simply breaking through the nose area. The design of the glider incorporated special exhaust ducts: vehicles onboard were usually started up while still in the air for rapid deployment, so the exhaust fumes had to be removed to prevent asphyxiation. Hamilcars were so massive that only large, four-engine bombers could tow them, with the Handley Page Halifax being used most often for the purpose.

A Tetrarch light tank deploying from a Hamilcar glider. (Photo: British military)
A Tetrarch light tank deploying from a Hamilcar glider. (Photo: British military)

Due to production problems, only 344 Hamilcars were ever built (compared to over 3,600 Horsas and almost 14,000 Wacos), 34 of which participated in the Normandy invasion. Near the end of the war, a powered version of the glider was developed, whose two engines extended its range. This became vitally useful in the Pacific, where high-temperature, high-altitude flying reduced the effective range of the towing bombers (since the air was rarer). The Hamilcar Mark X, however, never saw combat thanks to the war's end.
 
Join us on our tours that travel through Normandy to learn more about the airborne operations around D-Day and to see examples of the original equipment used by paratroopers on the sites we visit.

A C-47 Skytrain in the newly renovated Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église (Photo: Author’s own)
A C-47 Skytrain in the newly renovated Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église (Photo: Author’s own)
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