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Jumping into chaos

Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division just before taking off for Normandy. The man with the bazooka is also holding a copy of Eisenhower's famous message of good luck. 
Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division just before taking off for Normandy. The man with the bazooka is also holding a copy of Eisenhower's famous message of good luck. (Photo: National Archives & Records Administration)

On the night before D-Day, June 6, 1944, over 18,000 Allied airborne troopers landed in Normandy by parachute or glider as the first soldiers to enter Nazi-occupied Europe in a great campaign of liberation. Over the course of the night, this vanguard of the Allied landing force captured and held key locations, preventing German forces from striking at the landing beaches in an early counterattack. While British glider infantry operated near Caen, in the vicinity of the eastern, British and Canadian beaches, the paratroopers of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped into the Cotentin Peninsula in the west, near Utah and Omaha Beaches.  You probably know, at the very least from films like The Longest Day and TV series like Band of Brothers, that the American jumps occurred among much chaos, with many soldiers misjumping and having to adapt to the situation once on the ground. This newsletter will take a look at the conditions which caused so much havoc on that all-important night.

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Depiction of the jumps in HBO's Band of Brothers miniseries (Video: YouTube)

Allied planners already had experience with airborne operations in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and knew that many things could go wrong, especially considering the unprecedented scope of the Operation Overlord drops. In fact, they were so wary of the potential problems that the plans still called for 75% of all airborne American troops to be inserted by gliders, rather than parachutes, as late as in April 1944. Gliders could land more closely to each other than paratroopers, so a glider-based attack was considered to be better at concentrating forces on the ground. Tests in April, however, revealed that so many gliders trying to land in a small area caused an unacceptably high number of collisions, so the American plan was changed to an all-paratrooper one on April 28.

Waco gliders in France after the sort of crash American planners decided to avoid by using an all-parachute force for the night jumps 
Waco gliders in France after the sort of crash American planners decided to avoid by using an all-parachute force for the night jumps (Photo: U.S. military)

Two overall missions were planned. The untested 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division was assigned to Mission Albany. The mission's main goal was to secure four causeways that would allow troops to exit Utah Beach, as well as secure several locations along the Douve River, which separated Utah and Omaha Beaches. Meanwhile, the more experienced 82nd “All American” Airborne Division went on Mission Boston to capture the crucial crossroads town of Sainte-Mère-Église, which allowed forces from the two beaches to link up. They also had to secure various crossing points over the Merderet River, opening up the way further into the Cotentin Peninsula, with the ultimate goal of capturing the deep-sea port of Cherbourg (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Cherbourg).

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Aerial photo of Sainte-Mère-Église in June 1944 (Photo: U.S. military)

The Germans had long neglected coastal defenses in Normandy, but started building them up at a rapid pace under the command of General Erwin Rommel (Read our earlier article: The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox). This, along with the arrival of German reinforcements, forced Allied planners to revise and change the landing zones for Mission Boston, even though the soldiers of the 82nd had already trained for the previous zones.

German propaganda photo of Rommel inspecting beach defenses in Normandy (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German propaganda photo of Rommel inspecting beach defenses in Normandy (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Another major consideration was friendly fire. On July 11, 1943, during the invasion of Sicily, a flight of the 82nd was heading inland to reinforce positions behind enemy lines. Their path took them past American ships along the Sicilian coast. A communication breakdown between different units and nervous gunnery crews caused the ships to open up on the planes with all guns. Anti-aircraft fire killed 89 men, wounded 162, 69 went missing, and 23 planes were lost in the worst friendly fire accident of the war up to that point.

A glider casualty in Sicily (Photo: ibiblio.org)
A glider casualty in Sicily (Photo: ibiblio.org)

The C-47 Skytrain planes (Read our earlier article – Jumping into Normandy) carrying the airborne were painted with invasion stripes to avoid another similar tragedy, but the planners decided to go one step further and design a route which did not take the planes anywhere near Allied warships. The flights would head south from England, staying to the west of the Cotentin Peninsula, while the main invasion force approached Normandy on the east side. The planes would fly all the way to the Channel Islands (Read our earlier article: The Channel Islands in WWII), and turn east from there, reaching Cotentin from the west.

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The route of the American paratroopers, marked in green. Blue lines represent naval and other aerial forces (Image: Public domain)

Putting such a large force on the ground, at the right spots, and in a narrow time window, required not only many planes, but also great precision. Each plane carried a group of 15-18 paratroopers called a stick. Planes were organized into groups of three, called a vee for the formation's shape, with the central plane located ahead of the other two. Three such vees, arranged in a larger V-shape (called a vee of vees), formed a flight. 4, 5 or 6 flights (so 36, 45 or 54 planes) formed a serial, with each flight in the serial following the previous one at a distance of 1,000 ft (300 m). Three or four such serials could carry an entire infantry regiment of roughly 1,800 men. Six landing zones, three for Albany and three for Boston, accommodated the entire initial force, with each regiment having its own landing zone. Serials were supposed to follow each other above their drop zones at six-minute intervals, leaving little room for navigational error.

C-47 Skytrains arranged into several flights (vee of vees) (Photo: U.S. military)
C-47 Skytrains arranged into several flights (vee of vees) (Photo: U.S. military)

In order to help the planes find the drop zones, each zone had to be first reached by a pathfinder force. Three planes per zone would fly ahead of the main force and drop pathfinders as close to the drop zones as possible. These men then had about half an hour to find the actual drop zone and set up a ground beacon for the Rebecca/Eureka transponding radar system to guide the main force in. The system had two components. Each plane carried a Rebecca transceiver, the name derived from "Recognition of beacons." The transceiver would send a signal to the small, light Eureka (Greek for "I have found it!") transponder, which would be hopefully already set up by the pathfinders. The Eureka would then send a reply signal. The time between sending the original signal and receiving the reply told the flight crews how far they were, since the signals would be traveling at a known speed, the speed of light. The planes had two directional antennas to pick up the reply. The difference in signal strength between the antennas told the pilot whether he was heading straight for the Eureka transponder or if it was off to his right or left.

Illustration of the Rebecca/Eureka system's operation from the plane's perspective from a 1943 training manual (Image: U.S. Navy)
Illustration of the Rebecca/Eureka system's operation from the plane's perspective from a 1943 training manual (Image: U.S. Navy)

The system's main weakness was that once the planes got within 2 miles (3.2 km) of the receiver, the two signals would overlap, preventing more accurate navigation. Pathfinders on the ground would therefore have to set up marking lights to guide in flights over their last few miles.

Illustration of the Rebecca/Eureka system's operation from the pathfinders' perspective from a 1943 training manual (Image: U.S. Navy)
Illustration of the Rebecca/Eureka system's operation from the pathfinders' perspective from a 1943 training manual (Image: U.S. Navy)

It should be noted that while every plane was equipped with a Rebecca transceiver, only flight leaders were authorized to activate theirs. This was to avoid hundreds of radio signals filling the area, making replies indistinguishable from each other.

Rebecca radar receiver at the National Air and Space Museum (Photo: National Air and Space Museum U.S. Navy)
Rebecca radar receiver at the National Air and Space Museum (Photo: National Air and Space Museum U.S. Navy)

Things started going wrong when the first flights reached the Cotentin Peninsula. The area was heavily overcast at an altitude of 1,500 ft (560 m), exactly the altitude where the planes were supposed to fly. This was a serious navigational hazard, but the naval fleet was already on the way to Normandy, and the mission could not be called off. Strict radio silence prevented pilots and navigators from discussing the situation, or from warning following flights. With no communication possible, each air crew tried to solve the problem on its own. Some planes stuck to their prescribed altitude and drifted far away from each other in the thick clouds. Others climbed above the cloud layer to navigate by the stars, while yet others dove under it to try and navigate by landmarks. This last group promptly learned that the ground was covered by a thick fog that made navigation much harder. The strictly planned formations broke up, and some planes would end up dropping their paratroopers as much as 20 miles (32 km) away from their landing zone. To make things worse, only about 60% of the aircraft actually had navigators on board. In the rest, the pilot had to deal with the changed circumstances alone.

One of the C-47s that transported the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (of Band of Brothers fame) the night before D-Day. It is currently on display in Sainte-Mère-Église in the Airborne Museum (Photo: U.S. Army Air Forces)
One of the C-47s that transported the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (of Band of Brothers fame) the night before D-Day. It is currently on display in Sainte-Mère-Église in the Airborne Museum (Photo: U.S. Army Air Forces)

The role of the pathfinders became critically important under such conditions, but they had their own problems. One group misjumped and set up a new drop zone a mile away from where they were supposed to; additionally, they only managed to set up their Eureka beacons and lights when the main force was already jumping. A second group had to ditch one of their three planes while still above the sea. Unfortunately, that plane was the one carrying most of the marker lights, so the men had to guide in the flights with handheld lights which were not strong enough to be seen by all pilots. A third group got lost, turned around, dropped ten minutes late and one mile off target… only to learn that their zone was so close to German forces that they couldn't set up their lights, anyway.  Yet another group was separated from its drop zone by German troops. One more dropped accurately and deployed its Eureka beacons, but the men couldn't turn their lights on due to Germans in the proximity.

U.S. Army pathfinders photographed moments before taking off for France (Photo: U.S. military)
U.S. Army pathfinders photographed moments before taking off for France (Photo: U.S. military)

Meanwhile, all the pilots who got separated from their flights started turning on their Rebecca transceivers in an attempt to find their drop zones on their own. This led to the exact thing they were trying to avoid by restricting authorization to flight leaders: all the signals going off at the same time rendered the responses indistinguishable, jamming the entire system.
And then there were the Germans. The flights came under heavy flak fire, and pilots broke formation to dive and dodge the deadly puffs and the arcs of tracer rounds. Many planes flew too low and too fast when the paratroopers started jumping. Too much speed led to the drops scattering and to pieces of equipment getting ripped away by the wind in the moment of jumping, while low altitude caused numerous injuries as the parachutes didn't have enough time to slow down the jumpers' descent to safe velocities. Meanwhile, other planes tried to climb out of flak range, and the troops jumping from them experienced a terrifying descent over several minutes, helpless as German machine guns tried to kill them in the air.

Drop pattern of the 101st Airborne Division. The circles marked A, C and D on the right were the drop zones they were supposed to jump at. (Photo: Historical Division, Department of the Army)
Drop pattern of the 101st Airborne Division. The circles marked A, C and D on the right were the drop zones they were supposed to jump at. (Photo: Historical Division, Department of the Army)

With chaotic drops almost everywhere, paratroopers on the ground often had to join up with whatever friendly outfit they happened to stumble upon first. Officers rapidly adapted to the situation, and the fact that the nighttime drops over Normandy ended up an overall success despite the circumstances stands as testimony to the thorough training and the indomitable fighting spirit of the “All American Division” and the “Screaming Eagles”. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the Allied attempted no more nighttime drops during the war.

A paratrooper boarding his plane before the drops in Normandy (Photo: U.S. military)
A paratrooper boarding his plane before the drops in Normandy (Photo: U.S. military)

Many people, including journalists and even S.L.A. Marshall, the official Army historian after the war, were quick to pin the blame for the misjumps on the C-47 pilots. General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army blamed "pilot inexperience and anxiety" as well as the weather, and many other soldiers, including the famous Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne, also held the pilots responsible. More modern historical analysis, however, seems to exonerate the air crews. It is true that crew experience varied from plane to plane, but there were significant other factors at play. In some cases, it were the paratroopers who insisted on jumping too early despite the pilot's protests, and in other instances they jumped late because they took too long in getting their equipment out the door.

It should also be noted that most of the negative criticism came from paratroopers of the 101st Airborne, who never had a real combat jump before, and didn't know what to expect. In contrast, the veterans of the 82nd, who already had combat experience and knew how rough a drop could get, were much more appreciative of their pilots.

22% discount on all tours until June 6

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D-Day anniversary celebrations in Normandy, 2019 (Photo: Author's own)

We'll be celebrating the 78th anniversary of D-Day, the historic Allied landings in Normandy, in only 3 days. On the 78th anniversary, we offer you the option to only pay 78% of the list price on any of our European World War II tours. For tours this year, next year, or even for the 80-year anniversary tours in 2024 – you only pay 78% of the normal price as long as you book and pay in full by June 6. Or to put it in other words, you're eligible for a 22% discount if you book by June 6, 2022. Don’t miss this opportunity to fly over to Europe and honor the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers who fought and died for freedom.

Note: you must choose the Pay in Full option to qualify for the discount. The discount cannot be combined with other special offers.

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Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"This tour was so moving, I was brought to tears"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would recommend this tour to anyone without hesitation"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would definitely recommend this tour to everybody who enjoys history."Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10