D day the battle for nor.., p.8
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.8

           Antony Beevor

  Soon after 03.00 hours, Major General ‘Windy’ Gale and his divisional headquarters landed near the bridge at Ranville. Tall and heavily built, the unflappable Gale, with his military moustache, was a welcome sight to those from the first wave, reassuring them that the invasion was proceeding as planned. Gale, for his part, admitted to a private glee at being the first British general back in France since 1940.

  Other gliders brought in Jeeps and the anti-tank guns to strengthen the defences. Chester Wilmot, the BBC reporter, accompanied this wave. ‘The landing went just like an exercise and was a most wonderful sight,’ he reported, perhaps optimistically, considering the state of most of the crash-landed gliders. But then another unexpected threat to the bridge at Bénouville appeared in the form of German gunboats, armed with 20 mm flak guns, coming down the canal from Caen. Once again a PIAT round hit the target, and the boats behind fled past to the open sea, not knowing that they were sailing right into the muzzles of the Royal Navy.

  The newly arrived forces wasted little time digging in. Explosive charges planted into the ground accelerated the process greatly. Their positions appeared to be under mortar fire, as one trench after another was prepared. But real mortar bombs had also started to fall, as the panzergrenadiers from the 21st Panzer-Division started a series of counter-attacks.

  The most important bridge, the one just beyond the small town of Troarn on the main road from Caen to Pont-l’Evêque, had not yet been blown because of the scattered drops. Major Roseveare, the officer in charge, gathered a small force, accumulated enough explosives and seized a Jeep and trailer from a protesting medical orderly. They fought their way through a couple of German roadblocks, then Roseveare had to drive their overloaded vehicle down the main street of Troarn, while the other paratroopers on board fired back at the Germans shooting down at them from houses on either side. They reached the bridge, having lost only the Bren gunner on the back. They set their charges and within five minutes the centre span had collapsed into the Dives. Having ditched the Jeep, Roseveare managed to lead his small party on foot through the marshes and back across the Dives to rejoin the main force late in the afternoon. The left flank at least was secured. The threat now lay to the south.

  The two American airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, had taken off about the same time as the British paratroopers. The pilots of their troop carrier squadrons had cursed and prayed as they pulled their ‘grossly overloaded’ C-47 Skytrains off the ground. Closing into their V formations, the matt-olive transport aircraft then streamed out over the Channel. The sky control officer on the cruiser USS Quincy observed that ‘by this time the moon had risen, and although the overcast was still fairly solid, it lighted the clouds with a peculiar degree of luminosity . . . The first Skytrains appeared, silhouetted like groups of scudding bats.’

  Their aircraft could not have felt very bat-like to the sticks of sixteen or eighteen men inside, as they endured the thundering roar and vibration from the over-strained engines. A number held their helmets ready on their laps, but most vomited straight on to the floor, which was to make it slippery at the crucial moment. Catholics fingered their rosary beads, murmuring prayers. The pilots had already noticed that the mood was significantly different from what it had been on exercise drops in England. One observed that they were usually ‘cocky unruly characters’, but this time ‘they were very serious’. The aircrew were also far from relaxed about the mission. Some pilots at the controls wore goggles and a steel helmet in case the windscreen was shattered by flak.

  Paratroopers in the main formations envied the pathfinders who had gone ahead with the radar beacons. They would already be on the ground, having jumped shortly after midnight, before the Germans realized what was happening. Many men feigned sleep, but only a few managed to doze off. General Maxwell Taylor, the tall commander of the 101st Airborne, even took off his harness and stretched out on the floor with some pillows. He looked forward to the jump with keen anticipation. It would be his fifth and thus gain him his wings.

  As the aircraft reached the Channel Islands, German flak batteries on Jersey and Guernsey opened fire. One paratrooper remarked that it was ironic to get such a welcome from ‘two islands named after nice moo cows’. A Royal Navy motor torpedo boat, MTB 679, signalled the point where the aircraft were to turn east for their run over the Cotentin peninsula to their drop zones. Once the French coast was in sight, pilots passed back the warning that they had less than ten minutes to go. On General Taylor’s plane, they had trouble waking their commander and getting him back into his harness. He had insisted on being first out of the door.

  Once the aircraft reached the coastline, they entered a dense fog bank which the meteorologists had not predicted. Paratroopers who could see out were alarmed by the thick white mist. The blue lights at the end of each wing became invisible. The pilots, unable to see anything, were frightened of collision. Those on the outside of the formation veered off. Confusion increased when the aircraft emerged from the fog bank and came under fire from flak batteries on the peninsula. Pilots instinctively went to full throttle and took evasive action, even though this was strictly against their orders.

  Because they were flying at little more than 1,000 feet, the aircraft were within range of German machine guns as well as flak. Paratroopers were thrownaround inside the fuselageas their pilot weavedand twisted the plane. Bullets striking the plane sounded ‘like large hailstones on a tin roof’. For those going into action for the first time, this provided the shocking proof that people were really trying to kill them. One paratrooper who suffered a shrapnel wound in the buttock was made to stand so that a medic could patch him up right there. General Taylor’s order that no paratrooper would be allowed to stay on board was taken to the letter. Apart from a dozen who were too badly wounded by flak to jump, there appear to have been only two exceptions: one was a paratrooper who had somehow released his emergency chute by mistake inside the aircraft, the other a major who suffered a heart attack.

  On the USS Quincy, the sky control team at the top of the cruiser’s superstructure watched in dismay. ‘Often, a yellow ball would start glowing out in the middle of a field of red tracers. This yellow ball would slowly start to fall, forming a tail. Eventually, it would smash into the black loom of land, causing a great sheet of light to flare against the low clouds. Sometimes the yellow ball would explode in mid-air, sending out streamers of burning gasoline. This tableau always brought the same reactions from us sky control observers: a sharp sucking-in of the breath and a muttered “Poor goddamn bastards”.’

  The red light by the door went on four minutes from the drop zone. ‘Stand up and hook up!’ came the shout from the dispatcher. Some of the heavily burdened men had to be hauled to their feet. They clipped their static line to the overhead cable running the length of the fuselage, then the order was yelled to check equipment and number off. This was followed by the command, ‘Stand in the door!’ But as the aircraft continued to jink or shudder from hits, men were thrown around or slid on the vomit-streaked floor. The flak and tracer were coming up around them ‘in big arcs of fire’, the wind was roaring in the open door, and the men watched, praying for the green light to come on so that they could escape what felt like a metal coffin. ‘Let’s go!’ many shouted impatiently, afraid that they might be dropped in the sea on the east side of the peninsula.

  The planes should have reduced speed to between ninety and 110 miles an hour for the jump, but most did not. ‘Our plane never did slow down,’ remembered one paratrooper. ‘That pilot kept on floor-boarding it.’ As soon as the green light came on, the men shuffled in an ungainly way towards the exit to jump. One or two made a hurried sign of the cross as they went. With all the shooting outside, it was easy to imagine that they were about to jump straight into crossfire from machinegunsorlandonastronglydefendedposition.Eachparatrooper, as he reached the door, carried his leg pack, which would dangle below from a long strap as soon as he jumped. Weighing eighty pounds or more, many
broke off during the descent and were lost in the dark. If any men did freeze at the last moment, then presumably the sergeant ‘pusher’ kicked them out, for there are hardly any confirmed reports of a man refusing to jump. As they leaped into the unknown, some remembered to shout ‘Bill Lee!’, the paratrooper’s tribute to General Lee, the father of the US Airborne.

  Most suffered a far more violent jerk than usual as the parachute opened, because of the aircraft’s excessive speed. Those who fell close to German positions attracted heavy fire. Their canopies were riddled with tracer bullets. One battalion commander, his executive officer and a company commander were killed immediately, because they had landed among an advance detachment of Major Freiherr von der Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment. Another officer, who landed on top of the command post, was taken prisoner. An Obergefreiter in the 91st Luftlande-Division wrote home, ‘US parachute troops landed in the middle of our position. What a night!’

  The natural instinct, when dropping under fire, was to pull your legs up almost into a foetal position, not that it provided any protection. One man literally exploded in mid-air, probably because a tracer bullet had hit his Gammon grenade. In some cases the pilots had been flying below 500 feet and the parachutes barely had time to open. Many legs and ankles were broken, and a few men were paralysed with a broken back. One paratrooper who landed successfully was horrified when a following plane dropped its stick of eighteen men so low that none of the chutes opened. He compared the dull sound of the bodies hitting the ground to ‘watermelons falling off the back of a truck’. The men of another stick which had been dropped too low along a small ridge were found later in a long line, all dead and all still in their harnesses.

  As the Germans had flooded large areas around the River Merderet and inland from the beaches, many paratroopers fell into water. A number drowned, smothered by a soaked chute. Others were rescued either by buddies or, in a number of cases, by a French family who had immediately launched their rowing boat. Most who landed in water up to their chest had to keep ducking under the surface to reach their trench knife to cut themselves free. They cursed the American harness and envied the British quick-release system. Similarly, those whose chutes caught on tall trees had to strain and stretch to cut themselves free, knowing all the while that they presented easy targets. A number were shot as they struggled. Many atrocity stories spread among the survivors, with claims that German soldiers had bayoneted them from below or even turned flame-throwers on them. A number spoke of bodies obscenely mutilated.

  Those coming down into small pastures surrounded by high hedges were reassured if they saw cows, since their presence indicated that there were no mines. But they still expected a German to run up and ‘stick a bayonet’ in them. To land in the dark behind enemy lines with no idea of where you were could hardly have been more disorientating and frightening. Some heard movement and hurriedly assembled their rifle, only to find that their arrival had attracted inquisitive cows. Men crept along hedgerows and, on hearing someone else, froze. Colonel ‘Jump’ Johnson, whose determination to knife a Nazi had led him to bring a veritable arsenal of close-quarter combat weapons, was nearly shot by one of his own officers, because he had lost his ‘damn cricket’. These ‘dime-store’ children’s clickers were despised by many in the 82nd Airborne. They resorted to the password ‘Flash’, to which the reply was ‘Thunder’: these two words were chosen because they were thought to be difficult for a German to pronounce convincingly.

  The sense of relief to find another American was intense. Soon little groups formed. When an injured paratrooper was found, they gave him morphine and marked his position for medics later by sticking his rifle with the bayonet in the ground and the helmet on the butt. The most bloodthirsty went off ‘Kraut-hunting’. Tracer gave away the position of German machine-gun positions, so they stalked them with grenades. Most paratroopers followed the order to use only knives and grenades during darkness. But one who did fire his rifle noticed afterwards the torn condom hanging loosely from the muzzle. ‘I had put it there before the jump to keep the barrel dry,’ he explained, ‘then forgot about it.’

  The ‘Kraut-hunters’ would also follow the sound of German voices. In some cases they heard Germans approaching down the road, marching in formation. After hurried whispers, they lobbed grenades over the hedge at them. Some claimed to be able to smell Germans from the strong odour of their tobacco. Others recognized them by the creaking of all their leather equipment.

  German troops seemed to be hurrying in all directions as reports of landings up and down the peninsula came in. A couple of pilots had become so disorientated from the fog and taking evasive action afterwards that they had dropped their sticks near Cherbourg, some twenty miles from the correct dropping zone. The captain with them had to go to a farmhouse to find out where they were. The French family tried to help by giving them a simple map of the Cotentin torn from a telephone directory. Another airborne officer, however, observed that the unintended dispersal of units during the chaotic drop had proved an unexpected advantage in one way: ‘The Germans thought we were all over creation.’ But the paratroopers were only slightly less confused themselves. As a lost group approached a well to refill their canteens, an old farmer appeared from his house. One of them asked him in bad French, ‘Ou es Alamon?’ He shrugged and pointed north, then south, east and west.

  The most successful ambush took place not far from the command post of the German 91st Luftlande-Division near Picauville. Men from the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment opened fire on a staff car bringing the divisional commander, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley, back from the command post exercise in Rennes. Falley was thrown from the vehicle wounded and, as he crawled to retrieve his pistol, an American lieutenant shot him dead.

  The plan was for the 82nd Airborne to drop on both sides of the River Merderet and secure the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. This would cut the road and rail link to Cherbourg. They were also to capture bridges over the Merderet so that the forces arriving by sea could advance rapidly across the peninsula and cut it off, before advancing north on the port of Cherbourg. The 101st, dropping closer to Utah beach, would seize the causeways leading to it across the flooded marshes and also take the bridges and a lock on the River Douve, between the town of Carentan and the sea.

  Several platoons of the 82nd Airborne dropped in and around Sainte-Mère-Eglise as planned. One paratrooper’s chute caught on the church tower, where he hung helplessly, pretending to be dead while the bells deafened him. They were ringing in alarm because a house on the square by the church had caught fire and the townsfolk were passing buckets of water in a human chain. The scene below was chaotic. Soldiers from the local anti-aircraft unit under the command of an Austrian officer were firing in all directions as paratroopers dropped. Many Americans were riddled with bullets before they reached the ground. Those caught in trees stood little chance. One paratrooper dropped straight on to the blazing house. But with great determination, other rapidly formed groups who had landed outside the town began to advance towards its centre, dashing from cover to cover. Within an hour they had forced the Germans to withdraw. Sainte-Mère-Eglise was thus the first town in France to be liberated.

  Sainte-Mère-Eglise became a focal point for many scattered detachments. One member of the 82nd Airborne was amazed to see two troopers from the 101st come riding bareback down the road on horses they had taken from a field. Another appeared driving a captured half-track motorcycle. Only a small number of paratroopers lost in the countryside appear to have been inactive. A few bedded down in ditches wrapped in their chutes, waiting for the dawn to find their bearings. The large majority, however, could not wait to get into the fighting. With nerves still taut after the jump, their blood was up. A trooper in the 82nd remembered his instructions only too clearly: ‘Get to the drop zone as fast as possible. Take no prisoners because they will slow you down.’

  The fighting became pitiless on both sides; in fact that night probably saw the most
vicious fighting of the whole war on the western front. One German soldier, justifying the annihilation of an American platoon which landed on his battalion’s heavy-weapons company, said later, ‘They didn’t come down to give us candies, you know. They came down to kill us, to fight.’ German soldiers had certainly been lectured by their officers about the ‘criminals’ recruited to the US Airborne forces and their fears were transformed into violence. But it is hard to establish the accuracy of horror stories about German soldiers mutilating paratroopers caught in trees.

  Whether or not these accounts were true, American paratroopers sought revenge. There seem to have been a number of cases of soldiers shooting the prisoners taken by others. Apparently, a Jewish sergeant and a corporal took a captured German officer and non-com from a farmyard. Those present heard a burst of automatic fire and, when the sergeant returned, ‘nobody said a thing’. It was also said of another Jewish paratrooper that ‘you didn’t dare trust him with a PoW out of sight’. A soldier in the 101st recounted how, after they had come across two dead paratroopers ‘with their privates cut off and stuck into their mouth’, the captain with them gave the order, ‘Don’t you guys dare take any prisoners! Shoot the bastards!’

  One or two men appear to have enjoyed the killing. A paratrooper recalled having come across a member of his company the following morning and being surprised to see that he was wearing red gloves instead of the issued yellow ones. ‘I asked him where he got the red gloves from, and he reached down in his jump pants and pulled out a whole string of ears. He had been ear-hunting all night and had them all sewed on an old boot lace.’ There were a few cases of brutal looting. The commander of the 101st Airborne’s MP platoon came across the body of a German officer and saw that somebody had cut off his finger to take the wedding ring. A sergeant in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment was horrified when he found that members of his platoon had killed some Germans and then used ‘their bodies for bayonet practice’.

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