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The Airborne Assault on Normandy - Overview

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Three Part Airborne Assault on Normandy

C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft in flight for Normandy

C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft in route to Normandy. After delivery of paratroopers, the planes returned to tow glider serials. The air eventually became congested with 2-way air traffic. Photo is a still frame from the movie Normandy: The Airborne Invasion of Fortress Europe, by the U.S. Army Air Forces.

The airborne assault on Normandy consisted of 3 major parts: aerial bombardment by bombers, troops and equipment delivered by air, and attacks by fighter planes for tactical support.

Aerial bombardment used both heavy bombers and medium bombers. The first bombing targets were the beach defenses, followed by transportation centers such as roadways, bridges, and waterways. The Pas de Calais was also bombed to make the Germans believe it was the main invasion area.

Tactical air support was delivered primarily by Hawker Typhoons and Thunderbolt fighters, often armed with rockets or bombs, which gave cover for paratroopers and glider serials as well as patrolling for any target of opportunity.

The airborne assault gave the Allies the opportunity to attack behind German lines and offered many advantages such as the element of surprise and the ability to bring in reinforcements and supplies more quickly. It also hindered the German ability to mass troops for a counter attack and to bring in much needed reinforcements.

American and British Airborne Divisions

Allied Airborne troops included, primarily, the British 6th Airborne Division, and the American 82nd 101st. These airborne divisions delivered ground fighting troops and equipment by air. British airborne divisions contained parachute or air-landing units (glider). The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion also saw action on D-Day under command of the British 6th Airborne.

American airborne divisions contained glider, parachute, and airborne units. Glider and parachute units consisted of infantryman and artillerymen trained to arrive by glider or parachute. The airborne units consisted of combat support and service troops such as headquarters, signal, and medical units which arrived by glider, during the Normandy invasion.

Pathfinders, Paratroopers, and glider troops of the Airborne Assault

Both the British and Americans also used specially trained paratroopers called pathfinders who were dropped before the others, in order to mark the drop zones (DZs) and landing zones (LZs). American pathfinders were to set out marking lights and Eureka transmitters which sent a signal to a receiver on a transport aircraft. They also laid AL-140 high-visibility cerise-red signal panel.1 Due to the weather conditions the pathfinders had much difficulty marking the DZs and LZs.

Gliders had an advantage of delivering troops all together, while parachute delivery caused the troops to arrive in a more scattered fashion. At Normandy, this scattering was increased by weather conditions, unmarked drop zones, and antiaircraft fire. However, the scattered paratroopers created a misconception that the airborne assault was of greater strength than it actually was. The Germans found themselves fighting the airborne troops in every direction, which created a diversion that aided the landing of the Allied amphibious assault.

Normandy Statistics for the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions


Casualties ran high for both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions but not as high as predicted. By the end of D-Day, the 82nd listed 1,259 casualties, and the 101st listed 1,240. In addition, over 60 per cent of the supplies that had been delivered by parachute and glider were lost.2 However, major objectives were accomplished, and even the most scattered paratroopers contributed to the success by causing great confusion among the German troops.

During the first 24 hours of the assault on Normandy, 1662 troop carrier aircraft were dispatched. Forty-three of these were lost, and 311 damaged by small arms fire. The 82nd captured Sainte Mere Eglise, secured the bridgehead across the Merderet River, destroyed other river crossing, protected the flank of the 7th Army Corps, and drove west to the Douve River. The 101st seized the areas assigned it, destroyed bridges, and drove on to Carentan to establish a defense area there.3

1 Julie Guard, editor. Airborne – World War II Paratroopers in Combat. Publisher: Oxford, U.K. ; New York : Osprey Pub., 2007. p.32.

2 Devlin, Gerard M. Silent Wings: The Saga of the U.S. Army and Marine Combat Glider Pilots During World War II. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985, pp. 195-196.

3 Normandy, the Airborne Invasion of Fortress Europe, a film prepared by the Army Air Forces Combat Film Service.