Departing bases in England before midnight on 5 June 1944, over 18,000 men making up three Allied airborne divisions were dropped into Normandy in the middle of the night to secure key sites behind the beachheads and to cover the flanks of the Allied landing beaches. To the west, the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would cover the right flank of the Normandy beachhead and to the east, the British 6th Airborne Division would cover the left flank of the beachheads. By the end of the day on 6 June 1944, over 23,000 Allied paratroopers had landed in Normandy by parachute or glider.
From east to west, the British 3rd Infantry Division landed at Sword Beach, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division landed at Juno Beach, the British 50th Infantry Division landed at Gold Beach, both the US 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Divisions landed at Omaha Beach, and the US 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah Beach. The US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions secured the right flank of the Normandy beachheads, facilitating the fall of port of Cherbourg which could then be used to bring follow-on reinforcements into France. The British 6th Airborne Division with Canadian elements secured the left flank of the beachheads, preventing German reinforcements from heading west and supporting the eventual breakout to the east from the Allied beachheads.
While much attention has been paid to the exploits of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, less has been written about the left flank of the invasion and the actions of the British 6th Airborne Division. The series of maps below, along with the timeline of the battles fought on the left flank at Normandy, shine light on the efforts of the British 6th. Events in italics in the timeline are other actions taking place during the D-Day landings for context.
Operation Tonga was the code name for the airborne operations by the 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Richard Gale. The 6th was established in 1943 for the planned invasion of Normandy. Despite its name, it was only one of two British airborne divisions raised during the Second World War. The other was the 1st Airborne Division, which was established in 1941. The 1st was held in reserve during the Normandy operation but would later be activated for Operation Market Garden.
5 June 1944
2256 hrs: Six Airspeed Horsa gliders pulled by Handley Page Halifax bombers depart Tarrant Rushton Airfield in Dorset. Inside are men from D Company of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, commanded by Major John Howard. Named for a 5th-century British folk hero, the Horsa assault glider could carry up to 30 infantry or three tons of equipment.
2303 hrs: Six Armstrong Whitworth Albermarle aircraft depart Harrell laden with pathfinder paratroopers with orders to mark out the landing zones in France for the main force of the 6th Airborne Division.
2330 hrs: The main force of the 6th Airborne Division begins to take off from bases in England. They are divided in three waves, the first wave consisting of 239 Douglas Dakotas (C-47s) and Short Stirling bombers acting as glider tow aircraft along with seventeen Airspeed Horsa gliders. The second wave includes General Richard Gale’s headquarters element along with heavy equipment, all aboard 65 Horsa and 4 Hamilcar gliders. The Hamilcar was a large assault glider designed to carry vehicles into combat. The final wave includes just three Horsa gliders with orders to land at the Merville batteries to help the paratroopers knock it out.
6 June 1944
0007 hrs: The first Airspeed Horsa releases its tow cable and makes its descent towards the Orne River. The gliders plan to land at one minute intervals.
0020 hrs: Infantry in three Airspeed Horsa gliders land within 100 yards of the Orne Canal Bridge, a stunning achievement after crossing the Channel in the darkness. The bridge is seized quickly and, following the day’s actions, nicknamed “Pegasus Bridge” after the flying horse emblem of the British paratroopers.
0025 hrs: Two of three Airspeed Horsa gliders land close to Orne River Bridge and this bridge is secured with no opposition. It becomes known as “Horsa Bridge” in recognition of the day’s events. Explosives set aside by the Germans to destroy these two vital bridges were never put in place and were still in storage some distance away. In the space of just 15 minutes, the two most important bridges on the left flank of the Normandy beachheads are in Allied hands.
0045 hrs: The main force of the 6th Airborne Division approaches their designated drop zones.
0048 hrs: The first paratroopers of the American 101st Airborne Division began landing inland of Utah Beach.
0050 hrs: Pathfinders with the British 5th Parachute Brigade land and secure Drop Zone N, east of the two seized bridges.
0100 hrs: The first paratroopers of the American 82nd Airborne Division begin landing on the right flank of the Normandy beaches.
0200 hrs: The main force of the the British 5th Parachute Brigade land at Drop Zone N. Two battalions immediately take their objectives, the town of Ranville and the area on the eastern bank of the Orne River. German forces counterattack but are driven back on the west bank of the Orne Canal by the Pegasus Bridge.
At Drop Zone V further to east, the drop is more scattered and disorganized than at Drop Zone N. The 9th Parachute Battalion and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion are scattered over a wide area. Some of the men come down 10 miles from their drop zones. The 9th Paras are tasked with taking out the Merville gun battery overlooking Sword Beach before 0500 hours. Because of the scattered drop, Lt. Col. Terence Otway has only 150 out of the planned 750 men to attack the gun batteries. None of the five gliders carrying mortars, engineers, or explosives has arrived at Drop Zone N. The Canadians move out to take their target bridges over the River Dives. Because the river forms a large estuary marsh, blowing up the bridges over the Dives will form a natural barrier to German reinforcements from the east.
At Drop Zone K, only four of the 37 Douglas C-47s arriving has dropped their paratroopers of the 8th Parachute Battalion in the right location. Their target is another set of bridges over the River Dives further south of the Canadians’ objective.
0300hrs: Missing their heavy weapons, mine detectors, and mortars and with only 20 percent of the force on hand, the 9th Parachute Battalion attack the Merville batteries. Three gliders are to arrive on scene with reinforcements, but one glider has had to turn back when its tow aircraft developed engine trouble. Another glider gets lost and lands two miles away. The third glider lands close by, but was well outside the battery perimeter. Unaware of the small size of the force but stunned by their ferocity, the Germans surrender.
0320 hrs: General Gale and the 6th Airborne Division HQ element land at Drop Zone N along with anti-tank units and combat engineers. German counterattacks on the south perimeter of the landing zones begin.
0330 hrs: A stronger German counterattack force forms against the Pegasus Bridge area having moved northward from the city of Caen. The 8th Parachute Battalion at Drop Zone K finally moves towards its bridge targets over the River Dives.
0400 hrs: American Waco CG-4A assault gliders begin arriving at the landing zones on the right flank of the Normandy beaches.
0510 hrs: Naval bombardment across all the Normandy beaches commences.
0600 hrs: After taking out the German batteries at Merville, the 9th British Parachute Regiment secures high ground north of Drop Zone N. The Canadian Parachute Battalion, having knocked out the bridges over the Dives River at Varaville and Robehomme, secures the crossroads at Le Mesnil, protecting the east flank of Drop Zone N. The 8th British Parachute Regiment secures the north end of the thick woods southeast of Drop Zone N.
0630 hrs: First wave of the US 1st Infantry Division “Big Red One” arrives at Omaha Beach.
0631 hrs: First wave of the US 4th Infantry Division comes ashore at Utah Beach.
0710: The US Army Rangers assault the fortified heights at Pointe du Hoc.
0725 hrs: First wave of the British 3rd Division arrives at Sword Beach.
0735 hrs: First wave of the British 50th Infantry Division hits Gold Beach.
0745 hrs: First wave of the Canadian 3rd Division comes ashore at Juno Beach.
1300 hrs: First breakout from Omaha Beach. American forces begin moving inland rapidly as German resistance at Omaha collapses.
1353 hrs: Lead British elements from Sword Beach link up with the paratroopers near the Pegasus Bridge. Crossing the bridges over the Orne River, the lead elements reinforce the perimeter of the paratroopers’ holdings north of Drop Zone N. Armor from Sword Beach arrives shortly after to help defend Pegasus Bridge from German counterattacks coming from the city of Caen to the south.
1600 hrs: Hitler gives the command to begin moving the 12th SS Panzer Division and the Panzer Lehr Divisions towards the Normandy coast, but it is too late. The German High Command vastly underestimate the ability of the Allies to project their forces ashore. They believed it would take a week for the Allies to put three divisions ashore. The Allies put six divisions ashore by sea and three divisions by air in a single day.
2055 hrs: Follow-on reinforcements for the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions begin arriving by glider.
2100 hrs: Start of Operation Mallard, the arrival of the rest of the British 6th Airborne Division. The drop includes 226 Airspeed Horsa gliders and 34 General Aircraft Hamilcar gliders. The late start of Operation Mallard is dictated by the return of the bomber tow aircraft and the Douglas Dakotas from the overnight missions with the preparation of fresh crews, maintenance and refueling tasks. The landing zones for Operation Mallard are Drop Zone N and an area northwest of Pegasus Bridge, allowing them to meet the continued German counterattacks coming from the city of Caen.
As this part of the day’s operations take place in daylight, the landings are more organized with few of the gliders missing their landing zones. The arrival of the follow-on forces couldn’t be more fortuitous – the force landing west of the Pegasus Bridge goes straight into action against a determined attack by the 21st Panzer Division, the only German armored attack across all of Normandy that day.
Despite the disorganization of some of the drops, Operation Tonga and the actions of the British 6th Airborne Division were an unqualified success with the units meeting their objectives within narrow time constraints. Approximately 1-in-8 assault gliders landed two miles or more from their assigned landing zones, but this had the unintended benefit of making the Germans believe the airborne assault on the left flank was far larger and more extensive than it actually was. It cost the division 821 dead, 2,709 wounded, and 972 missing. The division remained in control of the area until 17 August when it moved east and crossed the River Dives.
The actions of the British 6th Airborne Division significantly disrupted the German defenses and hampered their communication and organization at a time when the Normandy beachheads were at their most vulnerable to counterattack.