Two American and the one British Airborne divisions spearheaded the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. The 6th British Airborne Division was tasked to seize and hold the left flank of the British sea-borne assault due to land at dawn on the 6th June. It was to capture the Orne River and Canal bridges at Benouville, destroy the heavy German coastal battery at Merville overlooking the Orne Estuary and blow bridges across the flooded River Dives to the east to prevent German reinforcements moving against the Invasion bridgehead.
The 6th Airborne Division had been formed in May 1943 for the Invasion. It was called the ‘6th’ to fool the Germans into believing there were five other airborne divisions already in existence, but in reality there was only the 1st in addition.
Bad weather postponed the invasion by 24 hours. On the evening of the 5th June 1944 up to 1,500 aircraft flew 13,000 soldiers from the American 82nd and 101st Divisions alongside 7,000 British paratroopers and glider soldiers from the 6th into the night skies over Normandy. 22nd Independent Parachute Company pathfinders marked the British drop zones.
Marginal winds and heavy German flak widely scattered the drop so that only 40% of the Division could form up for its initial tasks. The coup de main glider assault on the Orne River and Canal bridges was totally successful. Despite gathering only 150 of 600 men needed by Lieutenant Colonel Otway’s 9 PARA to assault the Merville Battery, he stormed it with what he had, occupying it, but losing half the assault force. The bridges across the Dives River were destroyed on time. Savage scattered fighting broke out over the 24 square miles of enemy territory the division was required to subdue, as scattered and often leaderless bands of paratroopers fought on regardless. German troops who would otherwise have been directed against the invasion beach-head were pinned down.
By the end of D-Day seaborne commandos and infantry relieved the coup de main party reinforced by 7 PARA at ‘Pegasus Bridge’ on the Orne River. Much needed glider-borne infantry from 6th Air-Land Brigade landed that evening.
Four days later the Germans attempted to push through the airborne sector protecting the invasion beaches at Breville. Counter attacks by German infantry supported by tanks were beaten off in a two-day battle that raged to and fro for 48 hours. Breville was finally captured and held but at enormous cost, thereby saving the invasion lodgement.
Fighting increased throughout June and July with the Division engaged in intense fighting to hold the eastern flank of the Normandy bridgehead. In August the Division participated in the general Allied break-out to the River Seine.
The 6th Airborne Division was not withdrawn for re-constitution until the 27th August, having spent 82 days non-stop action in the line. Losses were sobering with 542 killed, 1,623 wounded and 725 missing. Almost one man in five was a casualty.
Seven battle honours were awarded to the Parachute Regiment for Operation Overlord, of which three are borne on the Queen’s Colour.
Battle Honours conferred for Operation Overlord:
La Touques Crossing