When historians really immerse themselves in the world inhabited by the men who planned the invasion of France in 1944, two things quickly become evident. Everyone expressed confidence that the operation would succeed and everyone feared it might fail. It was this nightmare of “the Channel running red with blood” and the possibility of another Dunkirk-like evacuation that led the generals to decide to use three of their highly trained airborne divisions, not to exploit success, but to guard against failure.The decision to create an Allied airborne army of five divisions and commit enormous resources to gliders, special equipment and a fleet of transport aircraft was always controversial. Ever since the conquest of Crete in May 1941, when German airborne forces lost 30 per cent of their strength, with more killed and wounded than in the entire Balkan campaign, the role of lightly armed airborne units had been in question. Allied experience in the Mediterranean did little to silence the critics. In Operation Husky, 1st British Airborne Division had suffered heavy losses and both parachute and glider troops had been too widely scattered to be effective.
A week before D-Day, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford L. Leigh-Mallory seriously argued that the entire airborne operation should be cancelled as the projected losses in men and aircraft were too great. The drop zone for 82nd United States Airborne Div. was moved 12 miles to avert a disaster on the right flank, but 6th British Airborne Div.’s drop zones and landing zones for gliders could not be changed even though Ultra reported the transfer of 21 Panzer Div. to the Caen sector.
The reality was that studies of the feasibility of landing on the coast of Normandy suggested that the left flank of the beach-head was the most vulnerable point in the whole operation. A counter- attack there might have rolled up the entire invasion force. To meet this threat, General Sir Frederic Morgan suggested deploying 6th British Airborne Div. to seize the bridges across the Orne and hold the high ground east of the river. Almost every other detail of Morgan’s plan was changed in the months that followed, but no one could come up with a better solution for securing the left flank.
The men of 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion knew nothing of these debates when they arrived in Britain in August 1943. Recruited from volunteers under 32 years of age, “with a history of participation in rugged sports or in a civilian occupation or hobby demanding sustained exertion” the battalion had learned to jump out of airplanes at Fort Benning, Ga., and at Camp Shilo, Man. At their new home in Bulford in Salisbury Plain they measured themselves against the men of their new sister regiments, 8th and 9th parachute battalions of 3rd Parachute Brigade, 6th British Airborne Div. They also met the man who would forge them into combat soldiers and lead them in battle, Brigadier James Hill.
Hill has acquired legendary status in the memories of Canadian and British veterans of the airborne division. He was 32 years old in 1943. He was a tall, rugged-looking professional soldier who had fought in the Battle of France and caught the last destroyer out of Dunkirk. Hill volunteered to join the original paratroop force and by early 1942 commanded 1st British Paratroop Bn. in its first action in North Africa. Wounded while capturing three enemy tanks, he recovered in England and was posted to command the only mixed British and Canadian brigade formed during the war.
Everyone who has the privilege of meeting Hill is strongly affected by the experience. Phrases like a soldier’s soldier have been used to describe him, but there is much more to it than that. Now in his 80s, he remains a tall, erect, vital personality who dominates a room by his mere presence. As a younger man, he could do anything that he asked his men to do and still retain the focus to function as a commander conducting a wide-ranging battle. He needed these skills and all the power of his personality to succeed in Normandy.
Brian Nolan, the author of Airborne: The Heroic Story of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion in the Second World War, records one of Hill’s oft-repeated stories about his new brigade. “Each battalion had a personality of its own…. The 8th were rugged, relentless in achieving an objective, very tough, and not too fussy about detail. This was the opposite of the 9th who were masters of detail, tackling an assignment only after intensive preparation and approaching all problems with precision and professionalism. The Canadian battalion displayed all the characteristics of a troop of cavalry.”
The Canadians were, however, neither well disciplined nor adequately trained when they joined the brigade. Hill “kept a tight rein” on the Canadians because no matter how much he admired their spirit he did not wish to command a battalion of dead horses.
It is impossible not to be impressed by the intensity of the training for parachute battalions. Hill insisted on the highest standards of weapons training and physical fitness. Nicknamed Speedy because of his own rapid pace, Hill maintained that a paratrooper had to move across country twice as fast as anybody else. He insisted they had to be able to cover 10 miles in two hours with a 60-pound pack and a personal weapon. The Canadians adapted quickly. For example, there was Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Nicklin, a football and lacrosse star, and Fraser Eadie, a noted hockey player who ate up the training and asked for more. However, others fell by the wayside. By the time the battalion was briefed for its part in the Normandy invasion, the men–whose average age was just 22–were ready for anything.
The importance of the airborne landings in the plans for D-Day was brought home to everyone when the senior officers met on D-Day minus one. Admiral Bertram Ramsay, the overall Allied naval commander, recorded the discussion in his diary: “Sunday 4 June: Commanders met at 0415 to hear latest weather report which was bad. The low cloud predicted would prohibit use of airborne troops, prohibit majority of air action, including air spotting. The sea conditions were unpromising but not prohibitive.”
The supreme commander of Allied troops in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower, decided to postpone the assault for 24 hours. Then, after trusting in a weather forecast that promised minimally acceptable cloud and sea conditions, he gave the order to go. Ramsay wrote: “Monday 5 June: Held a final meeting at 0415…. Thus has been made the vital and critical decision to stage this great enterprise which will, I hope, be the immediate means of bringing about the downfall of Germany’s fighting power and Nazi oppression. I am under no delusions as to the risks involved in this most difficult of all operations…. We shall require all the help that God can give us and I cannot believe that this will not be forthcoming.
“Tuesday 6 June: I was called at 0500 which meant that nothing bad had happened…. The sky was clear than God…. Surprise seemed to be achieved up to the time the paratroops had been dropped…. Only 29 transport aircraft were lost out of 1,300. H.Q. 6 Airborne Division report themselves established.”
The airborne commanders had not dared to sleep. The night of June 5-6 was moonless with patchy cloud and winds gusting up to 20 miles per hour. The odds of placing the paratroop companies in the right place were not great. Major John Howard’s coup de main glider assault on Pegasus Bridge was able to land on target, but high winds and flak over the coast meant the parachutists were widely scattered. Maj. Dick Hilborn’s recollection of that night explains what happened to one “stick” or group of paratroops: “As we crossed the coast of France the red light went on for preparing to drop. We were in the process of hooking up when the plane took violent evasive action…. Five of us ended up at the back of the plane…. We got out okay and after wandering about for a bit I picked up three of my stick. It took us three hours and the assistance of a local French farmer to find out where we were…. We were one and a half miles north of the drop zone.”
Despite the winds, flak and almost total failure of the radar beacons carried by the Pathfinders of 22nd Independent Parachute Company, the men of the two parachute brigades were able to capture or secure their objectives. For 1st Cdn. Parachute Bn. this meant that C Company dropped first to secure the drop zone and eliminate the enemy at Varaville, blowing the bridge over the Divette a tributary of the river Dives. Only a fraction of C Co. was available, but it all went like clockwork.
A Co. was assigned to protect the flank of 9th Bn. as it advanced to capture the Merville battery where guns could hamper the landings on Sword and Juno beaches. B Co. had to blow a bridge at Robehomme on the Dives and then join the rest of the battalion at Le Mesnil crossroads where everyone quickly dug in awaiting the inevitable German attempt to break through to the Orne bridges.
Hill warned the men that “in spite of your excellent training and orders do not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will.” Hill was right, chaos was everywhere, but small groups of well- trained men went about their tasks knowing their comrades depended on them. Hill and his tactical headquarters landed miles away from the drop zone in a flooded area and it took four hours to make it to dry land. Leading the forced march, Hill was wounded by shrapnel that took a chunk out of his backside. More than two dozen of his men were killed in this incident that was due to “friendly fire” from fighter bombers.
Hill used a borrowed bicycle pushed by one of his men to reach his objective and for the next 48 hours issued orders while sitting on one cheek some distance from his men “because his wound smelled so bad.” When asked why he refused evacuation to get medical treatment he replied, somewhat sharply, that he hadn’t trained his brigade for 10 months to let someone else command it in action.
Most accounts of the airborne division in the Orne bridgehead concentrate on the achievements and extraordinary heroism, but June 6, 1944, was just the beginning of a long battle of attrition. The scattered detachments of the enemy’s 711 Div. were quickly overcome and the arrival of Brig. Lord Lovat’s commandos, 1st Special Service Brigade, on the afternoon of D-Day brought welcome support. But the enemy was also active. On the southern flank, battle groups of 21 Armored Div. launched a series of attacks and Rommel sent 346 Div. across the Seine with orders to force the paratroops off the high ground and seize bridgeheads across the Orne.
The lead battalion set off on bicycles and by June 8 the entire division was in position. Naval artillery and the guns of the 51st Highland Div. prevented Gen. Erich Diestel from concentrating his power and he was forced into a series of limited attacks that the parachute battalions dealt with swiftly. Still, the situation on the heavily wooded ridge was very much in doubt. The Canadians were trying to cover a two-kilometre section of the perimeter astride the main Cabourg to Caen highway. With less than 400 men this was no easy task. Lieutenant-Colonel Bradbrooke, the battalion’s commanding officer, could do little to relieve the pressure as the artillery, mortars and assault guns of 346 Div. scoured the area.
The most serious problem was at Bréville. The British corps commander placed a battalion from the 51st Highland Div.–the 5th Black Watch–under the command of 6th Airborne Div. to capture the village. However, the desert veterans found that mastering the art of fighting in the very different terrain of Normandy was no easy matter. Disdaining advice from the paratroopers, they staged a miniature set-piece attack that was promptly thrown back.
The next day–June 12–the Germans staged their own advance and caught the Black Watch off balance. This forced a withdrawal. Hill, who was always close to the action, gathered C Co. and together with Captain John Hanson, the company’s commander, led an attack on the enemy’s exposed flank. Hill supported himself with a shepherd’s crook and according to Nelson Macdonald, who was in the attack, he “looked like God” as he led the battle from the front.
The Canadian attack forced the Germans to retreat, but they still held Bréville. Maj.-Gen. Richard Gale, who commanded 6th Airborne Div., decided to “liquidate the Bréville sore” in an immediate night attack. He arranged for fire support and employed a squadron of tanks. One of the field regiments fired short killing the battalion commander and wounding both the brigade commander and Lord Lovat. Bréville was captured in a night-long battle.
For historians of the big picture, Bréville was the last important battle in the airborne portion of the Orne bridgehead. The Germans, who had lost more than 300 men in the action, gave up their plans to drive the paratroopers off the ridge. Instead, they were content to harass and contain the paratroopers. For the men on the ground, this meant constant artillery and mortar fire, night patrols and fire fights to fend off enemy probes. After a brief break, the Canadians returned to the area around Le Mesnil crossroads to endure six more weeks or mortar fire and mosquitoes.
The airborne division ought to have been relieved and sent back to England to reorganize, but Gen. Bernard Montgomery could not risk any reverse in the only bridgehead across the Orne that his armies held. Both 6th Airborne Div. and 51st Highland were committed to a frustrating defensive battle, but when Operation Goodwood was launched out of the bridgehead on July 18 it was evident the strategy had paid off. One month later, 1st Cdn. Parachute Bn. advanced to the Dives as part of the pursuit of a German army that had been broken in just 74 days.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on May 1st 1998.