Normandy - "D-Day"

Preparation

In the spring of 1944 the soldiers of the 505th didn't have much time for springtime sightseeing or enjoying local history. They were training for the World War II mission that would turn out to be "the longest day," the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

For D-Day, the 82nd was composed of the 505th Parachute Infantry, 507th Parachute Infantry and the 325th Glider Infantry. The 504th Parachute Infantry, which had remained in combat in the Mediterranean, was detached to rest and absorb replacements in England. It was reattached to the division after D-Day. The 2nd Battalion was the first unit of the 82nd Airborne Division to arrive at D-Day training camps spotted across the Midlands region of England.

The top commanders of the division had begun setting up shop as early as Feb. 6, 1944. That's when Brig. Gen. Jim Gavin, the 36-year-old assistant division commander, got to the city of Leicester, just behind the division commander, Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway. Ten days later, units of the division began unloading from trains.

Quorn

The veteran paratroopers of the 505th regiment, who already had fought in Sicily and at Salerno in Italy, went into a tent camp on Quorn House Park, the grounds of the manor of the village of Quorndon just outside Loughborough, which itself was just north of Leicester and south of Nottingham. "Camp Quorn" was close to tiny villages with names like Barrow-upon-Soar and Mountsorrel, and the unforgettable Frisbey.

The Quorn Hunt Kennels were just up a winding English country road, and there were such landmarks as Hawcliff Hill and Sileby Mill on the tiny Soar River.

Midlands

The situation in the Midlands was far different. The division's units were scattered around the rolling countryside in battalion-sized camps, and the housing was under canvas, in the Army's standard camp tent. In February and March, it was chilly, wet, and often darkly cloudy. The tent stoves were either "cherry red or stone cold," according to a regimental history. And the training was hard. There were few passes to anywhere. However, in one celebrated incident, a mass parachute jump went awry, and several troopers of the 505th found themselves having to make their way back to their Midlands camp all the way from London. The paratroopers weren't the first American soldiers to encamp in the towns and villages of the Midlands. The area was crowded with airfields of troop carrier units that would ferry the troops to the invasion battleground.

While the paratroopers and glidermen trained, the higher-ups were busy with planning the division's invasion mission and pressing the training program. The division headquarters were in one of Leicester's most impressive historic buildings, known as "Glebe Mount," in Braunstone Park. It was an imposing old stone mansion with extensive formal gardens. Ridgway and Gavin and their staffs turned the high-ceilinged rooms of the mansion into offices and war-plans shops, the walls soon festooned with top-secret maps of invasion targets. The maps were guarded night and day by military police.

 

 

 

Operation NEPTUNE

With two combat jumps under its belt, the 82nd Airborne Division was now ready for the most ambitious airborne operation of the war, Operation NEPTUNE-the airborne invasion of Normandy. The operation was part of Operation OVERLORD, the amphibious assault on the northern coast of Nazi-occupied France. The largest combined military operation in history, "D-Day", was to be spearheaded by the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions.

For the invasion, the 82nd had designated over 6,000 paratroopers for the parachute assault and almost 4,000 glidermen for the glider assault. Together, with the 101st Airborne Division, the 82nd was scheduled to begin landings in the early morning hours of June 6th. Gen. Eisenhower's air operations officer had predicted casualties to be greater than 70%.

6 June 1944, 0300 hours, found the paratroopers of the 505th landing near the town of Ste. Mere-Eglise, with the task of securing the roads that led from the shoreline, and obstructing enemy efforts to reinforce beach defenses. The main objective for the 82nd was to secure the bridges over the rivers behind Utah Beach. The division was to land astride the Merderet River and seize, clear, and hold its area of operation. After destroying all crossings over the Douve River, the 82nd was to be prepared to move west on order.

The drops went badly. Cloud cover and heavy anti-aircraft fire made the air transports deviate from course, which resulted in wide-spread scattering of the paratroops. Many of the aircraft were flying too fast and some too low, often giving the green-light jump signal over the wrong drop zones. Of the 6,396 paratroopers of the 82nd who jumped, 272 or 4.24 percent were killed or injured as a result of the drop.

The 505th generally landed in the vicinity of its drop zone, but the 507th and 508th were both widely scattered. Many troopers landed in the center of the village of Sainte-Mère-Église, as a fire raged out of control. German soldiers, already alerted by the fire, shot many of the paratroopers before they hit the ground. One paratrooper, John Steele, landed on top of the church. His parachute caught on the steeple, where he dangled for two and a half hours, playing dead until he was finally taken prisoner.

In spite of this, the 82nd adapted to the situation and achieved all its primary objectives. Sainte-Mère-Église was secured by dawn of 6 June, the first French village to be liberated. The Church at Sainte-Mère-Église honors their 82nd Airborne liberators.

As an anti-airborne effort, the Germans had flooded much of the adjoining area near the Merderet River. Nevertheless, by nightfall of 6 June approximately 30 percent of the division forces were under control, holding a line along the Merderet River from La Fière south to include the eastern end of the causeway over the river.

The 82nd Airborne Division continued to fight on the Cotentin Peninsula until relieved on July 8, 1944. On July11th, the division moved to Utah Beach in preparation for its return to England.

By the time the All-American Division was pulled back to England, it had seen 33 days of bloody combat and suffered 5,245 paratroopers killed, wounded or missing. The Division's post battle report read, "...33 days of action without relief, without replacements. Every mission accomplished. No ground gained was ever relinquished."

The paratroopers jumped prior to the actual start of the invasion "H-Hour". Because of that tradition, of being the first into the fight, the 505th Regimental motto is "H-MINUS". For their performance in the invasions the 505th was awarded the Presidential unit citation, the unit equivalent of the Medal of Honor awarded to individual soldiers.

In the words of author Clay Blair, the paratroopers emerged from Normandy with the reputation of being a pack of jackals; the toughest, most resourceful and bloodthirsty in Europe.

Recollections of "D-Day"

- Congressman Sam M. Gibbons

- John "Red Dog" Dolan

 French Fourragere

 

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